Food is taking on new meaning in our home lately. We've always been foodies, to some extent. One of John's first overtures of love was preparing a meal for me in his dorm kitchen. I can still remember being completely and utterly surprised that a young, quiet boy from Louisiana could cook a delicious meal of stuffed chicken breasts so deftly, with just a pan or two pawned off of his dorm mates. The spearmint tea will live in infamy, however. John was new to the herbal tea department and thus unversed in which ones were better served iced, or, not at all.
As we dated, we continued to explore cooking together. After I graduated from college and got my first apartment, I decided to join a cookbook of the month club. My attempt, I suppose, at achieving cooking independence and of severing my slavery to Hamburger Helper and other such menacing cuisine. That same year, John surprised me on my birthday by cooking a multiple course French meal.
We found it exciting and genuinely satisfying to cook for our friends. John began to become more proficient with the heart of the meal and I began to really embrace my love of baking. Together, we could create quite a delicious repast. We sometimes even stole moments to dream about one day running a Bed and Breakfast, where we could actually have people spend the night at our house, wake up and cook for them, and get paid for it! That seemed, at the time, like the ultimate occupation. I would be lying if I didn't tell you that we still entertain the idea from time to time.
And now, here we are, in the dead of winter. We have dreams and plans for an amazing garden, but the reality of our situation is that we still must buy all of our food. And everyone knows how expensive food has become. I wrote about my struggles with this dilemma in a previous post. And, as I have alluded to in other posts, we are having to live very frugally these days (who isn't?). Now, I'm not sure what most people's monthly budget for food is but we have made it a goal to reduce our grocery bill to $400 a month. I am proud to say that we just about hit it this month. The main reason that we didn't completely nail it was because we had a couple of items that we had to purchase that are costly, namely, olive oil and some spices. We are still in the process of stocking our pantry for the long haul and not having lived on our own for many years meant that we had to start practically at the beginning. Once those basic items are there, we will be in good shape.
The whole point of this post is to share with you something amazing that I have discovered as I've faced this challenge. The answer to our money crunching has been...cooking from scratch. That slow food that all the gourmands talk about is good for more than just your taste buds. It has had a huge effect on our bottom line. I've always known that the less processed foods you purchase, the lower your food bill. That makes sense. What has surprised me has been that, when one makes every part of their meal themselves, you can end up eating more for less. And, this is true even as we have stayed committed to purchasing organic whenever possible. We haven't made the organic designation a deal breaker, yet, but we have stayed true to it with dairy and as much fruit and vegetables as possible. Not only that, my cooking has greatly improved. By challenging myself to come up with creative meals and to not repeat myself within a two week period, I have started to really come into my own as a cook.
I've always felt a bit inferior to John in this regard. He has always been the more intuitive cook. The one who could look at five ingredients and whip up something amazing. The Food Network show, Iron Chef, is serious television for John and the concept of the program is exactly the same way John approaches cooking. I, on the other hand, have been a slave to recipes for as long as I've been in the kitchen. When it comes to baking, this is a good thing. Baking is all about chemistry and science blended together with love and devotion. It's prescribed affection. Recipes are your friend in that arena. The problem with my approach is that a meal without a plan is well... let's just say, you get what you get. But now that I am in full meal planning mode, I have begun to break new ground and I'm learning a lot about food in the process. I am beginning to make better connections between meats and sauces and methods and madness and it has been turning out, if I do say so myself, swimmingly. Plus, when you are really pushing yourself to save as much money as you can, it starts to become your mission to figure out how to best use what you have.
I'm seeing, too, how this practice will better prepare me for the time when we do, hopefully, have an abundance of food from our garden and I will have to figure out how to creatively cook zucchini and tomatoes, five days a week. One thing that has been a bit startling about this approach, however, and something that I was not prepared for, is how very empty our refrigerator looks before I head to the grocery store each week. I suppose that is a testimony to how we are really trying to buy only what we need, to faithfully eat all leftovers and to keep things as fresh as possible. But, WOW, it can look painfully lean on a Sunday afternoon.