Tough times call for tough meat.
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Cuts such as brisket can be easy on a family's budget, and that's a boon during tight economic times.
"Forget filet mignon," said Bryan Voltaggio, chef of Volt in Frederick, Md., and a 'Top Chef' finalist. "Short ribs, shoulder cuts can be much more luscious and much more hearty for your family, and make a really great presentation."
Last week I bought a $25 brisket that, with a couple of potatoes, an onion and some spices, was enough for five generous portions. Preparation was easy and the meal required little attention during its three hours in the oven -- a couple of particularly attractive traits for a home cook with a 4-month-old baby and only two hands.
Tougher cuts that cook for a long time may also put fretful parents at ease about food-borne illness.
"Some parents will feel that the meat is safer to eat for their kids, as typically they are braises which will be cooked over long periods of time, versus a lean, tender cut which you would want to cook at a lesser temperature," Voltaggio said.
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As families on a budget continue to feel financial stresses from the recession, here are some expert tips to help them eat healthy and delicious meals.
Buy in Bulk
Many parents are used to buying staples such as rice in bulk. But families with enough freezer space can also purchase proteins that way, Voltaggio said.
"Buying a side of cattle from a butcher, you buy it at a much cheaper per-pound rate," he said. "You can specify how you like it. It's a good way to stock up and buy at a comfortable price ahead of time. For a large family beef is a commodity."
City dwellers with slim refrigerators can split such a large purchase with another family. When my mother, Nancy Mantell, an economist, was feeding her growing young family, she and another mother bought a lamb to share every couple of months.
"We were young and didn't have that much money. It was cheaper to buy a whole lamb and have the butcher cut it for us rather than to buy it already cut at the grocery store," she said. "We didn't have a lot of freezer space, but we had enough for half a lamb."
Use Every Scrap
I roasted a chicken a few days ago, and plan to make a pot pie with the leftovers.
Using every bit of your proteins is a good way to keep down costs, said Alicia Horton, executive director of Thrive DC, a homeless services provider that feeds almost 200 people a day. Thrive DC's staff makes the most of the protein they have: "Not only stretching it, but also utilizing every scrap," Horton said. "We have two chefs on staff and they are magicians."
Acquiring enough protein for 200 people is always a challenge because it's the more expensive part of the meal, Horton said. Donors may give a ham, but they rarely donate 10 hams, she said. To make use of all the available protein, Thrive DC has a buffet each week.
"It's when we kind of clean house," Horton said. "Anything that was left over for the week, smaller portions that may not suffice for an entire meal, we just have a big buffet and everybody can have a bit of what's available."
Cook Like You're at Home
Pricey gadgets and exotic ingredients have a place, but it may not be your home.
Home cooks without loads of time and money may want to stick with straightforward family fare, said Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's former personal chef and co-owner of Chicago's Table Fifty-Two, where the first couple celebrated Valentine's Day.
"Don't try to reproduce food from a restaurant," Smith said. "Restaurants have a lot of special equipment, and it's just not cost effective for a home cook."
Glamorous ingredients can be a waste for a home chef. For instance, Voltaggio recommended that home chefs avoid truffles "unless you have a really reputable supplier and you know when truffles are in season. It's a lot of money to invest in something like that and it's definitely a luxury."
Smith noted that many high-end ingredients are not necessarily healthy choices. "Foie gras tastes good, but it's deadly fattening," Smith said. "A little bit is good, but a little bit goes a long way."
Buy Local Produce, Shop Around
Chefs recommend local produce for home cooks. "You can go to a great local market where they have great apples as opposed to trying to seek out something that is not as local," Smith said.
Voltaggio said home cooks should take advantage of community-supported agriculture arrangements in which consumers buy seasonal produce directly from local farmers. Typically, a family buys a "share" of a CSA to receive weekly packages of seasonal goods.
"Some people look at CSAs as a luxury, but there's really great value," Voltaggio said. "Some farmers will overfill the baskets just because they have an abundance of crops."
CSA consumers are essentially buying vegetable futures, Voltaggio said.
"Versus buying in the store, CSAs are typically cheaper," Voltaggio said. "It's a win for the farmer because you are guaranteeing his income, which will keep local agriculture alive. This is a good way to keep your money in your community."
However, there are risks, such as inclement weather. Farmers can't guarantee that consumers get exactly what they want every season. Also, CSA shares are limited, and you might be put on a wait-list.
Also, Smith said home cooks should comparison shop rather than trying to buy all of their food at one location.
"Everyone when they shop wants convenience. You can get everything at one market but you are going to pay more for it," Smith said. "The only way you can ensure high quality at a better price is to shop around and be aware."