Monday, April 13, 2009

The Food Dilemma: Where to Splurge, Where to Save

I'll be appearing on KPBS radio's These Days Tuesday morning, April 14, at 10 a.m. with Maria Hunt to talk about ways to get the most bang for the buck on food. Of course, while this entails a healthy dose of frugality, it doesn't mean there isn't room to splurge. It's just a matter of knowing how to make the best decisions based on your eating habits, your budget and your health concerns. Sometimes a little splurging is actually good for you and not reckless, especially if you're balancing it with cost-savings in other places.

Some of these ideas are really obvious but things we tend to forget or let slide, so I've included them here. And, if you have suggestions of your own, let's hear them with a comment below! Share your knowledge so we can all benefit!

Where to Splurge:

  1. Buy good cuts of meat, only in smaller portions. I like to go to Whole Foods or Bristol Farms and buy a small piece of Wagyu skirt steak to grill. It doesn’t cost much but it’s delicious.When it comes to pork, I enjoy the flavors of Berkshire pork, which you can find at Iowa Meat Farms and Siesels.
  2. Good quality olive oil for finishing. When heat is involved – sautéing, frying, etc., less expensive vegetable oil is okay but use good quality olive oil for the flavor. Also try avocado for flavor finishes, too. Local producer Bella Vado's avocado oils can be found at local farmers markets and Whole Foods and we have a wonderful local olive oil producer in Temecula Olive Oil Company. Remember to store oil in dark, cool place to keep quality, but don’t hoard it since it will go rancid or just lose the intensity of its flavor.
  3. Buy roasted chickens and use them to help you make other meals faster – like tacos or soup.
  4. Buy organic produce, but if you have to prioritize, go with produce without a thick peel you don't eat – lettuce, berries, etc. as opposed to avocados.
  5. Buy vanilla beans, but only to use when the vanilla flavor is the star in the dessert. Store the beans in vanilla extract to impart more flavor to the extract, or store the beans in a bowl of sugar.
  6. Buy small pieces of good cheese. Buy a chunk of parmesan or cheddar or mozarella, not pre-grated. If you have a food processor you can easily grate the cheese if you need large quantities.
  7. Invest in good basic kitchen tools: knives, graters, peelers, salad spinners. It makes cooking much easier and may encourage you to do more if you’re not fighting your ingredients. And take care of them. Make sure your knives are well sharpened. Take your knives to Henry’s, for example, for sharpening

Where to Budget:

  1. Buy whole chickens instead of parts and cut them up yourself. Double wrap and store pieces in freezer. Be sure to mark the package with what the item is and the date so you can use it before it gets freezer burn. Also, dark meat is less expensive and has more flavor. Save parts like the back, wings, drumsticks and use them to make stock.
  2. Don’t buy skinless, boneless chicken packages. If you're not going to buy a whole chicken, it is cheaper to buy the whole parts and remove the skin and bones yourself. If you see bulk packages of chicken parts, buy them and divide into meal-sized portions and freeze. I buy bulk packages of chicken legs to use for stock.
  3. Buy cheaper cuts of meat, like lamb shoulder instead of loin for chops, pork butt – basically cuts in which you’re talking about muscle. The meat will be tougher but you can do a nice slow cook or braise to make the meat more tender and flavorful. These cheap cuts are the best for stews and soups as well. And don't buy pre-cut "stewing meat." But the whole piece and cut it yourself so that you have pieces that are the same size and will cook evenly.
  4. Eliminate meat from your diet two or three times a week and instead make dishes with beans, rice, lentils and other grains or legumes. Experiment with quinoa, couscous, farro, wheat berries, polenta and other grains. Try using whole wheat pasta (Barilla's is pretty good). Use meat to flavor dishes, not as the centerpiece of the meal.
  5. Don’t buy pre-packaged produce. Peel your own carrots, wash and chop your own lettuce. The only exception may be spinach, which is a real pain to clean.
  6. Buy bags of popcorn kernels instead of packaged flavored popcorn and pop it yourself.
  7. Buy produce that’s in season but have a plan for it (i.e., menus) so it doesn’t spoil. Also think of ways to use the whole fruit or vegetable. Beet tops, parsnip tops and other root vegetable greens are delicious steamed or sautéed. They can also be used to make stock. Stick brown bananas in the freezer to use later for banana bread or to make a smoothie.
  8. Jars of dried herbs are pricey and often lose their flavor sitting on the shelf exposed to light. Instead, plant herbs, even in pots. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, basil, mint (always plant mint in a pot because it spreads fast) are easy to grow. I don't suggest growing cilantro – it goes to seed too quickly.
  9. If you have room in your freezer, store flour, sugar, beans, etc. in there so you don’t have to toss food because bugs got into the container.
  10. Make your own convenience foods. If you’re cooking, make enough for two meals.Make large pots of soup or stew and freeze it in serving-size containers.You can do the same with chicken or proteins other than fish. Welcome to your new frozen food dinners.
  11. Make your own pizza. Dough is easy to make and can be frozen. Then it’s just a matter of grating cheese and having your own combination of toppings. Instead of tomato sauce, use sliced tomatoes and fresh basil. See below for basic pizza dough recipe.
  12. Learn a couple of cooking techniques that can give you flexibility in making quick meals. For instance, with your skinless chicken thighs and drumsticks you can quickly brown them in a large Dutch oven on the stove, add layers of sliced onion, garlic, olives, artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, etc. with herbs, a dash of wine or stock, cover and cook in the oven at 350 for about an hour. Make rice and you’ve got your meal. Alternately, use diced tomatoes and eggplant and zucchini for a different flavor. Make roasted tomato soup and the next night add seafood to the soup with a few slices of lemon. Now you have cioppino. Do you enjoy the flavors from roasting vegetables? You can turn any combination of roasted vegetables into a quick and easy soup. And, that goes for leftovers.The leftovers from the roasted squash you served with chicken one night can be added to stock, simmered and then pureed to make soup the next night.

In the Market:

  1. Have a plan. Make a list. Check your calendar to see when you'll actually be home to eat. A lot of the produce and dairy you buy gets tossed away because you don’t use it before it goes bad. Knowing how you’ll use what you buy and that you’ll be able to eat it will save you from wasting money.
  2. Shop the perimeter – that’s where the produce, meat and dairy tend to be. The middle aisles, with the cookies, prepared foods and snacks are the dangerous and expensive places in the store.Stick with your list.
  3. Shop ethnic markets. You’ll find interesting, even unusual produce, often for less than the big three chain supermarkets. If you don't know what an item is or how to prepare it, ask someone who works in the store or a fellow customer. I've gotten a lot of wonderful recipes that way. And, I've found great deals on duck legs, lamb, fish and other items at ethnic markets. In San Diego, some of my favorites are 99 Ranch Market, Mitsuwa, Nijiya, Balboa International Market, Parsian, Northgate Gonzalez, Foodland, El Tigre and Lucky Seafood. I've written up all of these in previous posts so check out the archives list to the right.
  4. Again, buy produce that’s in season. If there’s a great deal on a particular vegetable you enjoy, buy in quantity. You can use it to make soup; you can even freeze it. And, it's less expensive than buying packages of frozen vegetables. If Roma tomatoes are on sale and you like tomatoes, buy several pounds, slice them in half lengthwise, drizzle with olive oil and roast. Romas have a hearty texture but they don’t have great flavor; roasting brings out the sugars. Roasted tomatoes are perfect for soup, pasta sauce and cioppino. And you can freeze it.
  5. If you like to shop farmers markets but find them too pricey, try shopping at the end of the market. Sometimes farmers will give shoppers a deal so they don’t have to schlep inventory back.
  6. If you’re single, see if you can go in with friends on deals for bulk purchases when buying at Costco, CSAs, etc.
  7. Become friends with your butcher and your produce guy/gal. They can direct you to good deals, tell you about the product and offer suggestions on how to use it. If you feel like making stock from scratch, ask your butcher if he/she can give you beef or lamb bones. Roast the bones, add onion, garlic, root vegetables, salt and pepper and, of course, water, to a big pot. In a couple of hours you’ve got stock for making a lot of different meals. Package them in one-cup and quart containers so you can add a little or add a lot to make soup or a stew. And don't forget to mark them so you know what the container is and how old.

Teach your kids to cook. Cook with them -- even if it’s just roasting chicken, making rice and making a salad. Give them kitchen skills to help them be self-sufficient and learn to economize as well as enjoy food and learn where it comes from. You don't know how to cook? Ask a friend or relative to give you some basic lessons, then teach your kids. Make use of websites like and (The Food Network's site), as well as food blogs; they're all studded with recipes. It'll pay huge dividends for all of you.

San Diego's Best Restaurant Values

These suggestions came to me from PR folks and readers:

1. Wine Vault & Bistro's Saturday five-course tasting menu for $30.
2. Surati Farsan on Black Mountain Road: Four-course meal for $12. "Killer dosas for $4. Yummy belpuri chast."
3. Sunday lunch at Sakura on Convoy. Miso salmon and all the fixings.
4. Wet Stone on 4th for wine and small plates. Happy hour specials during the week.
5. The Marble Room downtown. "A relatively new spot in the Gaslamp that has an interesting variety of entrees and appetizers at reasonable prices compared to other upscale Gaslamp hot spots. They don't advertise as "Tapas Style" but it really is so it's fun and affordable good food."
6. Spices Thai
7. Cafe Sevilla is "right-sizing their menu in terms of both portions and prices, including many tapitas at $5 or under. And, their happy hour at the tapas bar includes 16 dishes, most of which are $4 and under along with daily drink specials."
8. Tender Greens. "It's a great value. You can get a great fresh from the farm organic meal for under $15."
9. The Pearl. "On Mondays we do a three-course meal for $25 with happy hour pricing all night."

10. Savory in Encinitas offers Sunset Suppers Tues-Sun, 5 PM - 6 PM. Appetizer, entree and a dessert to share for $29. Same with wine pairing for $39.

To that I add:
1. Sbicca: Half-priced wine Tuesday and Thursday. No corkage Sunday and Monday. Half-price bar food nightly between 4 and 6:30.
2. Opera Cafe & Patisserie: An unlikely location in Sorrento Valley's office park area but wonderful French food priced very reasonably. Mostly breakfast and lunch, but they're now open Fridays for dinner and are serving wine.
3. Starlite: Come for early bird food specials during happy hour or stop by for a late-night meal.
4. Avenue 5: Another happy hour pick. Great prices for terrific food in Bankers Hill. They’ve also just added a brunch menu that’s very affordable ($7 to $14), beginning in May.
5. Tapenade: Authentic French food is very accessible at their happy hour and with their Bar-Tapas menu. Or try their Riviera three-course lunch menu for $21.95.
6. Laurel: 7 before Seven happy hour -- seven drinks, seven eats at $7 each. Plus, Mondays at the bar: Wagyu beef burger, truffle fries and beer for $14.95. Tapas Tuesdays at the bar: Chef comes out and makes tapas from 5 to 8:30. Mad Wednesdays selected bottles of wine are half price.

Brunches are a great deal and allow you to experience a fine dining restaurant for far less than dinner.

Also, try the eateries in ethnic markets like Balboa International Market in Clairemont, Mitsuwa on Mercury, Parsian on Convoy, Lucky Seafood in Mira Mesa, Northgate Gonzalez in South San Diego, Foodland in El Cajon.

And there are a lot of wonderful and inexpensive ethnic restaurants/sandwich shops:

K Sandwich on Mesa College Dr. and Linda Vista Blvd.

El Cuervo Taco Shop on Washington St.

El Indio, Saffron and others on India St.

Look for coupons, not just in the local paper but in community magazines. Residents of some neighborhoods like downtown, Hillcrest, North Park, etc. automatically get coupon magazines but if these are areas where you enjoy dining out, a $12 subscription could pay for itself in one meal. Check out

Basic pizza dough

Makes 4, 8-inch round thin crust pizzas or 2, 13.5-inch round thin crust pizzas

1 package active dry yeast (2 teaspoons)

1 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour

1 tbl. sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 tbl. unsweetened applesauce

Olive oil

Dissolve the yeast in warm water with the applesauce. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Add the yeast mixture into the center of the well and stir it together until it begins to form a ball. Then turn it out onto a clean, floured surface and knead for four to five minutes. (You can also mix the dough in a food processor or mixer, using a dough hook.)

Lightly rub the surface of the ball with olive oil and place it into a large bowl that also has been coated inside with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm spot until it doubles, for about an hour. Punch down the dough. Reshape it into a ball and let it rise again.

At this point you can refrigerate or freeze the dough. To make individual portions, divide the dough into four equal portions, about six ounces each.

When you’re ready to make the pizza, pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees. Roll each portion into a ball, then, working on a lightly floured surface, stretch the dough and work it with your fingers or a rolling pin to form an eight-inch circle. The outer edge should be a little thicker than the body to form a slight rim.

Add your toppings.

Transfer the pizza to a pizza pan or a stone in the oven. Bake about 10 to 13 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the cheese is melted.

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  1. Caron, these are great money-saving tips! I especially love this pizza dough recipe. I am planning to make pizza this week and definitely want to try this one!

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