Impress for Less: Gourmet Cooking on a Budget

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gourmet food on a budget

On the menu tonight we will be serving pan seared lamb on a bed of creamed coliban with a side of seasonal vegetables and finished with a jus.

In other words lamb chops, mash, veg and gravy.

Gourmet food isn’t truffles and vintage wine. 

It is fresh, quality produce that’s presented in an attractive manner. 

It doesn’t have to be expensive, although it can be nice on special occasions to splurge on ingredients you wouldn’t buy every day.

If you think about what you get in a good restaurant, it’s just basic ingredients like meat and veggies jazzed up. And anyone can do this at home for a fraction of the price of a restaurant meal with a little time and know-how.

Here are some tips on serving gourmet meals at home.

8 Tips for Gourmet Cooking on a Budget

1. Use basic ingredients as the foundation of a meal

The basis of a quality meal includes fresh vegetables in season, fresh protein and grains or a combination of these core ingredients brought together with a sauce. Buy in season to keep the price down. 

If you look at the above picture all it is chops, mashed potato and veg, with a little sauce and a garnish.

2. Add herbs, Spices and Sauces

An infinite variety of meals can be made from the core ingredients above with the addition of herbs, spices and condiments.

Spices are inexpensive and can last a long time if stored correctly. Having a few basic spices on hand means that you can whip up and Indian curry, a Moroccan tagine or a chilli beef easily with what’s in the cupboard. 

Fresh herbs can transform a dish. Herbs are easy to grow and can be a free addition to any meal. Alternatively, dried herbs can be stored easily and are good to have on hand to add flavour.

Sauces and condiments such as salt and pepper, mustard, vinegar, soy sauce, good mayonnaise, relish and chutneys round out your staples. They last ages and a little goes a long way. By having them on hand, you can make just about anything (like this lime aioli from mayonnaise) and they can reduce your overall grocery spending over time.

3. Finish off with some splurges

A basic roast pumpkin risotto made with homemade stock can feed a family of 4 for less than $3. Finished off with a shaving of fresh parmesan gives it a gourmet touch for only a few cents extra.

A tablespoon of toasted slivered almonds or pine nuts tossed through some steamed greens gives them an extra dimension of flavour and texture.

A scattering of sun-dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives over homemade pizza takes it to another level.

Some of these things can be pretty expensive, but purchased in small quantities (ie. at the deli counter) and used sparingly, they add extra flavour and a gourmet touch without busting the budget.

4. Become Intimate with Ingredients 

Knowing your ingredients and how to prepare and cook them ensures you eat them at their best. For example, a cheap piece of chuck steak is best braised. It’s not going to taste as good if you fry it, and a braise won’t taste as good if you use a lean cut of meat.

Knowing what is in season ensures that you are buying vegetables at their cheapest.

Knowing your ingredients gives you more meal options. The humble spud can be mashed, boiled, roasted with or without the skin, stuffed, turned into chips, grated and fried as a rosti, scalloped with cream and cheese, hassle backed, turned into soup, used to bulk up rissoles, added to casseroles to name just a few variations. The potato need never be boring again.

Knowing your ingredients means you understand what role they play in a recipe and can substitute them with something cheaper without compromising the meal.

5. Learn new cooking techniques

Being confident in the kitchen goes a long way to making cooking easier, quicker and more varied. Learning how to wield a knife, blanch vegetables, sauté like a pro, make a reduction or make pasta means that you can cook the ingredients on hand in a way that will bring out their best.

6. Expand your repertoire

The more recipes that you have under your belt, the more interesting and varied meal time can be. Go gourmet by exploring ingredients and cuisines from other cultures. There are thousands of free recipes online. Your local library is another good source of free recipes.

7. Add a sauce

A simple sauce can take a plain dish and make it memorable.

A sauce can be as simple as deglazing the frying pan with a slosh of wine or some balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice or cream after the meat is cooked, reducing it for a minute or two, scraping up all of the yummy bits and pouring it over the meat before serving. Even if dinner is the cheapest chump chops in the shop, a sauce can add a gourmet dimension.

Homemade mayonnaise or hollandaise can be easily whipped up in a matter of minutes. A spoonful adds a finishing touch to some plain fish or tuna rissoles. A quick tomato sauce can be turned into a pasta dish.

6. Portion like a 5-star chef

Countless studies have indicated that we eat too much and that this is a factor contributing to the obesity problem. Substitute quantity with quality. Rather than filling the plate up to the brim, include a small amount of meat and focus on the veggies.

7. Presentation

Part of the gourmet food experience is the presentation. Spending a few moments arranging the food on the plate,  or adding a sprig of parsley to garnish can make a dish something special.

But the presentation isn’t just about the arrangement. It is about a balance of colour, texture and flavours. A balance of colour not only looks good but ensures that you are eating a balance of nutrients.

Make dinner a special time by eating at the table with the family. Eating together as a family gives us a space in our day to connect and share. Food facilitates relationships just as it fills our bellies.

8. Shop smart

The perception is that fresh food is expensive. Our food bill at the moment is an average of around $50 a week for two. And I buy some expensive things like organic milk, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil and pomegranate juice. By shopping smart you can maximise your savings.

Stockpile the pantry so that you have plenty of ingredients on hand to knock up a meal without hitting the shops. With a full pantry, exotic recipes with multiple ingredients aren’t daunting and it’s just a matter of buying the meat and vegetables.

Save time by planning your meals and writing a shopping list so that you only have to go to the shops once a week. Plan around what you have in your freezer and pantry and make the most of any herbs and spices that you buy.

Buy meat in bulk and freeze. A wholesale butcher if you have one near you can be a lot cheaper than supermarket meat. For fresh produce, shop at local farmer’s markets or wholesale greengrocers.

Expensive ingredients like exotic cheeses, olives, prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes, can be bought in small quantities at the deli. Other ingredients like nuts can be purchased from bulk bins in a quantity you choose. Buying small amounts and savouring them can jazz up a meal without breaking the bank.

While it may not be feasible to create gourmet meals every day of the week, you can whip up something gourmet for special occasions, without breaking the budget. Think restaurant meals: small portions of meat and veg, jazzed up with a little sauce and served in an attractive looking pile and you will have everyone talking about your superstar meals.

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One Comment

  1. Jo Windsor says:

    $50 for a food bill for 2 for a week – please share what you bought and how you got 21 meals and 14 snacks out of that!