I always love reading your comments and emails – it brings such a smile to my face knowing that this little blog has touched so many people near and far, and honestly, you guys are what keeps me going at times (like now) when I’m so busy I barely have time to think. And I know I’m not always great at responding to questions in a timely fashion, but I hope to get better at that. To start, I’ll answer a question from Nadia in Calgary, Alberta (Hi, Nadia!) – she writes:
…if you don’t mind me asking, what is your weekly budget for food? Any recommendations for cutting costs without losing your dignity as a chef?
With respect to our food budget, I’ll be honest – we don’t really have a set amount that we hold ourselves to for the week. It varies, depending on the time of year and our circumstances. For instance, things were pretty tight for us in the month after our move since I wasn’t working, and we had to really stretch things, food-wise. I was really grateful at the time that we had moved so much of the contents of our freezer and pantry with us, because I was able to base meals on the beans and grains we had on hand, incorporate meats here and there, and spend most of our food money on fresh produce, eggs, dairy and bread.
There are times when we are able to be a little more extravagant, and it’s those times when you’ll see the occasional gourmet items sneak in – a little foie gras here, tenderloin there, etc. And there are times like now, at the height of summer, when we spend the majority of our food money at the farmers’ markets we frequent. There’s so much good stuff in season right now, so we’re trying to fit as much of it into our meals as possible.
We generally try to have one meatless dinner per week year-round, but in the summertime, we’ll do so more often. This week we fit in three: our squash blossom-topped tomato soup on Monday, a not-very-photogenic casserole on Tuesday, and on Thursday, this summer vegetable soup, loaded with fresh tomatoes, summer squash, kale, and string and shell beans from the farmers’ market, plus some of my homemade chicken stock:
We spent about $100 at the farmers’ market yesterday, and another $100 at Whole Foods; last week we spent $140 at the farmers’ market and $120 at Whole Foods. Some of what we bought is “stock up” type stuff that we have stashed away for future use, and some will be used a little at a time over several meals – for instance, a whole duck which Mike will break down after it’s thawed, some of which will be smoked, some prepared as confit, the bones and wings made into stock, the fat rendered and reserved, etc. The $15 we spent on that duck will go a long way.
We do love our meat, and we have no intention of giving it up, but the way we eat meat has changed for both ethical and financial reasons. We try to buy more unusual cuts, like these lamb shoulder chops, rather than rib chops or a rack. They’re far less expensive but just as tasty, which helps us keep our budget in check. Likewise, choosing bluefish, sardines or mackerel instead of salmon or halibut from time to time allows us to enjoy luscious and heart-healthy fatty fish, with less of an impact on both our budget and the environment. And instead of cooking up a steak for each of us, these days we’re more likely to split one, slicing it and serving it with plenty of veggies and other accompaniments to dress it up.
Finally, we try to use as much as possible of what we buy. Heels of bread or hunks that have gone slightly stale get turned to breadcrumbs or croutons; our freezer is filled with bones and trimmings all waiting to be turned into stock; leftovers are either eaten for lunch or given new life in other dishes. Our freezer is always full, with stuff rotating in and out constantly, and periodic inventories taken to make sure things don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Now, we cook for two most nights, and what we spend on food for the two of us each week may seem excessive, but we have made a conscious decision to spend more on the best quality food we can afford – it’s a priority for us, moreso than going to see movies or traveling or buying non-essentials. And we really have no real-life experience with what goes into cooking for a family, with their varied tastes and requirements – maybe we will, someday, and I hope that we’ll continue to eat as locally and sustainably as possible, whatever the cost. Mike and I do realize how lucky we are that we live comfortably and can make these choices; I’ve said before I know that many can’t, but I hope that at least some of the tips I’ve mentioned above are things you can incorporate into your own cooking, regardless of your personal situation.