Food + Wine

Substitutions Please

I love fancy food, I love casual food, I just love food. Watching my ex-boss/super-star chef, Suzanne Goin, create incredible dishes is how I came to really appreciate good food, but when I cook at home I obviously can’t afford to cook like I watched her do in her restaurants! Through trial and error I’ve discovered a few ingredient swaps and shopping tricks I can do to stay within my grocery budget, but still allow me to feel fancy. Below are a few examples of those tricks:

Cashews. Cashews may be one of the more expensive snack nut, but when it comes to the specialty nuts like pine nuts and macadamia nuts, they are a fraction of the price and can accomplish the same thing in recipes. Cashews are soft, sweet and a little buttery, very similar to the flavor profiles of pine nuts and macadamia nuts. They also go on sale often, with coupons frequently available in the Sunday paper. I’ve made pestos with them, thrown them in salads, baked them into banana-cashew cookies, and given them to my son as a snack (they’re a super soft nut, so toddlers’ little teeth can handle them extremely well).

Canned Evaporated Milk. Heavy cream has its place, but in my house it’s only used for whipping. When it comes to cooking, nothing beats a cheap can of evaporated milk. A small carton of heavy cream can cost anywhere from $2-$4 and obviously has a shelf life, but a can of evaporated milk, if you buy generic, can cost less than a dollar and the best part is that it can stay in your pantry until you’re ready to use it. It’s also lower in fat and calories than cream (an added bonus). All it is, is milk that has the water evaporated from it, leaving a thicker, richer product. I bake with it, make sauces with it, and use it in drinks. My rice pudding recipe uses canned evaporated milk and it’s incredibly rich and creamy.

Cava. I could drink champagne or sparkling wine every day of my life and never tire of it. Seriously. Ask any of my friends and they know I’m a sucker for the stuff. Thus the literal meaning of my blog title… But I cannot tell you the last time I purchased champagne. Champagne, for those who aren’t aware, comes from the Champagne region of France. Everything else bubbly cannot, truthfully, be called ‘champagne’. The Italians have ‘Prosecco’ and the Spanish have ‘Cava’. Prosecco is lovely and I like it very much but I have found that you can get a better bottle of bubbly for cheaper if you go the Spain way. So next time you’re in a wine shop, ask the sales clerk for their ‘Everyday Cava’. (*And if you don’t make it to the end of your bottle before it goes flat, please don’t throw it away. Keep it in your fridge for cooking and use as you would white wine.)

Cabbage/Potatoes/Beans. Still with food costs going up and up, these items remain extremely inexpensive at the grocery store. Don’t ignore them, just be creative with them. Roast the cabbage, make gratins with the potatoes and puree the beans. These ingredients may seem homely, but with my experience anything can be weaved into something fantastic.

Bagged Produce. It is amazing how much money you can save if you buy your fruit and vegetables in the bags, rather than picking them out individually. The apples and potatoes may be a little smaller, but they taste just the same. The one ‘problem’ is that you often get more produce than you intended to buy, but that’s what pie and mashed potatoes are for! And when it comes to citrus, if I know I can’t use all the oranges, limes or lemons before they go bad, I’ll juice them and freeze the juice in ice-cube trays before transferring them to zip bags. That way I always have fresh juice on hand for drinks and different recipes.

Dried Goods/Grains/Spices in Bulk Bins. You most likely need to go to a specialty store to buy your ingredients this way, but it’s worth it. I get all of my herbs, spices and staples such as Rice, Israeli Couscous, Flax Seeds, Wheat Bran, Raw Sugar, Kosher Salt, and Medjool Dates out of the bulk bins at my local ‘Home Economist’. It is ridiculously cheaper this way and you’ll be amazed at what all you can find in the bins. This will change your life – it did mine.

Whole Birds. I think most of us know by now that buying a whole chicken and cutting it up ourselves saves money. But my best friend wouldn’t touch a raw chicken if her life depended on it. Some people are the ‘saving money-type’ like me and others are the ‘saving time and work-type’ like my dearest gal pal. If you don’t mind getting down and dirty with your bird then buying her whole is the way to go. Doing this allows you to keep the neck bone and innards to use for other purposes. It’s truly amazing how far one chicken can stretch. Don’t throw away the parts of the raw chicken you aren’t using. Put those pieces in a freezer bag and next time you want to make soup or stock, use those bones and parts. Or make the stock right away and freeze it.

Chicken Thighs. If you love duck like I do, then you know 1.) how difficult it is to work into an everyday grocery budget and 2.) how difficult it can be to prepare correctly. But I’ve discovered that, flavor-wise, chicken thighs make an excellent substitution. They have a very similar texture and flavor to duck breasts and are an incredibly cheap cut of meat at the store.

Home-Grown Herbs and Veggies. Not all of us have the land to plant our own garden but I guarantee most of you have the space for a few pots. The cost of growing your own herbs and veggies is laughably low-we’re talking pennies here, and the taste difference is incredible. Just do a little research and figure out which herbs or vegetables you use the most of and start your own little living collection. It’s easier than you think.

Vital Wheat Gluten. Unless you’re a baker, (or gluten intolerant), you have most likely never had to think about gluten, which is the protein found in wheat. I bake my own sourdough bread weekly and instead of buying Bread Flour (a gluten-rich flour), which is far more expensive than all purpose flour, I buy the gluten separately and mix it with the AP flour. You only need a teaspoon or so of gluten per cup of flour so the small bag of gluten lasts a heck of a lot longer than the large bag of bread flour does. (You need to go to a specialty grocery store to purchase gluten.) (*The same trick can be applied to cake flour. I never buy it, but instead make my own with cornstarch, baking powder and AP flour. You simply fill a one-cup measure with 2 TB of cornstarch and 1/2 tsp. of baking powder, then fill the rest of the measuring cup with AP flour and sift the heck out of it.)

Vinegar. (Pain, White Distilled Vinegar). This stuff is amazing. Cheap and incredibly useful. I use it for cleaning all sorts of things around the house but it’s also a great thing to keep on hand for cooking. I don’t usually keep buttermilk in the house because I don’t use it that often, but I do love what it does to biscuits, cakes and pancakes. So what I do is make my own out of vinegar: Mix 1 TB of white vinegar with enough milk to fill a 1 cup measure and let it sit for a few minutes. Use this in place of 1 cup of buttermilk in your recipe.

Infused Oils/Vinegars. There is no need to buy infused oils or vinegars in the store. They’re beautiful, I know, and very tempting but the cost of one small, pretty, shiny bottle is embarrassing. You can make your own fancy oils by gently heating some good olive oil with whatever flavor you desire. Chilis, citrus zest, garlic, herbs, the possibilities are endless. And as for vinegars, you don’t need heat. Just let your combination hang out for awhile and allow the flavor to seep into the vinegar.

~That’s all I could think of right now but I’d love to hear if anyone else has their own little ‘tricks’ they do at home…

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  • Reply Anonymous November 11, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    This is a wonderful list of budget-tips! I usually opt for prosecco for festive occasions(especially on 15% off wine case weeks; I love leftover prosecco on ice with a little Campari and a twist of lemon or orange)but I'll follow your tip and start experimenting with cava.

    I absolutely couldn't get along without real cream, though; ultra-pasteurized heavy cream has a very long shelf life (usually 3 months or more) and it doesn't take much to render a cream soup absolutely luxurious. It's also much more stable than milk, even canned milk, and less likely to curdle at a boil or to break in a baked sauce. (And my most common use for it is to add a little to the 2% milk I always have on hand when I'm making something that calls for whole milk.)The only canned milk in my pantry is sweetened condensed milk (and I hoard these as long as possible; sweetened condensed milk near or even past its expiration date becomes almost like caramel or dulce de leche and makes fantastic key lime pies!)

    I, too, stock up on great-quality bulk nuts, dried fruits, and dried herbs at The Home Economist. And in the interests of both budget and nutrition, I almost entirely avoid expensive packaged foods or convenience foods or processed snacks. I try to buy fresh produce that's plentiful, and in season (I love farmers' markets!), and on special!– and economize adventurously on fresh cuts of meat: I always head first to the meat surprise deal shelf in front of the butcher counter at the HT (I buy anything with bones that will make a great stew or soup and ground meats of all kinds for variation burgers or meatloaves–and chicken livers are so cheap and a third of a package [label and freeze the rest]turn ordinary meatloaves into rich pates.)But I have to have heavy cream–and fresh herbs and a big bag of lemons and good quality sweet balsamic vinegar (especially white) and olive oil and plenty of garlic at all times. And I can't cook without Jane's Crazy Salt and coarse-ground black pepper. And crystalized ginger; I have to have crystalized ginger which works wonders chopped into simple blueberry muffins or baked custards or fresh fruit compotes.

    But kitchen/budget tip # 1 for me is to try not to have to throw food away. If I freeze something, I package and label the date very, very carefully so it doesn't get lost and end up being tossed months later for freezer burn. And at least once a week I make something that uses up lots of odds and ends in the refrigerator (soups or quiches or stews or meatloaves or banana bread from over-ripe bananas to which I add miscellaneous other chopped fruit or leftover applesauce, for example.) As I speak, there's a lamb shank stew on the stove braising with lots of odds and ends and leftovers in the refrigerator that needed using up: all those half onions and half peppers, old carrots, left-over parsnip puree, too-ripe tomatoes, miscellaneous herbs, last quarter of a container of arugula–in the last half hour, I'll even stir in some leftover turnip greens. A careful weekly refrigerator/freezer inventory is essential; BOGO is no deal if I end up having to throw away the extra lettuce or pack of strawberries or mushrooms.

  • Reply Everyday Champagne November 12, 2009 at 1:07 am

    I always have sweetened condensed milk on hand as well, and make my key lime pie with it too! And oh how I wish I could cook chicken livers in my house…my husband won't go near them and I absolutely love them! Crystallized ginger is a fave of mine as well- I have it on hand for tummy aches and could really just eat it as a snack. And I strongly agree with you about not letting things go to waste. I have so many odds and ends in my fridge or freezer at all times! (always labeled and dated:) My only gripe is eating the same leftovers for days and days. My mother did that with us as kids and I despise it now. I can only eat the same thing for 2 days in a row, then it's re-purpose time!

  • Reply Anonymous November 12, 2009 at 1:46 am

    I don't honestly think anyone could taste– or at least identify– a little bit of pureed chicken livers added along with a splash of red wine or brandy to a plain jane meatloaf recipe. It just makes a much richer flavor and texture. But I don't mind keeping secrets in the kitchen, you may have an open-door policy. 🙂

  • Reply Everyday Champagne November 12, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Oh, I'm all about secrets! 🙂 However, my husband's palate is as good as mine and he reeeeaaaaallly hates chicken livers! But your meatloaf sounds delicious so I'm gonna try it! Thanks again!

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