Monday, February 2, 2009

February Frugal Action Item: Kitchen Competence

Time for another month's Frugal Action Item. This month, in honor of the chilly winter weather we're having in the northern hemisphere, I am challenging my readers to improve their kitchen skills. My goal with these Action Items is to provide concrete steps that both renters and homeowners can take to improve their household budgets. By the same token, this month's item highlights areas for skill expansion for all but the most serious professional cooks and homesteaders.

If you already know how to cook well, congratulations. Now skip down to the Alternative Action Items below. If you don't know how to cook well, you've most likely been using this as a ready-made excuse for eating out, or picking up ready-to-eat meals at the grocery store. Both of these practices are a serious drain on your food budget, and they also tend to steer eaters to less healthy food choices. Additionally, highly processed and over packaged foods contribute significantly to the production of greenhouse gasses, and thus global climate change.

So this month, I urge you to check out a few basic cookbooks from the library. The goal here is not to wow anybody with fancy meals or exotic ingredients. Instead, look for a few dishes that can provide a basic but healthy meal in a single item. Candidates include casseroles, twice-baked potatoes, soups, pasta dishes, fritattas, and so on. None of these dishes are difficult to prepare, and they can all be made to include green vegetables. Challenge yourself to prepare at least one such dish each week. Keep an eye out especially for dishes that use plenty of vegetables, or meat dishes that are readily supplemented by vegetables or starches. Don't be afraid to add extra vegetables to a dish with meat. These types of dishes will help you stretch your food budget farther.

If you are really new to cooking, I recommend that you begin with pasta dishes and soup. A good way to build skills is to start slow and plan to repeat dishes with some variation. For instance, this week you might begin with a pasta and tomato sauce dish. In the second week of February, make a broth-based soup. In the third week, you could prepare a pasta with an olive oil sauce. And in the final week of this month, prepare a chowder soup of some kind. So two types of pasta and two different soups in a month.

Recommended cookbooks for beginning cooks:
The New Best Recipe, by the Editors of Cook's Illustrated
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman
Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham

I can specifically recommend the following dishes from these cookbooks. They're all delicious and easy to prepare:

Chicken with Dumplings, from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
Cabbage Stuffed with Lentils and Rice, from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Twice-Baked Potatoes, from The New Best Recipe
Pulled Pork, from The Joy of Cooking

If you want to try a simple meal of roasted chicken, have a look at my walkthrough of this dish at the Simple Green Frugal Co-op.

My hope is that the joy of mucking about in your own kitchen will prove addictive enough that you become an instant convert. But I recognize that not everyone enjoys cooking as much as I do, and that learning to cook may be a daunting enterprise to some. So I will allow as how the monetary savings would likely also be a powerful motivator. Or, you might find inspiration in the knowledge that you are preparing wholesome food for yourself and your family, thus contributing to better health. Perhaps parents could also show children that developing new life skills can happen at any age. In the end, there are many reasons to improve our kitchen skills.

Alternative Action Items: Accomplished home cooks are hereby challenged to learn how to bake bread, and to bake at least one loaf each week of this month. It's a good time of year to bake; you'll be warming your house up at the same time. See below for some basic resources.

If you already know how to bake bread, then I would suggest learning some form of food preservation, such as canning, fermenting, homebrewing, cheese or yogurt making, or dehydrating. (Heather had a great post on easy-peasy jelly making just a few days ago.) I include this suggestion only for those who are already quite advanced in their food preparation skill set. Canning, fermenting, cheesemaking, brewing, and dehydrating will all required you to invest in some fairly specialized equipment, and that's not an investment I think everyone should make...yet. But if you have all the cooking and baking skills you really need, it's certainly something to think about. If you're at that point, you probably don't need any advice from me, which is just as well since I'm far from an expert in all of those subjects. We're still working on canning and homebrewing.

If you already bake and preserve food routinely, your challenge for the month is to pass on some of your impressive kitchen skills to a young person. Equipping the next generation with basic skills for their own self-sufficiency is a noble task and a generous gift of knowledge and self confidence.

Suggested resources for baking skills: - This site has fantastic tutorials on my favorite easy method of bread baking: no knead. Try this method! It's easier than you imagine and the bread is fantastic!

The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart - Highly detailed book on the fundamentals of bread baking, fabulous recipes too.

I want to hear your reports on this month's Frugal Action Item! Please leave a comment and share stories of your efforts. We're all in this together, so let's support each other.

Other Monthly Action Items:
January: CF Bulbs & Pipe Insulation
March: Rein in Entertainment Spending
April: Go Paper-less
May: Solar Dryer
June: Raise the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
July: Stay Cool Without Touching that Thermostat
August: Repair It!
September: Insulate
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden


Green Bean said...

I do know how to make bread already but haven't done it since before Thanksgiving. Thanks for the kick in the pants. I'm off to make some now.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! I also highly recommend a couple of cookbooks from the Moosewood line - "Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home" and "Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites." Both are mostly vegetarian and include recipes that you can make in 30 minutes or less (many are 15 to 20 min.). They call for some canned or frozen foods for convenience, and they recommend side dishes with every main dish. If you only choose ONE cookbook, I adore The Joy of Cooking. We use it all the time, and it is nearly foolproof. Read the introductory sections to learn more.

Anonymous said...

We're already experienced cooks and bakers; this year's goal is definitely to preserve more. We froze some garden produce and dehydrated just a bit last year and the results were so yummy and so useful we'll definitely do more. I used to can about a million years ago but stopped when I moved to suburbia and stopped growing or gleaning quite so much of my food. The time has come to consider it again.

Alison said...

I'm a decent cook and I can bake, but I lack the time to make bread regularly (unless my hubby caves to his consumer cravings and buys a breadmaker, which would handle the kneading and rising while I was @work, school, etc.)

I, too, used to can fairly frequently, but haven't done so much since the birth of my six year old son. He takes applesauce to school almost every day for lunch, and I have lately been thinking I should really make my own and can it instead of buying it. I will consider this my 'kick in the pants' to actually take this on! (I wonder if I can make it in the crock pot?)

Matt said...

For the longest time I've been wanting to learn to bake my own bread. I just needed a little motivation. I might just have found it. Thanks!

Kate said...

It's great to hear from so many kitchen-competent folks, and also those inspired to be more competent. You guys rock!

Alison and Matt, I'm going to urge you both to check out the no knead bread method. I really cannot praise it highly enough. You don't need a bread machine to make it, and the technique is so incredibly easy, with so little hands-on time, that a child could make it and turn out a superb loaf of bread. Try it! You'll like it!

The Country Experience said...

This past weekend I made my first loaves of bread so I'll continue on that and improve by checking out your no-knead method. Whoohoo! Here's an item I'm not behind on yet. :)

Anonymous said...

I have become addicted to baking my own bread. It just can't compare to buying pre-made, plus it's a great feeling of accomplishment on that night after a few hours of breadmaking. I'd love to hear of others' fav recipes. The latest fav for me are wholemeal rolls with yogurt mixed in.

Food preservation - I'd really like to take up the challenge throughout the year with more canning endeavors. The freezing/dehydrating methods from the summer should get me through the winter, but I am longing for more fruit, variety, and the added space for veg that comes with canning.

Kate said...

TCE, Go you! Enjoy every bite of your bread!

LIALZ, I agree on homemade bread's vast superiority to store-bought. I'm going to try to do more and more varied canning this year.

Stacia said...

Love reading your blog and have mentioned some of your posts in mine...Great ideas and looking forward to reading more!

Kate said...

Thanks, Stacia, for letting me know you enjoy the blog. I'm flattered.

Anonymous said...

I'm an avid cook and I find cooking a wonderful creative outlet. Unfortunately I'm overweight. I'm in the process of trying to simplify my diet & reduce my meat consumption. So I've decided to increase my creativity by making more basics - low sugar rootbeer, vinegar and yogurt. This week I'm going to start on yogurt. I make it occasionally with varied results. Hopefully I'll soon be a vy competent yogurt maker & can begin on homemade vinegar.