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Monday, February 2, 2009

Frugal College Cooking: Theory

This post is courtesy of my dear Frugal Son.

Few people are nostalgic for their college eating experiences. College is a time of tight budgeting, and neither money nor time is available to spend on cooking. For most people, college food memories probably conjure up images of a mystery meat concoction from the cafeteria, greasy fast food, ramen, microwaveable entrees, or other unsavory morsels. Nothing very appetizing or nourishing to be certain. Except for the lucky few who are in the know, the vast majority of college students—and people in general—are under the impression that to eat well requires a lot of money and / or a lot of time or that “restaurant quality” food is out of reach of the average cook. While in some cases cooking is a time-consuming process—there is just no way to speed up the process of making a demi-glace—practical cooking can be cheaper, easier, and more satisfying than buying pre-packaged convenience food or going to a restaurant.

My most recent cooking experience is a good example of the kind of cooking that can be done in an EXTREMELY limited kitchen by a person with limited skills on a limited budget, but without skimping on taste or perceived fanciness. My meal for the night—salmon baked on thin slices of lemon garnished with a butter and caper sauce and a stir-fried rice with vegetables on the side—would seem to be more at home on the menu of a fancy eatery than in a simple apartment kitchen. How much do you think this meal cost me to make? At P.F. Chang’s, where I ate recently for a friend’s birthday, a similar menu option (Salmon Steamed with Ginger and served with a side of White Rice) came to $17.95 before tax and tip; for four people to eat this dish at a restaurant would easily cost $70 and take up at least a two-hour chunk of the evening. While a $15 or even $20 per person meal might be nice every now and then, it is definitely not something that is sustainable on a college budget or really any budget; eating a $15 meal three times a week for a year comes to $2,340, which is money I would much rather spend on a plane ticket to Korea or some other foreign locale!

In addition to the gustatory, nutritional, and financial benefits of cooking for yourself, a little known side-effect is a markedly improved social life. Casually mention that you love to cook but need a kitchen and suddenly you will have three times as many friends as you thought you had. Also, if you cook seemingly complex or fancy foods, you will soon gain a reputation as some sort of cooking genius. I must admit that part of the reason I love to cook for friends is the ego-stoking I get from them and I was beaming at the praise I received for this meal.

As Dr. Frugal Scholar says, frugality is not about depriving oneself of things but rather it is about getting more from less, and home cooking is one of the most rewarding frugal tasks I know of. For the cost of a single person’s meal at a restaurant I can cook the aforementioned meal for myself and three other people and I can do it in about the same amount of time that it would take to go to a restaurant. I can see the skeptical looks on your faces, dear readers, but fear not; in my next post I’ll show you how to cook a meal that leaves your belly (and your friends’ bellies) satisfied and your wallet intact.


Logan Leger said...

That looks incredibly delicious.

Also, I love the look on your face. haha

Over the Cubicle Wall said...

Well done!

I can tell the authentic nature of the pic by the canister of salt in the middle of the table. In college, who needs a 'fancy' salt shaker? :P

Duchesse said...

"for four people to eat this dish at a restaurant would easily cost $70 and take up at least a two-hour chunk of the evening. "

Is there something undesirable about spending two hours at the table, young Scholar?

SLF said...

@Logan: Thanks! One of these days I'll cook a meal large enough for everyone to come over and eat.

@Cubicle: If only you could see the pots and pans or the tiny knife I had to use...even more authentically college. :)

@Duchesse: There is nothing wrong with a leisurely meal and this meal was no dine and dash operation; I thoroughly enjoy sitting at the table long after the food is gone just to talk. Leaving campus to go to a restaurant, however, involves much more time than just the time spent eating (travel, parking on campus is a nightmare, etc.). When I cook, I feel like I actually have more time to converse--whether it is while we are eating together or doing dishes together--and enjoy the meal than in a restaurant.

Chance said...

Great post! I read it twice, and didn't see it but I am so nosy: How much did that delicious meal cost you to make? I'm with you, I would rather cook in the kitchen, force my friends to chop stuff up, laughing silliness, then drive to the restaurant and pay large for the same food I could make at home. On public trans I would hate it. My frugal tip: When you get ready to buy a bigger knife, get the best one you can and keep it forever. Expensive at first, delightful forever. Quality counts on good knives.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Chance--The cost breakdown is on the next post, as is the recipe. But, if you can't wait, here it is: about $16.00. What kind of knife would you recommend?

Chance said...

Well, I basically agree with every word in this post.

One thing to settle on for the almost one size fits all knife is the shape. I do a lot of chopping, so I use a 7 inch santoku knife. On the rare occaison that I carve, I use a 70 year carving knife my mother gave me. My santoku and a paring knife gets me through 90percent of my cooking. I can attest to the quality of Forschner knives although the handles are wacky, it's all about the blade, right. A nice Forschner santoku is about 44 bucks, although I am *certain* you could get one much cheaper on sale. But I lust for a Japanese Blazen knife referenced in the article, and I'm saving for one. For the totally frugal road, keep an eye out at yard sales for Chicago Cutlery sets in a block, they have oak handles and the name emblazoned on the side -- they are actual pretty nice if you keep them nice and sharp. Good balance. Wouldn't want to buy a new set, but used, I'd be on it. Learn to sharpen your own knives, a sharp knife is a thing of beauty. Just my two cents...and thanks again for that great post.

Chance said...

PS. Here's a nice Forschner santoku with a rosewood handle for 29.95 online.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Chance--Thanks for the tips. I have a Wusthof and hate it--I must have the only $90.00 knife that won't take an edge. I'm definitely going to see if I can find some Chicago cutlery at a thrift shop! Then I'll look into the other options. Thanks again.

Logan Leger said...

Oh yeah, you should. I'm really looking forward to that ultimate bacon-sausage deal.

Chance said...

@Frugal Scholar Wusthofs suck. German knives rely on weight to get through things, and I've had a similar experience with the edge on my veddy expensive Wusthoff. As a replacement I got first Chicago cutlery (pleasantly surprised), next a Foreschner santoku (still pleased) and now lust for thin Japanese steel that relies on a sharp edge to slice thrugh things like buttah. Sorry this is totally off-topic, I get excited about knives.

SLF said...

@ Chance: Frugal Scholar has promised me a couple of Global knives when I get my own place. I definitely agree that a paring knife + one other medium sized knife is good for almost everything.

@ Logan: The Pork Explosion of Heart Doom is already in the planning stages. I'll keep you posted because we will definitely need a few dozen people to help devour the 5000 calories and 500 grams of fat...eek!