I would love to be able to cook from my cookbooks trying new things every week.
But, what usually happens is I write up a weekly menu and grocery list and then realize that my budget doesn't even begin to cover the cost of the ingredients - Halibut for six...not too cheap - sushi grade tuna...likewise - filet steak, lobster, ten different types of cheese...sigh. I only wish my cart looked like that. I usually need to stick to the more basic - read: less expensive - recipes.
But, even with those I am often left lacking ingredients. It may have been awhile since I have shopped or I may be busy and cooking at the last minute - running to the store often takes as long as whipping up something with what you have. I have a pretty well stocked pantry but...like I often tell my kids...you can't have everything. And so I substitute.
One of the things I love about cooking is the ability to improvise and change things to make something your own. I love looking in my fridge and seeing it nearly empty, hearing the whining all around me that there is nothing to eat and then being able to make something really good out of what is there. I don't really love the emptiness or the whining but I love the creative process it inspires! Sometimes - the ingredients I have are so different that I end up with a completely new and often delicious recipe.
I have heard so many people complain that you can't eat well on a tight budget. I have found that I may not be able to eat as well as I like but, we still eat pretty good. I also hear complaints that they just aren't creative... I've never really been the creative type either - but, I have learned that building creativity is like building muscle - you have to use it! And I have learned some tricks. My favourite is swapping out.
(Now that I think about this - I think I learned this from my mom. She is famous for her: "You think it's chilli but it's not". My mom really doesn't like anything spicy so she would make chilli - minus the chillies. Now, I don't think anyone would mistake it for real chilli - but, she liked it and that is really what's important).
For example: I made the pioneer woman's beef and bean burritos (from "Food From My Frontier"). I love the pioneer woman - her recipes (when I follow them) always turn out exactly the way they look in her books or on her blog.
But anyway - I wanted to make burritos. I did not have any tortillas. My spices were left behind on my move and I haven't replaced most of them yet and so I did not have cumin, oregano or chili powder. I did not have cans of mexican tomato sauce or enchilada sauce, I did not have refried beans. Basically, I did not have over half of the ingredients and the really important ones no less. I had ground beef, an onion, salt and cheddar cheese. My husband thought they couldn't be made...
I looked up a tortilla recipe on the pioneer woman's blog and found a recipe for homemade flour tortillas. I didn't have any lard. I would gladly use lard - I just didn't have any.
This is what I did:
I took her tortilla recipe and changed the flours up a bit - just for flavour. I had some Masa in the pantry and so substituted half the all-purpose flour with masa making a cross between a corn and a flour tortilla to give a bit of extra flavour. I used butter instead of lard. Not authentic I know - but it's butter, how bad could it be. I started by mixing the tortilla batter and then let it rest.
I then pulled out a large pan and cooked up the ground beef. While it was cooking I added the chopped onion and I also happened to have a poblano pepper in my fridge (not something I usually have - but I picked one up a week before because it looked so pretty...it was still in the fridge and I was happy to have an opportunity to use it). I opened a large can of whole tomatoes (I usually have some in the pantry) and squeezed them into the pan with my hands...how I would imagine an Italian grandma breaking up tomatoes into a sauce. Spices were hard...I added a clove of garlic minced, salt, pepper, crushed red chilli, and I had some dried chipotle chillies in the pantry (they keep for a really long time, have a lot of flavour, and come in handy once in awhile). They were really hot - so I added two chopped up. I added a small amount of italian seasoning that I had that made up for the missing oregano (about a tsp). I was upset about the cumin but there wasn't much I could do there. I also had a spicy crab seasoning that smelled like it would work so I added a small amount of that (about 1/2 tsp).
I let the sauce simmer for a bit and then added a large can of kidney beans. Not refried beans - but, still beans. What I had was something that resembled a chilli. While it simmered I rolled out and cooked the tortillas. They smelled amazing. When they were ready and after all the liquid had simmered out of the beef and bean mixture I put about two tablespoons of the filling in the centre of each tortilla, added a large pinch of grated cheddar and rolled them up. I didn't have any sauce to cover them with - and my kids don't like a lot of sauce anyway - so I just sprinkled cheese on top.
I let them bake in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes until the cheese melted and we had dinner. Start to finish was just over an hour. (I only let the tortilla dough rest for about half an hour instead of an hour and they turned out fine. I think the corn reduced the gluten content so they didn't need as long of a resting period).
Everyone loved them. I served them with a bit of sour cream (if I had salsa or guacamole they would have been used too - but I didn't have any and they weren't really missed). The chilli taste was prominent... I was a little worried about the spices... but it was really good. Totally different than the pioneer woman's recipe. Not completely authentic - but really yummy. The kids gobbled them up. Not only did I have dinner... but I also made a new recipe!
I do this all the time and it is an easy way to make something delicious with what you have without having to be overly creative. Pick a recipe from a cookbook and substitute each ingredient you don't have for something similar that you do. Things won't always turn out as good as the original but sometimes they are even better or just something different and what is wrong with that?
I get to experiment, learn something new, and develop my creativity... if I had money I wouldn't be forced to do those things. So - I also get to see the bright side of having a small budget!
It's all good.