High-End Flavor, Low-Cost Grocery Tab: $4 Fancy Meals From a Master Chef

High-End Flavor, Low-Cost Grocery Tab: $4 Fancy Meals From a Master Chef

good and cheapCurried butternut squash soup. Spicy broiled tilapia with lime. Savory shrimp jambalaya.

It may seem as if these nutrition-packed dishes would call for a lengthy list of pricey ingredients, but food studies scholar Leanne Brown promises that each one can be whipped up for $4 per serving.

In fact, Brown believes so strongly in the idea that you can make lavish meals on a budget that she decided to publish "Good and Cheap," a free e-cookbook dedicated to the pursuit. For more purist cookbook aficionados, Brown also plans to sell print versions through her website this month.

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Curious to hear how she retools high-quality dishes to fit low-budget grocery tabs? We sat down with Brown to discuss the inspiration behind her recipes, the myths of affordable cooking—and the one low-cost staple every chef should have on hand.

LearnVest: What inspired the idea behind your cookbook?

Leanne Brown: After graduating from college in 2007, I took a job working on urban issues for the city councillor of Edmonton, Alberta, and I became passionate about food policy—specifically, ensuring that people have access to healthy food and making local ingredients affordable.

When I came across the Food Studies master's program at New York University, I knew it was the perfect fit, so I packed up and moved. Through my studies I realized there was a lack of healthy recipes for those on a budget—and such dishes certainly weren't being incorporated into beautifully photographed cookbooks. So for my master's project, I created a high-quality cookbook that would fill this gap.

RELATED: Grocery Budget Clinic: 6 Hacks for Smarter Meal Planning

Which misconceptions about low-cost cooking do you try to combat in your book?

There's a prevailing myth that healthy, quality food has to be really expensive. But ask any line chef in a restaurant what it takes to make food taste delicious, and he'll tell you it's more about the effort and time you put into preparing the dishes.

Some foods that people assume are pricey are quite budget-friendly. For example, French onion soup sounds expensive, right? But it's actually an amazing, nutritious meal for little cost. The rich flavor simply comes from caramelizing the onions; cheese on top adds protein and more flavor. And leftover bread makes the topping.

Sure, certain foods are expensive: fancy seafood, artisanal cheeses, berries. Out-of-season foods are often marked up too. But if you really value something—and create a grocery budget that cuts back on certain foods to make room—you can still enjoy those items you really love.

RELATED: 3 Chefs, 3 Cuisines: Money-Saving Secrets of the Masters

How did you pick and choose the recipes for the book?

I had hundreds of ideas before I even got started. Some were modifications of things I love cooking and eating personally—like kale salad or chana masala, an Indian chickpea dish.

Others were adaptations of classic American dishes, like roast chicken or pasta with tomatoes and eggplant. And I really tried to include greens, like spinach, Brussels sprouts and kale, as much as possible.

I strove to create recipes that use money carefully—without being purely slavish to the bottom line. For example, many recipes use butter rather than oil. Butter is not cheap, but it creates flavor, crunch and richness in a way that cheap oils never can.

I also strove to create recipes that use money carefully—without being purely slavish to the bottom line. For example, many recipes use butter rather than oil. Butter is not cheap, but it creates flavor, crunch and richness in a way that cheap oils never can.

What low-cost staples should everyone keep on hand?

Eggs are great to keep stocked in the fridge, since they're both inexpensive and filling. They're also used in everything from baked goods to quiches, and can be prepared in tons of different ways—boiled, fried, scrambled, over easy. In need of a simple last-minute meal? With eggs, you can just add veggies or a protein, and you've got dinner.

Other versatile, low-cost ingredients I recommend in my book: dried beans, nuts, frozen fruits and vegetables, brown rice and olive oil.

Your recipes are geared toward people on a tight budget, but are there tips anyone can glean?

If you don't have as many limitations, I recommend upgrades for many of the dishes. For example, I suggest swapping out toast for my whole-wheat jalapeño cheddar scones to take a breakfast sandwich up a notch. In some recipes, I also recommend springing for maple syrup instead of white sugar.

But the truth is, I eat the food that's in the book all the time, and I don't feel like I'm eating lower-quality meals at all. My personal favorite is the pumpkin oatmeal recipe, made with brown sugar, ginger and clove powders—and it's less than $1 a serving!

What impact do you hope your cookbook will have over time?

I recently completed a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $140,000 to print hard copies of the book. The plan is to donate them through nonprofit partners. I've had over 300 nonprofits, like food education programs, reach out so far.

But, mostly, I love hearing stories of how the book has made an impact on readers' diets and budgets.

RELATED: My $10 (and Under!) Meal Plan: How I Feed My Family on a Budget

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