small change toward a rich life

Eating cheaply and well: learn to be an improv cook

I’ve waxed philosophical in recent articles, so I thought it was time to offer up something practical. Today I’m going to help you eat surprisingly well on just three to four dollars per day.

First, a few numbers to establish my grocery thrift credibility:

The USDA estimates monthly costs for food at different spending levels. Their December 2012 numbers for our family (adult male, adult female, teen female 25% time) at the cheapest level (the ‘Thrifty Plan’) came to $422, or about $6.30 per person per day. Full food aid benefits for two persons is $367 per month, or about $6.10 each per day.

Those figures apply only to unprepared human food ingredients. Our ‘grocery’ budget, on the other hand, would more accurately be called a ‘necessary consumables’ budget, as it includes everything that gets used up regularly, from lightbulbs to pet food to toilet paper. Nearly all of those things are purchased at the same stores at the same time as our food, so it doesn’t make sense for me to keep track of human food separately. (One of the secrets to successful budgeting: avoid unnecessary complexity!)

steamed king crab legsSo I can’t compare numbers directly. But in December 2012, I spent just $251 on ‘groceries’: food plus all those other things. My average across the last four months is $288. We eat nutritiously and happily for something under $4 per person per day. In fact, most days it’s much less, as that amount covers the occasional splurge — for example, the pound and a half of king crab I served for Valentine’s Day. (That one meal cost about $10 apiece, so you can see it throws off the average.)

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Any time you make food at home, you’re almost certainly saving money over eating at a restaurant or getting takeout. But there’s a lot of variation in how people shop and cook, and corresponding differences in the amount of savings.

There are lots of good frugal strategies that you’ve probably heard of before — keeping a stocked pantry and freezer, shopping the sales, buying in bulk and so on. All of those things help. But if you really want to lower your grocery costs, I believe the single most important thing you can learn is how to improvise when cooking.

This one skill gives you the following benefits:

  • Nearly zero food waste, because you know how to incorporate perishable odds and ends into a new meal, saving them from the compost heap,
  • Exciting culinary diversity, because you can adapt almost any recipe or cuisine on the fly, and
  • Rock-bottom budget, because you can buy only what’s on sale and make a tasty meal from nearly any combination of ingredients.

No one taught me how to cook when I was growing up, so as a young adult living on my own for the first time, I approached everything methodically — even timidly — following recipes to the letter. It took me years and years of trial-and-error experimentation before I felt comfortable ‘winging it’.

Fortunately for those of you who’d like to learn improv cooking now, there are easier and faster ways. I’ve compiled a resource list that will help you get started or take your creativity to the next level.


How to Cook Without a Book
How to Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals

After looking far and wide, I feel confident saying that these are the two best books available for improv cooking beginners. Meatless Meals is more accessible, with plenty of full-color photos and clear layout, and I encourage you to give it a try even if you’re a meat-lover. The original How to Cook Without a Book could benefit from a similar redesign, but the content is broader and still very solid.

In both books Pam Anderson turns the idea of ‘recipe’ upside-down: the ingredient lists for the base recipes include things like ‘a pound of meat’, ‘a pound of vegetables’, and ‘herbs or spices of choice’; the ‘recipe’ part is more about technique than ingredients.

In How to Cook Without a Book, each base recipe is followed by suggestions for adaptation, and then by an assortment of traditional-looking recipes, all of which are variations on the original. HtCWaB: Meatless Meals breaks it down even further, giving you a ‘master formula’ from which to work.

Here, for example, is the master formula for Grain and Legume Salads:

4 cups Cooked Grains and/or Legumes (pick 1 or 2)
3 cups Raw and/or Cooked Vegetables (pick 1 or 2 cooked and 2 or 3 raw)
½ cup Extras (pick 1 or 2; optional)
¼ medium onion or 4 scallions, thinly sliced (about ½ cup)
¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil, mint, or a mix)
cup Dressing (pick 1) or ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and 2 tablespoons vinegar

Then you have a widely varied list of options for each category — in the above recipe, it’s Grains, Legumes, Raw Vegetables, Cooked Vegetables, Optional Extras, and Dressings. Each possible ingredient includes its own prep instructions. Finally, she follows up with a small assortment of her favorite combinations, for inspiration or help with flavor pairings.

Anderson’s books are geared toward flavorful, varied food that is relatively quick and easy. She’s very sensitive to the ‘weeknight dinner problem’ for cooks with day jobs, and while she does draw from different cuisines, there’s a kind of ‘American’ feel to the whole thing, in that ingredients tend to be basic to the average American kitchen/grocery store. She also explains techniques carefully so that even the newest of cooks won’t feel intimidated.

The Improvisational Cook

By contrast, Sally Schneider’s books take a more gourmet approach. Pulling a couple of recipes at random, I see ‘Lentils with Caramelized Radicchio and Pancetta Cracklings’, and ‘Leek “Noodles” with Creme Fraiche and Hazelnut Oil’.

Sally presents a single precise recipe, follows with a section titled ‘Understanding’ that gives some context and guidance, and ends with several ‘Improvisations’, some of which may veer widely from the original — so that ‘Chicken with Root Vegetables in Fragrant Lemongrass Broth’ becomes, in turn, ‘Rabbit Rillettes’ (!) and ‘Guinea Hen with Bacon and Madeira’.

This is not a book that is going to help you figure out what to do in forty-five minutes with the leftover chicken, half a cabbage and three carrots in your fridge. Her comments are conversational, sometimes even rambling — better for reading in your spare time than when you are looking for a particular solution. Where Anderson breaks down the process of improv cooking into clear steps, Schneider is more about teaching by numerous examples, leaving the task of synthesis to the reader. But it is full of fascinating techniques and ideas for the aspiring gourmet cook.

Web Pages

Five Steps to Perfect Pasta Salad

Italian Salami Pasta Salad with Lemon Parmesan VinaigretteThis was my introduction to Pam Anderson’s ‘pick one from column A, two from column B’ method — I stumbled across this page a couple of years ago and have used this formula many times with success.

Great Granola

This is one of my next projects. Jak loves granola, but premade is too expensive.

Basic Soup Improvisation

I listen to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Splendid Table nearly every week, and I never stop being amazed at the breadth of her knowledge. Here she offers a soup formula with explanations about which techniques and combinations produce which effects — the sort of gems that it can take hundreds of experiments to discover on one’s own.

How to Improvise a Vegetable Pasta

Lynne gives an example of ‘how do I use up these vegetables’ improv cooking.

Impromptu Savory Bread Puddings

Jak adores sweet bread puddings, so when I heard Lynne mention this one on a show I had to chase down the web page. Haven’t tried it yet, but I will! Good for using up stale bread and bits of vegetables, cheeses, and leftover meats.

Composed Soups – A Guide to Improvising

Another guide to soups, this one from Sally Schneider, has the same gourmet touches as her books but in a format more like Pam Anderson’s.

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Are you an improv cook? Do you have any resources or tips to share? Leave a comment below!

(Photos by moonberry and jazzijava.)

6 responses

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  1. Kim says

    This was great! Thank you; you know so *much* and it’s lovely when you share.

  2. Steve A-B says

    Stir fry is a very fertile place for improv. You can combine
    almost any veggie, protein, and seasoning and come up with something edible. The key is not overcooking veggies. A basic teriyaki of soy sauce, ginger, lemon or fruit juice, and garlic is a great place to start improvising sauces. Oh, and rice is the definition of cheap.

  3. Klaas says

    I don’t read personal finance blogs looking for things to buy, but that’s what’s happening this time. When I look at our spending the big “should be lower” item is food, and it’s not from lots of impulse buying or extravagant tastes. It’s because too much of the prep is happening outside our house, where it’s more expensive (and generally not as healthy). So I’m going to see if the Meatless Meals book can help me make a change.

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