Kate McDonough of New York City created her website, TheCityCook.com, in 2007 after listening to friends lament about making meals. She would tell them, "Forethought will save you time and money."
"Without planning for ingredients, things become really expensive," she said. "People say, 'For what ingredients cost, I could eat in a restaurant.' They don't know how to plan and shop, to buy ingredients for less. I go to Brooklyn and buy a case of San Marzano tomatoes. I store them under my bed, or on the floor of a closet. I get those fabulous canned tomatoes for half of what I'd spend buying them a can at a time in my local supermarket."
To cook well on a budget, McDonough says, focus on three things: what you cook, what ingredients you choose, and how and where you shop.
"People say, 'Cut costs by cutting out meat or fish. But the choice is more nuanced. Instead of buying strip steak, buy hanger steaks or London broil or skirt steak. They're significantly less expensive.
"Same for fish. Instead of tuna or wild salmon, choose tilapia. It's sustainable, inexpensive, healthful." Consider a Mediterranean diet, using small amounts of meat or fish and more grains and vegetables. Ethnic markets in city neighborhoods often offer produce or seafood cheaper than supermarkets.
Buy what's in season. "It's more plentiful. In-season produce tends to be front and center (in the store) because management got a better deal," McDonough said.
Couscous salad with garbanzos and vegetables
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
For better value, purchase couscous from bulk grocers, especially natural-food markets. This salad can be made with any vegetables on special. For more savings, use chopped whole tomatoes instead of cherry tomatoes. Adapted from "The City Cook," by Kate McDonough.
1 box (10 ounces) instant couscous (1 1/4 cups)
2 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon each: Dijon mustard, coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
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Couscous salad with chickpeas (Styling by Corrine Kozlak, Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)