Martha During a Recession

September 23, 2010

Recently a comment was posted questioning how I can afford to cook Martha. How does one afford Martha on a budget? Everyone can afford this. I think there is a perception that Martha’s recipes are extravagant and pricey. For the most part, that isn’t true. Yes, she sometimes makes over the top things, but I find most recipes to be doable for the average person. I cook dinner 7 days a week. I want food to be healthy and tasty and I love to try new things. If I’m going to be cooking anyway, why not try something new and fun? Martha’s recipes are not unapproachable in any way. In fact Everyday Food recipes are pretty easy and accessible. Here are some tips for how to afford good food on a budget:

-Make recipes that appeal to you. If it doesn’t sound good, you probably won’t eat it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stretch yourself. I’ve been surprised many times when I’ve tried something new. But if I know that I just hate duck, I don’t make duck recipes. Look for recipes that allow you to punch up your dinner routine without going crazy with totally unfamiliar or unpalatable  food.

– Look for recipes that can replace some of your boring same old, same old recipes without a change in cost. Instead of baked potatoes, try potato au gratin, for example. Instead of spaghetti and meatballs, try a recipe for a bolognese pasta. Virtually the same ingredients and cost, but hugely different in taste. Try new veggies. Instead of peas and carrots, try Swiss chard and parsnips. Swapping one veggie for another usually ends up to be similar in price on average.

– Cook at home instead of eating out. You can buy an awful lot of food (or treat yourself to some expensive options ) for what it costs to buy a meal at a restaurant. And you can control how it tastes. I’m really off restaurant food lately. It’s never as good as I want it to be and I would rather just make my own food the way I want it.

– Choose recipes that will give you bang for your buck. I’m unlikely to try something that is filled with expensive ingredients because I can find a different recipe for something more affordable that is equally delicious. New chicken recipes are invaluable to me because I’m ALWAYS cooking chicken. If I can discover a new chicken recipe that delights me, it gets added to my repertoire.

– Buy ingredients on sale and use your freezer. Stock up on things you know you use often when there’s a sale or you have a coupon. I use a lot of chicken, so if organic chicken breasts are on sale, I buy a boat load. I buy flour in bulk because I use so much. I fill the cupboard with chicken broth when it’s on sale.

– Eat leftovers. I often eat leftovers for lunch. We don’t waste any food and I have no problem figuring out what to have at noon the next day! Plus this way, the pleasure lasts for two meals.

– Plan menus. I try to take some time each weekend to pick out what I want to cook in the next week. There are lots of things I always have on hand, but if there is something particular I need for a recipe I want to buy it and have things planned out so I will use and not waste it. In the past I have been guilty of having big plans to make things and then letting life get in the way so that the particular produce or dairy item goes bad before I get to it. I try to set manageable menu goals for myself based on my schedule, so I’m not trying to make 2 hour dishes on a crazy Thursday night.

– Doctor the bad recipes. If you read my blog, you know that from time to time I encounter a Martha recipe so bad (or so badly executed by me) that I dump it. This doesn’t happen often because in the words of the lovely Tim Gunn, I try to “make it work.” I’m always tasting as I’m cooking and making adjustments. When you try something new, you can never be sure if it is going to turn out, so you’ve got to stay on top of it. I sample and I adjust flavorings or seasonings.  There have been times when I’ve completely altered the recipe to the point of it being unidentifiable, just to make the food edible. Once in a while though, something ends up in the trash. It happens and I think it happens no matter what kind of food or recipes you’re cooking.

– Substitute ingredients that fit your budget. Martha demands the best. And sometimes I cheat. I’ve been known to use store brand chocolate chips instead of fine chocolate, bacon instead of pancetta, vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, generic frozen spinach instead of fresh, and milk instead of cream. And I often used dried spices instead of fresh (though I can tell you there really is a big difference, so I really want to try to grow my own). I often use bottled lemon juice instead of a fresh lemon. Yes, there is a slight taste difference, but sometimes it just doesn’t make that much of a difference in the dish.

– Cut the recipe in half. If it’s something you’re not sure you’ll like (or if it is just too big), cut it in half and sample it. If it’s bad, you aren’t wasting much and you still got to sample something new.

– Accept that good food takes time. You have to be willing to spend the time to get the result. Everyday Food recipes are often quick and easy and I love them for weeknights, but I also love to make things that take more time on other nights. I enjoy making bread, even though I have to dedicate a day to watching it rise. For me, that’s fun and is better than a lot of other activities I can think of. It’s easy to buy packaged food that can be microwaved or reheated but you definitely get better food if you make it yourself.

– Make things yourself. Martha is a big believer in making your own stock, breadcrumbs, pie crust, jelly, etc. If you do this, you save lots of money. Of course it takes time. These things are almost always better tasting when you make them yourself. I admit I don’t do as much of this as I could and it’s something I’m working on.

– Cook with seasonal ingredients. Usually you get a magazine one month before the issue date, so the September Living issue arrives in August. This means there may be recipes for produce that are not yet in season when you get it. It’s tempting to want to make these delicious recipes when you get the magazine, but they will be more affordable when they’re actually in season. I also buy large quantities of seasonal ingredients (for example, I get a half bushel of apples in the fall) and cook with them a lot while they are available.

– Be critical. Yes, Martha is a doyenne of taste, however she doesn’t live in the middle class world. She often recommends kitchen tools that I think are too expensive or makes outrageous statements such as saying everyone should have 30 kinds of pasta in their pantry. Scale down what Martha does to make it possible in your world. She has fantastic ideas, but they have to be filtered and downsized. Actually I find that her magazines do a good job of doing just that – they provide recipes anyone can make for the most part.  When you watch her on her show she will say outrageous things sometimes, but that’s the fun of Martha.

– Think about how you can save money in other aspects of your life. For me, organic food is non-negotiable. But it costs more. So we make sacrifices in other areas. That means being frugal in our daily lives and evaluating how to save money.

– Make choices. We don’t drink alcohol and that’s a major expense for many people,but one I don’t have. As far as I’m concerned, this increases the money I have available for food.  I know I would rather cook good food than go to the movies every weekend, so that’s a choice I make. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about recognizing what’s important to you and making it work in your life. We can’t all live Martha’s life where she can have anything she wants, any time. Instead, it’s about prioritizing and for me, good food is at the top of the list.

– Change how you think about food. I would rather have a delicious healthy dinner than all the potato chips in the world. So our house is mostly devoid of packaged food. If we want dessert, we make it. If we want a snack, we make popcorn or have cheese or fruit. Food is something you *make,* not something you take out of a package, in my opinion. Yes, sometimes it is expensive to buy goat cheese and organic eggs, but I don’t spend any money on packaged food so I think I come out ahead in terms of cost.

– Splurge when it’s worth it. Last year I ordered my Thanksgiving turkey from Martha. It was organic, free range, and pasture raised. It cost an arm and a leg. But it was the best turkey I have ever had in my entire life. It was worth every dime. Choose special things like this to spend your money on and the joy will carry over as you’re being creative with inexpensive meals at other times.

– Don’t just throw dinner together if you can avoid it. Enjoy what you’re making and eating. It makes me a happier person to eat something that I’ve anticipated for a few hours and which has new, interesting, or delicious flavors. Eat consciously and allow the money you spend on food to translate to real satisfaction.

Do you have any tips to share about how you afford to cook Martha? I would love to hear them.

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