Food costs and consumer downturn taking a bit out of restaurants’ bottom lines

It seems like just a few weeks ago we recapped a list of strategies chef use to save money in the kitchen. And now the Wall Street Journal is piping in with what many high-end restaurants are doing to save a buck or two and increase their margins of return, if only marginally.

“With rising food costs, the nation’s restaurateurs and cooks are getting conscientious about what they put on the menu . . .” - Wall Street Journal

So what are chefs doing to cut corner as we move yet another year into rising food costs and can we learn a few more tricks?

At the bar, restaurants are offering lower priced, small plates of food that can be purchased alongside drinks. This is a good tip for entertaining at home during the spring and summer with mini-grilled sliders, small hot dogs or homemade sausages on sections of gourmet buns with an exotic homemade sauce, etc. – just think every day, retro foods updated.

Chefs are looking at cheaper cuts of pork. For home cooks, this could mean a long, slow cooked pork picnic cut, shanks, or many a gourmet’s favorite – pork belly. Try grilling and seasoning your own fresh side for a treat. Restaurants are even discovering chicharrones for the flavor and texture they provide.

Bulking up exotic recipes with flavorful sauces by creating a rice or noodle bowl is a great way to save money while incorporating a small amount of meat with a larger portion of grains and vegetables.

Comfort food continues to draw customers. Chefs recommend taking traditional favorites like macaroni and cheese and adding sauted vegetables or even poultry, seafood or meat.

And lastly, something great for our waistlines and restaurants bottom lines, create mini-desserts. Single serve trifles, small pot de crèmes, a rich cookie and small scoop of sorbet are all great options.

GE 4/21/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Tips for entertaining on a budget

A do-it-yourself mentality has taken over garden and home decorating trends – and now it’s moving into the kitchen. While many of us have been entertaining at home for years, more and more people are looking for ways to bring family and friends together at home –instead of going out.

And that’s where the expertise of a caterer comes into play. From books like the Secrets from a Caterer’s Kitchen by Nicole Aloni to a recent article in the Kansas City Star, there are several resources to tap into.

“Experienced entertainers know how to stretch every dollar, potato and parsley leaf.” – Lynsy Smithson-Stanley, Caterers Share Low-Cost Party Ideas, Kansas City Star.

If you’re having family or friends over, try some of these surefire tips:
  • Less than 10 people, serve a sit-down meal
  • More than 10, try a buffet
  • Skip appetizers for a sit-down meal – instead offer a few small nibbles like nuts or olives and end your one-course meal with a light dessert
  • Pork and chicken are economical, flavorful and highly adaptable choices
  • Use at least one inexpensive vegetable in bulk (like potatoes, leafy greens or cabbage) then bring in more expensive vegetables or fruits as flavorful garnish
  • Large pots of soup or chili can be easy, elegant and enjoyed by a crowd
  • Pick a main dish for the buffet that has lots of interaction and ways for your guests to make it their own – like a taco bar, quesadillas, grilled pizzas, a Vietnamese soup like pho, etc.
  • For a cocktail party, plate small. Try serving a cold soup in a shot glass, have small plates with one to two bites already plated, make small skewers of one to two bites and plate them or put into a small glass with sauce on the bottom, etc.
  • Plan your appetizer buffet to include a variety of tastes, textures and temperatures.
  • Make your own crostinis – simply slice a baguette and toast – they can be topped hundreds of ways
  • Hand-roast nuts and mix up the flavors – from savory herb blends and cracked peppercorns to saucy or sweet creations, many guest will enjoy these nibbles – just put out/refill a few bowls at a time
  • Create a custom cocktail or feature a vintage/retro cocktail that fits with your theme – this can control costs
  • Offer a small, one to two bite dessert that can be served in a spoon, a small demitasse cup, champagne flute, etc.
  • For seasonal drinks, try offering sangria when it’s warm out or mulled wine when it’s cold – both offer an opportunity to ‘fix-up’ an inexpensive wine with spices and fruits

Tips for serving and decorating . . .

  • Try picking up small, ceramic or terracotta tiles from the home improvement store for serving or displaying candles
  • Use petals for scattered and random flower power on tables or serving dishes; find inexpensive napkins at the dollar store and starch them – I’ve had good luck finding seasonal packs of linen or cotton kitchen towels (decorative kind) that work great as an extravagant napkin
  • Put your menu on display – for sit down dinners print a pretty copy (can usually fit two to four per page) and place with the napkin and for larger events frame a copy of the menu at the buffet

GE 4/17/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Who’s making money in the food industry these days?

Fast Company recently published numbers from a consumer research company that forecasts consumer food purchasing trends. Here are a few highlights of their findings:

We’ll be eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly the next four years. Part budget, part comfort food, jams, jellies and peanut butter sales are forecasted to grow 26 percent.

Don’t know how to cook, but can’t afford to keep dining out? Sales of frozen entrees, canned goods and other convenience foods like macaroni and cheese are expected to grow by 5 percent.

Coffee products are growing by about 6 percent because brewing at home offers an alternative to expensive coffeehouse purchases.

Entertaining and watching movies at home are increasing sales of salty snacks.

For those cooking at home, staples like butter and oil are expected to grow by 4 percent a year for the next four years. At the same time, bakery sales are dropping.

So, it looks like home cooks will be delving more into the area of DIY the next few years. Not only will it be better for our bottom lines, it will also give us more control over sourcing our food and creating healthy, tasty choices.

GE 4/9/09 Leave a Comment

Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Stretching the grocery budget without sacrificing flavor

Home cooks used to using high-end ingredients are finding ways to be a bit indulgent while keeping their eye on the bottom line.

“ . . . the nation took an economic nosedive, and . . . overnight, it seemed, words like budget and inexpensive started appearing on the covers of high-end food magazines.” - Joanne Weintraub, Sizzling Savings, the Journal Sentinel.

The balancing act has become when to splurge and when to cut corners. Here are a few ideas to consider when you’re examining your food budget:

  1. Save high quality extra virgin olive oil for sauces, vinaigrettes and garnish – for cooking, use a oil that has little to no taste like canola or vegetable. We’ve also had great luck purchasing higher end store brand olive oils that are typically priced lower.
  2. Chicken thighs are moister and less expensive than chicken breasts. Purchase skin-on, bone-in cuts for more flavorful dishes.
  3. Balance time versus money – if you have time available to do long braises, buy more inexpensive cuts of meat and create wonderful stews. If you have an afternoon to bake, make quick breads or cookies and save money on store-bought treats.
  4. Eliminate chips and microwave popcorn from your budget – popping corn on the stovetop creates superior results and costs only a few cents. Season the hot corn with seasoning blends for variety.
  5. Don’t forget about eggs – many a soup or stew can be extended and enriched with the addition of a poached egg and a crusty piece of thick toast.
  6. Keep a few strong-flavored cheeses in the refrigerator for a big punch of flavor - mix a strong cheddar, smoked gouda with a cheaper Monterey jack; or use a crumbly bleu or parmesan to finish dishes.
  7. According to the Journal Sentinel article, taste testers have found very little, if any, difference when using imitation vanilla extract in baked goods like cakes, cookies or brownies – where the difference is noticed is in custards, puddings and ice creams. Use real vanilla when it is the star. Another time to use real vanilla – when you’re making cookie dough that is to be frozen raw or after being baked – the imitation vanilla flavor does not stand up to freezing.
  8. Use the internet to source vanilla bean pods and purchase in bulk when you find a good deal – they can be stored in the freezer. Don’t waste the pods leftover after scraping the seeds – they can be stashed in a storage jar with granulated sugar.
  9. European cocoas, like Valrhona, offer deep, dark flavor and a hefty price tag. If you want to indulge when baking, replace a portion of a grocery store brand cocoa with the higher end cocoa.
  10. Visit farmers' markets, local meat lockers, egg farms, etc. for the best prices on local, seasonal foods.

GE 4/1/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Cheap Eat Find: Depression Cooking

Every once and awhile you find a gem that just has to be shared . . .

Clara's New Wesite

Clara's YouTube Channel

GE 3/21/09
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Chefs have been making rich flavors on the cheap for centuries

If we had to operate our home kitchens to generate a profit and keep a staff in chef’s whites, we would have to be more resourceful like chefs are day in and day out.

“You don’t have to be a chef to get the most from every morsel – you just have to think like one,” Bonny Riechert, Thrifty Table, Globe and Mail.

Here are a few thrifty tips to get you started:

  • Use fruits that are getting too soft in purees to create cold soups or sauces
  • Save scraps and peelings from celery, carrots and onions in the freezer to make stock
  • Save bones from raw or cooked meats (label them) in the freezer for making stock
  • Scraps of raw meat and fat can become part of burger or sausage patties
  • Cut a chicken into parts yourself
  • Save the livers and gizzards from while chickens – sauté and add to a salad
  • Grind leftover, cooked meats to make fillings for ravioli and savory pies/tarts
  • Save shrimp shells (and other fish bones) to flavor milk in chowders or to create stock
  • Add a whole egg to leftover egg whites for a larger, fluffier omelet
  • Use leftover egg whites (can be frozen) to create meringues or use them to apply chopped nuts to cookies (ex: roll a log of refrigerator cookie dough in slightly whipped whites and then into chopped nuts)
  • Cube leftover bread and dry/toast in the oven until lightly browned and dry throughout – these cubes can be stored in the pantry for use in bread puddings (after a soaking in the egg/milk mixture) or made into bread crumbs in a blender or food processor
  • Freeze leftover chunks of un-iced brownies or cookies and use them in homemade ice cream or dry and make into crumbs for a crumb crust for ice cream or custard pies or cheesecakes
  • Make arancini (breaded, deep-fried, Italian fried rice balls) from leftover rice or risotto
  • Keep a wedge of parmesan in your refrigerator as this is one of the best cheeses to add a punch of flavor with only a minimal amount and the rinds/scraps can be added to soups or stew for depth
  • Try freezing firm cheeses like cheddar when they are found on sale
  • Scraps of cheese can be mixed together for cheese sauces or fondues
  • Stock up on butter when it is on sale and freeze it
  • Freeze (or dry) citrus zest or pieces of rind from the oranges and lemons you consume
  • Try dry vermouth in savory recipes that need wine – this is especially useful if you do not drink a lot of wine as the vermouth will keep longer in the refrigerator
  • Purchase smaller bottles (four packs) of wine for occasional recipe use
  • Use leftover . . .
  • white wine to steam fish and seafood
  • red or white wine for a quick pan sauce
  • red wine to braise beef cuts like brisket, roasts, etc.
  • red wine to poach pears or other stone fruits – reducing and sweetening the poaching liquid for a syrup that can be served with second dessert the next night

GE 3/18/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Restaurants look to comfort food as more cooks are saving money by dining in

According to a report in Reuters, “People are expected to opt for familiar fare with beans, pasta and chicken – and eat home more, making 2009 the year of the home cook.”

As the year progresses, grocery shoppers and home cooks will be looking for opportunities to save money while reevaluating their food needs and prioritizing what ingredients are the most important to them and their families.

While the organic food segment has been experiencing double digit growth the last few years, this market segment is expected to dip marginally before bouncing back again later this year. Local foods will continue to grow as in many regions of the country they still offer the best value when shopping seasonally.

When we do choose to eat out, experts predict that the growing ‘fast casual’ sector – like Panera – will be bring the diners in with comfort food selections. Neighborhood hangouts like bistros and bars will also fare well as they contribute to a sense of community.

To save money, more cooks are seeking out advice on meal planning, preserving and of course, ideas for what to do with chicken.

- GE 3/11/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

What to do when you find a bargain at the butcher

Learning how to stretch our meat and poultry budget takes more than just utilizing lower priced cuts. From special or seasonal sales to cuts in the bargain bin, stocking up for recipe planning is a great way to save.

Since most poultry is either frozen or super-chilled, it’s a good idea to buy extra when it’s on sale and you have time to cook and freeze the meat. With a large roasting pan, two whole chickens can be roasted simultaneously. The meat can either than be shredded and frozen for soups, stews, tacos and sandwiches, or whole pieces can be frozen for reheating in a variety of sauces.

Late last year, I ran across this handy tip in the New York Times. Guest blogger David Latt purchases prime cuts of beef and pork on sale, coats them with olive oil, seasons them with salt and pepper and then wraps the meat tightly in plastic wrap and then double wraps the bargain find in a freezer bag. I’ve tested the method and have had great results – and, in fact, plain canola or vegetable oil work just as well and are cheaper alternatives to olive oil.

Picking up a stray steak or pork loin chop is also the perfect opportunity to stretch a single piece of meat into more servings. Try some of these ideas:

Thinly sliced steak can be added to salads, layered with leafy vegetables and tomatoes for a hearty sandwich, used as a garnish with a hearty barley risotto or stew, and stretched to make deluxe tacos or quesadillas.

Strips of pork, steak or chicken make great additions to Vietnamese spring rolls or lettuce wraps. And a few pieces are the perfect topping to a hearty bowl of udon noodle soup containing spinach and mushrooms.

Ribs make a great meaty, boney addition to long-cooked stews.

Ground meats are also often on sale – try making them into deluxe meatballs that are pre-cooked, then frozen (in an individual layer on a lined cookie sheet before placing in a freezer bag) for a quick weeknight meal.

- GE 3/3/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Time Vs. Money: How to Save Money and Create a Flavorful, Rich Dish

In a recent article, If You've Got an Afternoon to Spare, the tasty results of an afternoon making cassoulet were outlined for the cook on the run. Warm, unctuous, a cassoulet can be pricey if you use the traditional duck confit - but in our recipe, we skip this for organic chicken thighs and saved a little time using canned beans - but we get all of the flavor.

A cassoulet, a traditional and hearty French dish that is enjoyed throughout the French countryside during fall and winter months, is essentially a hearty oven braised bean stew. The poultry and meat that is added to the cassoulet varies by regions of the country and can include a variety of pork, duck, lamb or chicken.

In this recipe, cooking time is reduced from two days to two to three hours by utilizing canned white beans and our meat selection is pared down to fresh sausage links and chicken legs or thighs creating a lighter, yet still hearty dish that you’ll be sure to enjoy.

2 tsp olive oil
2-4 fresh pork and garlic sausages, like garlic bratwursts
1 ½ to 2 lbs of chicken legs or thighs – skin on and bone in
Optional: 2-3 slices of bacon or fresh side or 2 tbs rendered duck fat
Mirepoix - 2 small white onions- 1 carrot – 1 celery stalk - chopped fine
2 tbs tomato paste
5-6 cloves of garlic, smashed
½ cup white wine or chicken stock
28-30 oz. canned, crushed tomatoes
2-3 dried bay leaves
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
Small onion, studded around the center with whole cloves
2, 15 oz. cans of canellinni beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
4-6 oz of crusty French bread
1-2 tbs olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prick the garlic sausages slightly with a fork. On medium-high heat, in a deep, ovenproof stockpot, brown the sausages in the a little bit of olive oil (so they don’t stick). Remove them once they are browned (they won’t be fully cooked). Then add the optional pork fat or duck fat and the chicken, skin side down and brown, removing from the pan once the chicken skin is brown and crispy and the pork is just starting to brown.

Add the mirepoix and sauté until onions are translucent. Then stir in the tomato paste until it is melted and mixed throughout the vegetables. Add the smashed garlic cloves. Then, add the white wine (or chicken stock), scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan (called fond). Then add the canned tomatoes, bay, parsley, thyme and clove-studded onion. Stir and bring to a simmer.

Next, add the drained and rinsed beans and then submerge the browned meats into the stew mixture. Add water to the stew, enough to cover the meats by ¼ to ½ inch. Bring to a simmer, cover and place in the preheated oven.

After 45 minutes, pull the cassoulet from the oven, stir and taste adding salt and pepper to taste. Return to the oven uncovered and bake for another 1 to 1 ½ hours as the broth reduces and concentrates making a thick stew.

Meanwhile, tear apart the French bread and pulse in a food processor to form fresh breadcrumbs. Toss the crumbs with olive oil. Once the cassoulet is cooked to the thickness you prefer – remove the clove-studded onion and the thyme stems, top with the crumbs and bake or broil until they form a brown crispy crust.

Serves 6. For more great recipes like our cassoulet, visit

-GE, 2/12/09

May it never get this bad . . .

In case your grocery bill is feeling the strain of the holiday season,
here's a little humor to lighten the load:

For more free funnies, visit

-GE, 12/30/08