Cooking gourmet can mean as many different things as there are ingredients in the grocery store. So, before you actually begin cooking gourmet meals on your budget, you have to define what it means to you. Take a look at the following general definitions of what gourmet dining means to different people:
Appearance – If you define gourmet as the way a dish appears, you can learn a few techniques for creating new and exciting presentations of your meals without spending a lot of money. This is called plating and even top chefs have different opinions of how their dishes should be presented.
New – If your definition of gourmet means trying something new, there are hundreds of different foods that you can give a try without worrying about your budget.
Exotic – If gourmet food in your definition relates to exotic tastes, you’ll need to find creative ways to find these exciting new flavors without breaking the grocery budget. Spices are very affordable options if ingredients are sparse during a season.
Now let’s look at a few helpful tips to find ways to introduce gourmet ingredients and style to your meals, while keeping that budget in mind:
Be Open to New Main Ingredients
Cooking gourmet on a budget isn’t always about adding exotic spices or ingredients. Sometimes by choosing a cut of meat that’s different from your usual choice, you can create a dish that’s fresh and brand new to you – what you would call gourmet. Whether you’re cooking beef, lamb, chicken, pork, seafood, or vegetarian, there are always new items to try.
Remember, oftentimes what we now consider routine was once considered gourmet or unusual fare. Just think about tilapia, for instance. This run-of-the-mill fish wasn’t always that way. When first introduced, it was quite exotic to many people outside of the fishing world. So, look for main ingredients that you haven’t heard of before. The advantage is often translated into savings on your budget simply because of supply-and-demand. When a food is first introduced to a market it isn’t very popular, which means the price will often be more reasonable. It’s only after a certain product gains popularity that markets feel comfortable raising their prices. Less popular items can be found around the edges of the meat, fish, poultry, and produce counter, so that’s where you may find something new to try.
Mix Up Your Flavors
Along with new main ingredients, you will also bump up the gourmet value of a meal without spending a lot of money by trying new combinations of spices and seasonings. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on spices, just use the ones you have in new ways. Instead of always adding basil and oregano to spaghetti sauce, why not sprinkle in a bit of fennel seed? When you make your family’s favorite chili, imagine what a little espresso stirred in during the last half hour of cooking would do. Intrigued? Don’t forget chili powder in your chocolate frosting and nutmeg in your eggs.
Spices and seasonings are not the only ingredients that could use a shake-up when it comes to gourmet cooking on a budget. Have you added pureed pumpkin to your black bean soup yet? It adds a smooth creaminess that is decidedly gourmet, especially when sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. How about crushed pineapple to your pasta and shrimp primavera? Just look through your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and see what would happen if you decided to throw out all the rules. I bet you would come up with great new meals that are gourmet-style on a tight budget.
The whole factor of good, gourmet taste relies on quality. There are items you can skimp on and items where you need to spend a bit more to get the good stuff. It’s hard to know the difference until you actually use both, but one example that comes to mind is balsamic vinaigrette. There is a price range where you reach a good quality, and anything below that doesn’t measure up. The reason is the aging. You want a good, thick, rich vinaigrette for your salads or marinades, otherwise you may as well be using vinegar.
With this in mind, there are choices to be made that will help you cook gourmet and stay within your budget. Yes, spend the money on good quality when it counts, then save money on items that are the same across the price spectrum. For example, after you spend money on a good vinaigrette for your salad, don’t spend money on expensively priced croutons. You’ll find a variety of prices, but all croutons are pretty much created alike. Or, just make them at home for the cheapest, and best tasting, option.
Utilizing your local farmer’s market is a great way to go gourmet without spending a lot of money. Reducing the middleman keeps the price low and you might just get to try their new crops. Think about investing in a crop share at a local farm or look into small starter farms.
You are likely to find unusual items, too, because most local farms produce a wide variety of produce simply because they can. They don’t have to worry about satisfying a vast market; just the locals. The local farms are typically very accommodating and love to talk about their crops, and will find new varieties for you to try. They are also interested in finding new ways to cook and serve their crops so more people will buy them. If you see something unusual at your local farmer’s market, talk to the farmer about it, cook it up, and report back. In that way, you’ll get lots of new information for new foods to add to your gourmet-style of dining.
Shop Ethnic Stores
If your definition of gourmet cooking is to try exotic foods, then try shopping at ethnic grocers. Usually their food is cheaper than similar food in the big chain store, and you have a better chance of finding what you were looking for. If you need to find that special fruit used in that Indian dish, then your best bet is shopping at an Indian grocery store. It is surprising how many different ingredients you can find in a real Italian, French, or Asian food store than you can find in the ‘ethnic aisle’ of your grocery store.
When you get into an authentic ethnic store, you may feel confused. The packaging may not be clear to you and the items may be completely unknown. That’s great! That’s exactly what gourmet cooking on a budget is all about. Ask for help. Tell the proprietor that you are new and want to try something that isn’t expensive, but has flavors that are different and exciting. It may help to bring in recipes or pictures of dishes you find appealing, then go from there. Shop for one dish at a time to keep your head from exploding! There’s a lot of information to absorb, but just give it time. A few more visits to your local ethnic food store and you’ll be cooking like a pro.
Everything is Exotic to Somebody
If your definition of gourmet cooking on a budget is to perk up your basic dishes with exotic ingredients, do you automatically think of far off places with names you can’t pronounce? You don’t have to travel the globe for something unusual. Oftentimes, our own region offers ingredients that would be considered exotic to others. There may even be foods in your area that you have yet to discover. Your very own region and culture could be hiding quite a few foods that are exotic.
Keep an open mind and try to expand your palate with local cuisine. Explore the heritage of your region to discover the rich abundance of native cuisine. Look at the indigenous ingredients first, then the ways the natives prepared the dishes using what they had. These dishes are often the basis for an entire cuisine. Just consider what we know now of Cajun cooking. This is an example of regional ingredients cooked in the way their ancestors did using what was available to them. It’s time to explore your own backyard. You’ll find when you cook your own region’s gourmet cuisine, the ingredients are fresher and cheaper, and easier to find, of course.
If you want to cook gourmet on a budget, it really just takes a few simple choices. Figure out how you define gourmet cooking, then start exploring all the options. When you put these tips to work, you’ll be surprised how inexpensive cooking gourmet can actually be.
Photo credit: cherrylet
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