The Secret to Cheap, Gourmet Recipes

The key to cheap gourmet recipes and shopping is to identify what you buy on a regular basis, then buy that when it is on sale. If you have read the about us page on this site you know that I advocate buying what is on sale. What happens is that food is most on sale when it is at its prime. When broccoli is cheapest is also when it is at the height of flavor. Each locality has a “broccoli season”.

This is a little confusing because much of the produce is imported from another part of the country or even from some other country. But the principle is still the same. Broccoli is best when it is cheapest. When I say broccoli, I am using that as an example of any produce.

I believe that this is a strong part of what in nutrition circles is called the “French Paradox”. There has been a great deal of speculation about why the French have a heart attack rate that is much lower than Americans have, in spite of the fact that their fat intake is higher. The speculation has been that they drink red wine with resveratrol or other particulars of their diet. Some of those speculations may have some truth. But I believe that the biggest factor is that the French shop for  produce more frequently and with greater attention to produce in their diets.

They also eat more aged cheeses. Fresh produce + aged cheeses + resveratrol = better health. That is the formula for the “French Paradox”.

The French eat far fewer processed foods. They cook from scratch. They buy fresh. They drink a lot of wine. They believe in eating as a sacred social event.

Although they believe in eating very lean meat, they eat a lot of fat from other sources like butter and oil. But they have much lower heart disease.

Shopping for meat is a little different. Meat has a seasonality, but it is much different from produce. Meat is generally cheapest in the fall and most expensive in the spring. However there are two additional factors that effect meat. One is the “loss leader” concept. Grocery stores sometimes put meat on sale below their own cost. The thinking is that they will try to attract customers into their store for a particular kind of meat and then sell them the accompanying foods at a profit.

If you want to make cheap gourmet recipes for yourself, your family and guests, take advantage of this tactic. Know what the prices are for the cuts that you use and buy when they are on sale. More about this on blog posts.

The second is holiday shopping. Stores put on sale foods that are typical for a holiday to attract their customers to buy from that store. The holidays that this most typically happens are Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day. There are minor holidays like Valentines Day and others that also attract some attention.

Being prepared for these events is key. For instance, you can buy turkeys for $5 each around Thanksgiving and Christmas and freeze them. This is going to be the cheapest meat you will ever buy. You have to be prepared because these bargains typically don’t happen the week of the holiday. They happen one or two weeks before.

So what I do is make a mental list of the kinds of things that I buy and I look for those things on sale. For instance, I buy pork roast at my local market when it is on sale for $.99/lb. The type I buy is called “Boston Butt”. It actually has nothing to do with “butt”, it is the front shoulder. This is typically available at my market in approximately 36 lb. cryovac packs. That is a lot of meat for a single guy with no one else to feed.

What I do is to cut some of it up into “chops” and freeze some of them, cut some of it up into roasts of a convenient size and freeze most of them that way.

Then I use the chops for typical meals, or I cut them up for stir fry. The roasts I use to cook like a typical roast (cooking it from frozen) and sometimes I just put the roast in a crock pot and make pulled pork from it.

So each of these “treatments” yields dozens of ways of making cheap gourmet recipes with little effort. That is how you get to be a cheap and lazy gourmet cook.

This is just an example. The same can be said of each cut of meat. For example, I buy more bone in white meat, than skinless boneless white meat and I know the rick bottom prices of each. I don’t buy ribs because they seem to me to be overpriced and not my favorites. I buy a lot of hamburger and sometimes I buy the premium cuts of beef (t-bone, ribeye, new york cut) but I don’t buy sirloin, round steak  and so on.

You decide your favorites and then keep track of the prices and buy when they are on sale. If lamb is one of your favorites know that it is cheapest around easter and generally in the fall around October 15th. Buy it when it is on sale and find your favorite “cheap gourmet recipes”.

The savings from this style of buying is huge. A friend of mine was on food stamps and was having trouble making ends meet. I showed her how to do this and she then could eat the cheap and lazy gourmet way.

Spicy Honey-Mustard Dressing

Spicy Honey-Mustard Dressing
 
Prep time
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A great-tasting, easy-to-make salad dressing with a wonderful balance of sweet and sour with a spicy kick.
Author:
Recipe type: Salad dressing
Cuisine: American
Serves: About 1 cup
Ingredients
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 1½ tablespoon prepared horseradish mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Instructions
  1. Place all ingredients into a blender.
  2. Blend until well-combined.
Notes
Feel free to substitute 1 tablespoon dry mustard powder for the prepared mustard. Spicy brown mustard may be used instead of the horseradish mustard.

Snappy! Best every honey-mustard dressing. It is great with summer lettuce and fruit salads. This is one of my most-requested salad dressing recipes.

So simple. Takes just 5 minutes to makes a fabulous, super-healthy salad dressing you’ll want to keep in your refrigerator.  It’s also great as a dip for apples or celery. This honey-mustard dressing will be your first, go-to, homemade dressing.

Special Diets

  • GAPS diet friendly.
  • Paleo friendly.

This is a really fun, southwestern spin on a tried and true honey-mustard recipe.

Meat Grades….NY STRIP FOR $2.99?

Really????

Yep, I just bought some. (2013)  There are a few tricks to buying well. One is that cryovac sealed meats can be a real special. I just bought a 10lb boneless roast called a New York strip for $30.00. NY strip is approximately the same as the big side of a t-bone (ribeye or prime rib). It tends to be a little smaller and a slight drop in quality, but still a premium steak. This buy was a large boneless roast.

In about 10 minutes I had steaks cut just the way I like them. My butcher would have done the cutting, but I prefer to cut them myself, so the thickness is just the way I want. All it takes is a sharp knife.

But there are some things you should know about buying meat, especially beef.

Beef is usually graded. This beef was not. Sometimes that can be a problem. I looked over the package and didn’t see any problems. I did see that the roast was darker than I would generally expect. That usually means that it was grass fed. It can also mean that the piece of meat could be tougher, from an older animal. With the premium cuts, filet, ribeye, NY strip and their derivatives, that is not as much of a problem. You just have to be more careful and cook it properly.

 Buyer Beware

You know what grade a piece of meat is by looking at the packaging or labeling. The packaging has to say what grade it is, if it has passed a grading test. This meat had not. So, buyer beware. I was right. I pulled out a steak and had it for lunch. I could tell that it would have been easy to make this steak tough. So marinating or brining or other techniques may have to be done, especially if you don’t like steak  very rare. It would be fine as a roast. As a roast it would have to be cooked no more than medium or it would have to be cooked very slowly for a very long time, if you like well done.

In my opinion, this was a good buy at the price. If you don’t like steak or roast rare or cooked until it falls apart, this would not be a good buy. Most of the major stores don’t sell anything except graded roast and steak.

Beef Meat Grades

There are three grades of beef that are commonly used: prime, choice and select. All three have an age requirement, generally under 18 months. Typically things like hamburger, stew meat and organ meats don’t have a grade.

  1. Prime. This is the most expensive and best tasting. Prime is also the cut with the most fat. High fat content (called marbling) is a requirement for prime. Prime is usually not available in a grocery store.
  2. Choice. This is the premium grade in most grocery stores. It has more fat content than Select but less than Prime.
  3. Select. This is the usual grade in a grocery store.
  4. Ungraded. This meat will have a USDA insignia on it but will not say a grade.

There are also some technical requirements for all three grades.

Bargain Cooking and Shopping

Smart Shopping and Bargains

The single biggest cost cutting item is smart shopping. Most people decide what is on their menu and then buy the items necessary for that menu. The smarter shopper looks at the ads and then makes menus around what is available at the lowest cost.

This does not involve low quality. You can decide to pay $3.99/lb for prime rib or $11.99 for the same prime rib from the same source. Perhaps prime rib isn’t your thing. The same goes for hamburger. I recently paid $2.39/lb for 97% lean. Bell peppers can go for $1.00ea or 4/$1.00. The same avocado from the same source can be 4/$1.00 or $2.00 ea.

The French Advantage

My mother taught me a lesson she learned from the French. Watch what is available and buy in season. These days things are a little more complicated. We have fresh seasons locally, from California, Mexico and Chile all coming online at varying times. Here’s how you can make it a little less complicated. Know what the range is of the price of  things you buy. I only buy asparagus at $1.50 or less. I only buy bell peppers at $.50 or less. I only buy ribeye (prime rib) at $5.00 or less.

Stretch Your Budget

The second area is knowing what foods can stretch your budget. I buy and eat dried beans, whole grain rice and top quality frozen veggies. Incidentally, it doesn’t pay to buy cheap frozen veggies. Buy the kind that are flash frozen and top quality. Measure whether you are going to buy fresh or frozen by the price. When fresh veggies are at the height of their quality, they are also the cheapest.

I buy very few canned goods. But canned tomatoes are actually cheaper and higher nutrition than the fresh. Chile can be made for various tastes and is filling, nutritious and cheap. Although the cooking time is long, the actual production time is low.

Creating leftovers

The third area for creating bargains is using things in progression. Whenever I cook turkey, I also make turkey soup out of the carcass, use the bits and pieces in salads, burritos and mixed meat and veggie dishes. The same goes for chicken, ham, beef, lamb or pork roast.

Green or red chili stew should be made out of the leftovers, as well as beef, pork, lamb or chicken stews and other dishes.

Bargain Takeout

One of the things I suggest to people is that on shopping day, as a treat, you buy the whole roasted chicken from the deli section of the grocery store. You may want to buy more than one depending on the size of the group you are serving. When I get home with the chicken, as I am preparing the meal, I separate the chicken into meal sized pieces and take the whole back and any scraps and put them in a crock pot and just cover them with water about an inch. I turn on the crock pot and let it cook on low until the next day.

You want all the nutritious connective tissue to dissolve off the bone and into the soup. The next day the soup will be more nutritious and you can take out the stripped bones. Then add veggies/beans/rice etc with spices. What results will be more meals at a ridiculously low price. You can also separate all the liquid from the solids use them separately and make soup stock out of the liquid.

Multiple Meals

So you make multiple meals out of the chicken takeout as-is, then make more meals out of the scraps for practically nothing. Once you get the system down it takes no time. Just make sure you put out the crock pot when you start preparing the meal or using the last of the roast.

Ungraded meat

My Mistake

I will share a recent mistake I made to show you how to avoid the same trap. A grocery store near me put Prime Rib on sale. They called it boneless rib roast. It was in a vacpac and had a stamp from the USDA. I didn’t look closely, and the stamp said “USDA Inspected”. In other words this was ungraded meat. It was tough and gristly. The price was right but the meat wasn’t.

Ungraded Meat

Basically, look at the grading stamp and know what it means. If it doesn’t say Prime, Choice or Select, it is ungraded. Ungraded doesn’t have to meet any standards, other than healthfulness. It can mean older, tougher, darker meat as this was or there could be something else. It would have made great hamburger or stew meat, but the price was too high. Be an aware shopper.

Sometimes ungraded meat can be a bargain. If you are going to cook something slowly for a long time ungraded meat may actually be better.

A Bargain

For instance, sometimes ungraded beef roast is on sale at a really good price. You can take the roast and cube it and make it into stew meat, usually cheaper than you can buy stew meat. You can also make it into a “pulled beef” for tacos or sandwiches, or you can marinade it an use it for fajitas.

Buy Cheap

Watch the Price

By that I mean, get an idea of the kinds of things you buy and know what the price range for those items is. Buy when the price is cheap. This week at one of the local grocery stores chicken thighs were on sale for $.49/lb. That is about as low as they get. Usually they are at least twice that amount. So, you can cut your grocery bill for that item in half, just by knowing when the “Price is Right”.

Cheap happens for 2 reasons:

1. The season is at its peak

2. The grocer is going to offer a “loss leader” to get you to come into the store.

I happen to like chicken thighs and use them a lot. They are cheap and easy to prepare in a variety of ways. They freeze and refrigerate well and make great quick meals or snacks, even reheated. So I know when “the Price is Right”.

Get Organized

If you have to, you can create a spreadsheet or  a hand list of the things you might buy if the “Price is right”. Enter the range of prices you see at each store and the specials prices that come up. Frequently, an item like chicken thighs, goes on “mini-special” and the stores price thighs at $.99 or $1.29. If you know that, you simply wait until it reaches $.49 or $.69 or $.79, then freeze it.

This is true whether you shop at the standard grocery stores or Whole Foods or get products directly from the supplier. There is a time when things are cheap. Plan for it and plan your meals around those items your like and watch for them to go on sale.

If you do that, you will find that things rotate on sale price, and the things you want will come up from time to time at the price that is lowest.

Know when an item is in season

Another area where this works is fruits and vegetables. Asparagus is a perfect example. It starts coming on sale in early spring and has already been priced at $.99/lb. At that price it is at its best, because farmers are competing to get their crop to market all at the same time.

So pay attention to the sale prices and mentally or on a list note the lowest price for your items. Then wait for the the low priced items to come around in rotation or in season or both and buy them.

Pulled Pork

Pulled pork is a super-lazy recipe. Place a pork roast, either chilled or frozen, into your favorite slow cooker. Set the heat to low and return in 4-12 hours. Shred with a fork and add your favorite BBQ sauce (or even better, make your own!). Done!

Serve as is, on a hamburger bun, or in a wrap. Get creative with those wraps and use flour, corn, or even large lettuce leaves.

Pulled Pork
 
Prep time
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Total time
 
Super lazy recipe
Author:
Recipe type: Pork
Cuisine: Comfort
Serves: 6
Ingredients
  • 3lbs Pork
  • 1 cup Barbeque sauce
Instructions
  1. Put the pork in a crock pot and cook on low for 4-12 hours.
  2. Take two forks and pull the meat apart.
  3. Add barbeque sauce.
  4. You can put this on a hamburger bun, serve as is or use in a wrap with flour or corn tortillas.

 

Coupons?

Can coupons save you money?

I had an interesting discussion today with a friend about coupons. She was at first adamantly a coupon collector. After we talked a little she is now “thinking about it”.

Why do they give you something for free?

My objection to coupons is that as far as food is concerned coupons are only for processed food, canned food, etc. That usually means bad food. I use very little canned, jarred, dried, or processed food.

 Is there a Better Way

This discussion started because a different friend of mine talked to me about changing a recipe that she had bee using. The recipe uses cream of mushroom soup over potatoes au gratin. She went to the store and the cream of mushroom soup was very expensive. After talking with me about the use of home made sauces, she decided to make the dish with a sauce similar to an alfredo sauce.

Save Money, Time, and make life easier

Canned cream of mushroom soup from a store, typically has a number of unpronounceable chemical ingredients. It is simpler, easier, cheaper, healthier and quicker to make the sauce from scratch. My friend had all the ingredients at home already. She made it with the recipe I gave her and everyone loved it more than her much loved previous recipe.

 “Midwest cooking”

The above kind of cooking I call “Wisconsin cooking” in deference to my ex sister-in-law who was from Wisconsin. We used to laugh about the chicken or tuna casserole with cream of mushroom soup or the crock pot recipe with cream of asparagus soup, etc.

If you have thought those recipes were good, try some of the done from scratch recipes using real ingredients. Your friends and family will love you. And avoid the coupons except for toilet paper, towels and non-food items.

Which is the best grocery store?

Which grocery store is best? I think the answer is none of the above. Based on my extensive shopping experience each store has its merits and its shortcomings. Personally, I currently shop most often at King Soopers (Kroger). It is a block down the street. Whatever I could save on some of the small items I get there I would lose in gas and time costs.

For instance yesterday, I got milk and bread. I walked to KS. I enjoy walking. The milk was on sale for $1.99 and the bread was on sale for $2.00. I am sure I could have gotten the bread cheaper at the day old store near me on Evans, but I would have had to drive there. The milk was on sale at WalMart for $1.77. If I were to walk to WalMart, that would be OK. That wasn’t on my agenda yesterday.

Safeway and King Soopers tend to be generalists. They are pretty good at most things. However, even there, you have to be a good shopper. I was surprised some time back to find out that Safeway (and WalMart) tend to have store specific sales. So you can go to a Safeway near you and the price can be higher or lower depending on where you live. For example, recently milk was on sale for the week at Safeway. It was $1.49 at my store, but I wrongly assumed it would be the same at any store. A store several miles away had it “on sale” for more money. So when I check online now, I check several Safeways. The store nearest me always has the best sale price. That store is locked in competition with a King Soopers, a WalMart and two warehouse style stores. WalMart does the same thing. They have to compete.

It would be smart of you to check out several regular items that you buy and several sale items from time to time to determine which stores near you have the better pricing. Also, WalMart will do price matching. Currently at the local store, milk is priced at about $3.00/gal. If you bring a flyer (and they sometimes have the competition flyers around) they will match the Safeway price this week of $1.97

Generally Albertson’s has better specials, especially meat/seafood specials, and Sunflower almost always has the best produce specials, hands down. They also will let you combine two weeks worth of specials on Wednesdays. Time your shopping carefully. They tend to be very crowded on Wednesday. But the sales are worth it, but avoid the 4:00 to 6:00 time period unless you enjoy crowds.

I use Sam’s, Costco and WalMart as benchmarks and some items are just always cheaper there. For instance pork loin roast is generally in the low $2.00 range at Sam’s and Costco.. At the big three it is generally just under $3.00/lb. On sale last week you could buy it for $1.69 at Safeway.

But I buy fair trade whole bean gourmet coffee at Sam’s or Costco for around $5.00/lb and even on sale at the big three it is $5.99 for the same grade. Butter is a similar situation. However at WalMart, milk and half-and-half are always cheaper. It is not even close. As I was explaining to my friend Sylvia, who served me Meadow Gold half and half with my coffee, at KS, where she bought it, half and half is $1.79/ pint. At WalMart, half-and-half is $1.68/Quart. It is true that the cream at WalMart is a house brand, but cream is cream. Don’t let anyone kid you. It is sometimes even true that milk and cream are cheaper at WalMart