Monday, May 4, 2009

It's cheaper to stay in and entertain. Are you prepared?

Here's one of my occasional "lifestyle" posts (just to give you a break from the relentlessly fabulous fashion). Most of us are eating out a lot less often, and since it's more fun to eat with friends, a lot of us are probably thinking about entertaining at home more than we did before. If you do, you'll find that it's not just good for your budget, but good for your body.

Does the very idea make you look around your kitchen wondering how on earth to do that? Be bold, fellow budget girls. Cooking is not difficult (I promise!), and you can equip your kitchen like a pro on a tiny budget.

Over the coming months, I'll devote posts to entertaining ideas--which will, necessarily, involve cooking--as well as the occasional budget menu, so I thought it might be helpful to get you started with a very basic guide to quality kitchen equipment that doesn't break the bank. First, don't think in terms of sets. You don't need an entire set of cookware, and you don't need an entire set of knives. You'll only ever use 2-3 pieces in each set, so why spend all that money? Besides, it'll take up precious cabinet space, and that's already a precious commodity for most of us.

I've collected a basic assortment of kitchen equipment here, so you can peruse what's there and see if there are any pieces you need to add to your collection.

You can cook just about anything under the sun with just 3-4 very basic pieces of cookware--a saute pan, a dutch oven, a medium-sized saucepot, and either a cast iron skillet or a nonstick skillet. For knives--which are the most important tools in your kitchen--you'll get by nicely with just a chef's knife and a paring knife. You can spend a small fortune on knives, but you don't have to. The equipment testers at Cook's Illustrated magazine looked at a range of knives about five years ago, and their budget choice was a Victorinox chef's knife that runs around $20--a far cry from the $100 and up you'll pay for the high-end knives. Is it as good as the pro-level carbon steel knife? No, but if you care for it and keep it honed regularly, it should serve you well for a very long time.

And so on, for just about every category of kitchen equipment. An important piece for anybody's kitchen is an enameled cast iron dutch oven, but the big name brands cost more than $200. You don't have to spend that much. There's a cheaper version (I happen to own this one) for $40; it gets heavy use, and is holding up as well as the expensive one would. And while we're on the subject of that enameled dutch oven, I have to stop and emphasize one of the most important things you need to do that'll help you care for your kitchen tools--do not use metal utensils on them. Ever. Throw them out, and get wooden or nylon tools, but don't come near your cookware with metal. If you do, I'll show up on your doorstep to scold you. Just ask Budget Boyfriend--he's finally learned that metal is a no-no, but not before ruining a perfectly innocent nonstick skillet.

It can be daunting trying to track down inexpensive but good-quality kitchen tools--it took me years to accumulate all of mine. Take a look at my link, and you'll find them all in one place, and then decide for yourself what you need.

Once you have your equipment ready, cook. No, really--just cook. For those of you who don't, or who don't think you can--you're wrong! Cooking good, fresh, healthy food is really quite simple--just arm yourself with a little knowledge. You can, quite literally, learn everything you need to know from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. It's exhaustive, and well-written. And very, very undaunting.

Beyond that, there are so many online resources it's hard to know where to begin, but start here: Michael Ruhlman's blog. Ruhlman is a writer-cook who's written some of the best books you'll find on cooking and what it takes--and what it means--to be a chef. You'll find online tutorials with plenty of photos on the most basic elements of cooking. He's fun to read, and he links to dozens of other outstanding food blogs, so check those out, too.

Another good blog for those of us on a budget is Pay Less For Food, and an excellent testimonial to the possibilities of cooking with fresh, organic food while on a strict budget can be found here. Shun processed foods. Acquaint yourself with your local farmers' market. Start skimming Ruhlman's blog (and the others he links to). And then: pull out your knives, fire up your stove, and start cooking. There are few things more satisfying, healthier, and, with a little savvy, few things more budget-friendly.

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