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Can someone be a true budget gourmet?

Budget and Gourmet are opposing words to begin with; there is nothing budget about gourmet food and nothing gourmet about budget food items. Ok so I can buy something when it is on sale, and collect coupons, but that will only get me so far. Anyone have any budget tips out there that would like to share how they could achieve the true budget gourmet status.

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  1. Find a good farmers markets and good vendors (depending on where you live, some vendors go to terminal markets to buy the same produce trucked in that you'll see at some stores) where they sell from their farm. Ask them what's good and fresh. In season produce is cheapest and tastes the best. Go from that. Like in the summer, you can get fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic. Anything you make, with minimal cooking will taste great. Even better, grow your own herbs. Fresh herbs add a special touch to everything.

    3 Replies
    1. re: chowser

      I shop our farmers' market religiously, but it ain't cheap! Prices (and quality) are much higher than at supermarkets. If you live in an apartment and can't grow your own veggies, fresh and local is a luxury. This is true for all markets that I'm familiar with (mid-west, SF and NoVa).

      1. re: pikawicca

        Prices are cheaper at the farmers market I go to...than at the grocery store. I love supporting local farmers...and yes, the quality is great.

        I certainly believe you can do gourmet on a budget. Absolutely.

        Melly www.sacramentofoodgroup.org

        1. re: pikawicca

          It's not the particular farmers market that makes a difference but the vendors. I look for farmers or at least farms. I have a friend whose father would go to a terminal market in the morning and pick up the same produce you'll see at supermarkets and then sell it at a farmers market. It was very profitable and most people didn't know the difference.

      2. VBeatso, as a Food Historian, this is a very interesting topic for me. "Gourmet" is a relative term and what is highly valued in one culture at a particular time is often held in low esteem by another group.

        At the turn of the century, in Victorian American, chicken livers were an unheard of treat for a person of average means. The same person could not possibly hope to eat a fresh egg daily. Today, both these items fall into any American's budget category and are little valued because of their abundance.

        New England, Colonial America, lobster was as commonplace as PB&J is today. It held no cachet and was completely ordinary food. What was extremely special was fresh pineapple - something that is available to "Average Joe" every day of the year in a local supermarket today.

        Is it the chicken livers/eggs/lobster/pineapple itself in question or is it the perception that what is difficult to obtain and or costly has more value?

        Instead of blithely accepting commonly held category labels of Gourmet/Budget, simply change your thinking. Ignore what everyone else says and make decisions for yourself about what constitutes special or gourmet foods for you.

        You'll have fun, eat well and save money - hard to beat that combination!

        3 Replies
        1. re: Sherri

          "... in colonial days in North America [lobster] was so plentiful and cheap that it was used to feed prisoners and indentured servants in place of valuable cod and mackerel. One group of Massachusetts servants became so fed up with their diet of lobster that they took their owners to court and won a judgment that it not be served to them more than three times a week."


          1. re: Sherri

            I totally want to be a food historian (seriously, I've looked for grad schools regarding the subject matter. I would love to find out about your studies (ie, where/when you did them) and the professions available to this type of work. can you email me at newberry(dot)gillin(at)gmail(dot)com???

            1. re: CulinaryKate

              I reiterate. Read "Heat" by Buford, because he talks about researching such topics as when eggs were first introduced to pasta making. Might give you some ideas.

          2. It's amazing how one can be a gourmet cook on a budget. You'd be surprised what great dishes you can make even if you go to Aldi's or T.J. You don't have to spend a fortune on great produce or meat in order to be able to cook a great dish. Grow some of your own, get really,fresh,fresh produce, great herbs, great butter and olive oils and use good cooking methods. If you go to Latino grocery stores and markets, you'd be surprised at the low cost and high quality of produce.Just paying a lot for something doesn't make it gourmet and not paying a lot for something doesn't make it low quality. Study recipes, use the freshest food you can and be prepared to allow time to cook not using prepared foods. It's not only a monetary investment but also a time investment. Once you've acquired all the staples, you'll be able to achieve gourmet meals for a lot less money than you thought possible.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jackie de

              I second that. Mexican and Asian markets are the best place to get groceries. Cheaper than farmers' markets (sometimes cheaper than even Aldi), but still better. In my mind, gourmet is more about time and complexity of preparation than expense.

            2. Okay, I'll take a stab at this. At the risk of being flamed, I would say no, gourmet and budget don't overlap alot. Yes, beans (e.g., curried lentils) can be good and cheap, and buying locally and in season can result in budget cooking that is healthful and flavorful.
              But if you're gonna buy good quality (I read as local, humanely-raised) meat, and superior dairy products, etc. you're gonna pay some bucks (versus freezing a mass-produced chicken on sale at the supermarket). Okay, you may save something by making your own stock from said sale supermarket chicken, but probably not when you calculate in energy/gas cost.

              Good food is not cheap. Good quality parmesan costs money, as do eggs from hens that get to run around in the pasture eating bugs. OTOH, I am happy with a meal of cannelini beans, broc rabe and garlic, braised in (extra-virgin!) olive oil.

              2 Replies
              1. re: NYchowcook

                I considered myself a "gourmet" long before I had the income to to support it. Right out of college, I used to love to prepare delicious food, from scratch, with the finest quality ingredients I could afford. I would buy parmesan reggiano, but use it sparingly. When I couldn't afford top quality ingredients, that didn't stop me from doing my best to prepare tasty cuisine. I would make stock and sauces from scratch, and stretch my limits cooking-wise by trying new recipes and new methods all the time. I only could afford to go out for a "gourmet" (read: expensive) meal once a year, but that didn't mean I didn't eat well. When I had the opportunity to try new, different or exotic ingredients, I jumped at the chance.

                I think "gourmet," like "chowhound," is a state of mind.

                1. re: NYchowcook

                  I do buy non-industrial meat and superior dairy products...but I use them sparingly in my recipes...which include farm fresh local produce...and I do it for less than what I used to spend at the store on induststrial produced meats (including chickens). I guess it depends on what the word budget means to different people.

                2. Yes, that's true,but what exactly would you be doing instead of making your own stock or cooking? Perhaps finding a market or store that has that great parmesan,a farm that has organic chickens and eggs at a reasonable price it worth finding. If you'd be watching t.v., shopping or talking on the phone, instead of finding these places, then how much would you be saving in the long run? We tend to think time is money which is true, but not everthing can be measured in billable time. Sometimes even just cooking stock can not only be a great savings but also a great creative outlet. I agree with you, I love a simple well prepared meal as well and for me, that makes it my gourmet meal.

                  1. I don't think budget and gourmet are mutually exclusive. When I first read the question, two words popped into my mind: Farmer's Market. However, even with the simple, seasonal ingredients that the Farmer's Market offers, oftentimes a more expensive "gourmet" item is called for to bring out it's more nuanced flavors. But, the term "gourmet" is almost a misnomer nowadays. What once was thought of as exotic (i.e. extra virgin olive oil, arborio rice, parmesan reggiano, porcini mushrooms, etc.-can you tell I'm Italian?) are very commonplace now and can be purchased at an inexpensive cost to the consumer. Furthermore, many of these items are staples-items that when stored properly last beyond their initial use of why it was purchased. Thank goodness for places like Trader Joes and even Whole Foods (and locally places like Corti Bros and Italian Imports)-for without these purveyors, many of my foodstuffs would be out of reach.

                    1. Not to get all Bill Clinton on everyone, but it obviously depends on how you define "gourmet." I like to think of a gourmet as someone who appreciates and is knowledgable about food, regardless of how humble the ingredients. For that reason I think it is absolutely possible to be a gourmet on a budget.

                      If on the other hand you think of a gourmet as someone who only eats the "finest" ingredients, then sure it's harder to do on a budget. But I think that is a misguided approach, because to me it's more about knowledge. Indeed, there are many people who spend a lot of money on their food without really getting into the substance. If a person can't tell the difference between Reggiano and Kraft, yet all they eat is Reggiano, they are not a gourmet.

                      1. Mmmmmm...I'd have to disagree NYchowcook. I think that depending on where you live, you can get fantastic quality foods on the cheap. Trader Joe's is a great source. Where else can you buy dried, mixed mushrooms for under $2?
                        OTOH if you're feeding a family, gourmet does kinda go out the door unless you have kids with very mature palates.

                        1. It does depend a lot on where you live. I live in mid-Manhattan. Nothing's cheap. I read on a chicken stock thread that someone buys 30+ pounds of chicken backs, feet, and wing tips to make stock. That's not available to me. I often go to Chinatown if I'm making a paella, for example. But I need to figure in the $4 it takes me to get there and back. I have to be buying more than just a pound of shrimp for the trip to pay off.

                          And I do shop at my local farmers' market when I can. But the prices are nearly double those at Fairway.

                          Yes. For me, being a chowhound is expensive. No doubt about it.

                          1. It's certainly possible, but $$ helps. Certain cuisines lend themselves well to legwork and knowledge as opposed to large quantities of cash. Here in L.A., some of the best mexican, thai, and chinese (just for starts) cost a small fraction of a mediocre place like the Cheesecake factory.

                            That being said, some styles/cuisines/dishes are expensive. Good foie gras don't come cheap, nor does sushi. Someone whose 'gourmet' tastes tend more toward French and Japanese (yes, izakaya's are reasonably priced, but high quality cheap raw fish is difficult to find), may find it difficult to do so on the cheap.

                            It's totally possible to be a budget gourmet, but as a friend of mine likes to put it, "s**t costs money."

                            1. You know it might be "better" or a better progression to start on a budget. You can learn a lot and the best chefs can do a LOT with whatever ingredients are at hand. Some would argue that a good chef can pull something out of the hat with limited ingredients. I'd start with a cookbook. $20 bucks of info will get you a lot of bang for the buck. Also produce is absolutely cheap compared to processed food.

                              1. Like everyone else, I'm going to say that so much depends on what you consider "gourmet". For me, gourmet means simple combinations of fresh flavor. It's not about creating a really complex palette as much as it is showcasing the best parts of the meal. To this end, you can make a meal out of a single expensive ingredient (say, asparagus, or a good cut of meat) and build the rest around it.

                                Normal foods can go gourmet (who has tried beecher's mac and cheese? http://www.beechershandmadecheese.com... with the substitution of higher-quality ingredients, but still be relatively inexpensive.

                                I agree with everyone else who says that you need to find sources for good ingredients. Trader Joe's has great cheese (and apparently good supercheap wine, too--I'm underage, though). My boyfreind found a great little produce stand by accident and we've been going back religiously ever since. We don't eat much meat, so that saves money. And one of my favorite things to do on a weekend is to go downtown, grab some pears at the market, some cheese at the aforementioned Beecher's, and a big baguette and have a picnic. There is nothing more delicious than that.

                                1. Jacques Pepin's book "Cuisine Economique" might be worth a look. May not meet everyone's definition of gourmet but I like it and you may get good ideas there. The book is organized according to season to take advantage of what's readily available throughout the year.

                                  Good luck! I am enjoying reading the responses to your question. We're on a limited budget, too.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: ellaj

                                    ellaj, a limited budget is a great stimulator for your imagination and terrific learning tool. Educate yourself about peasant food worldwide as well as nutrition, then spend some hours in a grocery store with a very open mind. Look for foods that you would not ordinarily buy but are both plentiful and cheap, something you will recognize from your newfound knowledge.

                                    The produce men or butchers can be very helpful if they sense you want to learn. Ask questions. Learn the seasonal cycle for foods and eat accordingly.

                                    Many years ago, on a strict budget, I read that Stuffed Bell Peppers were an economical entree so I trotted off to the store to buy peppers. They were astronomically priced in mid-winter (before the days of global marketing) so then and there, I vowed to rely on my own good sense instead of listening to "experts".

                                    When no one wanted to eat sweetbreads or flank steak, they flooded our menu. Now that these are pricey, we make other choices when we're paying attention to food costs.

                                    Knowing approximate price per serving will assist in making your choices because the cost per pound of meat is not always a helpful indicator.
                                    EX: Prosciutto is expensive by the pound, about $15 pp last time I checked. A small amount flavoring a cream & fresh pea pasta makes a memorable meal.
                                    My cheeseman will sell a Parmesan rind for less than a dollar and I stir it into vegetable soup for added flavor and body.
                                    The fish vendor sells salmon frames that I use for salmon cakes (the cheek meat is very tasty). Beef cheeks, from my local Mexican market, are delicious and very cheap as well.

                                    Have fun on your adventure. Good Luck!

                                  2. I think I learnt far more about cooking when I was a student living off small grants and loans. I learnt how to shop and how to make good use of seasonal and less expensive ingredients. It may not have been gourmet eating, but it was a valuable period during a gourmet education. Friends were thrilled to eat homemade preserves, braised meats, ragus and curries. I didn't have any fancy equipment so I had to do everything by hand.

                                    Get a good cookbook, watch your local shops for specials and learn how to cook items which don't break your budget. You'll eat well, learn to cook and it won't cost a fortune.

                                    1. food that taste good is possible on every budget, just read chow for a month!

                                      1. Living on a budget will make you a better cook because you will have to concentrate on technique.
                                        Think of how many superb things can be made with flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, water, oil and a few simple spices and flavorings. White sauces, cream puffs, pie crusts, custards, meringues, hollandaise, simple cookies, souffles, bread and more. All the variations on those take up pages and pages in the Larousse Gastonomique. Look at the pages devoted to the potato!
                                        Julia Child deserved the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is the one book you can't live without! It's a cooking course! Follow the instructions to the letter the first time through to learn technique. Soon you'll just instictively know how to do things. Borrow cookbooks, get recipes on the internet. Don't spend money on gadgets. Flea markets and garage sale are a good source for kitchen gear - often better quality than what's available today.
                                        Then take the advice given by so many above. Buy seasonally. Buy what's on sale - which is usally the seasonal stuff anyway.
                                        Don't let people intimidate you. The best cooks in America - probably including Julia herself - used ordinary chickens before we could get designer free-range, organic whatever and produced fabulous meals. Buy what you can afford and hone your skills.
                                        I ate supper recently at the home of a friend who prepared all the latest trendy foods and it was awful because she can't cook worth a damn. Another friend who's a fabulous baker finds no difference worth paying between Baker's chocolate and Scharfenberger in most of her recipes.
                                        Use your freezer space well and be creative. A little bit of leftover something can be an omelet or soup. Once you get the hang of technique, cooking becomes an art. Wonderful meals appear almost out of thin air.
                                        My early days of cooking were with a very, very tight budget. I find that I haven't changed the patterns I established then. They proved to be a blessing in disguise.
                                        I recommend MFK Fisher's wonderful "How to Cook of Wolf," her advice on living well during the deprivations of warime Europe.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. i think it can be possible... gourmet doesn't mean the best eggs or the best tomatoes... but being able to make them the best....

                                          i grew up in a house that only shopped at markets in chinatown, occasional asian supermarkets, and we went to the "american" grocery store only to buy bread and milk, and things like mayo and butter... i still have that mentality, i cringe at the thought of $1.99/lb for navel oranges... i am extremely cheap when it comes to produce, but i still need great produce... i shop at hispanic and asian supermarkets for produce and some meat, and seafood (most of this is on sale), then hit the regular markets for "american" items and most of my meats, 90% of the items HAVE to be on sale, then i hit the finer markets and specialty shops for things like olive oil, cheese, spices, etc. i get all the grocery ads when they come in the mail then i plan my meals, research recipes based on what's on sale...

                                          there are certain things i splurge on, certain times when you need a certain ingrentient, certain brands i have to have, no substitutions...

                                          to be gourmet doesn't mean breaking the budget, it means being able to utilize your resources to make it the best...

                                          its like shopping for clothes, if you can mix the bargains with the designer and can pull it off, you are truly a fashionista

                                          1. Can you cook "gourmet" (read: trendy, nouvelle cuisine) on a budget? Possibly, but not necessarily likely. Can you cook great food, interesting food, Chow-worthy food on a budget? Absolutely.

                                            My neighbours up the street are a Mexican extended family. There are two houses on the lot, and between those houses and an apartment up on the main road, there are anywhere between 15 and 22 people in the family.

                                            Señora Lizzaraga, the grandmother, does all the cooking for everyone every day, because she knows how, and because everyone else is working (or are children in school). Three meals a day, served at 7 AM, noon, and 7 PM sharp. We've been to the Lizzaragas' house for dinner, and it's always expertly prepared, delicious, and there's never a single bit of leftovers.

                                            Sra. Lizzaraga goes to all the local markets every day and buys what's cheap. Because we're in a Latino neighbourhood, there is an abundance of impossibly cheap produce, good meat for cheap prices, and cheap dairy. She keeps a bunch of staples on hand, like various dried chiles (which are ridiculously cheap), Mexican chocolate, etc. She buys rice from the Asian market in 50-pound bags and flour she gets from one of her sons who works in a food distribution centre, in similarly large quantity.

                                            We've had dinner there on a couple of occasions -- once when we found one of their dogs, once when we had a power outage and our electric-pilot stove wouldn't light, and once for a birthday party. The time with the stove, I asked her how much it cost her to make the food for 30 people (other neighbours came too) and she said it came out to about $1.80 a person -- it was carne guisada, tortillas, enchiladas with mole sauce (she used the mole starter in a can), rice, beans and guacamole (the tomatoes came from us, the avocadoes from the neighbour on her other side, and she always has a zillion onions).

                                            Was it "gourmet"? Probably not. Was it better than any Mexican restaurant in a city full of great Mexican restaurants? You bet.

                                            1. Yes, you certainly can be a gourmet and adhere to a budget. Remember, a great deal of what takes food to the gourmet level is the combination of skill and time. So you hone your skills, whether it's learning what to look for in a cut of meat that will make it the most flavorful, or whether it's what sort of knife to use for what purpose or how to cut vegetables into a shape that will release their flavors into the dish in the most effective way.

                                              Then you devote the time it takes first to learn how to prepare the food and then you set aside the time it takes to develop the flavor inherent in the food you're making.

                                              It's true that if your ingredients are junk, no amount of time and practice will turn them into really gourmet food, but if you have the best ingredients and lack the skills to use them properly, you've wasted money.

                                              1. From Dictionary.com:
                                                gour‧met -
                                                1. a connoisseur of fine food and drink; epicure.
                                                2. of or characteristic of a gourmet, esp. in involving or purporting to involve high-quality or exotic ingredients and skilled preparation: gourmet meals; gourmet cooking.
                                                3. elaborately equipped for the preparation of fancy, specialized, or exotic meals: a gourmet kitchen.

                                                There you have it. If gourmet cooking deals with high-quality ingredients and skilled preparation, then yes, you can do that on the cheap. Stick with foods in season and get to know local suppliers of produce and meat. I just met a farmer who can set me up with Berkshire pork for less than $2 a pound. I might have to buy a lot to make it worth her while, but that's what you have freezers for, right?

                                                1. I agree that with care & enthusiasm you can prepare wonderful exciting food on a budget. The expensive ingredients like truffles etc may be out of reach, but research and networking can get you fresh wild mushrooms and local shops w/ incredible charcuterie. Connecting with other cultures as previosly mentioned gives you access to live fish in Asian markets, and super deals in Hispanic ones especially on produce. Starting to cook in Los Angeles as a student I haunted Grand Central Market (they get the too ripe or not pretty fruit & veggies, plus have lots of other cool stuff)- this was in the late seventies before local farmers markets. The fish guy showed me how to bone trout and I made some salt crusted stufffed trout that rivaled what I had just seen in Gourmet. The first time I walked into a Korean fish market & a geoduck clam wiggled its ? at me I freaked, but I got a whole colorful snapper (scaled in the apartment- the tenant 30 years later is still probably finding shiny sequin like discs) and baked it with fresh dill from a new concept chain market that was trying to adjust to the cultural diversity (Ralphs! they had Mexican papayas the size of watermelons, cooked Dungeness crabs, and fresh coconuts & yucca in the 70's!!!) Explore, experiment & enjoy!

                                                  1. What's so "Budget" about unhealthy processed and fast food? Every day at the supermarket I can see people spending more on stuff that I don't even call food anymore than I spend on ingredients for old fashioned home cooking. Pay attention to quality, be an artist, keep on learning, and you are eating gourmet!

                                                    1. Of course.
                                                      When I was much younger, didn't have much money, I used to make a shopping list and price it beforehand so I didn't go over my allotted budget.
                                                      I learn how to cook good straightforward Chinese food from a great book that allowed me to use pretty simple ingredients.
                                                      If you know what you're shopping for, you can buy boned chicken legs here in California for $1.99 a lb., turkey breast bone in at $3.99 lb., pork roast for $3.00 a lb. at places in California like Stater Brothers; you can find reasonable produce places sometimes ethnic markets, and you can make inexpensive cuts of meat go a long way and be very tasty. You might read "Heat," the new book by Buford, about how Mario Batali used to rummage in the waste basket for things like celery tops which he then used. Short ribs was another "find."
                                                      So, yes, you can.