Weeknight Cooking

Choose Your Own Adventure: The $30 Meal

May 13, 2015

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: How to turn $30 into an unforgettable meal, whether you're cooking for a crowd or just for yourself.

Pantry Cookies

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How are you feeling today: selfish or selfless? Here's a test: 

Say you bake a bunch of cookies. They are cooling on your counter, chocolate chips still glossy and gooey, and you hear a knock on the door. Ten of your closest friends are dropping by for a surprise visit. Do you:

A) Hustle to hide the cookies in the nearest cupboard/closet/freezer space and wipe any telltale smudges of chocolate off your mouth, or

B) Start pouring glasses of milk because there’s about to be an impromptu cookie party up in here.

Don’t feel ashamed if you chose option A—next time, you’ll share. Probably. Treat this question as a litmus test to guide you on your quest for dinnertime: If you chose option A, splurge on yourself. If you chose option B, start dialing up your friends.

In the last installment of My Broke Kitchen's budget dinner series (see $5 and $10 dinners previously), we'll tackle an amount almost high enough to evade the “broke” category, but not quite. 

Here’s how to take $30 and turn it into a head-turner of a meal for yourself (or you and a plus one) or a crowd-pleaser for you and ten others. Choose your path wisely.

If you're cooking for one to two people:

Mussels with Fennel, Italian Sausage, and Pernod

Fish and shellfish
I don’t know about you, but fish and shellfish never find their way onto my grocery list (unless they're of the canned variety). But you can find reasonable deals on seafood, especially if you live near a shore—just seek out your local fishmonger and see what the specials are. If you’re feeling especially hands-on, feel free to cook the lobsters or scale your fish yourself. If not, just pick out some choice filets or get lobster or crab meat that's already cleaned and de-shelled. If you’re getting mussels or clams, however, always buy lives ones (and clean them well): They’re much easier (and less mentally taxing) to cook than their pincered friends.

With main characters this good, you don't need to add much more to have an elegant meal. Fold lobster meat into a spicy pasta, cook shellfish in booze and cream, or try this trick for the crispiest-skinned salmon outside of a French bistro. 


Spring Panzanella

Seasonal fruits and vegetables
Instead of only window shopping (er, stall shopping) at the farmers market, now's the time to pick up a few of those jewel-like fruits and vegetables and construct a meal around them. Since you're going for quality, you might have to minimize quantity, which is okay since these beauties will speak for themselves: AsparagusPeasRadishes! And, if you're feeling especially flush, this spring triple-threat. Then, make this dressing and pour it all over the prettiest, most delicate little greens just popping up at the farmers market.

For dessert, keep the frills minimal to let your produce sing. Douse raspberries in butter (just make sure it’s nice and toasty first) or dress your strawberries in biscuits and whipped cream.


Steak Tartare

Sophisticated meats
On $30, you probably still can’t shell out for filet mignon, but you can get very high-quality cuts of meat. Try something you'd typically only order at a fusion pop-up or European bistro like a juicy, slightly gamey lamb chop or steak tartare. Yes, you do deserve duck confit and yes, you are totally competent and cool enough to pull it off.


If you're cooking for a crowd:

First off, a few tips: Build the meal around pantry staples, but use meat, dairy, and spices to add depth and excitement. I recommend spending your money on a hearty main and assigning the salad, appetizers, drinks, and dessert to your friends. That way, you can make a dish that's truly memorable—and still have enough to feed everyone when they come back for seconds.

Lentil Soup without a Recipe

Ah, soup: budget entertainers' right-hand man, friend to the do-aheaders. If you want to really fill everyone's bellies, make lentil soup (and you don't even have to follow a recipe). If you're enthusiastic about the vegetables that are cropping up, buy all of the day-old produce at the market and whir it into gazpacho. If you're going for something classic yet new, reinvent the wheel, or, in this case, chicken soup. Finally, you cannot—I repeat, cannot—go wrong with chili, especially if it's Buffalo-style.

If you have extra money, pick up some good, crusty bread. Check in the day-old section of your bakery and buy up whatever’s on discount, then refresh the loaves before serving. Flick a little water on them with your fingers, then stick them in a 350° F oven for five minutes until warm and crusty. Serve swaddled in dish towels with a side of softened butter.


Lentil Tacos with Tahini Yogurt Sauce

Besides the obvious pro of being delicious, tacos have the added benefit of being an involved DIY activity that everyone can mingle over. They're also an excellent conversation piece. Go vegetarian with unexpected toppings, like lentils and tahini yogurt sauce, or invest in some meat and scale back on the garnishes. If you’re lucky enough to have a place that makes their own tortillas in your area, pick some up—the quality is leagues from the store-bought kind, and they’re often cheaper, too.


Baked Pasta with Chicken

Baked pasta 
Pasta is a well-known broke kitchen staple, the back-pocket meal for any night when you have nothing in the fridge. Pasta, however, can be tricky to make for a crowd. When do you start the water? How do you avoid hovering over the stove while you wait for the perfect al dente? How do you keep it from drying out while you wait for your perpetually-late friend to arrive? 

Solution: baked pasta. You can assemble it the night before and keep it warming in the oven until you're ready to eat. Plus, since pasta is so cheap, you can be a little more judicious with the sauce and fillings. Try baking short tube shapes with sausage or layering up a vegetarian lasagna. Mac and cheese never hurt a party, either.

What would you do if a genie magically gave you $30 to spend on food: host a dinner party for friends or treat yourself? The comments are a judgement-free zone.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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