Polls are indicating that people are eating out less, and when they do it tends to be at fast food joints. For example, Applebees sales are reportedly down about 15 percent while McDonalds are up by eight. But people are also doing more of their own cooking in order to economize. So this Christmas, I thought I might offer some suggestions for practical gifts to make home cooking more economical, easier, or both.
Few of the items mentioned below are actually inexpensive, but they cover a gamut of prices points and degrees of economy and I’ve either used or own most of them. So I know where-of I speak.
First on my list is to reduce costs by eating less meat and eating tougher (cheaper) cuts of meat. A great tool for this approach is a slow cooker. Toss a chuck roast, some red wine, and a few vegetables and herbs in a Crockpot in the morning, set it on low, and come home to the most marvelous pot roast you can imagine. Or mix some dried beans, canned tomatoes, a smoked ham hock, and a few herbs and vegetables in a slow cooker and again, you come home to a meal packed with flavor. The trick here is the slow cooking, a technique that gently teases the flavors out and melds them. You can do the same thing using a Dutch oven (which is what I use).
Next on my list is a Gelpro kitchen mat. I spend way too much time standing on a tiled kitchen floor and not only do my feet get sore, but at the end of a full day of cooking everything is sore and stiff. I’d settle for one, but a couple of these would make my life far less painful – and I think making my life less painful is a good idea. At $125 for a small mat or $150 for a large one, they’re not cheap, but they are cheaper than the commercial mats. And if a mat like this makes you more inclined to cook then it’s a good idea.
Food Loops are a home cook’s substitute for kitchen twine. They’re made of silicon and are used to tie up rolled roasts. I’ve used them and they don’t hold as tightly as properly tied twine, but they’re a good substitute for someone who doesn’t know how to tie a roast and they make a nice stocking stuffer.
When the vacuum food sealers first came out the reports on them indicated they were expensive and not particularly effective. But since then the prices have dropped and the reliability improved. I just threw away a couple of pork chops that had migrated to the back of my freezer and avoided my notice for six months. Despite double-wrapping in plastic and storage in a zippered freezer bag, they were badly freezer-burned. A vacuum sealer solves this problem by eliminating air from around the food. Less wasted food means lower food costs.
There is no one more cognizant of food costs than a chef. Chefs waste nothing if they can avoid it because food costs are the bane of a chef’s existence – well, one of them. A great way to use up things like carrot peels, leafy celery tops, onion skins, bones, shrimp shells, and so on – stuff that most of us would think of as garbage – is to make this detritus into stock. Homemade stock is not only cheaper than anything you can buy, it’s usually far better-tasting as well. So I think a good, big stock pot is a great investment in better and cheaper meals.
I spent last week answering questions by panicked home cooks about their Thanksiving meal. In many cases I had answers from my own experience on tap such as “How do I cook a beef tenderloin?” But in other cases they were facing difficulties I hadn’t personally encountered like, “I burned the turkey gumbo, how do I fix it?” In these cases I fell back on both personal experiences and a general knowledge (book-learning) of food and cooking. Michael Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking is a great source of information on fundamental cooking techniques and processes, if all you own are cookbooks, you need this book. I also highly recommend Food Lovers Companion, an essential reference I can’t imagine living without – my copy is almost worn out.
So far I’ve remained practical in these recommendations, but I have a contrarian nature and when I know I should economize my inclination is to splurge (on the other hand, when I know I can splurge my inclination is to splurge), so I have a couple of suggestions along those lines. After all, Christmas is a celebration and some festivity is called for. How better to celebrate than enjoying a special treat?
The first treat is domestic truffles. These come from Tennessee and are the famed Perigord black truffles of France. They are reportedly an excellent alternative to European imports at a fraction of the cost. The second splurge is domestic caviar. I recently tried this product and wrote a review.
I’ll be reviewing both of these foods before Christmas so if you want to hold off on ordering I’ll be providing more information to go on, but for the right person caviar from the Great Lakes, country ham from Tennessee, or truffles from Oregon are a wonderful gift.
If you’re short on cash this Christmas, you’re short on cash and there’s probably little you can do about the fact. So I’ll be cooking up gifts again such as my grandmother’s Bourbon Cake and the pancetta I sent out last year. But if you have a little flexibility in your budget some of these gifts can go a long way toward making economizing a pleasure, not a curse.