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Be Your Own Prep Cook: Convenience on a Budget

Our obsession with chefs seems to be endless. On any given day you can turn on the television and see shows where eager cooks compete to turn out the best plate of food in absurdly short amounts of time. Celebrity chefs, restaurant chefs and aspiring restaurateurs must make excellent food in high-pressure sprint conditions. Watching them concoct a photo-ready tower of food from fancy mystery ingredients, a home cook could get the idea that this is how restaurant kitchens work, and by extension that it should be just as easy to do at home. Well, yes and no.

As a veteran of a number of restaurant kitchens, I'll share a valuable secret: the most important thing a chef does is design a system in which just about every dish on the menu is put together at the last minute from something called "prep." Prep is sauces, chopped vegetables, par-cooked meat and fish, even pre-cooked pasta and pizza crusts that are ready to go before the line cooks arrive for their high-pressure shifts. Those prep items are cranked out by a staff of anonymous yet hardworking cooks, who make sure the refrigerator is always stocked. Unlike a TV competition, restaurants get food on the plate by planning and working ahead, not last minute improvisations.

In addition to creating flavorful dishes, the chef also has to think about the bottom line, and keep costs down by buying carefully and minimizing waste. Buying bulk, breaking down large quantities and making foods from scratch saves money in restaurants—and at home.

As a home cook, I've learned that making my own prep foods makes great sense, if I want to keep to a budget and have good food on the table fast. Since I don't have a staff of prep cooks (or dishwashers, darn it) I have to look out for myself.

Buying bulk, especially when things are on sale or in season, is the way to go. And when summer comes and you can get precious berries and fruits for less, consider buying a flat or two to freeze. There are many other ways to preserve food beyond freezing and your co-op may well offer classes on food preservation, now that DIY is all the rage (find more info in Preserving Your Organic Harvest).

You can find great deals on your favorite vegetables during the summer and fall when they are plentiful and prices are lower. That makes summer and fall a good time to make soups and sauces from less-expensive, primo quality produce, which you can easily freeze. Roasted vegetables (as in this recipe for  Mediterranean Roasted Vegetables) is one way to create veggie prep for yourself. You can roast any variety of root or other veggies—just choose from your in-season favorites, then cook and serve them as a side dish or toss them in pasta, top a pizza, stir into soup, stuff a sandwich or wrap, or toss with vinaigrette for a salad.

Another easy stock up meal is Veggie Soup (made with your own Vegetable Stock). It's a basic simmer of inexpensive veggies, that can be transformed with little effort—and delicious results—into multiple forms.

High flavor pesto, which can be particularly budget friendly when made with spinach and parsley (as in this Spinach Parsley Pesto), can be portioned and frozen in ice cube trays for quick flavor infusions for soups, pastas, pizzas and sandwiches.

Ground meats have always been a good way to stretch a dollar—just add more onions, carrots and breadcrumbs to make a little meat go a long way. Basic meatballs (here in Basic Meatballs and Italian Meatball Stew) are one example, which you can freeze and use for months. If you enjoy chicken, you can save money by buying whole chickens, which you can cut up yourself, make stock with the trimmings, and stash everything in the freezer in sizes that work for you. (Not sure how to cut up a whole chicken? Here's a video tutrorial from Gourmet Magazine.)

Unlike the TV cooks, your only competition might be the clock, and maybe yourself, but with planning and prep you can set yourself up for those nights when you walk in that door, hungry and time-starved. Creating your own convenient, budget-friendly, delicious food—that's a pretty big win!

Tags: budget