Many of the secrets of the professional kitchen can be adapted to save money at home, and to greatly improve the quality of your family's meals at the same time. I was amazed when our grocery bills went down, consistently, the longer I went to culinary school - especially because our waistlines were rapidly expanding. Were we eating too much fat - butter and cream and the heavy sauces of French culinary fame? Were we eating out too much, (thus, the grocery bill would be lower) as I dragged my husband to new restaurants to "research" different flavors and food combinations? Were we getting better discounts with our weekly couponing? How could our grocery bill drop by 50%, when we hadn't even been trying to reduce it? After all, I came home on a daily basis with new food ideas to "practice" and "play" with - my priority at the time was to be a good culinary student. When I would tell friends and family about our ever-shrinking food costs, they would look at me as if I was lying (or nuts): how could I be saving money when I was talking about making rich patÚs, flavored oils, lobster dinners, chanterelle risotto, and raspberry Champagne sauce for sinfully rich desserts? These weren't treats reserved for special occasions - they were weeknight dinners, "just-for-fun" experiments, or practice before intense final exams.
After a couple of months watching this trend unfold on our Microsoft Money(tm) tracking program, my husband and I finally figured out what was happening: we were simply buying less food, and getting more meals out of the foods we chose to buy. We were, to use the professional's term, "Maximizing Product" - and saving money hand over fist, just like you try to do in a restaurant kitchen.
What are you using, and what part is waste? There are four ways a chef tries to maximizes product in the kitchen: utilization of scrap, careful planning of ingredients, seasonality, and recycling. In this article, I'm going to cover several ways to save money by reducing the quantity of food that ends up in the trash. I'll cover the other three ways in subsequent articles.
First, let's talk about how restaurants use scraps. Eeeewww! I'm eating someone's dirty leftovers when I go to a restaurant! No, scraps are what comes from the prep table. For instance, when you buy a bunch of broccoli to serve as the side dish for your steak, you bring it home, wash it, and cook the tender, leafy tops. Those are the best part of the broccoli, and therefore, the part that a restaurant will serve to the customers. What about the stalks? They get saved to use either for "family meal" - the dinner for the kitchen staff, so that they don't get tempted to nibble on the $80-per-ounce Beluga caviar - or they are used as the flavor base of cream of broccoli soup, or many other places on the menu. What are you using them for? Peel them, chop them and freeze them to make a stir fry later in the week, or use them for vegetable soup or mixed veggie side dish. Are you tossing them in the trash, rubber band and all? They are loaded with calcium, fiber and, most importantly, flavor! How about the peels on your lemons, limes or oranges? That's where all of the essential oils are! Do you zest all of them before anybody eats them? Or do all the peels end up in the trash?
What about the pan drippings when you cook the chicken - can you pour off the fat and deglaze the pan with some wine, throw in some celery trim, mushroom stems, carrot ends and onion skins, scrape up all of the bits of flavor on the bottom, and make a quick pan reduction sauce? Why just wash all that flavor away in the kitchen sink? Use the scraps and you can maximize your taste experience and squeeze every penny of usage from that one chicken. Even if you don't want to use the sauce to enrich the meal, you could freeze it to add flavor to a baked potato for lunch, instead of butter or cheese. If your family loves a whole roasted chicken, and you feel like you really do get your money's worth out of it, how about the carcass after all the meat has been cut off? You can "brown" the bones and vegetables in a roasting pan, and then make "brown stock" from chicken, just like you would from veal. (There is a fabulous recipe for this in the back of Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin cookbook.)
That's fine for a professional kitchen, where there are plentiful fresh scraps of vegetables every day, you may think. But that's not the case. We save carrot, celery, mushroom and onion trim in a square plastic bucket in the refrigerator, and use this for flavoring stocks and sauces. I've been told about kitchens in Europe who save their carrot "blanching" (boiling) water all week, while it gets redder and redder, and then use it to make carrot soup! We use the stems of parsley, basil and other herbs, with all of the leaves picked off, to flavor sauces. I don't know a chef who would dare throw away the poaching liquid from making a delicately poached fish - it's the base for the sauce of the dish! Restaurant menus are worked on and fine-tuned for months, to take advantage of scrap products and find ways to make money from them.
Think about something your family is certainly eating every week: the baked potato. Most of the time, kids do not eat a whole potato, or they leave their hollowed out skins sitting on the plate (perhaps covering a despised horde of peas?) There are vitamins in those skins! But is it really worth it to force your kids to eat them? How about tricking them into thinking of potato skins as a special, coveted treat? In our house, if we are peeling potatoes to make mashed potatoes, we peel them carefully, and freeze the clean peels for making fried potato skins with melted cheese and bacon. I just throw them into hot oil, drain them on paper towels, and bake for a few minutes in the oven after putting shredded cheddar and bacon bits on them. How many bars and restaurants across the country do the same? Hundreds of thousands.
So, the next time you lean towards the waste basket to toss your asparagus stems after you snap them, ask yourself if a little cream of asparagus soup wouldn't be welcome later on in the week. When you go to pour off that water from boiling vegetables, sit your colander in a bowl first, and save the water. Look at what gets left on your family's plates, and see if you can't cut down the amount you dish out, or pre-select it for another use. Look at the menus you plan, and see if they can't help "Max" the flavors of each other.
Chef Liz Tarditi is the President and Executive Chef of Today's Gourmet , a personal chef service based in Kirkland, Washington which provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals everyday for busy clients all over the Eastside. When not creating new culinary delights or writing about them, Chef Tarditi likes to spend time at home with her husband, Dave, and Mocha, their crazy Beagle. copyright 1999, Liz Tarditi
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