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I have had some questions from media recently about the cost of eating at home vs. eating out.
It's interesting to me that people believe that it's more expensive to eat at home when it comes to a fast food type meal (myth debunked here), but don't have trouble believing that it's less expensive to have a "gourmet" meal at home. After all, pretty much every restaurant looks for the ingredient cost of a meal they serve to come in around 1/3 the amount they charge the consumer.
This is gotten me to thinking about some tips for cooking at home that can help you choose both the best recipes and ideas for cooking them for yourself.
1. The #1 tip for making a gourmet meal is to keep it simple. The best restaurant recipes you have had at your favorite restaurant are generally quite easy to make because they are simple and elegant.
Choose a recipe that contains fewer than ten ingredients including the herbs and spices.
2. If you are not an experienced chef, only choose recipes that have familiar ingredients and techniques at first. With each new recipe you should add a new ingredient or technique.
3. Cook often. By making this a major part of your life you will build a well stocked pantry full of great ingredients. By having all of the basic herbs and spices, pastas, rices, oils, vinegars and such on hand you won't need to purchase them every time.
5. Don't try to save money by purchasing "budget" ingredients. That Parmigiano-Reggiano may seem expensive, but you'll need a lot less of it than the awful parmesan in the round green box.
The reason that your favorite chef's food is so great is because he or she has started with fantastic ingredients, including the best cheeses, oils, vinegars and fresh herbs.
6. Go to the farmer's market. Yes, the ingredients do taste that much better and are amazingly less expensive.
7. Be flexible and always have a back up plan. If you go to the market expecting to make a halibut dish and the fish looks awful, don't purchase it or choose another white fish. In fact, it's best to go to the store, find what is freshest and then build your meal around that. This applies to ingredients that might be on sale or seasonally less expensive and thus fresher.
8. Make too much and put it away. Leftovers can help extend the grocery budget by keeping you out of the restaurant in the following days.
9. Read the recipe before you start cooking, assemble all of your ingredients and equipment, and then read it again. It's important to know what you are doing - and that you have everything you need - well in advance.
10. Marinades are great choices. They add tons of flavor, tenderize less expensive cuts of meat and make them elegant. Best of all they are super simple.
You can save a lot of money by cooking at home. Take one of my favorite restaurants here in New Orleans: La Petite Grocery. The chef serves a great but very simple grilled hanger steak topped with caramelized onions. It retails for $25.00 and is served with a small side of diced roasted yams.
That hanger steak is about $12.00 per pound at my local Whole Foods (you'll need about 3/4 pound for two people). The onion is about $1.50 and the yam near the same. That $12.00 is enough to serve two people a great meal at home, coming in at well under the 30% of the cost of serving two in the restaurant. Given that most fine dining restaurants run a "food cost" of 30%, this makes sense with almost every recipe that you might try.
Note that the same holds true for the wine, so that's an added bonus. It's pretty easy to make a three course gourmet meal at home - salad, main course and dessert - along with wine for around the same price of the entree alone in a restaurant.
Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP