Budgets always bugged me: cold reminders of all the cool things I couldn't afford to buy or do. But I'm not a big spender, and in truth a budget is just a challenge of the sort I enjoy in the Test Kitchen—such as developing a recipe for seasonal ingredients available in Wyoming in February. And what is a budget, really, but a recipe of a different sort?
But this assignment was a doozy: Could I serve four people five meals for $50—total out-of-pocket expenses, no cheating—and keep the meals interesting? Oh, and could I do that without dipping into my pantry, the one jammed with expensive vinegars, random exotic condiments, and enough spices to fuel medieval Venice's economy for a year? The only freebies were salt, pepper, flour, sugar, and canola oil. And emphasis, too, on the "keep it interesting" part. Five variations on beans and rice could do the trick for about $20, but, as much as I love beans and rice, interesting demands variety. Different culinary traditions were a must, and, budget or not, I wasn't going a week without seafood.
From the get-go, it was obvious that my usual one-stop shopping routine would not keep me on budget, and indeed, shopping turned out to be the key to the whole thing, a whirlwind market tour that included a quick stop by the gas station on the way home. I also knew, though, that I needed a rough menu plan, one flexible enough to accommodate surprise bargains (hello, mussels) but focused enough to steer me away from impulse purchases.
At my house, the menu always starts with the protein. Lentils, pork shoulder, chicken thighs, and cheese feed billions of folks worldwide who would love to have 50 bucks to spend on anything in a week. Leaning on these foods freed up the majority of my budget for all the flavorful stuff that gilds the culinary lily. So, plan in hand, it was off to the races.
First up was a morning trip to Birmingham's old-school farmers' market on Finley Avenue, the one where you leave your dog at home and bring your own cappuccino (if you need one), where stalls burst with produce on the cheap (no $4 heirloom peaches here) and the food is sold by real country folk—not the ones armed with poetry degrees, but the ones who keep some of their teeth in a drawer. A bunch of collards the size of a watermelon for $2.50? I'm in. Baby new potatoes for 50 cents per pound? Yes, please. There's less variety here than at the more boutique farmers' market, but you save big.
Next stop, an Asian market. Charge up the GPS and check the tire pressure: We're going over some potholes to a part of town that's a bit off the beaten path. Low rents combined with customers who hail from an open-air-market culture equate to substantial savings. Yes, many products here can now be found in supermarkets, but they're often sold and priced as "specialty" foods. Here, cases, nay pallets, of noodles, rice, condiments, and produce characterize a funky-smelling world of budget-friendly flavor. I grabbed rice noodles for 89 cents, soy sauce for a buck, and cilantro at less than half the grocery-store price.
There's an embarrassment of cheap, flavorful riches at any supermarket, however. You just need the courage to buy in comically small quantities. Who wanted to kill me more when teensy amounts were counted, weighed, and rung up—the checkout girl or the customers behind me? I bought half-teaspoons of bulk spices; half a head (don't ask) of garlic; a broken length of ginger. And serranos? Two will run you a bank-busting 6 cents.
The same economies of scale apply at not-cheap Whole Foods when you buy, as I did, a single slice of smoky bacon from the meat counter for 72 cents. Pork shoulder was my economy meat, so I sheepishly asked the butcher to remove a pound and a quarter off the 6-pound honker in the case. He did, without even rolling his eyes.
Did I go to absurd lengths to save what probably amounted to about 25 bucks? Maybe, but 25 bucks times 52 is $1,300, and I bet if I had a financial advisor, he'd tell me that amount, compounded over 10 years, would almost pay for a week of one of my kids' colleges.
And at the end of the day, the only real "challenge" was overcoming the small mortification of buying in these small amounts—including a Miller High Life tall boy for steaming mussels purchased at a gas station with my last $1.52 under the watchful eyes of my kids, a neighbor, and a fellow parent.
The gallery to the left contains the recipes from my week of budget cooking. They will save you money, but they will not scrimp on flavor: I guarantee it.