Q: I'm a student at UCLA, and I just moved into my first apartment. I am limited to a tiny stove and a few pots and pans, and even though I love to cook, I'm a little lost. My roommates and I budget $200 a week to eat. Can you suggest a few key ingredients? — Sarah Jane, Los Angeles
BA Foodist: Take comfort in the fact that your situation is not unique, even among professional chefs. Why? I'll let you in on a little secret of the restaurant world: Almost as important as a chef's creativity is his or her ability to keep a restaurant's food costs down. The lower the food costs (i.e., how much a restaurant spends on ingredients), the higher — in general — the profit, and the better the restaurant's chances of staying afloat. The food must still taste good for the restaurant to succeed, so, to that end, chefs have adopted money-saving shortcuts which I've adapted here for home cooking:
- Shop like a chef: Hit the local farmers' market. Buy vegetables with roots and leaves attached — they are good indicators of freshness, and you can use the greens (see number four) — as well as flavor-packed herbs for quick vinaigrettes and for salsa verde, the king of all condiments.
- Embrace fat:Splurge on good sausage (chorizo, saucisson sec, etc.), bacon, European-style butter, and a few good oils. They add unparalleled texture and a layer of flavor that's filling and satisfying, meaning you'll eat less. Buy a really nice bottle of extra-virgin olive oil (you get what you pay for), and use it only to finish dishes — it's mind-boggling how much flavor stellar oil adds.
- Savor salt: Salt is the most important ingredient in your kitchen. You'll find salt-packed capers and anchovies, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fish sauce in just about every award-winning kitchen in the world. Make them your staples, too.
Related: Are artisinal salts worth the cost?
- Cook Like a peasant: I'd argue that the world's best dishes (ribollita, ratatouille, bi bim bap) were born out of poverty and make the most of very little — a concept that will help solve your cash-strapped college-kid dilemma. The two dishes I turn to most often and encourage you to master are risotto and frittatas. As long as you have rice or eggs on hand, you can make a delicious but inexpensive meal.
- Choose cheap cuts: Select the cuts of meat that most people think they don't like. Brined, roasted chicken thighs and legs are a frugal chef's best friends. Instead of pricey pork tenderloin, get a pork shoulder.
Related: A good, inexpensive cut of meat that you've probably never thought about