Cooking Like A Boss While Unemployed
I was laid off from my job of five years at the end of February. I had known for a while that it was coming, so I’d already been living more frugally than usual, but I tightened up even more once the cord was officially cut. I live in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to spend way too much money on pretty much anything—but it doesn’t have to be that way! Since moving here almost six years ago, regardless of my level of income, I’ve become a staunch advocate for home cooking: I rarely bought lunch during the workweek unless it was a social occasion, and cooking big dinners with friends has been a regular activity.
I cooked most of my own meals even when I was working 40-plus hours a week, but now that my primary obligations are freelance gigs and job searching, I have even more time to kill in the kitchen, so I’ve been making the most of it. Whether I’m digging into cookbooks written by high-end chefs or turning my apartment into a candy factory, I’m grateful for the newfound time I’ve had to experiment—and I’m here to prove that even on a limited budget, fancy-pants eats are not out of reach.
Things to take into account: First, my pantry is always stocked with spices, baking staples and other dry goods. In the estimates below, I’m totaling the cost of ingredients I had to go out and buy, or those that require more than a few spoonfuls—which I suppose demonstrates why you should stock up on the basics while you do have a steady income. When you’re doing that, I recommend buying from ethnic markets, where you can buy spices and grains in bulk at low prices, and Trader Joe’s. Because 95% of the time I use the leftovers of any ingredients I buy, I’m only counting the cost of the amount required in the recipe.
Second, I’m a comfortable enough cook that I don’t usually follow recipes to the letter. I’ll often find a substitute for pricey or less common items—like swapping mascarpone cheese with Greek yogurt—or leave out a couple inessential ingredients, partly for the sake of convenience and also to avoid getting stuck with food I don’t think I’ll use up. Not surprisingly, it’s more economical to use what I already have than to go out and buy something new. Here’s a handy guide to some common food substitutions.
Third, since getting laid off, I’ve charged more food than usual to a credit card tied to the joint bank account I share with my fiancé, David. I usually cook for both of us, and before I lost my job I was making a little bit more money than he was, so I made up for it in extra groceries. Now, he makes slightly more than I did pre-layoff, so most food goes on the shared card. That said, that technically means that even less of the amounts below are coming out of my own pocket—but I think the numbers are still pretty impressive, proving that you can eat well without brunching out.
Here are some highlights from my last couple months of cooking:
- An April Bloomfield feast for five (plus enough leftovers for three two-person meals)
After attending an event promoting renowned chef April Bloomfield’s new cookbook, A Girl and Her Greens, David and I had three friends over for dinner as an excuse to test out a few of the recipes. Our friends brought the bread, wine and a couple of dinner ingredients, and I made curried parsnip soup, kale polenta, and grain salad with roasted cauliflower. All were delicious, deceptively simple, and a hell of a lot less expensive than eating at one of Bloomfield’s Michelin-starred restaurants. Plus you don’t have to worry about a reservation, and you’ll have leftovers for days.
Curried parsnip soup
Purchased: Parsnips ($4), apples ($2) and onions ($1) from local produce shop; coconut milk ($1) from Trader Joe’s
Minimal-cost pantry items: Vegetable stock (homemade, from produce scraps kept in the freezer), garlic, garam masala, salt
Total spent: $8
Kale polenta. Note that I only made a half batch of the kale puree.
Purchased: Polenta (about $1 worth) from a local grocery store; Parmesan cheese, not pre-grated (about $1 worth), from Trader Joe’s; 1/2 bunch Tuscan kale ($1.50), leftover from earlier in the week, from the farmers market
Minimal-cost pantry items: Greek yogurt (a less expensive and more convenient replacement for mascarpone cheese); olive oil, salt, garlic, black pepper
Total spent: $3.50
Grain salad with roasted cauliflower
Purchased: Cauliflower ($3) from a local produce shop; golden raisins (about $1), unsalted pistachios (about $2) and wheat berries ($2), purchased in bulk from a local Middle Eastern market; parsley and mint (about $1 worth) and carrot juice (about $1 worth), both brought by friends, but I’ll count them here anyway.
Minimal-cost pantry items: Coriander seeds, garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice
Total spent: $10
Grand total for the meal: $21.50, or $4.30 per person without accounting for leftovers
Cost of a soup and two “plates” at The Spotted Pig, for one person: $48, plus tax and tip
- Gourmet caramels
I recently toured Liddabit Sweets’ production facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where co-owners Liz Gutman and Jen King make an insane selection of candy bars, caramels and other confections. I walked away with a copy of their cookbook and an intense desire to learn how to make everything, and one of my first attempts was their best-selling sea salt caramel. They didn’t turn out exactly how they were supposed to (my fault), but were delicious nonetheless.
Sea salt caramels (about 100 pieces)
Purchased: Butter (about $0.40 worth) and heavy cream (about $0.90) from Trader Joe’s; light corn syrup (about $1.50) and evaporated milk ($1.70) from a local grocery store; wax wrapping papers ($2 worth), purchased online
Minimal-cost pantry items: granulated sugar, vanilla bean, salt, cooking spray
Total spent: $6.50
Cost of 96 caramels from Liddabit Sweets: $64. $8 per box of 12; truly worth it if you have the money—or don’t want 100 caramels, in which case you are crazy!
- Homemade-almost-everything tempeh Reubens
I crave tempeh Reubens more frequently than any other savory dish, and it’s hands-down my No. 1 sandwich: seeded Jewish rye or pumpernickel piled with marinated-then-baked tempeh, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. When I have all the ingredients for this already on hand, I’ll eat it for four days straight.
Purchased: Tempeh (about $1 worth) from Trader Joe’s; bread (about $0.50 for two slices) and Swiss cheese (about $0.75 worth) from a local grocery store
Minimal-cost pantry items: Mayonnaise, ketchup, horseradish and a (usually homemade) pickle for Russian dressing; spices, soy sauce, lemon juice and mustard for tempeh marinade; homemade sauerkraut, made for the measly cost of one head of cabbage
Total spent: $2.25
Cost of the open-face tempeh reuben at Manhattan’s great Angelica Kitchen: $12 plus tax and tip.
- A classy spring birthday cake
One of my closest, classiest friends just turned 30 and had a house party to celebrate. David and I decided that we’ll be making our own (small) cake for our wedding next year, so this is the year of cake experimentation. I went with a 9-inch, two-layer lemon cake, filled and covered with a delicately lavender-flavored frosting. My friend’s friend—who I hadn’t met before—Tweeted that she was still thinking about it the next day. Mission accomplished.
Purchased: Butter (about $1.50) from Trader Joe’s; lemon ($0.50) from a local produce shop; eggs (about $1.50) from a local grocery store; buttermilk (about $0.40), homemade using milk and lemon juice.
Minimal-cost pantry items: All-purpose flour, sugar, salt, vanilla extract (homemade, from used vanilla beans and vodka), culinary lavender (purchased for only $1 months ago), sprinkles
Total spent: $3.90
Cost of a classic birthday cake from one of my favorite bakeries: $36
- Mother’s Day brunch for three
My future mother-in-law was in town over Mother’s Day weekend, and David suggested stuffed French toast, Elvis style, for Sunday brunch. It was a hit (whew!).
Stuffed French toast with chocolate, peanut butter and bananas
Purchased: Bread ($1.50 worth) from a local bakery; bananas for the filling ($0.50) and berries to serve on the side (about $2 worth) from a local produce shop; eggs (about $1.25 worth) and milk (about $0.25 worth) from a local grocery store
Minimal-cost pantry items: Chocolate, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, cinnamon, syrup
Total spent: $5.50, or about $1.85 per person
Cost of French toast for one at a trendy brunch spot: At least $11, plus tax, tip and an hour spent waiting for a table
This story is part of our food month series.
Laura Leebove is a Brooklyn-based editor and writer who’s currently looking for full-time work. In the meantime, you can find her in her kitchen. You can follow her often-frugal food adventures on Twitter and Instagram.