Chef Dez: You can expand your home menu without breaking the budget

Household budgets are in the news now more than ever these days and everyone seems like they’re searching for ways to tighten their purse strings.

This is especially true at this time of the year when the Christmas credit card bills are rolling in.

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There are ways to expand your knowledge in the culinary world without affecting your personal/family grocery budget. Let’s face it, we all need to eat food to stay alive and adding some variety to our home meals is a way to make “eating in” more exciting.
How many times has the normal trip to the grocery supermarket resulted in bringing home the same old products that you always buy, for your never-changing home menu? This can easily be changed without any drastic effect on your monthly food budget. 
Here’s what I challenge you to do: every week, two weeks, or month, I want you to buy just one product you would never normally buy. This could be a produce item, a spice, an herb, or something down the imported food aisle. Take your blinders off, step outside your habitual boundaries, and be receptive to all the wonderful products we have available at our finger tips. No matter where you live, shopping today has a greater abundance of selection than ever before.

The other great resource we have access to, whether it’s at home, work or the local libraries, is the internet. This will allow you to answer questions about the certain product that you have purchased that you may know nothing about. What do I do with it? How do I prepare it? How is it normally served? How is it best stored?
You and your family are going to be eating food anyway, and chances are you will continue to do so the rest of your life. What harm will it be then to spend, for example, two or three dollars per month on one product you normally wouldn’t purchase? Continue to do this for a year, while researching and educating yourself on each product and you will have expanded your culinary knowledge by twelve items. This will add variety to your home menu forever and at the same time build your culinary knowledge.
Many cities/towns also have gourmet food stores. Make it a habit to talk to these people, tap into their expertise, and make your weekly/monthly one product purchase there instead of, or alternating with, your regular grocery store.
If you have even more room in your monthly budget, take a cooking class once per month instead of dining out. I know my restaurant friends will dislike me saying so, but the return on your investment in a cooking class is far greater than just a full stomach from one “dining out” visit. As the old saying goes “give a person a fish and you will feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for life.”
Dear Chef Dez:
I like onions and someone suggested trying shallots. What is the difference between onions and shallots and why are shallots are so much more expensive?
Harry N
Yorkton, SK

Dear Harry:
Shallots are a relative of the onion and basically are milder and sweeter than regular cooking onions, and thus tend not to overpower other flavours. They are so expensive mainly because of supply/demand. In my hometown onions are usually priced at about 60-75 cents per pound, while shallots are $3per pound. If there was a gradual increase in the demand of shallots, the cultivation of these root vegetables would be increased and the price would eventually start falling. I am not a gardener by any means, but from what I understand shallots can be successfully produced wherever onions are grown.
Chef Dez is a chef, writer and host. Visit him at www.chefdez.com

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