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Cook at Home and Save

It’s no secret we Americans love our restaurants. Most of us relish the opportunity to have a meal in a relaxing atmosphere with friends, trying new dishes that have been creatively prepared for us. The downside of the experience is the cost. The average person can’t afford to eat away from home on a regular basis. Think your food dollar doesn't go as far as it used to? You're right. In fact, for many people, rising food costs are creating a significant household hardship. It would be one thing if skyrocketing costs meant that we needed to forgo extravagant delicacies at the family dinner table. Unfortunately, staples like bread, milk, cereal, meat, poultry and eggs are hardest hit.

Nor can most of us have a personal chef to bring gourmet meals to our table at home. But by thinking creatively and shopping wisely, we can cook at home and save — and surprise our families with our culinary skills.

One key to making cooking at home rival dining out is to think about what you like when you go out, and find ways to create your own versions of those dishes. Cookbooks will help you do this, as will asking about ingredients when you like something you buy. Most servers are trained to tell you about the foods they bring you — don't be afraid to ask. But you'll also want to bring your own creativity to your cooking, of course. Restaurant chefs love to take a basic dish and give it their own flourish, and you’ll soon get the hang of this too.

There are a number of reasons for the crunch, including oil prices that cause the cost of food production and transportation to rise significantly. It's also a factor that corn prices have more than doubled and soybean prices nearly tripled recently, thanks in part to the boost in ethanol and biodiesel. Weather disasters have devastated some crops, and a weak U.S. dollar and high global demand for food all figure into the higher bottom line.

The outlook for food prices isn't promising, but that doesn't mean you need to sacrifice at the dinner table. While you may need to make some minor adjustments in your menu planning, shopping, and cooking habits, there's no need to forgo either flavor or health while tightening your food budget. In fact, by stocking up on some basic staples, seasonal produce, and spices, you can serve your family meals that are delicious, healthful and frugal.

Make local, seasonal produce a regular purchase

Not only economical and sustainable, local produce is usually the flavorful and healthy choice as well. Pick up on the growing trend in restaurants to support local growers in your home cooking. Chefs are partnering with local farmers so they can use fresh, locally grown ingredients in their offerings. You can too.

If you already have a garden, make good use of it and perhaps even consider increasing its size and yields, so you can create a variety of dishes with your own bounty. If you don’t garden yourself, you can make a regular trip to the farmer's market to pick up what's in season, to serve fresh. And perhaps you have a local food store that has its seasonal produce supplied by local growers where you can shop for the freshest and the most economical ingredients for your dishes.

Here are some recipes that will help you bring those fresh local ingredients to your table with style:

Artichoke Pizza Appetizers

When artichokes are in season, creative chefs love to use them in unexpected ways — here’s one you can make at home that’s similar to what you might find at a tapas restaurant.

Keep spices and seasonings on hand to combine with staples

Not only are basic, natural foods — like whole grains and beans — inexpensive, they're versatile. Take rice, for example: flavor with basil, garlic, and ginger, and serve as a bed for in-season veggies. Or cook leftover rice with black pepper, chives, carrots, peas, an egg, and soy sauce for quick and easy fried rice. Use it as the basis of a vegetable, meat, seafood, or poultry casserole, seasoned liberally with a favorite spice, like marjoram, or sparingly with a more pungent spice like cilantro or cayenne.

Make rice burgers by combining the cooked rice with shredded cheese, an egg, garlic and oregano. Toss small amounts in your cup of soup or stew, along with a pinch of cumin, or make a lively tarragon rice salad. And stir up some aromatic rice pudding, flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract.

Here’s a rice dish with an oregano and cinnamon fusion that’ll give your home cooked dinner the flavor you’d find at a gourmet restaurant:

Herbed Chicken On Vegetables and Rice

The personality of any dish is largely dependent on the herbs and spices used. This recipe calls for oregano, which gives the dish an Italian overtone. You could make it seem more Greek by adding a little cinnamon to the herbs already called for. Or you could change the herbs and spices completely and make it taste French by using tarragon, Spanish with saffron, Asian with ginger and curry, Mexican with cumin and chili powder, or Thai by using basil and lemon grass.

Herbed Chicken
1 2/3 cups fat-free chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted stock)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup raw brown rice
2 small zucchini, cut into matchstick strips (2 cups)
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, all visible fat removed
1 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
8 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced or 1 (28-ounce) can ready-cut tomatoes
Parsley sprig or fennel fern, for garnish (optional)

Sauce
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh fennel, including fern (6 ounces)
1 medium-size onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, halved
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon ground anise seed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 7x11-inch baking dish with nonstick vegetable spray. Combine the stock, salt, pepper, and the bay leaf in a medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the rice, reduce heat to low, and cook, covered, until the rice is tender and all the liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Spoon the rice into the prepared baking dish and spread it evenly over the bottom of the dish. Spread the zucchini pieces evenly over the rice. Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the chicken breasts and place them on top of the zucchini. Sprinkle the herbs over the chicken. Spread the tomatoes evenly over the chicken. Sprinkle the parsley over the top. Cover tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and bake in the preheated oven until the chicken is completely opaque, about 20 minutes. Do not overcook or the chicken will become tough.

While the chicken is cooking, make the sauce. Combine all the ingredients, except the olive oil, in a blender or food processor and purée. Pour the puréed mixture into a medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat and pour it through a strainer, pressing it with the back of a spoon to extract all the liquid. Pour back into the saucepan. Whisk in the olive oil, pour over chicken and serve.

Experiment with other grains (like millet, quinoa, and barley), and take a similar approach with beans. Make a big batch of a favorite bean and use it to make casseroles, soups and stews, stir-fries, veggie burgers and loaves. Toss on salads and blend to make dips and spreads — all liberally seasoned with spices for maximum flavor.

More recipes to try

Enhance standard dishes for fare that's both easy and distinctive

All great chefs started with the basics and built from there. Give your own standard dishes a culinary twist. The easiest way to start is to learn to use your spice rack. Become a "seasoned chef" by learning which spices go best with which foods — from produce to grains and beans, from sandwiches to side salads and from soups and casseroles to hot breakfast cereals and desserts.

A simple stir fry, for example, is easily transformed into a special dish with a variety of spices. Serve it seasoned with Thai seasonings like coriander and cloves, for example, or with a Mexican mix of chili powder and garlic, oregano and cumin. Or use Indian seasonings, like garam masala, and you've transformed the dish once again.

Even ordinary omelets and whole-grain pasta dishes (both healthful and inexpensive choices) can easily be enlivened with an array of spices. And don't forget leftovers! Re-seasoned and served when you’re short on time, leftovers can provide yet another meal at home without the need to go out.

Here are a few recipes take ordinary dishes a little further.

Polish your cooking skills

Once you've mastered the basics, consider expanding your repertoire. Dive into a new ethnic cuisine — like Mediterranean or Cajun. Or develop your own special recipes. Cooking can be a wonderfully creative outlet, and you’ll save substantial amounts of money on your food budget when it replaces restaurant meals.

Keep It healthy

If helping your budget isn’t incentive enough for you to cook at home more often than you eat at restaurants, perhaps thinking about consuming less calories will be.

Recently, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group, announced its annual "Xtreme Eating Awards," a list to draw attention to the huge portions currently being served as the norm at many restaurants. It points out nother way eating at home can be a more healthful alternative to dining out.

And as our overall nutritional consciousness increases — and our respect for healthy eating, you may find even the younger members of your family appreciating how good your cooking is for them as well as how good it tastes.

Cooking at home gives you control over cost, ingredient quality, seasonings, portions, meal ambiance — every factor of enjoyable dining. And you don’t even need a reservation. Enjoy!

Buy in bulk

You know the benefit of comparing unit costs while shopping. We can’t stress enough that purchasing food in bulk quantities also gives you the best unit costs. Shop at your local natural food store or coop, where you can buy exactly the amount you want of each bulk item. The amount may be just a little, especially when you’re trying new dishes.

Or buy food items in bulk online for real convenience. Many of the foods you'll purchase store well, and you can also get together with friends to order bulk quantities of less-needed items and split them into more manageable quantities. This is a great way to save while cooking at home — and it allows you to share ideas with the friends you’re ordering with as well.

Think your food dollar doesn't go as far as it used to? You're right. In fact, for many people, rising food costs are creating a significant household hardship. It would be one thing if skyrocketing costs meant that we needed to forgo extravagant delicacies at the family dinner table. Unfortunately, staples like bread, milk, cereal, meat, poultry, and eggs are hardest hit.

There are a number of reasons for the crunch, including oil prices that cause the cost of food production and transportation to rise significantly. It's also a factor that corn prices have more than doubled and soybean prices nearly tripled recently, thanks in part to the boost in ethanol and biodiesel. Weather disasters have devastated some crops, and a weak U.S. dollar and high global demand for food all figure into the higher bottom line.

The outlook for food prices isn't promising, but that doesn't mean you need to sacrifice at the dinner table. While you may need to make some minor adjustments in your menu planning, shopping, and cooking habits, there's no need to forgo either flavor or health while tightening your food budget. In fact, by stocking up on some basic staples, seasonal produce, and spices, you can serve your family meals that are delicious, healthful, and frugal.

More tips for eating well for less

  • Stock and season those staples! Not only are basic, natural foods—like whole grains and beans—inexpensive, they're versatile. Take rice, for example: flavor with basil, garlic, and ginger, and serve as a bed for in-season veggies. Or cook leftover rice with black pepper, chives, carrots, peas, an egg and soy sauce for quick and easy fried rice. Use it as the basis of a vegetable, meat, seafood, or poultry casserole, seasoned liberally with a favorite spice, like marjoram, or gently with a more pungent spice like cilantro or cayenne. Make rice burgers by combining the cooked rice with shredded cheese, an egg, garlic and oregano. Toss small amounts in your cup of soup or stew, along with a pinch of cumin, or make a lively tarragon rice salad. And stir up some aromatic rice pudding, flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract.
  • Experiment with other grains (like millet, quinoa, and barley), and take a similar approach with beans. Make a big batch of a favorite bean and use it to make casseroles, soups and stews, stir-fries, veggie burgers and loaves. Toss on salads and blend to make dips and spreads—all liberally seasoned with spices for maximum flavor.
  • Enhance your standard fare. You may already be serving the most economical foods but be feeling less than inspired by the same-old, same-old. If that's the case, turn to your spice rack. Become a "seasoned chef" by learning which spices go best with which foods—from produce to grains and beans, from sandwiches to side salads and from soups and casseroles to hot breakfast cereals and desserts.

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