While the unemployment rate has dropped slightly from its January 2010 high, it is still a daunting 8.8%. Add in underemployment and the number shoots up to 15.7%. With wages almost stagnant and job prospects dim, millions of Americans have spent the last three years learning how to do a lot more with less money.
As a seemingly endless parade of pundits has noted, cutting out the daily latte or the weekly restaurant meal are both good ways to save. But seriously slashing your spending requires a bit more than simply avoiding Starbucks and eating at home. Luckily, there is an interesting, tasty route for cutting expenses in the kitchen without sacrificing flavor: peasant cuisine.
From Germany to Japan, Poland to Mexico, most of the world's population lives on diets high in starches, low in meat and cheese, and strong on spice. Far from suffering on these economical diets, the poorer citizens of these countries have developed cuisines that are exciting, flavorful and distinctive. In fact, many of the best-known dishes from around the world were inspired by economy, not aesthetics. For example, Italy's ubiquitous pasta and Spain's famous paellas are both mechanisms for using cheap starches to stretch the flavor of more expensive sauces. Similarly, Germany's famous sausages and Scotland's infamous haggis are both techniques for making cheap cuts of meat (relatively) edible.
Obviously, a pasta-only diet is not a wise or healthy choice, but adopting a few of the key elements of peasant cuisine can help you cut your budget while improving your diet. Here are a few basic options:
Bring the Flavor: When it comes to adding flavor to food, most Americans reach first for the salt shaker. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90% of Americans have too much sodium in their daily diet. Instead of going for the salt, you might try adding vinegar. For rich flavors like pasta sauce, red wine vinegar adds a powerful kick, while rice vinegar can add some tang to Asian or Latin American dishes. Apple cider vinegar tastes great in chili, and more exotic flavors like sherry or champagne vinegar can contribute an intriguing note to your salad dressings, soups or gravies.
Vinegar isn't the only seasoning that can punch up flavor while helping your health. Many spices have healing properties. Garlic can detoxify the body, lower blood pressure and supercharge the libido. Ginger, on the other hand, can help alleviate nausea, is a great antioxidant, and can improve blood circulation. Rosemary can help eliminate free radicals and reduce inflammation while improving blood circulation to the brain. And, best of all, all three ingredients can really punch up the flavor of your food.
Stretch Out the Luxuries: Peasant food doesn't eliminate expensive items entirely. Rather, it uses a variety of techniques to stretch out pricey Ingredients. For example, the use of those thin slices of meat that are such a distinctive part of Asian cooking developed due to the region's lack of animal feed and cooking fuel. Beef was expensive to raise and costly to cook, so stretching it out with vegetables and cutting cooking time by slicing it thin made it a more economical choice.
Because cheese costs so much, traditional dishes like Welsh rarebit, pasta carbonara, and even the old classic macaroni and cheese are all designed to maximize the effect of a relatively small amount of it. Not only does this save you money, but the addition of surprise ingredients like beer (Welsh rarebit), bacon or prociutto (pasta carbonara), and bechamel sauce (macaroni and cheese) can result in some pretty delicious dishes.
There Is Nothin' Like a Grain (or a Starch): From Ireland to Peru, China to Hawaii, almost every culture has developed at least one starchy food that gives it easy access to cheap carbohydrates. Whether the starch in question is potatoes or pasta, rice or taro root, it adds bulk and energy to a meal, and can provide a nice base for more flavorful ingredients. In America, we tend to lean heavily on overly processed starches like white flour or potatoes, but ingredients like whole wheat bread or brown rice offer the filling bulk of starches with a healthier amount of fiber.
Of course, there are many other things that link peasant cuisines around the world, but this is a nice start. The key to eating healthier -- and cheaper -- lies in realizing that a good meal doesn't have to have a slab of beef or a big chunk of fish. With the addition of a few spices and some higher fiber starches, you can improve your diet -- and your finances.