Tonight, we feast.

Eating Your Way Through the Recession: 10 Tips For Living Large on the Cheap

Tonight, we feast.

One day, the economy collapsed and my life went to hell in a hand basket. I’d never been rich, but suddenly I was truly poor. Over the past four years, I’ve learned a lot about getting by: how to make a piece of bacon last for two meals, how to put greens on the table when there were none in the fridge. At times we’ve been down to the wire, but I’ve always managed to put well-rounded meals on the table. Here’s what I’ve learned about cooking good food on the cheap:

1. Drippings are your friend. Don’t stop at saving bacon grease — when you’ve run out of actual meat or, worse yet, cooking oil, chicken drippings or grease skimmed from a pot of beef stew will add flavor to your meal. I keep a few different jars in my fridge — one for bacon grease, one for chicken fat, etc.

2. Chicken hearts are practically free and they taste great. Yes, you heard me.

3. Grow your own herbs. Although the herbs are a small initial investment, it’s totally worth it. Nothing like a little fresh parsley to dress up a potato dish or a plate of pasta.

4. Look in your yard. Many common garden weeds and wild plants are edible and highly nutritious. Some of my favorites: nettles, cat’s ear, and dandelion greens.

5. Instead of boneless, skinless chicken breast, buy bone-in thighs. Bone-in thighs are cheaper, and meat cooked on the bone is juicier and more flavorful. You can serve bone-in chicken in curry, cacciatore, or Mexican tomato sauce. Or you can remove the meat from the bone and use it in enchiladas, tacos, or tom kha gai.  In the latter case, reuse the bones in stock.

6. Always keep stock on hand. When you are reduced to eating random food, stock will save you by adding dimension to the most pitiful mélanges. Keep a container in the fridge and store peelings and ends from vegetables; after a day or two, add the contents of the container to a pot of water and simmer.

7. Dried goods are cheaper than canned goods, and they taste better. Make beans from scratch and freeze in small containers to defrost for quick meals.

8. Give up on shopping from a list — instead look for the best deals and get creative.

9. Think like a peasant. You want to create menus that make a little go a long way — choose recipes that maximize the impact of a small piece of meat, a can of food, or a handful of more expensive vegetables. Think soups, legumes, and fried rice.

10. Have fun. The one upside to poverty is that it forces creativity. In the past few years, I’ve learned skills and habits that will (literally) enrich the rest of my life.