Spending less money is one of the most frequent new resolutions, and saving money is especially good advice given the current economy. One tip that appears on every budget-friendly list is to reduce the amount that you spend going out to eat. Cutting costs is never any fun, but this suggestion has an additional downside: restaurants give many of us the chance to order food we wouldn’t normally make at home. Regional cooking such as Thai, Mexican, or Indian has an undeserved reputation for being difficult, and even French and Italian dishes can be intimidating for those who don’t cook much.
In the spirit of “staycations,” it’s time to try making your own evening out. With some effort, you can turn necessity into a virtue with this fun, international twist on a potluck dinner. The idea is simple: pick your favorite regional restaurant dish and set a date to prepare it with your friends, significant other, or kids. This way, you’ll have an evening of food and entertainment without paying restaurant prices.
The fist step is to decide what you’d like to try. Pad thai? Enchiladas? A vegetarian curry? Genuine Italian lasagna? Whatever it is, you will certainly find a recipe online. Sites like foodnetwork.com, epicurious.com, and food.yahoo.com have plenty to offer, and some even include helpful instructional videos.
But don’t stop there. Although cookbooks may seem old-fashioned, they allow you to browse recipes in a way that the internet does not, and often include helpful glossaries of ingredients. In fact, some of the most famous international authors don’t appear on the Food Network at all. Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless treat Mexican cooking in detail; Marcella Hazan is the undisputed queen of Italian cuisine; Madhur Jaffrey is a well-known expert on Indian and vegetarian cooking; and Nancy McDermott’s Thai cookbooks are some of the most accessible you will find. If you’re short on cash, local libraries will likely have these and other cookbooks so you can try before you buy.
Next, make a list of ingredients and visit your normal grocery store. You’ll be amazed at how many regional ingredients are easy to find. Coriander, cumin, and cayenne—staples of Indian and Mexican food—are usually located in the spice aisle. Many Asian condiments can be found in their own section, and once-rare items such as coconut milk are now available in any grocery store. Nowadays, most chain stores also carry both European and Asian varieties of dried mushrooms.
It’s possible you will still need a specialty ingredient or two, but visiting a new grocery store can be part of the fun. A search of the phone book will reveal grocers specializing in regional ingredients. The staff in these stores are usually happy to help and can answer questions about ingredient brands. As an added benefit, specialty grocers generally have cheaper prices than chain stores, by (for example) offering the option of purchasing spices in bulk. This can help make your cooking endeavor less costly.
Now you are ready to cook. The worst thing you can do is rush through the experience, especially when you’re trying something new. Make sure to print out the recipe if it’s online, and read through it carefully. Try your recipe on a weekend rather than a busy weeknight, giving yourself time to enjoy the experience. Put on some music from the appropriate region if you have it.
Above all, remind yourself that this is supposed to be fun and relaxing. Make sure you have moral support for your effort. If you’re single, invite your friends over to share the labor, food costs, and fun. If you have a significant other, make a romantic evening out of cooking together. If your kids are old enough to help out in the kitchen, bring them in as sous chefs. Maybe your first attempt won’t be perfect. But chances are it will taste good, and you’ll have learned something just by doing it.
Finally, don’t forget the beverages. Thai, Indian, or Mexican dishes can be paired with wine varietals such as a Riesling or Gewürtztraminer. One very easy approach is to match the region of the food (e.g. Spanish, French, or Italian) with a wine from the same area. If the food is very spicy, however, you should probably stick to beer, which is also a more budget-friendly option.
Trying a new recipe is always a challenge. But cooking a dish yourself allows you to experience it in a whole new way. Because you will see and smell each individual ingredient as it goes in, you will have a new appreciation for the way the ingredients blend together in the finished product. It’s not likely that you will stop going to restaurants to taste how the professionals do it. But in all likelihood, you’ll want to continue in your culinary quest and try more recipes. More importantly, you’ll have saved some money, had some fun, and learned something about the world.