From Italian truffle butter to Vietnamese saffron, foodies have turned the act of tasting the world’s best food into a competitive sport. Meanwhile, back in your own pantry, you’re lucky to find so much as a can of beans. But even if your own budget won’t support such refined ingredients, you too can be a frugal foodie.
Here are some simple items that can turn your everyday grocery list into something resembling a 4 star menu-for fewer than 4 bucks:
1. Off-Brand Orange Marmalade $2-3
Why spend the money on high-end (read: expensive) orange marmalade if you’re just using it as a glaze for meat or adding it into a dessert? To get the flavor benefit without the added cost, try adding orange marmalade to an oozing round of soft cheese that has been warmed in the oven, and then top it off with candied walnuts or toasted pine nuts. Serve with crackers. Also, mix with an equal part of mustard and rub on salmon, pork or chicken.
2. Fresh Dill $2-2.50
Some people think that being able to draw from a collection of herbs and spices is the secret to great cooking. That may be, but quality not quantity is the key to sealing your foodie cred. Those herbs that are browning away on your spice rack aren’t doing anything for a dish’s flavor profile. The trick to making effective use of any herbs is freshness and dill can add a delicious subtle touch to all sorts of dishes. Try mixing it with plain cream cheese and spread on crackers or bagel chips, topped with smoked salmon, diced tomatoes and red onions.
3. Asian Chili Paste $3.59
There’s nothing quite like the fiery high note of chili paste to give a dish depth and make it more interesting. Look for it in the market with the name Sambal Oelek. Sambal Oelek is unique as a flavoring ingredient because it is typically made up only of chilies with no other additives. Add lime and sugar and you’ve got sweet Indonesian dipping sauce. Add to mayo for an Asian aioli which makes a fab spread on toasted bread with any sandwich filling. Or serve alongside Gyoza (Japanese noodle dumplings).
4. Whole Grain Mustard $4.50
Move beyond the French’s and explore some more exotic mustard varieties. While there are a variety of mustards, from sweet honey to Chinese to Dijon available to you, Maille has a flavor and texture that adds interest to everything from sausage to deli sandwiches to salad dressings and sauces. And you only need a little. Make your own salad dressing: A dab of mustard, some red wine vinegar, olive oil, and a bit of honey can dress up even the most garden variety salad. Add herbs for variation.
5. Fresh Ginger Root $1.50
Ginger always seems to get overlooked in favor of its admittedly amazing cousin, garlic. But that’s a shame. Ginger has depth, round edges and an almost citric bite that, as Asian cooks have long known, goes great with fresh and cheap ingredients. Make a ginger dressing by combining ginger with sesame oil and rice vinegar and either mix by hand or in a blender. Add your dressing to a coleslaw mix to make an Asian slaw. Or serve it alongside Ahi Tuna Tartar for the kind of appetizer found in many high-end restaurants, no cooking required.
6. Risotto $4
It sounds fancy but Risotto takes less than 20 minutes to make and can be a great way to use up leftover vegetables, cheese or even seafood or sausage. Just add about 1/4 cup of whatever topping you like to each serving right before putting it on the plate. Classic combos include mushrooms and Parmesan, sausage and tomato or shrimp and peas.
7. Greek Yogurt $2
There’s no reason to use plain yogurt when you can get the rich, unsweetened Greek variety instead. Use in dips, cream sauces, roll-ups, and desserts. Combine with mint, garlic and lemon to taste and serve alongside hummus, pita and chopped veggies. You might not think so but Greek Yogurt is also perfect for cooking Indian style yogurt chicken.
8. Vinegar $1-1.50
Vinegar is cheap but it can transform ordinary root vegetables into taste sensations. Start with the cheapest carrots, beets and onions you can find and make pickles by briefly boiling them, then cooling in ice. Add vinegar and sugar and you’re done.
9. Eggs $2-4
Okay so even if you aren’t much of a gourmet, you’ve probably got eggs on hand and if not you definitely should. This staple is both versatile and still relatively inexpensive even if you go for the free-range or organic variety. But don’t be confined to serving them sunny side up or scrambled. Go gourmet by poaching them for an Eggs Benedict or Salad Lyonnaise (eggs on a frisee salad with bacon). Eggs can be added to casseroles, used as the binding agent in veggie burgers or make their way into a frittata for a festive Sunday brunch. For a quick frittata, beat 4 or 5 eggs, and then scramble slightly with spinach and mushrooms. Bake in the pan in the oven until solid.
Once you’ve got these ingredients stocked in your pantry, look to sites like GourmetSleuth.com, EzEating.net, or SimplyRecipes for more great ideas on what to do with them.