Friday, August 21, 2009

Budget Gourmet

Most of the time (present humid, NYC heat wave aside), gentle readers, your MatchGirl likes to cook. Cooking is fun. Cooking gives you a sense of accomplishment. Cooking for one is less fun - it's only you who gets to taste the fun things you've done - but, of course, it's only you who gets to taste it if you've made a mess of things, too.

Last weekend Michael Pollan wrote an article for the NY Times Sunday Magazine about how he thinks cooking shows are making the act of cooking into a spectator sport, as opposed to really inspiring people. And, while there are many times that I will turn on Food Network to watch a competition - Iron Chef/Iron Chef America, Chopped (with a shout out and congratulations to neighborhood fave Cody Utzmam) and Top Chef on Bravo - to see people cook things I probably wouldn't make for one (I'm talking to you, Barefoot Contessa!), or just to see someone experience another culture (and salivate over my favorite "celebrity" chef - how sexy is he in A Cook's Tour?!!), I've learned a lot, too.

In unemployment, however, though one has all the time in the world to spend cooking up fancy feast for family, friends and lovers, one does not really have the money to buy the fancy ingredients! So, while I enjoyed reading (and watching) Julie & Julia, dear ones, your MatchGirl cannot really imagine running all over the city looking for the ingredients for most of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French cooking - and I'm sure those of you living off your unemployment checks are in a similar boat.

I've definitely looked for ways to rein in my food budget in the past several months - easting out less and cheaper, cooking vats of things and eating it for days on end, coercing employed friends to buy me huge meals that will sustain me for the whole day and, something I have done a lot in my life - more because I have had a roommate or a boyfriend who was - cooking vegetarian. And while you can still drop a lot of cash cooking vegetarian/vegan - a bag of dried beans is pretty much always going to cost you less than a pound of meat. And keep longer in your pantry.

A vegan friend turned me onto 101 Cookbooks about a year ago and while she has some pricey ingredients included from time to time, most of it you can source from your local greenmarket or grocery and, of course, if you know about combining flavor (or are fearless with experimenting with it), you can always substitute something you have around for some ingredient you only need 1/4 cup of and you'll never use again.

Another one of my go-to foodie websites is Not Eating Out in New York, where Brooklyn gal Cathy spent two years not eating out - and therefore coming up with a ton of yummy and accessible recipes for her website. She not only has recipes, but writes about local food events, visits farms and gardens and keeps her readers informed about cook-offs and classes in NYC. For the most part, her recipes are filled with ingredients that you'll have around, or are easily sourced - and she breaks down every recipe based on cost and health factors.

Eating at home, day in and day out, three meals a day, when you are single and unemployed, can be quite a bore - more of a chore than a pleasure. Anyone else have great go-to websites or recipes that have been helping them through the tough times? your MatchGirl would love to hear them.


  1. black bean quinoa

    * 1 teaspoon cooking oil
    * 1 onion, chopped
    * 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
    * 3/4 cup uncooked quinoa
    * 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
    * 1 teaspoon ground cumin
    * 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    * salt and pepper to taste
    * 1 can corn kernels
    * 2 (15 ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
    * 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

    1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic, and saute until lightly browned.
    2. Mix quinoa into the saucepan and cover with vegetable broth. Season with cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes,
    3. Stir corn into the saucepan, and continue to simmer about 5 minutes until heated through. Mix in the black beans and cilantro.

    Feel free to sub dried black beans that you reconstitute or fresh corn kernels. The canned is easy and can be organic, so I tend to prefer it. It makes a lot so you can store it and eat it for about three days.

    This vegan dish is cheap and easy to make. Beans and quinoa are my go to ingredients in hard times.

  2. I got laid off at the end of February and started the site as a way to cope. Me and my husband used to eat out all the time, but now we can't so I focus on making great food at home. I make a huge variety of food, so it doesn't feel like I'm doomed to ramen.

    Anyway, hope you enjoy.

  3. Quinoa is the best thing. It's a little pricey, but lasts a while.

    If you are worried about cost during a dinner party, just ask your friends to all chip in $5. I cooked a big dinner party for me and 9 friends with a total cost of $50, and there were tons of leftovers.

    Vegetables and grains are the best way to make lots of food for cheap.

    Shred up a bunch of red cabbage, and maybe some green cabbage as well. Toss in a bunch of chopped dill and a little of a creamy salad dressing, maybe a little vinegar and salt, and you've got great homemade coleslaw for cheap.

    Quinoa is good, and you can just cook it in water with a little oil (or broth if you've got it). Add in diced onions and peppers, and toss in parsley and some soft cheese if it's around.

    Couscous is a good and pretty cheap grain as well. Giant pearl couscous is the best, because you can toast it, and mix it with nuts or raisins and spices to make it feel like you're not just eating grits.

    An especially cheap but easy and delicious meal is to cook up some pasta and just toss it with olive oil, parmesan, and garlic or garlic powder. If you dice some broccoli florets and toss them in the pot (covered) after the pasta is done you'll have an extra delicious dish. And none of the ingredients are particularly expensive.

    Also, on a non-recipe note, cheese is one of my favorite things to cook with but it's damn expensive. There's a place on 3rd Ave by 9th St in Manhattan called the Village Cheese Shop. You can get a wheel of Brie for $4 (usually ~$30), or a pack of Boursin for $1.50 (usually ~$7), so you can cook gourmet on a budget.

  4. A tip with quinoa - store it in the fridge. I really like hearty grains like farro. My best suggestion for food shopping is Sahadi's! They have THE BEST prices on bulk grains, beans, nuts (roasted and raw), dried fruits, just about everything. It's down in the Cobble Hill area - Atlantic Ave - but so worth the schlep from Greenpoint, in my opinion!

    I really love 101 Cookbooks and Not Eating Out in NY too. I competed in a cookoff last weekend (Cathy wrote about) and met a writer for a blog called Eating Well on $50 a Week ( Also, Thursday Night Smackdown ( is awesome. She does a Tight Ass Tuesday (or PG named Hobo Tuesday) and has some nice cheap recipes.

  5. Great post. One of the recommendations I've read on a blog that reacted to the Pollan post (which was quite controversial for his interpretation of feminism) was the need to move beyond traditional forms of food preparation. Why not organized an unemployed in Brooklyn collective eating event sometime in conjunction with the next get together? May be difficult to coordinate but it could be very delicious and fun. Cheers.
    Also, check out They are cool and they spend $30/week for their groceries (they love Jack's discount and the PS coop)

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your great tips! I've seen some of the websites you mentioned and am psyched to check out the ones I haven't.

    Keep the tips coming - who knows - maybe they'll show up, collected, in a future post!