Imagine an elegant cookbook for those who aren’t sure how they’ll pay for their next meal. It sounds impractical, but this was just the idea that seized Leanne Brown as she began work on her final project for Steinhardt’s master’s in food studies.
Gourmet cuisine might seem a stretch for cooks eating on just $4 day, and yet Brown wondered if she could devise healthful, appealing recipes that could fit within that tight budget, one familiar to the 46 million Americans receiving food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Using only ingredients available in grocery stores in the low-income Inwood section of Upper Manhattan, she developed Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day.
Far from a dreary lineup of instant noodles and canned beans, Good and Cheap offers upbeat instructions for efficiently stocking a pantry, novel ideas for dressing up staples (including 6 ways to eat oatmeal and 8 popcorn toppings), and recipes that vary in taste and complexity—from Brussels sprout hash and eggs to broccoli rabe and mozzarella calzones. Festive color photographs—a leaning tower of pretty sandwiches, a roast chicken, lightly browned—not only whet the appetite, but also give the novice cook a model to emulate for each recipe. Brown took the pictures herself in her home kitchen.
And the best part? It’s free—anyone can obtain Good and Cheap as a PDF for no cost, and word has spread quickly. Merely one week after Brown first posted the cookbook online, it had been downloaded 90,000 times; since then the tally has passed 200,000. She’s also raised funds to print copies to be distributed by non-profits serving low-income families—organizations can apply to receive the book through a link on her website. Brown’s project has garnered the attention of food world giants like Mark Bittman and Ted Allen, and she’s spoken about it on public radio and Bloomberg TV and even hosted an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit.
Brown recently took a break from answering emails from hundreds of grateful home cooks to offer NYU Stories some advice on making tasty, nutritious meals for pennies. Her thrifty recommendations, along with recipes for a seasonal summer main course and cooling dessert, appear below. Bon appétit!
—Eileen Reynolds, NYU Stories
Think more veggies, less meat.
It’s generally cheaper and it’s a more sustainable way to eat. The usual American diet has a big piece of meat at the center of the plate, but that’s not healthy, and it’s certainly not economically sensible. I didn’t want to make a vegetarian cookbook because a lot of people see “vegetarian” and close their mind. In my book I have a few meat dishes that are appealing and wonderful—but I think meat should be a special treat, rather than something you absolutely have to have at every meal.
Splurge on organic eggs.
You can buy a dozen regular eggs, sometimes for as much as $1.50 or $2—but given the issues with salmonella they’re sometimes not as safe, and in my opinion they taste like nothing. And then of course there are troubling moral issues around the way chickens are treated in giant egg factories. So for me it’s very important to pay $4 for organic eggs. I get very tasty eggs, safer eggs, and eggs where I know that the chickens have not lived utterly miserable lives. Sure, it’s double the price. But the price per egg is still less than 50 cents, which is incredibly good in terms of food value, especially when you think of how much added enjoyment you’ll get out of it.
Build your spice collection gradually.
At four bucks a jar, you’re not going to get there quickly. At the beginning of each month, make a plan—think generally about what you’re going to be eating and choose a few investment items. Start by getting a jar of peppercorns and a grinder. Then move on to some chili flakes, which are one of the cheaper spices—maybe $2 for a jar that will last about a year. Next, add one of the common spices that are used in a variety of cuisines, like cumin, which turns up in a lot of Mexican and South American cuisines and is also very important in Indian cooking and curries. These investment items are worth it because then you can buy the cheapest staples like lentils and beans and rice and grains and you can get them to taste so satisfying.
Buy real butter.
In many supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, butter is expensive and there are many types of margarine—I think because there’s a sense on the part of the grocers that people just want the “cheap stuff.” But butter is irreplaceable. If you melt a pat of margarine in a bowl of pasta, you’ll get texture, but you’re not going to get any flavor out of it. When you’re on a limited diet, every single thing in your simple dish needs to be good and flavorful. Better to pay slightly more for the real butter and have it make you joyful when you’re eating than to have more of something that doesn’t really bring you the same delight.
Swap Parmesan for Romano.
Romano functions in almost the exact same way as Parmesan, for about half the price. Sure, there might be some serious Italian chefs who’d say, “no, it’s terrible!” But the fact is that Romano is a very nice salty, hard cheese, like Parmesan. It’s just not as popular.
A little elbow grease goes a long way.
I’m a very confident, competent, home cook, and I know the secret that restaurant cooks know: Food in its most raw form is actually really cheap. It’s just the preparing of it that makes it expensive—the skill you put into it. This cookbook isn’t necessarily one many people will go through and cook every single recipe in it. Instead, I wanted to have things that would work for people who are just starting out in the kitchen as well as for people who are quite experienced and want a challenge. The “Big Batch” chapter is filled with these more ambitious recipes—like pierogis, the little Ukrainian/Polish/Russian dumplings.
Don’t forget about party food.
You don’t stop having fun just because you don’t have a lot of money. Holidays are for all to enjoy, and you can budget for a special occasion. For a celebration, consider pulled pork, which takes a lot of time but is really pretty easy—you put it in the oven at night, pull it out in the morning, and it’s done!
for three—$3.50 total; $1.17/serving
Zucchini and summer squash are so abundant in the summer months. This simple pasta is like a lighter, brighter fettuccine alfredo. It also comes together in no time—the veggies will be ready by the time your pasta is cooked. You’ll love it, I promise.
½ lb fettuccine
4 tbsp butter
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ tsp chili flakes
2 small zucchini, finely diced
1 lemon, zested
¼ cup cream
½ cup Romano or Parmesan, grated
salt and pepper
basil, finely chopped (optional)
Bring a pot of water to boil over high heat. Salt the water liberally. This is how pasta gets salted, so don’t be shy! Most won’t end up in the pasta.
Cook the pasta according to the package directions. I prefer my pasta with some bite, so I drain the pasta just before it’s finished so it doesn’t get mushy when I add it to the vegetable pan to cook slightly more.
Meanwhile, melt a tablespoon of butter in a pan on medium heat. Add the garlic and chili flakes. Let them sizzle for 30 seconds to a minute, then add the zucchini. Stir the vegetables to coat them. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until some of the water has cooked off and the veggies are tender when stabbed with a fork. Young summer zucchini doesn’t need much cooking. Add the lemon zest. Stir!
Drain the cooked fettuccine and add it to the zucchini pan along with the rest of the butter, the cream, and most of the Romano cheese. Toss the fettuccine around the pan to get everything mixed. Add salt to taste and lots of freshly ground pepper. Top with a bit more cheese and serve immediately.
for four—$2.40 total; $0.60/serving
2 cups frozen melon
½ cup plain yogurt
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla or lime juice (optional)
When you see lovely watermelons, honeydews, and cantaloupes on sale, buy them up. Eat half, then cube and freeze the other half. When you want a quick dessert or smoothie, pull out a bag of frozen melon and whip this up.
Add all the ingredients to a food processor or blender until just smooth. Don’t blend too much, or the sorbet will become oversoft. Serve immediately or stick it into the freezer to enjoy later.
All photos courtesy of Leanne Brown.