Peasant cuisine: Using traditional tricks to cut your food budget

When I was a kid, my mother used to complain about how little food I ate. Like every other mother, she would tell me all about the poor, starving kids in India who didn't have enough to eat. I, of course, offered to send them my broccoli. When I went so far as to address a box to "Poor, Starving Kids in India," she told me that I was a smartass. I did notice, however, that we didn't have broccoli again for a very long time.

It's worth noting, by the way, that mothers in other countries use the same line. My friend Christine, who grew up in the Philippines, told me that her mother used to talk about the poor starving kids on the other end of town. This, of course, puts a whole other swing on it.

When I started to cook, I thought about my mother's comments. One doesn't have to go as far as India to find people who are struggling to put food on the table. Somehow, though, the vast majority of parents are able to sufficiently provide for their children. As gas prices push food prices up, it's worth reconsidering the miracle by which parents around the world prepare enough food for themselves and their kids. Personally, I call this miracle "Peasant food."

I know it's not politically correct, but if you look far enough into almost any region's recipes, you'll find shortcuts and customs that clever chefs developed to make food go further. From the use of organ meats in haggis to the reliance on cheap grains in pasta, most traditional cuisines have found ways to stretch the food budget and use every part of an animal. I'm not advocating haggis (which, frankly, is kind of bland), nor am I suggesting a pasta-only diet (which, frankly, is what transformed Marlon Brando from a handsome actor into Jabba the Hutt). Rather, I am noting that a few simple considerations in your diet will help you spend less money on food, will improve the quality of your fare, and will probably make you a lot healthier.

Flavor: Rather than resorting to catchy phrases like "not afraid of flavor" or "embrace taste," I'm simply going to point out that spices are pretty cheap, yet they go a long way toward making food delicious. Oregano, basil, thyme, and fennel seed will spice up most of your Italian cooking, while tarragon, rosemary, lavender, and thyme will impart a kick to French food. Try cumin, red pepper, chili powder, and Mexican oregano in your Latin American foods. A little nutmeg will do wonders for your mashed potatoes, and cinnamon will add another dimension to your Swiss Miss instant cocoa. By experimenting, browsing through Epicurus, and generally figuring out what you like, you will discover dimensions of flavor that you never knew existed. A word to the wise, though: asafoetida tastes more or less like it sounds.

Many of these spices also have health benefits. Garlic, for example, detoxifies the body, lowers blood pressure, and will help with a host of other problems. Ginger alleviates nausea, is a strong antioxidant, and improves blood circulation. Rosemary helps eliminate free radicals, reduces inflammation, and improves circulation to the brain. If you are interested in learning more about the medicinal aspect of herbs, check out Phyllis Balch's Prescription for Nutritional Healing.

Finally, if you find yourself going a little heavy on the salt, try adding lemon juice or vinegar. Acids are a key ingredient in many cuisines, and they can increase flavor without increasing your blood pressure. Red wine vinegar is among the most versatile acids, and can be easily made at home. Simply combine a bottle of red wine vinegar and a bottle of cheap red wine in a large glass container. Cover and place in a dark area of your kitchen. Within a few months, active bacteria in the vinegar will transform the rest of the wine into vinegar.

Luxury items: Ingredients like meats and cheese cost a lot of money and can be expensive to prepare, so many native cuisines use them sparingly. In Asian cooking, for example, meats are often sliced thinly to make it easier to cook them. They are then served with large quantities of vegetables, which stretches them out. Similarly, Italian cuisine often uses sausage, ground beef, and sauces to maximize the effect of insufficient or unattractive cuts of meat.

Because cheese costs so much, traditional dishes like Welsh Rarebit, Pasta Carbonara, and Macaroni and Cheese are all pretty much designed to maximize the effect of a relatively small amount of it. Not only does this save you money, but the addition of surprise ingredients like beer (Welsh Rarebit), prosciutto (Pasta Carbonara), and Bechamel sauce (Macaroni and Cheese) can result in some pretty amazing creations.

Grains and starches: From Peru to Ireland, potatoes are a mealtime staple, and even those countries that avoid the lowly tuber make considerable use of bread, pasta, rice, and other grains. The reason isn't hard to see: these ingredients are cheap and filling. Moreover, they help stretch out the rest of the meal. If you're concerned about eating too much starch, try natural grains like brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-wheat bread. Not only are these also filling, but they are more nutritious than other starches, promote healthy digestion, and don't give you with empty energy.

This, of course, is only a beginning. There are dozens of other similarities that link native cuisines, like the reliance on beans, the popularity of cabbage, and the common use of onions. However, this is a nice start. The key point to remember are that you don't need an expensive steak or a fresh fish fillet to make a delicious, exotic meal.

"Peasant cuisine: Using traditional tricks to cut your food budget" is part of a series on nutritious, inexpensive foods. If you enjoyed it, you might want to check out "Peasant food: How potatoes saved the world," "Peasant food: Behold the lowly bean," and "Cook in bulk and give the chef the night off!" Alternately, if you have any suggestions for future "Peasant food" topics, please contact the author at

Bruce Watson is a former English instructor, sometime writer, and all-around cheapskate. A co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea, his work has appeared in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, The Roanoker, The Brush Mountain Review, The Eccentric Monthly, The Best of Times, and College Daze. He currently blogs on Crankster.

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