One of the best ways to save money on food is to eat more meals at home. Better yet, eat more meals that you prepare instead of foraging from boxes and cans. With today’s busy lifestyles, this can be a difficult transition to make, especially if you’ve never been much of a cook. But quick, cheap, healthy food is possible.

Mark Bittman bills himself as “The Minimalist” — he’s all about simple, informal meals using common ingredients. His How to Cook Everything is a GRS-reader favorite. Nate Q. sent me a link to a Bittman article from last summer featuring “101 minimalist meals”. These are “substantial main courses, all of which get you in and out of the kitchen in 10 minutes or less.” Though these are great choices for everyone, they’re especially good for budding chefs. Bittman writes:

These suggestions are not formal recipes; rather, they provide a general outline. With a little imagination and some swift moves — and maybe a salad and a loaf of bread — you can turn any dish on this list into a meal that…will be better than takeout.

One of the persistent myths about good cooking is that it takes a lot of work. As Bittman’s list demonstrates, that doesn’t have to be the case. There are some mouth-watering suggestions here:

  • Put three pounds of washed mussels in a pot with half a cup of white wine, garlic cloves, basil leaves and chopped tomatoes. Steam until mussels open. Serve with bread. [Mussels are good, but I’d use clams instead. I pay $13 for this dish at the local Italian place. You can make it for $5.]
  • Pan-grill a skirt steak for three or four minutes a side. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, slice and serve over romaine or any other green salad, drizzled with olive oil and lemon.
  • The New York supper: Bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon. Serve with tomatoes, watercress or arugula, and sliced red onion or shallot.
  • Quesadilla: Use a combination of cheeses, like Fontina mixed with grated pecorino. Put on half of a large flour tortilla with pickled jalapenos, chopped onion, shallot or scallion, chopped tomatoes and grated radish. Fold tortilla over and brown on both sides in butter or oil, until cheese is melted. [This is one of Kris’ favorite quick meals.]
  • Grill or sauté Italian sausage and serve over store-bought hummus, with lemon wedges.
  • Southeast Asia steak salad: Pan- or oven-grill skirt or flank steak. Slice and serve on a pile of greens with a sauce of one tablespoon each of nam pla and lime juice, black pepper, a teaspoon each of sugar and garlic, crushed red chili flakes and Thai basil. [Yum.]
  • Sear corn kernels in olive oil with minced jalapeños and chopped onions; toss with cilantro, black beans, chopped tomatoes, chopped bell pepper and lime.
  • Hot dogs on buns — with beans!

Bittman’s minimalist concept isn’t just for summer — it’s useful any time of year. The best part? Simple recipes generally cost less. The fewer ingredients you use, the less you spend.

Good cooking doesn’t have to be difficult; it just takes a little practice and a willingness to try new things. (Not everything you prepare will be successful, but you can learn just as much from the failures as the triumphs.)

Last spring, I shared Bittman’s tips for creating a ”no-frills kitchen”. His frequently-updated food blog is excellent. Here’s are some other frugal food blogs I’ve read and enjoyed:

I love Bittman’s suggestions because they agree with my own findings: sometimes the most satisfying meals are the quickest. There are few things tastier than a small plate of goat cheese, kalamata olives, and sliced apple (with a little bit of honey). What sorts of quick, cheap, and tasty meals do you prepare?

[The New York Times: 101 simple meals ready in 10 minutes or less]

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