Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How to Make Cheap Food Taste Good

Sweet potato shreds and frozen kale: drown in curry powder, fry in butter with eggs, and enjoy the awesomeness.

For most of my life, I’ve eaten cheap food. Beans, pasta, rice, old bread, bulk-discount chicken breast, ground beef, sub-par vegetables, bruised fruit— all have been staple parts of my diet for as long as I can remember. Over the years, as I’ve refined my diet, I’ve learned a lot of tricks for helping make cheap food tasty as well as nourishing. For instance:

1. Stir-fries, smoothies, salads, soups, burritos, and other combination-heavy foods are your friend. Sure, a simple “American-style” dish of separate ingredients is nice, but if the green beans are freezer-burned and the potatoes were mushy even before you cooked them, they’re not going to stand alone very well on their own. You’ll do much better if they’re smothered in a sauce (see point #4) and mixed with a bunch of other elements, rather than the star of their own dish.

2. Learn to understand how food can be incorporated into a new dish. The most famous example is using stale bread to make French toast or bread pudding, but the concept applies to veggies as well. During the summer, my mom passes on damaged produce from a local stand to me and several other people, so I’m often rooting through boxes of mushy tomatoes, browning kale, or wilted carrots, all of which can be saved with proper treatment. The tomatoes, for instance, are not destined for a nice Caprese salad, but a heavily-seasoned pasta sauce. Instead of making a salad with the kale, I trim off the brown spots and freeze for smoothies, where you can’t taste it anyway. The carrots aren’t suitable for raw snacking, but I can use them to make broth or soup.

3. Invest in spices. Let’s face it: beans and rice are bland, and cheap veggies usually are too, so having a good stash of spices helps you stretch your dollars. I use ground chile, cumin, garlic, onion, paprika, and crushed red pepper (and salt and freshly-ground pepper) a lot. Spice blends like curry powder and chili powder are nice, too.

4. Learn how to make sauces. This is related to the previous point— if you have some discount veggies or a plain bowl of pasta, a sauce can make all the difference. (Right now I’m addicted to this Kung Pao sauce, which made even Zach willing to eat Brussels sprouts.) It’s also nice to have some pre-made sauces around, such as nice jarred pasta sauce, homemade vinaigrette, or Sriracha. 

5. Use aromatics and garnishes. A little garlic, onion, ginger, or crushed red pepper can go a long way in making food taste better, and garnishes such as olives, capers, and jarred roasted red peppers make anything taste classier.

6. Cook with fat. Fat is tasty. Fat keeps you full. Don’t be afraid of fat! Investing in real butter and olive oil will make your food taste a lot better. If you eat meat, you can save the lard/tallow and use it for frying or sautéing.

Do you have any tips to add to this? How do you make your cheap food taste delicious?



  1. We bake our bacon in the oven and save the grease for frying eggs. Free fat. Yay!

    1. Mm... bacon grease! That sounds amazing. It took me waaay too long to realize that I could save the fat when I cooked meat. :)