How to Cook Like the Frugal Foodie

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“Chicken broth is the frugal cook’s best friend.” That nugget of wisdom and others come up in a conversation with Lara Starr, a.k.a. the Frugal Foodie.

The cooking Q&As at the Cheapskate Blog have taught How to Eat on a Dollar a Day, How to Cook Like a Gourment—When You’re Broke, and How to Eat Well on $50 a Week.

Before jumping into the latest conversation, let me repeat once again: Eating on a budget is not a contest; it’s a conversation. I’ve asked several other bloggers and authors 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, a talk with Lara Starr, author of The Frugal Foodie blog and The Frugal Foodie Cookbook: Waste-Not Recipes for the Wise Cook.

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

Lara Starr: I wrote my first book, The Party Girl Cookbook 10 years ago when I was newly married and had lots of time and money for throwing parties, devising silly costumes and spending all day in the kitchen. A decade later, I’ve faced un- and under-employment, added a child to the mix and like so many of, have felt the effects of the recession. I’ve always been a proud cheapskate – I (almost) never pay full price for anything, love thrift shops and yard sales, and look for value every time I spent a dollar. The editor I worked with on The Party Girl Cookbook and I had stayed in touch, and when I was laid off she sort of pounced and said, “Now’s the time to write that 2nd book about frugal cooking.”

CS: Describe some of the techniques you use when you cook, and give us some tips on saving money and time at the grocery store or in the kitchen.

LS: The best way I know to save money at the grocery store is to plan a menu for the week and shop only once a week for what you need to make that menu. You’ll avoid wandering the aisles wondering what to buy, and avoid “just one thing” trips to the store mid-week that inevitably end up costing more than you intended.

In the kitchen, I use a lot of pasta, rice and potatoes to stretch pricey proteins, and chop and scatter ingredients like bacon, nuts and expensive cheeses on top of a dish so you get a good taste of them without having to use very much.

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?

LS: I use a lot of fresh basil in the summer. I wish I was a better gardener and could grow it myself, but a $4.00 plant from the grocery store lasts a long time and a few leaves can really brighten a dish. I also use a lot of fresh rosemary because I get it free on the site of the road. Sea salt is more expensive than table salt, but is a good value because it really adds a lot of depth and flavor to a dish. Chicken broth is the frugal cook’s best friend. You can make it yourself from kitchen scraps and it brings flavor to veggies, rice, pasta, etc.

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?

LS: I love fancy cheeses, olives, ice cream and really good olive oil. I don’t go without these things entirely, but they are a special treat.

CS: When you tell people about your food budget and how you cook, what sort of reactions did you get?

LS: I don’t really talk about my budget per se, but I can’t help myself when I’ve developed a really good, cheap recipe from telling everyone about it. I’ve been making a lot of homemade bread and pizza dough recently and have become semi-evangelical about telling people how cheat and easy it is.

CS: What have you learned about yourself, and about how people in general cook, consume food, and function as consumers, while you’ve been writing about cooking?

LS: That even my friends who are very good cooks, and very into food need tips and advice, which has been what’s been so fun about writing The Frugal Foodie book and blog. For me, it’s all about sharing the food, the stories, the ideas and the struggle to eat well on a budget.