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The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cooking School: Introduction [Updated]



[Updated Below]

Much of my adult non-professional life has been spent in kitchens.  This has been entirely by choice, because I have a deep and passionate love of both cooking and good food.  Such was not always the case, however.  My mother was one of those housewives who never really enjoyed cooking and was therefore not particularly good at it.  In addition, my father was a product of the depression. He felt that paying restaurants to make your food for you was a foolish waste of money that could just as easily be put into savings accounts, so we almost never went out.  And so I started out life as an adult knowing little about good food and less about cooking, aside from the rather vague notion that heat was usually involved.

When I learned how to cook, it was out of necessity.

I was in my sophomore year of college, and had escaped dorm life to live in my very first apartment.  This escape was largely driven by my hatred of dorm food, so as soon as my freshman year was over I put a holding-deposit on a place near campus that had a full kitchen. I spent that summer going to garage sales with my friend Melissa, trying to cobble together enough under-a-dollar glasses, plates, silverware, utensils and cookware to get me by. The thought that I might make the food I wanted to eat for myself and — dare I dream? — women I might ask over to my apartment thrilled me.

I’m not sure why, but it never occurred to me then that my having no idea how to cook might eventually become an issue.

Once in my apartment, not knowing how to cook led to two inevitable outcomes.  The first and most obvious was that most of what I made was terrible.  But there is another inevitable byproduct of not knowing how to cook that rarely gets mentioned: it’s really expensive.  When you’re poor and you don’t know how to cook you go out to McDonalds a lot.  Or you rely on “convenient” processed foods you buy at the store: cans of chili, or Alfredo noodle packages where you add milk and butter and perhaps already cooked chicken pieces.  You buy these things on sale because they look inexpensive, and in a relative way they are: that Rice-a-Roni Pasta box is certainly less expensive than going to Applebee’s and ordering Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken. But when you take a step back, you inevitably see that eating this way costs a small (albeit hidden) fortune.

For example, in my sophomore year I “invented” a chicken dish that was more than passable, and I made it for dates all the time.  I called it Chicken Ford, after Harrison Ford, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom so many years later.  The recipe for Chicken Ford was simple: chicken breasts covered first in a can of Ragu spaghetti sauce and then a healthy dose of Kraft parmesan cheese, baked at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Chicken Ford was also not very original: it turns out it existed long before I thought I had made it up, and it’s called Chicken Parmesan.  It was still a hit, though — and by “hit” I mean “not such an inedible clusterf**k that it completely negated any bonus points I might have won from dates I wanted to impress for at least trying to cook for them.”

Still, Chicken Ford was relegated to special date-night status, because even though it was cheaper than, say, a filet mignon, it was still more than I could regularly afford to eat on my measly student’s budget.  After all, two chicken breasts, an entire can of sauce, and a handful of that Kraft attic insulation (with real parmesan flavor!) for one dish of one meal is actually pretty expensive when you’re poor.

My sister was the one who eventually saved me.  I was having a hard time making ends meet, and asked her if I could borrow some money so that I wouldn’t have to ask my parents.  She agreed, and when we were talking over the phone she asked me how I spent my money. I ran through my budget and afterwards she said, “If you want to live on the money you have, you are going to have to learn how to cook.”  I got huffy and told her I knew how to cook, thank you very much. I was the man who invented Chicken Ford!

“No you don’t,” she replied, “you know how to heat things up.  I’m going to teach you how to cook — how to really cook.”

And so for the next few months, through letters and phone calls, my sister started me down the path of learning how to really cook and not just “heat things up.”  And my life has never really been the same since.


A while ago, Balloon Juice’s John Cole posted an idea: why not teach people who didn’t have a ton of money how to cook, so that they might be able to better afford to eat?  It was right about the same time that I had started to post some of my first Cheap-Ass Gourmet posts, so I reached out and said that I would love to contribute whatever I could. There was much love and patting on backs.  And then like most great ideas, everyone involved quickly forgot about it.

I do remember, though, the responses of some of BJ’s commenters on my Cheap-Ass Gourmet series.  They didn’t like them, and the main reason was my encouraging of readers to look for opportunities when they could afford it to spend a little more on certain things like higher quality olive oil and sea salt, or  — if they were in a position to splurge — getting a free-range chicken instead of the cheapest one they could find at Winco.  That, the BJ folk figured, was a sign that I was coming from a place of privilege.  This, of course, is absolutely true.  But one of the things I know thanks to my privilege is that buying a free-range chicken actually costs less than the cheapest chicken you can find at Winco — but it’s only cheaper if you actually know how to cook.

If 20-year-old-me were to make Chicken Ford, for example, there is no doubt that free range would be more expensive.  After all, you’re just buying two breasts, eating them, and then throwing away the bones when you do the dishes.  (What else would you do with the bones?)  But once you know how to cook, the equation shifts and the Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice kicks in.  Because once you know how to cook, you can take advantage of food that is more flavorful rather than food that has no flavor at all.  A whole free-range chicken might cost me a dollar or two more than a Foster Farms roaster, but I can use the free-range to get twice the broth with the carcass; I use a fraction the amount of leftover meat in food-stretch dishes like chicken enchiladas because I don’t need nearly as much to make them taste like chicken enchiladas.  When you know how to cook, that free-range chicken saves you money — and it’s better tasting and healthier for you and your family to boot.

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic a lot recently, and so I’ve decided to write something on my own for people who need to learn how to cook on a budget.  I’ll post them here first, and then if I can find someone who is willing to distribute them (say, a group of social service workers, churches, or whoever) I’ll put it all together in a free eBook.

I’ll start next week, and for the next seven weeks I will have a post each Sunday that focuses on what I believe are the seven essential skills that someone needs to know in order to cook delicious, healthy food on a budget.  There will be basic instructions, of course, as well as recipes.  But I’ll also try to zoom out and explain the science of each cooking method, as well as its history, what types of cuisine lean heavily upon it, and what other types of similar cooking methods you can branch out and try once you feel comfortable.

The seven skills we will look at will be these:

  • Roasting
  • Sautéing
  • Braising
  • Steaming
  • Stir-frying
  • Broiling
  • Stewing

Once you know those seven, I would argue, you can do just about anything in the kitchen — and you can do it without the use of expensive specialty equipment and appliances.  (Which, once you save enough money, you might want to buy anyway.  Because truth be told, once you know how to cook those specialty appliances and cookbooks are too much fun.)

And with as many cooks as we have here, I of course look forward to the comments sections of each.


Update: On the subject of roasting vs. baking.  

I was planning on dealing with this in next Sunday’s post (which will be on roasting), but since it seems to be an ongoing argument in the threads I’ll address it now:  

From a cooking method standpoint, there is no difference between roasting and baking.  Each method cooks food with dry, indirect heat in an enclosed space.  So what, really, is the difference between roasting and baking? As it turns out, there are actually two separate differences: culinary and cultural. 

Historically speaking, the culinary distinction between roasting and baking has nothing to do with the cooking; it has to do with the chemical change of the food.  The purpose of roasting is to take an overly solid  piece of food (such as piece of meat, or a hard root vegetables) and at least partially break it down at a cellular level to make it more tender and easier to eat.  The purpose of baking is entirely the opposite: to take a non-solid food substance (such as bread dough, or a pot full of casserole ingredients) and to a certain degree make it more solid.

Culturally, however, the difference is muddier and less precise, mostly because when it is released into the wilds of popular vernacular language has a tendency to do that.  So we now often say “baked chicken” (when cooking singular pieces) or “baked salmon,” but in fact based upon the historical definitions we do in fact roast them.

For the purposes of this series, however, learning the skills of roasting will (I hope) be enough to help you feel comfortable enough to try baking — or for that matter, barbecuing.


Follow Tod on Twitter, view his archive, or email him. Visit him at TodKelly.com

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59 thoughts on “The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cooking School: Introduction [Updated]

  1. I am looking forward to this series because I want to cook more. My biggest issues about cooking are that I live alone and.

    1. Most recipes seem to be made for two or three people or more.

    2. I can stand making enough food that it serves me two or three nights but I have never been able to do what my friends do which is spend an entire Sunday cooking enough food for the week.

    3. Cleaning. This is the big issue. My kitchen is big enough but I don’t have a dishwasher and the idea of using multiple pots and pans for one person and then needing to clean them always depresses me.


    • Walking past a rack full of clean dishes is one of life’s great small pleasures (I almost never hand dry my dishes). If the thought of that isn’t enough to motivate you, find something to occupy your mind while you wash. Turn the music up loud and sing along. Explain your current problem at work to the dog. Compose a guest post in your head. Or just count your blessings — my father told me once that he never thought he would miss washing dishes, until his arthritis got bad enough that he didn’t dare wash anything breakable or sharp because his grip wasn’t reliable.

      Doesn’t apply to you, but one of my parenting tips is, “Wash dishes with your kids. Start when they’re young so it’s a habit. It’s amazing what an otherwise surly teenager will tell you while helping with the dishes.”


      • I wash dishes with my four year old, if playing in the bubbles and mopping up after counts as “washing dishes”. Thanks for the heads up, Michael. It’s nice to know it will pay off when he’s a teen.
        As a single mom, cooking enough on Sunday to last me several days is like walking past a rack full of clean dishes. Ahhh :)


      • I listen to audiobooks throughout the day, especially when doing chores like dishes. Since it’s done in one place (as opposed to cleaning) I actually half-watched a TV program on my phone while I did it these past couple of weeks.


      • Mastering the simultaneous dinner-ready/pots-washed stage of cooking single is enormously satisfying. With two cats that aren’t allowed to have people food, I’ve had no choice but to get kind of good at that. Plus, there are stir- and pan-fry dishes that are most appetizingly served, and sometimes eaten, right out of the cooking pot, which cuts down on the work.


    • My recommendation for cleaning after dinner, with or without a dishwasher: do all the plates, glasses, and silverware after you eat and set to rack dry. Soak all post and pans, clean in the morning. Cleaning pots and pans right after you cook with them can e a chore; cleaning them after you’ve let them soak overnight is almost always just rinsing them out.


    • Man, you are just begging me for more posts, ain’tcha?
      A week of cooking shouldn’t take much longer than a day of cooking — economy of scale, man.
      And if you’re doing a stew (and why not, it keeps well), you can read a book the whole time (so long as you remember to stir! set timer!)


    • Stir-fry and other one pan meals are the way to go.

      For instance, I often cook some kind of protein in a skillet (sometimes all on the stove, sometimes finished in the oven), then remove the protein and wilt or saute some greens in the same pan.


  2. I recently started volunteering at our community food pantry.

    This is, in some ways, pretty disheartening; boxes of food from donations and purchased at steep discount from the Good Shepard Food Bank.

    And one of the things I realize I should do is develop recipes that use the food we place in the boxes we distribute; but I need a few more months to clearly understand what’s regularly distributed and what’s a one-off (like the packages of bacon that don’t need refrigeration. What’s up with that?)

    No matter, some recipes for lentil soup are definitely in order there. And I may well take your ideas and use them as a springboard, too; I hope you appreciate the spreading of good skills, Tod.

    (And today’s must cook something new each week venture is a bulgur salad, Greek style, with lemon juice, mint, and olive oil, tomatoes, cucumbers; probably based on this recipe: http://www.kalynskitchen.com/2009/08/recipe-for-bulgar-salad-with-tomatoes.html.)

    For your skills list, baking and fermenting seem crucial to me; but I’m old school.


      • “Fermenting is a chore” depends how complicated you’re getting, maybe.

        If you’re brewing beer, that’s a lot of effort.

        On the other hand, when we were perpetually half-broke students, one thing I did to save a bit of money was make yogourt at home. All I did was fill the nearly empty yogourt pot with milk, stir it, cover it, and leave it for 24 hours on top of our inefficient fridge that kicked out way too much heat. The culture started to get weak after a few generations at which point I’d buy an other pot from the store. It cut the cost of yogourt to about a third of buying new every time, for minimal effort.

        I also made bread pretty often before my wife realized she’s allergic to wheat. The fermenting aspect there was similarly little bother – leave the bread pans in the oven overnight, set the alarm an hour early, turn on the oven, go back to bed, get up to fresh bread.


      • DF, can she eat spelt flour?

        I’ve been working on a spelt recipe, since I have several friends who can’t eat wheat but can eat gluten (and so can eat spelt.) It’s my favorite flour for anything you want a tender crumb to; I use it for pie crust, cookies, muffins, etc. And it can make excellent bread if treated properly.


  3. This should be fun. Learning how to cook more and better food was an important part of getting healthy and in better shape for me. If you don’t like the food you make at home you are more likely to go out for crap out of desperation and hunger instead of as a fun treat. My wife also has a restricted diet and likes/needs bland food while i like spicy food so we need to cook separately. It is amazing that it isn’t all that hard to cook good healthy tasteful food for yourself. It seems like it should be hard before you know what you are doing.


  4. I also learned my love of cooking through exchanging letters with a friend that taught me what little I know about making food. (Except, I’m slightly younger, so these “letters” are what we now call email.)

    I think I’ll go searching the archives for the series of posts you did a while back about all of the chicken. I’ve been wanting to get a “happy” chicken for a while, now I’ll know what to do with it!


  5. This should be a lot of fun. I learned how to cook backwards. I wanted to master various ethnic cuisines so I would tackle various dishes and then back into the necessary techniques. A couple of years ago I decided to go back to the basics and have been trying to master basic cooking techniques like you describe here. This will be handy to cook along with.


  6. For this to be a (somewhat) more complete tutorial, I would urge you to include “Baking” as an additional skill. There is nothing better in life than a fresh-from-the-oven loaf of homemade bread (let it rest about 20 minutes or more before slicing into it). Butter optional. And homemade cookies are cheaper and a thousand times tastier than store-bought. In our house, I make bread more often than the cookies because the spouse doesn’t have a sweet-tooth. And it’s not the huge investment of time that people think it is. A bread-making session usually involves about an hour of real time investment; all the rest is passive/rising time.


    • I thought about this, but I decided that I would rather attach baking to roasting. After all, the difference between baking and roasting is somewhat nebulous — each are cooking methods that use dry, indirect heat; each can be done at higher or lower temperatures depending upon the dish and desired outcome. In almost all cases, we use “baking” or “roasting” as a way to differentiate not the cooking method, but the the type of food we are cooking. (e.g.: Red meats, root vegetables, whole poultry are described as roasted; pieces of poultry, fish, and foods that lack structure prior to cooking we describe as baked.)

      If you learn the hows and whys of roasting, in other words, you don’t need to also learn baking.

      In fact, when I discuss roasting I will also talk a bit about barbecue. (As opposed to grilling, which I will discuss when we talk about broiling.)


      • There is that. But.

        There is also some chemistry to baking (ratios of flour/liquid/fat and leavening agent) that are pretty easy to grasp and takes you from cookies to scones to muffins to quick breads to pancakes in pretty sort order.

        Plus bread; which is why I also recommended fermentation. Bread plus salt-brined pickles and yogurt/cream cheese are pretty easy and tasty things to master at home.


      • I was torn on the distinction because “roasting” doesn’t cover casseroles, at least IMO. Casseroles certainly fall under the cheap-ass adjective in the title, but not necessarily gourmet. When I moved out of the dorms at college and became the cook (by default, but I’d cooked all through high school), the things that were subject to the “can we have…?” requests seemed mostly to be casseroles.


      • I was going to quibble with you on this, since much of baking (especially bread) is about the preparation methods before hand, rather than just the heating of it (you can roast a chicken by making sure it’s clean, adding salt and pepper and chucking it in the oven). But I checked the definition of “cook” and almost all defined it as preparing food by applying heat. So, the quibble is withdrawn ….


    • The thing about baking, IMO, is that it’s less about the cooking techniques and more about the assembly. Baking scares me. It’s like chemistry. Black magic. I don’t ever bake from scratch although I will do boxed items like brownies or bread mixes. Maybe I am wrong about that…?


  7. I’m really looking forward to these posts. Like Tod, in my early 20s, I used to think I could cook, but for me, that meant that I knew how to preheat the oven to 350 and pop in the swanson tv dinner (with the chicken, potatoes, corn, and brownie dessert).

    Now, I’m at the stage where I can make a few recipes, but probably still rely too much on processed foods. For example, I don’t rinse/soak my own beans, but prefer the canned kind for the convenience. I buy pre-cut chicken pieces rather than whole chickens, and one the rare occasions I do buy whole chickens, I usually don’t save the bones for stock. My “tacos” are hamburger with McCormick seasoning and my enchiladas are enchiladas because I add enchilada sauce.

    So….I have a lot to learn.


    • See, in my early 20s I didn’t see the need for cooking. I infrequently resorted to heating things up. My favorite foods have always been fruit, vegetables, nuts, cheese, pickles, crackers, and other items that can be eaten just as they are, and so that is how I ate them.


  8. I look forward to these articles… and I heartily agree with the counter-intuitive that better ingredients used to the fullest will provide a greater yield. Also, the way in which you buy can influence cost… we provide on the website an ROI calculator to show how buying Grassfed beef and lamb by the side is closer to Costco prices than Wholefoods (and WFM is not even grassfed, in general).

    In fact, I’ll de-cloak for a moment and offer a free “beyond organic” pastured chicken (Label Rouge Method) and a dozen eggs from our farm to any OTimer that asks… and is willing to drive out to the Shenandoah Valley to pick them up (45 minutes west of Dulles) – we don’t ship, sorry .

    If you mention BlaiseP, I’ll give you some meat from an old goat. If you mention Kazzy, I’ll give you a free “get-out-of-wholefoods-jail” card. Dwyer gets you some Venison, and a Schilling reference, well, I’d say Ham, but that might be insensitive – so maybe cheese instead.

    See link above or email us at Nottinghill at embarqmail dot com. [re-cloak]


  9. I love cooking, not least because I drink while doing it. (A lot of my recipes employ adverbs like frantically, vehemently, furtively, and smugly.) The ingredients I count on in my home country are unavailable or exorbitantly priced here, and ovens and dishwashers are pretty rare. Instead of learning to cook local dishes, which would make a lot more sense, I’ve gotten into recreating the stuff I miss using what’s available. My repertoire is limited, though, so I will be following this series with great interest.


  10. I am really looking forward to this. Growing up my mom cooked but…other than her apple pie and potato salad she was not the most adventuresome cook. I dated a real Foodie for awhile who showed his love by cooking. I always told him he was ruining me for other men because boy I really like someone else cooking good food for me and packing my lunch. Though the relationship did not last I learned so much by watching him cook. I took that and have expanded on his recipes and now really enjoy cooking for my friends and family. I also have a slight obsession with food porn (cooking shows).

    My skills can always use improvement. I know you are not going to touch on baking much but here is a recipe for bread I am going to try and thought others here might be interested too


  11. I imagine you’re going to cover this based on the example of the whole chicken, but a primer on how to properly use a knife, (and how a good knife is another Sam Vines example) pays dividends. It’s something I’ve only come to appreciate recently, and wished I learned much earlier.


    • A really sharp knife makes so many things easier. Over the years, I have lost track of the number of times I have been in someone else’s kitchen, struggling with a dull knife, and drew only a blank look when I asked where they kept their knife sharpener. Even cheap knives can be kept sharp, and little gadgets for doing so are inexpensive and easy to use.


  12. I’m looking forward to this as well. I’m a pretty damn good cook, but I always like to read about new things to eat or ways to prepare stuff.

    It’s sad, really, that not as many people cook anymore. It’s cheaper and better than going out all the time, and I judge a resturant by one primary question: can i make this as well or close enough? If yes, I’ve misspent my cash.

    I learned from my Mom many things: how to do laundry, sew, iron, cook, budgeting, etc. Something I think we do a disservice to our children in school. That and the fact that no one seems to teach them economics and the laws of supply and demand.


  13. One of the reasons I’m strongly in favor of this series is that I believe everyone should have at least one good cooking story in their collection of amusing tales about themselves. If you don’t cook, you can’t have one. This is mine…

    When I moved off campus as an undergraduate, I became the cook by default (because Mom and Dad were unusual in thinking that everyone, including boys, should be able to cook, I was the only one who could). After a few weeks the question arose as to whether one guy’s girlfriend could eat supper with us, if she made the requisite monetary contribution. It didn’t bother me — cooking for one more wasn’t a hassle — so she joined in. She was a very polite and proper young lady, even for that time and place, which was Nebraska in the mid-70s. Never cursed. Never used any “bad” words.

    One of the things I made occasionally was chipped beef in cream gravy served over homemade biscuits. It can be pretty good, if you put the right things into the gravy along with the chipped beef. Within the group, it had acquired the standard Army moniker for such a dish. It turned out to be one of the young lady’s favorites, which I found out one evening when she asked, “Mike, when can we have… <agonized pause>… shit on a shingle again?”


    • My favorite kitchen story doesn’t even involve cooking.

      I was helping a friend make tea. At her apartment, the first time I’d ever been there. A little bit distracted, because her not-much-younger brother was extremely attractive and he kept flirting with me. And her boyfriend came home, fresh from his ridiculous residency schedule, *just* as I went up on tiptoe over the stove, reaching up to a little cupboard where she kept the tea. But I wasn’t used to an electric stove, you see – mine was gas – and so I hadn’t noticed that she’d turned the burner on *before* taking the kettle over to the sink to fill it.

      He opened the door, saw me, and didn’t say anything, though his eyes widened. “Maribou, this is James*,” she said from behind me, and I turned away from the stove towards him, noticed my leg was on fire, beat it out, and shook his hand, without even batting an eye.**

      For months afterward, if I ran into her 6-foot-tall, green-eyed, half-Egyptian, half-Polish, all-yummy, leather-jacketed brother on the quad, he would say, “HEY MARIBOU HOW ARE YOU?” and then introduce me to his friends with an appended, but not explained, “She’s a bad-ass.”
      *I have no idea what his name was, actually. I remember her name but not the names of either of the men in this story. Shortly after this story happened, I became involved in some relationships of which she did not approve, so we never became really close friends.

      ** It helped that the part of my leg that was on fire was not my actual leg, but rather the outside of a front jeans pocket, and that the pocket had a leather wallet in it. Miraculously, the timing was so good that neither the pocket nor the wallet were ruined; my t-shirt had scorch marks, but since it was my exam study t-shirt, and already had holes and blood stains, a little burninating just added to the ambience.


  14. One of my many jobs right now involves prep cooking in a banquet hall where the head chef is not really working out in bizarre ways. It’s interesting to watch because of how weird his screw ups are, but one from last week was that he didn’t understand braising. We’re all trying to help the guy before he gets fired, but holy crow, he’s a head chef who doesn’t know know to braise food!


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