Sunday, January 9, 2011

2011: The Year of Cooking At Home

According to the Chinese Zodiac, this will be the year of the rabbit. The golden rabbit, specifically. Not the green one. And it hasn't started yet--the Chinese Zodiac gives us another month of chocolate and champagne before the year kicks off.

The United Nations has also called our year as they see it: The International Year of Forests and the International Year of Chemistry.

But in our house, 2011 will be less about Velveteen fur, pines, and NaCl. It will be more about that 20 square feet of space that houses the canned goods, the pasta, the Moroccan olive oil, the aged balsamic. (Let's talk about 20 square feet for a minute. I'm going to be honest with you: I have no idea how to measure the square feet of my pantry.) After reflecting as long on 2010 as we could without getting a sharp pain between our collective eyes, we decided that the $1,000+ a month we've been spending eating out, enjoying "out" entertainment, getting drinks, and picking up tabs is beyond extravagant. That's just what we spend when we go out! (Plus hundreds at the market on top of that.) It's obscene. It's wasteful. It's even a little bit Gen Y of us, and we figured it's a good habit to kick in 2011.

So this year, then, will be about me (pig) in my pantry. Rooting around. Putting a few things together with everything fresh in the fridge. Seeing what happens. I guess we'll work in some chemistry after all, and if I have any luck at all with gardening, perhaps there will be a modest forest of rosemary, parsley, and thyme in a barrel garden outside. These are lofty goals for me, yes. But it is January. This is the month of dreaming big.

The plan is this: $200/week budget for food, drink, and entertainment. The grocery store will be our new best friend, and the expensive restaurants, not so much. We'll be swapping the individual cans of Diet Coke for 2L bottles. Goodbye, Paper Towels. There's another $12 back in our pockets each month. I have a feeling we're going to get to really know, intimately, the split pea. I'll win a little more often when we're in the meat department because London Broil happens to be my favorite steak, and it's also ridiculously inexpensive. Right now, the nightstand holds an ancient budget cookbook my mom loaned us. In its yellow pages are suggestions straight out of the thrifty life: make powdered milk, find new things to do with hot dogs, get acquainted with jello and canned fruit. Make bread. Use the crock pot. We will!

After all, Doug and I both know how to cook. Rumor has it that when Doug was in grad school, he lived on tuna and peanut butter. The rumor is that he used to drink cheap alcohol too; I'm as suspicious as you are. But from humble beginnings grow the most impressive of flowers. I'm now fortunate enough to be an editor for Taste of Home magazine. Creativity and budgetary conscience should be two of the things I practice on a daily basis. The kitchen should indeed be our family laboratory, the place where great new ideas come to life. Before things got so hectic with work and all the other details, we used to cook ourselves healthy meals every night. Every night! No more restaurants, no more exorbitant spending.

Something tells me that, like rabbits in the pantry, we'll soon find ourselves happily hopping between shelves, counters, and burners to make ourselves the nutritious meals we deserve. What's the worst that could happen? Maybe we'll lose a few pounds, discover a new trick or two, and have a good time relaxing at home. I know that the $800 a month we'll now be spending on FDE (food, drink, entertainment) will be a fraction of our former receipts and money in the bank.

After all, the people you break the bread with are the reason it's so fun to sit down at the dinner table. Like two broken-legged folks walking on borrowed crutches, we seem to have forgotten how to enjoy a meal--the shopping, the cooking, even the cleaning up. We're hoping to say a final sayonara to taking separate books or magazines or cell phones into the restaurant to entertain us through several courses. We've been settling for so-so service and the uncomfortable embrace of the strangers who become our dining companions. What? How about the talking, the laughing, the learning, the discovery? It's time to reclaim family dinner time.

This year, we have big plans: explore ethnic cuisine (Indian is up first), use more spices, make exciting dishes out of the things we have on hand, be able to pronounce the things we're putting in our mouths rather than suffer through the label scrutiny that comes with preservative-laden food.

Food like this looks better.

A delicious grilled nectarine with balsamic-raspberry reduction and fresh mascarpone. It cost about $3.00 to serve these to our guests at the end of summer. And they're so much better than chemical cake from the market. It's so hard to imagine that we deny ourselves food like this for the "convenience" of going out, the contrived sterility of the communal meal.

So, 2011, we have some work to do to bring the flavor and the fresh back into every bite. On $200 a week for fresh and pantry ingredients, my guess is that this will be the year of eating like a king on a pauper's budget. Doug wanted me to work that in somehow. It's how he's planted his flag in our new (perhaps hare-brained) idea. Think golden rabbit.

Welcome to our journey through $800 a month and a lot of inspiration in the kitchen! I hope you'll join me for a year of fresh cooking at home.