If your budget is stretched so thin you can practically read this article through it, take heart. As you strain to work that food budget, herbs prove that they truly are the useful plants. Put flexibility back into your food allowance by bumping up the quality and flavor of meals as you shrink their weekly cost. Read on to see just how easy and delicious it is to reel in runaway food bills by learning from the professionals.
Inspiration for this article comes from one of the fastest-growing trends in dining: the neighborhood bistro, where herbs are the true heroes. Chef Laurent Tourondel (owner of BLT bistros in Washington, D.C., New York and Puerto Rico, and Bon Appetit’s 2007 Restaurateur of the Year) defines the bistro as an “informal, comfortable restaurant where the portions are generous, straightforward and full of flavor.” In most true bistros, the menu is modest and the food traditional but with the chef’s very personal stamp. For example, adding just a tablespoon of our Mediterranean Herb Paste to a simple baked macaroni takes that dish from ordinary to bistro-style.
• Citrus Almond-Basil Cake
• Roasted Squash Soup
• Ginger Marinated Flank Steak
• Pasta with Seasonal Vegetables
• Eggs Baked with Spinach, Parsley and Ham
• Fennel, Celery and Apple Salad
• Blue Cheese Dressing
• Cannellini Bean Salad with Savory Vinaigrette
• Savory Vinaigrette
• Roasted Meditteranean Herb Chicken
• Meditteranean Herb Paste
• Rosemary Custard and Wine-Poached Pears
• Lemon Rice
• Mediterranean Herb-Baked Macaroni
• Pureed Squash
• Tart Tatin
• Cucumber Yogurt and Mint Salad
• Lemon Rice Pudding
• Fresh Figs with Ricotta Apricots
Strategy #1: Seasonal Fare. Bistros are famous for their use of seasonal foods, but their home-style comfort foods change only subtly as the seasons bring new produce to the markets and from the garden. Having a core set of favorite recipes that can be adapted to seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs makes dollar sense at home as well. For example, our late-summer version of Pasta with Seasonal Vegetables with eggplant, bell peppers and tomatoes is a reasonable summer dish, but expensive in any other season. With the substitution of dried thyme and sage, it easily morphs into a winter version featuring white fish, rutabaga, and carrot and parsnip matchsticks. The pasta and the Mediterranean herbs never change, but the budget doesn’t spike.
Strategy #2: Vegetarian Entreés. A key feature of the bistro menu is that it always includes one or two meatless dishes, divinely accented with fresh herbs and custom-blended spices. Legumes, lentils, peas and beans are a welcome, healthy change to both wallet and menu. Robust herbs, like thyme, sage, tarragon, savory and oregano, complement high-protein vegetarian dishes that rely on inexpensive beans and root vegetables.
Strategy #3: Grow Your Own. Because most bistros are chef-owned and family-operated, their approach to the establishment’s food budget is similar to our own. For years now, many of these innovative chefs have been cultivating a kitchen garden with fresh greens, herbs and some vegetables. Naturally, many of them preserve not only fruits and vegetables, but herbs as well. By making their own herb vinegars, drying whole sprigs or freezing chopped herbs in purees; rubs; butters; pastes; and pestos, they ensure flavorful winter menu items.
Strategy #4: Make Meat Count. Every chef on a shoestring has a few tips for “extending” meat on their menus. Less-expensive cuts respond to moist heat, which breaks down the tough connective tissue, rendering them fork-tender and flavor-filled. When teamed with woody, hearty herbs, like sage, thyme, oregano and rosemary, beef or lamb shanks and shoulders are transformed into rich, hearty one-pot wonders. Our Ginger Marinated Flank Steak is a perfect example of how to prep, cook and slice these dollar-saving meats. When bistro chefs do use expensive cuts of meat, they include them in recipes that make the most of their value by using smaller amounts in tandem with less-expensive ingredients. Try family favorites like Eggs Baked with Spinach, Parsley and Ham.
Strategy #5: Waste Not, Want Not. And finally, the most efficient bistros make use of every bit of food they grow or purchase. Herb stems, vegetable trimmings and peels are saved, sometimes frozen and tossed into the stockpot. If we were to follow a whole chicken through the bistro kitchen, we might see it stuffed with a handful of fresh sage, thyme and tarragon; roasted; carved; and served with a chervil or parsley pesto or tarragon sauce and seasonal vegetables. The remaining meat might be used to replace expensive tuna in a niçoise salad, and the roasted bones inevitably slow-simmered into a chicken broth. Nothing is wasted.
5-Dinner Meal Map
The first step toward eating well while spending less is planning. A meal map not only gives you a sense of being at the helm, it helps you control spending by giving you shopping parameters. There is less chance you will opt for an expensive (and often calorie-laden) convenience meal if you have a simple recipe and list of ingredients for a healthier version in hand. In addition, it ensures you use all of those fresh sage leaves during the week and it saves time by “cooking once, using twice” (as in the Roasted Squash Soup one day and Pureed Squash and Green Beans later in the week). A good plan builds in some leftovers, one of the smartest money- and time-saving tools there is.
The secret to working the plan is to select four or five menus but only shop for three days’ meals at a time. If you do that, the refrigerator is comfortably stocked but it isn’t a disaster should one day’s meal happen to be postponed in favor of an impromptu pizza night. The goal is flexibility.
To get you started using herbs to save on food bills, we have mapped out five dinner menus in true bistro style.
Pat Crocker cooks bistro-style food with her favorite herbs every week. Her latest book, The Vegan Cook’s Bible (Robert Rose, 2009), is now available.