How to Cook Like a Gourmet—When You’re Broke

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Gabi Moskowitz is a food blogger known as the BrokeAss Gourmet. She’s the latest frugal gastronomist to discuss with The Cheapskate Blog strategies for cooking and eating well without breaking the bank.

Once again, I’ll repeat: Eating on a budget is not a contest; it’s a conversation. I’ve asked several other bloggers who write about their low-cost food adventures to answer questions similar to those posed to the 50 Bucks a Week trio, which started the entire conversation. The responses will be posted here to keep the conversation going.

Up today is Gabi Moskowitz, a.k.a., the BrokeAss Gourmet, who will clue you in as to the brilliance of half-and-half, and why you should hit the farmers market right before it closes, among other things.

Cheapskate: How and why did you start writing about eating on a tight budget? Did it spring out of necessity, as a lark, or what?

Gabi Moskowitz: I have always had this weird ability to make tasty dishes out of a nearly empty fridge, which has served me well (pun intended) as a student and now a nonprofit employee/writer, on an extremely tight budget. I had been blogging for awhile in a personal/food blog, Out of the Pantry, and this theme often slipped into my recipes and anecdotes.When my friend Adam Metz approached me with the idea of combining forces and producing a budget-cooking blog, it seemed like the perfect way to bring my favorite money-saving tips, tricks and techniques to a bigger audience.

CS: What are your ground rules? How exactly do you define what’s in your budget and what meets your standards and restrictions? Give us the fine print, including how you deal with beverages and dining out (that is, if you ever dine out).

GM: Despite my desire to save money, I am a Sonoma County native and San Francisco resident. These places have totally informed my tastes in food and my desire for high-quality, local, fresh ingredients. Basically, what BrokeAss Gourmet is about is the refusal to give these things up in order to save money.

My weekly food budget isn’t set in stone, but it generally looks like about $45-50/week. I typically spend about $15-20 at Trader Joe’s for things like eggs, milk, bread, or the occasional piece of meat or fish and $15-20 at my local farmer’s market (which I hit up in the final hour, as vendors become eager to get rid of their goods and will often agree to bargained-down prices). That leaves $15-20 for the occasional inexpensive taqueria trip, bottle of wine, or special ingredient. The trick is to avoid prepared foods. With just a little time and effort, you really can make just about anything you see in the TJ’s or Whole Foods prepared foods case–for a lot less money.

I also try to buy my groceries with cash. I find that to actually part with the money in my hand imparts a much greater effect than to just scan my credit card and be done with it. The farmers market necessitates this, because they only take cash. It’s kind of like a weekly game–I take out $20 and scan the booths until I find the best prices for exactly what I am looking for.

You would think this would take tons of time, but after awhile you get to know the people working the kiosks, and you become familiar with their produce, and it feels like the friendliest, freshest grocery store around … with live music and free samples.

As for going out to eat/drink, I try to keep it down to 1-2 times per week, though that can be tough sometimes. I try to order dishes that are heavier on vegetables than meat (healthy and generally less expensive), but I also know that my good cooking/shopping habits allow me to splurge every now and then. Plus, every time I eat something special in a restaurant, I’ll write down the predominant flavors and attempt to recreate it at home—usually for a lot less money.

CS: What are some of your favorite cheap ingredients or spices — you know, the little something that doesn’t cost much but adds a lot to a meal?

GM: Condiments are key. I love Sriracha, Tapatio hot sauce, rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and good extra virgin olive oil. Also, sea/Kosher salt and good, freshly ground pepper can mean the difference between a mediocre meal and a quality, expensive-tasting one. I also try to always keep my pantry stocked, because I know that with just a few fresh ingredients and a well-stocked pantry, I can easily throw together something tasty.

Also, it might sound funny, but the number one ingredient that saves the day when I’m not sure what to make is half-and-half. It’s a great way to richen a dish without adding as much fat as cream–but it’s more special than adding milk or water. Boring old tomato sauce? Add a few tablespoons of half-and-half and a little vodka and you have homemade vodka sauce. Risotto not quite creamy enough? A little drizzle of half-and-half is all you need to make your risotto restaurant quality. Plus, it doubles as a creamer for coffee, so it makes sense to always have it around. Oh, and it’s $0.99 for a pint at Trader Joe’s, even in pricey San Francisco.

CS: What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started cooking and eating on a supertight budget? What are you dying to splurge on and eat right now?

GM: I really, really love fresh cracked crab. My mom always makes fresh cracked crab, sourdough bread, and salad on special occasions, and to me, it’s one of the most perfect foods. Sadly, it’s really pricey and therefore not in my budget. One of my favorite things to do though, is to take my favorite flavors and find less-expensive ways to enjoy them, like in Summer Crab Risotto.

CS: When you tell people about your food budget, what sort of reactions do you get?

GM: I know plenty of people who think it’s silly that I monitor my food budget so carefully, but generally I think they’re impressed enough with my cooking that they keep their mouths shut! It can be tough to socialize on a budget, but I usually make it work. I have friends over for dinner all the time, which is a great, inexpensive to socialize while saving money. The truth is that in this economy, most of us are in the same boat and the combination of minimal cost and hearty, healthy, comforting food pretty much always wins.

CS: In the big, grand, save-the-world sense, what have you learned about yourself, and about how people in general consume food and function as consumers, while you’ve been blogging about eating on the cheap?

GM: Above all, if you want to get people excited about something, presentation is key. I have this weird schedule where I leave work before the sun sets so that I can cook and shoot my food on my back porch, just as the sun sets at the right time behind the trees in my yard–because that is when the light is best and therefore produces the prettiest picture. Nobody is going to get excited about a $12 gourmet meal for 2 people if the food looks gross–which it totally does if I shoot it at 10:30 PM in my fluorescent-lit kitchen.

I’ve also learned the value of really simplifying instructions. I’ve been cooking since I was 5, but there are plenty of people my age or older who are just now starting and who feel intimidated by complicated recipes. I find that when I post a beautiful, inexpensive, easy-to-make recipe with easily-procured ingredients I get the best response from readers.