Food Maximization: Planning Ingredients
by Liz Tarditi
In my first article, I talked about how restaurants maximize their food budgets by making use of as many "scraps" in the kitchen as possible. In this follow-up, I want to further explain the idea of Food Maximization by taking the concept to the next level: planning your meals out, and planning how you use your ingredients, helps save a ton of money. It makes use of the basic principle: eat what's cheapest the most, eat what's expensive the least. If you want to stretch your grocery dollar, it pays to load up when you see bargains in the produce or meat sections. But eating the same thing, night after night, is boring and bad for the soul. You need to fill your senses, not just your tummy! That's why it's good to plan to try out new recipes and new ideas when you plan out the weekly menu. If you don't already do this - start! In the professional kitchen, menus are meticulously engineered, both to save money on ingredients, and to make sure that the most popular items generate profits.
It's easy to see how different recipes can change the characters of vegetables, like broccoli or potatoes. But what about maximizing something more challenging - like the shells from shrimp, after you clean them? Yes, they're edible. In many cultures, the tails get fried up on a very hot pan, until they crunch like a potato chip, and are eaten like a snack. But I live in America! you might say. Well, if you've ever ordered seafood bisque, the most expensive soup on any menu, then you've already eaten shellfish shells. Lobster bisque, crayfish bisque, crab bisque, shrimp bisque - they're all made exactly the same way. The shells are dried in the oven until they get very fragile, then pounded into dust, and then used as the base for the soup. The soup is pureed and pushed through a fine sieve anyway, to make it velvety. The meat in the soup is just a "garnish" added to the cup when the soup is poured in (that's why it's always on the bottom!) If it wasn't, the expensive meat would turn rubbery and have all the flavor of a wet mitten when you finally ate it. Have you ever noticed that if you have lobster at a restaurant, and you ask for a "doggie bag", they never include the shells? Most people think it's because the shells are waste, and the waitress was kind enough to throw them away. Don't be fooled. It's free money for the restaurant. They use the meat from all of the lobsters who's tails went out to the customers - the claw meat - to garnish the bisque.
But, Liz! you're saying, I live a frugal life! I do not go out and eat expensive lobster! That may be quite true - the "Market Price" of a whole Maine Lobster can be $65 in some restaurants, so it is very expensive to order. Out comes the Colossal Granddaddy of all lobsters everywhere. But think about the smaller lobsters. The ones that Colossal beat up in the playground ... that's why the lobsters in the tank are all wearing rubber bands around their claws, by the way, because they would fight to the death for tank dominance. It sure isn't to protect the poor chef who has to cook them. Lobsters fight on the ocean floor, too, and many times a survivor gets his fighting claw ripped off in battle. These abused warriors of the crustacean world are called "culls". Missing their fighting claw, they aren't as pretty - but culls taste just as good, and they are just as stupid when it comes to walking into lobster traps. Only the restaurants don't want 'em, and the supermarkets don't want 'em, and the silly people who order lobster for $65 each really don't want 'em. They're not "perfect". So they're caught, and the fisherman has to do something with them, and he's sick to death of eating them - he wants chicken! So they're very, very inexpensive, as lobster goes. As a special treat, on your birthday, or for an anniversary, instead of going out for chicken, why not eat lobster at home? Making a lobster risotto and lobster bisque at home is more "do-able" if you plan how you're going to enjoy it, and plan to get the most out of it. This way, you get more meals out of the same amount of product, by "stretching" it with a less expensive bulk ingredient (very much like adding bulgar wheat to meatloaf).
Risotto is one of my favorite ways of stretching expensive products and enjoying them longer. Restaurants use this as a very high-end way of stretching the most gourmet ingredients: saffron, chanterelles, truffles, lobsters, and white asparagus are among the many delicacies maximized in this manner. You simply mince up an onion, sauté it with a little (1 T) olive oil, add a cup of Arborio rice (keep stirring at all times) and when it's becoming as translucent as the onion, stir in a little white wine. When the wine has evaporated, you add stock, 3-4 cups, an ounce at a time, while you stir. It's that easy. You add a small amount of the minced "flavoring" ingredient when you're about halfway through the stock. At the very end, you whip in cold cubes of butter and grated parmesan cheese. That's it. If you want to make extra to freeze, you just start with more rice, and just before adding the butter and cheese, you spread the excess out on a cookie sheet to cool in the fridge. When dinner is over, transfer it to baggies for the freezer. This is a main course that is served in a bowl, but eaten with a fork. The rice makes it's own sauce.
Let's talk about maximizing something that everyone does eat - chicken. This will help me explain more about planning menus and product usage. We all recognize that buying chicken parts already cut up is a waste of money. Buy whole chickens, and make the investment in one large stockpot. (Just having chicken stock without MSG is enough incentive for most people - read your canned stock labels, it's usually there!) If you don't know how to cut up a chicken, ask your butcher at the supermarket if he or she would mind teaching you if you came back at a slow time of the week. Don't be shy - most of us would be flattered and impressed that someone is taking such an interest in learning this skill. Plan your usage by "butchering" your own chicken when it's raw, so that the Shake'n'Bake legs you have on Thursday are not seen by your family as "leftovers" from the chicken breasts you enjoyed Tuesday.
From one chicken, you get stock from the carcass bones and neck; two dinner servings from the breast meat; chicken tenders from the tenderloins (rib meat); four Buffalo drumettes from the wings; two Ballotine dinners (legs, boned and stuffed) or country paté for 12 from the dark meat; and freeze the liver in a baggie to make mousseline once you have saved up a pound of them. What is Chicken Liver Mousseline? The most luxurious paté in French country cooking, made from "free money"... if you've been throwing the livers away or buying pre-cut parts. That's two meals, chicken stock for soup or risotto, and three sets of hors d'oeuvres from one little fryer! If you know that you are going to have company over, start thinking about the hors d'oeuvres a few weeks before. Can you eat a little more chicken, and save up the wings? Would you like to try serving mousseline? (very easy to make with a food processor or blender) It's far more luxurious and impressive than boxes of expensive, pre-made cheese pastry puffs. For pennies.
Planning your meals before you go food shopping will help to avoid "random" items getting thrown into the cart, certainly, but it also helps you to look at the quality of what your buying, and decide if you're really getting as much bang for your buck as you can. When you plan out two or three different "taste experiences" from one ingredient you will automatically become a better cook - you'll have so much more depth to your understanding of your ingredient. Planning out weekly menus takes a little time and research, so let me point you to three books which are truly worth the investment of buying them. The first, which should grace every home kitchen, is The Joy of Cooking. The second, far less well-known to the home cook (but a great resource for knowing about what flavors go well together) is Culinary Artistry by Dornenburg and Page. It also is a wonderful source of information on Seasonality of products, which I'll be discussing in greater depth in my next article. The last recommendation is a book called Fish and Shellfish by James Peterson. Before you try picking out that cull lobster, this is one reference you really want to read.
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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. (c) 1999