16th March 2008

Posted in

Blog :: Eating Healthy on the Cheap

If you know me well you know that I'm a bit of a foodie.

I don't have it real bad - I'm not a snob about much (except Coffee) and I don't really love cooking shows (Alton Brown excepted) nor do I have a gigantic collection of cooking books. Those disclaimers aside: I enjoy cooking and I enjoy exploring new techniques and flavours to expand my culinary palette.

There's a lot to be said for being a foodie. For me cooking is not just the drudgery necessary in order to eat: it's a hobby, a downright relaxing pleasure at the best of times and good practice even when food preparation is by necessity fast and familiar.

There are, however, some potential drawbacks to being a foodie. Health and expense are two prime concerns for me at least. It's not that preparing your own food is unhealthy (surely nothing can be as unhealthy as a diet of "whatever you can make from a box with a microwave") and cooking your own food is usually much cheaper than dining out. But enjoying food means... eating it! And somehow I have a tendency to prefer making rich savories rather than low calorie fare. Rich soups, sweet desserts... Pizza with pesto, walnuts, and gorgonzola! Steak well grilled, than drizzled with a Port butter reduction... Real tiramasu with brandy, espresso, marscapone cheese, cream, and ladyfingers! Cooking (as I have remarked when making something like alfredo sauce) is the art of adding calories until stuff tastes gooood....

Somehow that recitation of foods makes my mouth water (and my cooking itch need scratching) rather more than figuring out how to make healthier bread or lower calorie meals. Fortunately there is a second drawback to the foodie lifestyle that helps keep me down to earth - cost! That tiramasu had $30 worth of brandy, cream, coffee and marscapone in it! Meat is of course expensive and so are all the necessary accoutrements of exotic cooking. Creams, cheeses, wines, alcohols and vinegars. Spices (and of course we want fresh and whole instead of powdered and stale whenever possible)! All of it is expensive - hard on the wallet as well as the waistline.

Fortunately the solution lies in becoming a slightly more sophisticated foodie rather than giving up the enterprise. One of the things I look for in cooking resources are people who make "plain" food. Kevin Weeks (one of only two foodbloggers in my RSS Reader along with Tigers & Strawberries) often talks about "Peasant Food" and I really like this emphasis. Peasant food is working class food, stuff real people in various cultures have traditionally eaten. This doesn't necessarily make it familiar or even simple (for example Asian "peasant food" involves a whole spice/flavor vocabulary I'm barely aware of) but it does typically make it cheaper and healthier. Working class people haven't traditionally been able to frequently dine on meat with extra calories added - instead peasant fare frequently uses meat as a garnish or flavor but the bulk of the meal comes from grains or vegetables.

I've been working on the vegetable angle for a long time - I wasn't really a big vegetable eater as a child (unless corn and potatoes count) so one of my favorite things to do as foodie is wander the produce department and wonder what that

weird thing is and whether there is any way to make it taste good. Frequently there is - I've recently enjoyed foods that never saw my plate growing up - kale as a cooked green in soups, parsnips in latkes, squashes in vegetable mixes and pureed soups, red bell peppers in EVERYTHING... (No mom, I still don't like onions.)

I haven't worked much on grains until recently, however, and that's really a shame. Grains (and here I'm being expansive - I really mean to include legumes, rice, etc) tend to be rich in fiber, rich in vitamins, low in calories but high in volume, and cheap (at least some of them)! In the last year I've cooked particularly with Brown Rice (high in fiber, high in vitamins and less than $1/lb), lentils (tons of fiber and vitamins plus protein and a little more than $2/lb) and barley (also high in fiber and vitamins, also less than $1/lb.)

It's really easy to these grains to your cooking simply by supplementing existing recipes, particularly soups. Making soup with beef in it? Throw in a handful of pearl barley or brown rice - the soup will go farther, be healthier, and (I think) taste better. Add lentils to any potato soup - they'll cook down and be practically unnoticeable while substantially improving the nutritional value of the soup.

To a foodie, however, it's really worth it to investigate peasant cuisine rather than simply steal the ingredients. I've experimented with brown rice Paella and have been running through some Middle Eastern soups with lentils (and if you live in Modesto it's worth visiting the Middle East Market at the south-east corner of Coffee and Floyd if you need some inspiration or ingredients along these lines...) Food can be culinarily interesting, exotically good flavored but also healthy and inexpensive. You just have to look to some of the traditional staples in the dried foods aisle and stop obsessing about the 5 basic french sauces...

Posted on March 16th 2008, 10:04 PM