Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Lesson 1- Spices!

Ok. I mentioned earlier that I was going to address the idea that you have to 1. spend a lot of money and 2. be a skilled cook to make interesting tasty food. Lets start with issue 1. One of the main things that throws people when they start to cook is that recipes call for all of these ingredients that they just assume you have sitting around in your pantry. If you have to buy those every time you cook something, it can seem expensive, even though really it is a one time purchase and you'll have it to use for many future recipes. It also makes cooking seem like more work when you don't have things on hand.

Some things that tend to fall into that category when you're first starting to cook are spices. Unfortunately, spices are the absolute most critical investment if you're going to cook on a budget- they are what enable you to take something like lentils, and make a vast array of types of meals. This is the thing that will keep your cooking from being boring. Spices are expensive if you buy the name brands in the main area of the grocery store. You could easily spend a ton of money stocking up if thats how you decide to do it. However, I'm here to tell you, that doing that is just plain silly. This is my best, #1, top tier, most fantastic grocery shopping tip. (you're pumped, I can tell!). There are a lot of sources for spices, if you go slightly (really only slightly) off the beaten path. In your own grocery store, leave the baking section and head to the ethnic section. In my personal store, there is an area near the Mexican food full of little packets of spices for 60 cents to a dollar. In the Kosher section, there are giant shakers of spices for much less than the price of one small bottle in the regular section. If you compare the unit prices (price per oz) of these, your mind will be blown. Blown! You can stock up on a vast array of things for very little money, and suddenly will waves of new found confidence when encountering new recipes and realizing you have ingredients in your cupboard already! Here are some examples of store brands I found. I also found cheap spices at Cost Plus. Observe:

If I were to take 10 bucks or so to stock up on some spices, so that I'd be able to make a decent variety of food, this is what I would get:
-ground coriander
-ground cumin
-curry powder
-bay leaves
-ground ginger
-parsley flakes
-red chili powder

If I wanted to expand my horizons and bring my total to about 20 bucks, I'd add:
-garam masala
-cumin seeds
-coriander seeds
-smoked paprika

Get either group 1 or both group 1 and 2, and you'll be ready for all kinds of food... Indian, Mexican, Italian, and on and on. Obviously there are always other crazy things in some recipes, but you'll be able to make most things if you have these on hand.


Warren Branson said...

It is very true that you can easily take your cooking from ordinary to extra ordinary by learning how to use a few spices. You gave some great tips on where to find some spices at great prices within the same store. If your feeling more adventurous try visiting some small ethnic groceries to find you spices.

yellowfish said...

Thats a very good point! I live in Los Angeles so am really fortunate to be surrounded by a vast array of grocery stores (my favorites being the Japanese store and the Indian market, both of which are very near me). I wanted to put things that would be accessible to everyone no matter where they are in the post, but I can't recommend enough how fun exploring new stores is!

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