Cooking gourmet meals on a budget

Cooking gourmet can mean as many different things as there are ingredients in the grocery store.

So, before you actually begin cooking gourmet meals on your budget, you have to define what it means to you. Take a look at the following general definitions of what gourmet dining means to different people:

Appearance - If you define gourmet as the way a dish appears, you can learn a few techniques for creating new and exciting presentations of your meals without spending a lot of money.

New - If your definition of gourmet means trying something new, there are hundreds of different foods that you can give a try without worrying about your budget.

Exotic - If your definition of gourmet food relates to exotic tastes, you'll need to find creative ways to find these exciting new flavors without breaking the grocery budget.

Now let's look at a few helpful tips to find ways to introduce gourmet ingredients and style to your meals, while keeping your budget in mind...

Be open to new main Ingredients

Cooking gourmet on a budget isn't always about adding exotic spices or ingredients. Sometimes by choosing a cut of meat that's different from your usual choice, you can create a dish that's fresh and brand new to you - what you would call gourmet. Whether you're cooking beef, lamb, chicken, pork, seafood, or vegetarian, there are always new items to try.

Remember, oftentimes what we now consider routine was once considered gourmet or unusual fare. Just think about tilapia, for instance. This run-of-the-mill fish wasn't always that way. When first introduced, it was quite exotic to many people outside of the fishing world. So, look for main ingredients that you haven't heard of before. The advantage is often translated into savings on your budget simply because of supply-and-demand. When a food is first introduced to a market it isn't very popular, which means the price will often be more reasonable. It's only after a certain product gains popularity that markets feel comfortable raising their prices. Less popular items can be found around the edges of the meat, fish, poultry, and produce counter, so that's where you may find something new to try.

Mix up your flavors

Along with new main ingredients, you will also bump up the gourmet value of a meal without spending a lot of money by trying new combinations of spices and seasonings. You don't have to spend a lot of money on spices, just use the ones you have in new ways. Instead of always adding basil and oregano to spaghetti sauce, why not sprinkle in a bit of fennel seed? When you make your family's favorite chili, imagine what a little espresso stirred in during the last half hour of cooking would do. Intrigued? Don't forget chili powder in your chocolate frosting and nutmeg in your eggs.

Spices and seasonings are not the only ingredients that could use a shake-up when it comes to gourmet cooking on a budget. Have you added pureed pumpkin to your black bean soup yet? It adds a smooth creaminess that is decidedly gourmet, especially when sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. How about crushed pineapple to your pasta and shrimp primavera? Just look through your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and see what would happen if you decided to throw out all the rules. I bet you would come up with great new meals that are gourmet-style on a tight budget.

Quality counts

The whole factor of good, gourmet taste relies on quality. There are items you can skimp on and items where you need to spend a bit more to get the good stuff. It's hard to know the difference until you actually use both, but one example that comes to mind is balsamic vinaigrette. There is a price range where you reach a good quality, and anything below that doesn't measure up. The reason is the aging. You want a good, thick, rich vinaigrette for your salads or marinades, otherwise you may as well be using vinegar.

With this in mind, there are choices to be made that will help you cook gourmet and stay within your budget. Yes, spend the money on good quality when it counts, then save money on items that are the same across the price spectrum. For example, after you spend money on a good vinaigrette for your salad, don't spend money on expensively priced croutons. You'll find a variety of prices, but all croutons are pretty much created alike. Or, just make them at home for the cheapest, and best tasting, option.

Think local

Utilizing your local farmer's market is a great way to go gourmet without spending a lot of money. Reducing the middleman keeps the price low and you might just get to try their new crops. Think about investing in a crop share at a local farm or look into small starter farms.

You are likely to find unusual items, too, because most local farms produce a wide variety of produce simply because they can. They don't have to worry about satisfying a vast market; just the locals. The local farms are typically very accommodating and love to talk about their crops, and will find new varieties for you to try. They are also interested in finding new ways to cook and serve their crops so more people will buy them. If you see something unusual at your local farmer's market, talk to the farmer about it, cook it up, and report back. In that way, you'll get lots of new information for new foods to add to your gourmet-style of dining.

Shop ethnic stores

If your definition of gourmet cooking is to try exotic foods, then try shopping at ethnic grocers. Usually their food is cheaper than similar food in the big chain store, and you have a better chance of finding what you were looking for. If you need to find that special fruit used in that Indian dish, then your best bet is shopping at an Indian grocery store. It is surprising how many different ingredients you can find in a real Italian, French, or Asian food store than you can find in the 'ethnic aisle' of your grocery store.

When you get into an authentic ethnic store, you may feel confused. The packaging may not be clear to you and the items may be completely unknown. That's great! That's exactly what gourmet cooking on a budget is all about. Ask for help. Tell the proprietor that you are new and want to try something that isn't expensive, but has flavors that are different and exciting. It may help to bring in recipes or pictures of dishes you find appealing, then go from there. Shop for one dish at a time to keep your head from exploding! There's a lot of information to absorb, but just give it time. A few more visits to your local ethnic food store and you'll be cooking like a pro.

Everything is exotic to somebody

If your definition of gourmet cooking on a budget is to perk up your basic dishes with exotic ingredients, do you automatically think of far off places with names you can't pronounce? You don't have to travel the globe for something unusual. Often, our own region offers ingredients that would be considered exotic to others. There may even be foods in your area that you have yet to discover. Your very own region and culture could be hiding quite a few foods that are exotic.

Keep an open mind and try to expand your palate with local cuisine. Explore the heritage of your region to discover the rich abundance of native cuisine. Look at the indigenous ingredients first, then the ways the natives prepared the dishes using what they had. These dishes are often the basis for an entire cuisine. Just consider what we know now of Cajun cooking. This is an example of regional ingredients cooked in the way their ancestors did using what was available to them. It's time to explore your own backyard. You'll find when you cook your own region's gourmet cuisine, the ingredients are fresher and cheaper, and easier to find, of course.

If you want to cook gourmet on a budget, it really just takes a few simple choices. Figure out how you define gourmet cooking, then start exploring all the options. When you put these tips to work, you'll be surprised how inexpensive cooking gourmet can actually be.

Gourmet cooking right out of your own pantry

Gourmet cooking doesn't have to start with the most expensive ingredients in a specialty shop. On the contrary, cooking gourmet can actually be done within a reasonable budget and, quite often, with the ingredients you already have on hand. Let's take a look at five simple ingredients you can probably pull out of your pantry right now:

Cinnamon

Not only is cinnamon easily accessible, but its qualities enhance a wide variety of foods and beverages. Many of the most pungent dishes served in fine restaurants, from French toast to bread pudding to acorn squash soup to braised short ribs to coffee, most likely will have cinnamon as one of the key ingredients. Offering a unique taste to any dish, cinnamon gives you the "what's that wonderful flavor?" moment. Not only does cinnamon offer a warm flavor that lingers behind the scenes, but it has health benefits, as well. Cinnamon is believed to boost metabolism, which may be reason enough to add this simple seasoning to your list of gourmet ingredients.

Crepes

While crepes can't be considered a solitary ingredient, they should be thought of as a gourmet item for the simple reason that they make an ordinary gathering of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and the like something special. Using typical ingredients you may have on hand already, fill simple crepes with cream cheese and strawberries, top them with raisins and dried cranberries, and you have a beautiful plate suitable for any fancy restaurant. There are literally hundreds of ways to make crepes. Dress up a crepe with caramelized plantains, a chocolate hazelnut spread, or spinach, goat cheese, and toasted pine nuts. Even the crepe itself can be made sweet or savory with interesting new ingredients. Anytime you think of making pancakes, waffles, or even a wrap or sandwich, think again, and make crepes instead for that gourmet touch.

Roasted garlic

If you think roasted garlic is a delicacy, only available at upscale restaurants, it's time to revisit your beliefs. Now, we're not talking about the stuff you buy in the jars, we're talking about true gourmet-style roasted garlic right from your oven. This is an incredibly easy gourmet treat that is easy to do and yields great results in both the aroma you add to your kitchen and the beautiful presentation and taste. Simply cut the entire head of garlic in half, so the cloves are exposed, place on tin foil, drizzle oil over the exposed garlic cloves, seal the foil, and cook in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 to 45 minutes. When done, let cool and squeeze the garlic bulb; the cloves will pop right out. Mash and use for wonderful garlicky dips or in mashed potatoes, or any dish where a bit of the gourmet flare is desired.

Citrus zest

Orange, lime, or lemon zest is a great way to add a gourmet touch to your everyday dishes. A little added citrus zest will change the flavor profile of the most basic dish. There are many ways to use citrus zest. Take orange zest and add it to a simple syrup to serve atop vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Lime zest is the key ingredient that turns an ordinary Mexican or Thai dish into a gourmet treat. Lemon zest brightens up fish and chicken and is often used as the secret ingredient in marinades. And, don't forget your vegetables. You can just add salt, pepper, and butter to roasted broccoli, but why not add a sprinkling of lemon zest for that "Wow" factor. Be sure when you zest your citrus that you remove only the bright peel, and not the white fiber underneath, as this has a bitter taste in all citrus. Also, you can dry citrus zest so you don't have to waste any. Just zest the whole fruit, use what you want fresh, and set the rest out on a plate to let dry. Store tightly sealed in the refrigerator for best results.

Toasted nuts and seeds

Toasting nuts and seeds brings out the natural oils and enhances the flavor. Once toasted, these aromatic powerhouse ingredients can be added to many basic dishes to give them a gourmet boost. One favorite is toasted pine nuts, which can be used in so many ways. A simple dish is just tossing toasted pine nuts with goat cheese, fresh asparagus, and pasta to create a flavor profile you will want to experience again. Another nut that is versatile is the toasted almond. Not only can you toss them with salads, pasta, and vegetables, but you can also crush them and use as you would normally use flour or bread crumbs for coating chicken, fish, or even beef. The next time you see a variety of nuts or seeds in the grocery store, think about how they would toast up, and add a gourmet twist to your recipes.

Gourmet cooking doesn't have to be difficult or filled with wacky ingredients you've never heard of before, or can't get in your regular grocery store. A fresh new outlook on your everyday ingredients can make a huge difference in taste and quality. Cooking gourmet may be easier than you ever imagined when you start rethinking what you have in your very own pantry.

Turn Daylily flowers into a delicious natural bowl to showcase fresh berries, figs or other fruits. Stunning and, as Daylily flowers are edible, you can eat the container.

Unusual ingredients to turn a mundane dish into a gourmet meal

Gourmet cooking is a great way to spice up your life. "Sure, I'd love to cook gourmet," you say, "but it is too rich for my budget." This all depends on how you define gourmet. If it is a new taste you are looking for, then a simple combination of spices like rosemary and cracked black pepper on your popcorn might be gourmet. If more wild ingredients are what you're looking for, then all it takes is a little imagination and a willingness to give new foods a taste. Let's take a look at a few gourmet ingredients that can perk up any mealtime:

Tahini

Typically an ingredient used in Indian dishes, tahini is also great for most dishes where a spicy peanut flavor is needed. Whisking tahini together with some oil and a little apple cider vinegar makes a fantastic Asian inspired salad dressing. A glass jar of tahini will probably cost about ten dollars, but a little bit goes a long way. Just to give you an idea, a tablespoon is all that is needed in a very large dish of hummus. Keep your tahini in the fridge to ensure freshness and to help your investment stretch out over a longer period of time. To estimate the expense over the lifetime of a bottle of tahini, you're looking at only a dollar or two a month.

Kuzu

Yes, this is the green vine you see taking over the side of the highway. Believe it or not, this legume, native to China, can be used in a variety of gourmet ways. Its root can be powdered and used to thicken soups and stews, or used as a coating for fried foods. The greens of the kudzu vine can be used in salads or boiled like collards or turnip greens to give your favorite dish a new taste. To make it even more exotic or gourmet, the flowers can be made into a jelly, deep fried, or just used as an edible garnish or in a salad.

Quinoa

Often mistaken for a grain, quinoa is a small, round seed, extremely nutritious, a complete protein containing all the essential amino acids, and a terrific source of dietary fiber. This versatile food, which was not that long ago considered a rare gourmet food, is a great gluten-free substitute for rice or small pasta. Quinoa has a mild nutty flavor and comes in several varieties. It can be used in soups, casseroles, as side dishes and cold salads. You can even germinate quinoa and use it as you would any sprout on a salad or sandwich.

Dragon Fruit

Also known as pitaya or pitahaya, dragon fruit has a similar texture and taste of a kiwi. Packed with enzymes and vitamin C, dragon fruit can be used in fruit salads, to make a cocktail, or even mashed up to help tenderize meat. Not only is dragon fruit a tasty treat, it also makes a great presentation. The skin is inedible, but pretty, so use it as a garnish to make your dish look like a gourmet masterpiece.

Anchovies

Many people are afraid of this gourmet ingredient. The first thought is salty; the next thought is pizza. But, there is so much more to this tiny miracle from the waters. Instead of thinking about a small fish in a can, think of the qualities it holds. Just like soy sauce, anchovies have a salty component to their unique flavor. Coupled with a smokey taste and a kick you can feel in the back of your throat, anchovies can be used to turn a good meal into gourmet. You'd be surprised how many of your favorite restaurant dishes can attribute that wonderful piquant burst of flavor to anchovies.

First, define gourmet for yourself. Then, pick some creative ingredients, preferably ones you have yet to try, and give it a whirl. Don't think about the food you are eating, but instead, research the ingredients and figure out their flavor profiles. Then work from there. Happy gourmet dining!