Michelin-Quality Food on an Intern’s Budget
Let’s be honest. The idea of eating gourmet food every day is nice and all, but when it’s the end of a long day and you are somehow faced with the task of getting dinner on the table, it can be pretty tempting to just defrost a frozen meal or call out for help (AKA pizza delivery). You want to eat well, but you don’t exactly consider yourself a culinarian.
And besides, cooking is hard and takes a long time, right? Right?!
(photo credit: seriouseats.com)
The truth is, with just a tiiiiny bit of planning and prep, you can kick your food repertoire up several notches, making it taste better, faster. Even if you’re lazy, tired and broke, you can cook and eat like someone who knows what they’re doing.
Read on for 10 gourmet tips and tricks that will cost you very little money, time or patience, but pay off in a major way.
- Make sure you’re properly salting your food. This is one of the most common kitchen rookie mistakes. Salt serves as a flavor enhancer, so when there’s not enough of it, food doesn’t taste flavorful, and is therefore less satisfying. They key to salting properly, is to taste as you go. You know the recipe expression, “salt to taste”? That means keep a spoon next to the food you’re tasting, add a little salt, taste, then if you need more, add more. Continue until the food tastes like any more salt would make it too salty. You want your food brought to the peak of flavor and this is the way to do it. I like to keep a dish of kosher (large grain) salt next to the stove. It’s much easier to control than a salt shaker.
- Use fresh herbs. Garnishing a plate of food with fresh herbs serves 2 purposes: the food looks better and the flavors are brighter and fresher tasting. When you sit down to a plate of beautiful looking food, your experience is immediately enhanced. Additionally, a pop of fresh herbs (which are cheap, by the way— usually about $1 per bunch) brighten the flavor of your food, making it taste better. Dry herbs really can’t compare. Hint: store fresh herbs stem-side-down in cups or jars of water in the fridge keep them fresher longer.
- Learn to use spices. Experimenting with spices is a great way to figure out which ones you like. Try a few sprinkled on something plain with a little salt, like a piece of broiled chicken, and see which ones (and which combinations) you enjoy. Good spices can be purchased in bulk at most natural food stores. Many Asian and Latin American specialty stores also have bulk spices available. Transfer them into small mason jars (available at most hardware or home goods stores) and label them with a permanent marker. Try toasting them to extract their flavor before you add them to dishes, or making your own meat/fish/tofu rub for maximum flavor.
- Don’t be afraid of butter. Why does restaurant food taste so good, you want to know? One answer: butter. It really does make everything taste better. My preference is to use unsalted butter for cooking and baking, and then salt my food after cooking it. There’s no need to heap it on, but a great way to make your food taste richer is to add a tablespoon or so to an almost-finished dish while cooking, let melt then serve immediately. This is an especially great trick for when you’re saucing pasta. Salted butter is better for spreading.
- Keep half-and-half in the fridge at all times. Speaking of making things richer, half-and-half is one of my favorite kitchen hacks. I buy it to put in my coffee, but I also love swirling a couple of tablespoons of it in a soup, tomato sauce, or over freshly-cooked pasta, with a little butter and grated Parmesan for an instant Pasta Alfredo dish. It’s slightly heavier than milk, so it makes anything creamy even creamier, but not as heavy as cream, which can be overwhelming. Plus, it runs about $1.50 for a pint, which usually lasts me a week.
- Use fresh garlic. Want to know why your tomato sauce has an off flavor? It’s because of the jarred chopped garlic you added to it. Not only is fresh garlic cheaper than jarred (usually around $0.50 per head), it comes in a natural encasing to keep it fresh. After about 2 weeks, stick it in the fridge to last even longer. To peel, simply press the back of a knife over a garlic clove until you hear a pop and then slip the peel off. If you need to peel a whole head of garlic at once, try this nifty trick.
- Finish your food with olive oil. It might sound funny, but a nice drizzle (about a half-teaspoon per person) of decent extra virgin olive oil (don’t buy “pure” or “light” olive oil — they’re inferior in quality and flavor) is a delicious and effortless way to make soups, sauces, grilled meats and vegetables taste better. Plus, many vitamins and nutrients can’t be processed by your body without a little bit of fat, so finishing with olive oil is a heart-healthy way to make your food more delicious and more nutritious!
- Buy an immersion blender. Without hesitation, my immersion blender is the best piece of kitchen equipment I own. It cost me about $35, and I use it to puree soups, chop garlic, onions and ginger, make pesto, smoothies, milkshakes and sauces, whip cream, beat egg whites for soufflés, crush ice…the list goes on. It takes up less space than a blender and is useful for so many things. If you have a small space and/or a tight budget, invest in one of these babies. You’ll thank me.
- Shop like a European. The European grocery shopping style is to visit the market regularly—every few days—for fresh ingredients. Kitchens are stocked with nonperishable basics like olive oil, salt, pepper, flour and sugar, but things like eggs, fresh vegetables, meats and fish get picked up in small quantities more frequently. If you have the time to shop this way, it can be a great way to make sure you don’t over-purchase fresh foods that go bad if you don’t use them. If you don’t have time to shop this way, try buying larger amounts of freezing meats, fish, cheese and butter when they’re on sale, and then dividing into smaller portions to freeze, and defrosting as you need them.
- Customize your food. Like things spicy? Top your plate with a little Sriracha or red chili flakes. Crave curry? Try stirring a little curry powder into mayonnaise and using as a dip or on sandwiches as a spread. Live for pickles? Stock up (or make!) kimchee, sauerkraut, or pickled onions and add them to your food. Chances are, if you love a flavor, it can be worked into most foods you eat. 11. (Bonus) Have fun! Remember, cooking and eating is supposed to be fun! So turn on music, pour yourself a glass of wine and toast awesome self for taking a few minutes to make yourself something special. You deserve it!
Gabi Moskowitz is the editor-in-chief of the nationally-acclaimed blog BrokeAss Gourmet and author of The BrokeAss Gourmet Cookbook (May 2012) and Pizza Dough: 100 Delicious, Unexpected Recipes (November 2013). Most recently, she developed “Young and Hungry”, an ABC Family sitcom based on her life and writing. It premiers this summer (2014).