Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does Using Cheaper Ingredients Mean Lower Quality Meals?

The other day, I was making a chicken meal in my crockpot.  As I pulled out the $2.39 bottle of white cooking wine, and the dried-instead-of-fresh basil, I started thinking about the cost of ingredients vs. the quality of food. 

I'm all about good food.  I have 2 shelves of cookbooks  - and I use them (or at least, I use them when I'm not utterly sleep deprived).  I love to cook, and I have no problem spending lots of time in the kitchen when I have the time to do so. 

But I do often cut corners on ingredients when I feel it's appropriate.  For instance, if wine was a key component of a sauce, I'll use decent wine.  If it's deglazing a pan of stuff that is then going to be cooked in the crockpot for 5 or 6 hours, the cooking wine will do.  Any qualities of the better wine would be lost in the sauce - literally.  

It's the same with things that offer similar flavor.  The particular recipe I was making called for adding kalamata olives to the recipe.  While they were a late addition, because they were being cooked in, a $3.29 jar of them had the same effect as $6 or so worth from the olive bar.  I could have done it cheaper but I sprang for the pitted kind, since I hate picking olive pits out of food.

Had the olives been part of an appetizer spread, I would have gone with the good stuff.  And having made the recipe with both jarred and olive bar-esque olives, I can honestly say there was no difference.

I usually try to make the recipe as called for the first time out.  That's my baseline.  I want to know exactly what it tastes like as called for.   After that, I start making modifications.  Little ones, at first.  Less salt, more oregano, olive oil instead of butter, that sort of thing.  Once I have the levels of ingredients to my liking, then I go further.  Skip this, add that instead.  And I always try a cheaper option 

Why am I so systematic about it?  Because I want to be sure that we're eating what tastes best.  And because cookbooks are the one exception I make to my 'no writing in books' rule.  I add notes to the pages of recipes I've made.  I love finding used cookbooks with notes in them.  And I always try the advice the notes give - someone took the time to tell their future selves, and those who come later how the recipe tastes best.  Of course, it's all subjective, and sometimes I don't love the advice given.  But often, it's the variation on the original recipe that is top notch.  

Someday, either when my daughter gives the cookbooks away after my death, or uses them for herself, someone is going to open them up and see my notes, assuming they just don't go to some trash bin.  I think that's kind of cool - that while 'The Best Recipe' has a great recipe for meatballs, I think I took it up a notch, to the really best recipe.  At least for me.  Everyone has different taste buds. 

So do cheaper ingredients make for lesser quality meals?  Sure, sometimes.  I do prefer fresh herbs, or ones we've dried ourselves (my husband is the herb-drying rock star in our home). But if there's a choice between $5 worth of dubiously fresh basil from the store or the dried, I'll often choose the dried and see if I like it.  It's always worth a try.  And since food budgets are one of the largest variable costs for most of us, it's worth it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Unemployment Redux

This past January 31st, I left work for my maternity leave.  It was the first time I'd been jobless since I was 15 years old - a pretty scary idea, even though we'd saved and planned for it.

I had 2 weeks off before Baby MoneyPenny arrived, and then settled into my maternity leave and new parenthood.

When I was 7 weeks postpartum, my job called and asked if I would come back part time to get a project I'd worked on earlier over the finish line.  They offered to be flexible with my schedule, and pay for my Mom to come on a business trip with Kiera so that I wouldn't have to leave her. 

It was an offer too good to refuse, so I went back to work a few days later.  Since my sister is my primary daycare provider, having an erratic schedule worked, and I don't have to worry about losing a daycare slot or paying for a full-time slot.  I ended up working between 14 and 25 hours a week, with the week of my business trip being the only 40+ hour week.

But then May 31st rolled around, and the contract ended.  While I'm in the interview process for a new job, and am continuing the hunt, I'm back at home.  

We're lucky.  And we employ foresight.  Between savings and unemployment, we can afford for me to be out of work for a good long while before having to worry.  And yet, I am worried - not because we can't make ends meet, or because I don't think I'll get the job I'm currently interviewing for, but because I'm now torn between home and work (and will be for the next 18 years).  It's no longer clean for me - if I work, I leave my daughter.  If I am home, I want to be working.  

I'll still go back to work - I am not cut out to be a stay at home parent, nor is our budget cut out for it.  Which is fine, it's the choice we made. 

Over the last couple years, since we bought our home, I have been pulled between wanting to do all the renovations we desire for the home (buying a fixer-upper that requires everything from wiring to windows will do that to a person) and wanting to save every penny.  And all this while still enjoying ourselves.  

I think we've struck a good balance.  We've done some renovations, plan to do more this year, and have saved well.  I may have a crack in the old, ugly entryway flooring, but I have a healthy bank balance.  And the flooring will go, hopefully sooner than later.

It's been hard to watch friends renovate with abandon, but I'm grateful for the choices we've made.  It means I can sit here and play with my daughter guilt-free.  For now.