The macaroni dish was the last straw. By the time the cashier finished ringing up all the ingredients the bill totalled $67.22. For a dish that wasn’t even the main course. My girlfriend and I are going on a diet. Not to lose weight, but to save money. Instead of the usual $300-plus a week we spend we’re limiting our budget to $50 for the two of us for the entire week. We both love food too much to subsist on a diet of instant noodles, however, so I’ll turn to some of the country’s best chefs for their favourite budget recipes.
Here are the ground rules. Pantry staples, flour, butter, oil, are fair game. Breakfasts will consist of oatmeal ($0.99/lb.) or toast with honey. Lunch will be leftovers from the day before or canned tuna ($0.99) sandwiches. I’ll focus my energy on making healthy, delicious and affordable dinners.
Day 1: Poached Eggs with Salsa Verde and Cayenne Hash Browns. “The key is being a good shopper,” chef Andrew Milne Allen of Zucca restaurant in Toronto tells me when I ask for his tips on getting through the week. “Waste is your biggest enemy. I’d start by seeing what’s in your pantry.” Taking his advice I dug up a few potatoes from the back of the cupboard. Those will become hash browns. There are four eggs that I’ll poach and I can make a sauce by blending up the cilantro and parsley in the crisper with some oil and water. Grocery Bill: $1.98 (one pound of oatmeal and a can of tuna for future use).
Day 2: Crispy Skin Sardines with Arugula and Tomato Fondue. Chef Jason Shubert of Only on King, in London, Ont., suggested this one. He advised me to “get some sardines, they’re $4 a bag. Reduce a can of tomatoes ($1.27) down with olive oil and chopped capers ($2.99). Toast some bread ($2.49) and rub it with garlic.” Cleaning the sardines was a nasty job, but they were excellent, subtle and delicious after being pan-fried skin side down until crispy. Grocery Bill: $10.75
Day 3: Navy Beans with Collards and Chorizo. Went to the market to stock up on a few things including a couple of apples for tomorrow’s oatmeal and a bottle of Argentinian wine ($7.45) that we’ll try to stretch over two days. I’m going to cook up a batch of navy beans and get some chickpeas soaking for tomorrow. The legumes cost less than a dollar a pound and one pound makes the equivalent of three cans. The ingredients in the market inspired this dinner. I cooked off some collard greens ($1.79) with onion and garlic and chorizo sausage ($2.48) and mixed the beans in at the last minute. It worked out really well and I look forward to making it again. I’ve seen dishes like this in restaurants sell for close to $20. Grocery Bill: $14.39.
Day 4: Marrow on Toast. Root Vegetable and Chickpea Salad. Nico Schuerman of Chambar restaurant in Vancouver came up with something I never would have thought of. “Cut up some root vegetables and roast them in the oven with a bunch of marrow bones,” he said. “You can eat the roasted vegetables as dinner and tomorrow simmer the bones and leftover veg into a hearty soup.”
How cheap are marrow bones? When my girlfriend went to the butcher to get the marrow bones he just gave them to her! The smell of those free bones roasting alongside all those vegetables was too much to handle. We mixed the roasted vegetables with the chickpeas into a hot salad and ate the marrow straight out of the bone on toast with salt. It was incredible. We’ve got piles of root vegetables left over, too. Grocery Bill: $7.47
Day 5: The Kindness of Others. There’s still plenty of soup left, but I froze it as we scored an invitation to a friend’s birthday dinner. We brought the leftover root vegetable and chickpea salad to share and some flowers in lieu of wine.
Day 6: Mussels with Red Curry and Coconut Milk. Roger Mooking, the exuberant host of Everyday Exotic on the Food Network, came up with this brainstorm. “Mussels are cheap,” he said, “and you don’t have to get too fancy with them. Some stock, shallots, garlic, bay leaf or a lime leaf and you’re good.” Three pounds of mussels cost me $5.10 and because I did want to get fancy with them I splurged on some cilantro, shallots, coconut milk and a couple of hot peppers ($2.98). I made a quick curry paste with the herbs, aromatics and peppers, and cooked that off before adding the coconut milk and the mussels. This dinner would be even more substantial with some rice, but it was completely filling and satisfying on its own. Grocery Bill: $7.98
Day 7: Chickpea Stew with Prosciutto and Cabbage. This was cookbook author and chef Karen Barnaby’s inspired dinner suggestion. I told her there were still some chickpeas left over that I wanted to use up and right away she said, “I think chickpeas go with cabbage. You can get a prosciutto rind, they’re cheap, chop that up and cook everything down with some water or stock, add a little tomato for contrast and throw in the toasted bread in the end to thicken it up.” I bought bread ($2.49), cabbage ($1.79) and a prosciutto rind ($2.87). There was a little bit of beef stock left and the last of the tomato ragout and the whole thing was an ideal winter dish. Grocery Bill. $7.15
Total cost for the Week: $49.72
When I asked my girlfriend what she wanted for dinner on day eight she said: “Something expensive.” While we certainly ate well over the past week, it required an awful lot of planning and we both miss having the occasional lunch or dinner at a restaurant. It was inspiring, though. Having these restrictions made me think differently about the food I cook and even though we’ll loosen the purse strings up after this we will be more careful about what we buy and incorporate at least one budget meal into the plan each week. In this economic climate it’s good to know that eating cheaply can still mean eating well.
Chris Johns is writing a book of frugal recipes.