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Friday, April 11, 2008

6 Books for Frugal Cooks

With millions of recipes on the Internet, are cookbooks obsolete? For people trying to spend less on groceries, the right cookbook can still be the ultimate tool. While almost any recipe you can imagine is available somewhere online, recipe sites tend to favor recipes that are impressive and complicated, use brand-name ingredients, or are heavy on convenience foods. (For the ultimate in convenience food cooking, this book is disturbing. There's an entire section of meals based around beer. Oh, ew, there's a microwave version, too!) It can take a lot of sifting to uncover simpler alternatives.

Here are five of my favorite cooking references to have available within arm's reach of the kitchen.

1. More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Longacre
Hands down the best frugal cookbook out there. Written by a Mennonite woman and full of submissions from the Mennonite community, these recipes are distilled to their simplest and most frugal forms. Most of the usual bases are covered, along with more unique entries like Pakistani Kima and Formosan Fried Cabbage (since many Mennonites are missionaries, there is a "global" feel to the book). It's also an excellent source for vegetarian and less-meat recipes and help in planning simple meals. The recipes encourage experimentation--I've found that some of the dishes benefit from additional seasoning.

2. Now You're Cooking! by Elaine Corn
This more contemporary book gives simple, easy-to-follow recipes for things like hummus and smoothies. It's a comprehensive guide for the beginning cook, and also a great tutorial for a "by the numbers" cook who'd like to learn to go with the flow more--the author suggests adaptations for many of the recipes, and explains the "why" of different cooking techniques and ingredient choices.

3. The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn
Yes, I recommend this book for everything. That's because it's awesome and has changed my life. Amy D.'s cooking advice is all about the numbers. A dozen different times in these books, she asks for reader submissions for, say, homemade worcestershire sauce, chooses the cheapest one, and comes up with a new version that costs half as much. She also sprinkles several "universal" recipes throughout the book--I've used the universal muffin and universal casserole recipes several times with very satisfactory results. I've long since written all the Tightwad Gazette recipes on recipe cards so I don't have to page through the books every time I want to use them.

3. The Joy of Cooking by eight million generations of Rombauers
This is the gold standard of comprehensive general cookbooks. I love it for its combination of information on food (the different ways of cooking asparagus; the difference between pudding and custard) and recipes that invariably produce wonderful results. I rarely use a recipe out of this cookbook exactly as written, but I still turn to it whenever I'm cooking a new dish. If I'm using a recipe out of The More-for-Less Cookbook, for example, I might use Joy of Cooking for ideas of additional ingredients to add or to see what steps the simpler recipe skips and whether I might want to add them back in. If I'm using a recipe I found online, I'll turn to Joy of Cooking to see whether any of the components of the recipe can be made from scratch without too much additional work.

5. How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher or Good Recipes for Hard Times by Louise Newton
Both of these books are written by women living through tough times on tight budgets. M. F. K. Fisher was a famous--perhaps the most famous--food writer. How to Cook a Wolf, written in 1942, one of the bleakest years in modern history, is both a collection of funny and quirky essays and a practical guide to very frugal cookery. (Wolves, however, are merely a metaphor and not on the menu.) Fisher offers more tips than actual recipes, and some of her recipes are hard to adapt for the modern reader.

Good Recipes for Hard Times
, in contrast, is primarily a collection of recipes, and as such provides more direct help to the ultra-frugal cook. This book goes even further than The More-for-Less Cookbook in making each dish as simple as possible. However, the perspective of the author is rather grim--her own shopping list is based very heavily on grain products, allowing little room for even fruits and vegetables, much less meat. She's been through what sounds like decades of hard times and seems a bit worse for wear, which could make this a useful but rather depressing read for those struggling to stick to tight budgets.

What are your favorite sources for cheap recipes? Are there great web sites out there that I'm missing?

1 comment:

Jenny said...

these look interesting. i wanna check them out.