Related: Our Favorite Spots for Oysters
“The harder you have to work for something, the better it is,” Jamie Leeds says about oysters as we stand in front of the seafood counter.
But then Leeds offers up a better pearl, explaining that if you call ahead or if grocers aren’t busy, they’ll usually shuck the oysters for you. So, with someone else prying open our oysters, we pick up the rest of the supplies: a leek, celery root, potatoes, beets, arugula, milk, and wine.
The chef/owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar accepted our Frugal Foodie challenge—cook an oyster dinner for six for less than $50, not including pantry items. With that budget in mind, Leeds watches closely at the checkout to make sure each item is rung up correctly, happily catching errors that work in her favor.
You’ve made a list. You’ve checked it twice. And now you’re wondering if you’re facing a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency.
Don’t despair, the Copper Pot Food Company’s Stefano Frigerio accepted the Frugal Foodie challenge—to make delicious gifts for four for less than $25.
We start at Target, where Frigerio looks for jars. He scores two packs of four eight-ounce containers for $9.83. (Frigerio points out that with a little advanced planning you can find jars for less.)
At the grocery store, he picks up a sliver of ginger, frozen blackberries, pectin, canned tomatoes, an onion, and a few other ingredients. The bill rings up at $11.78.
The Frugal Foodie numbers game is always tricky business, but computing seven fishes for six people for less than $60 turns out to be a complex mathematical equation.
Contemplating the fish counter, Dean Gold, owner of the Cleveland Park Italian restaurant Dino, seems up for the task. He’s agreed to put a budget spin on the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Historically, Italians abstained from meat on Christmas Eve. In true Italian fashion, this fast became a feast of seven, ten, or 13 fishes. The numbers symbolize different things, from the seven sacraments to the 12 Apostles plus Jesus.
I’m sure these aren’t the numbers going through Gold’s head as he stares at the case of fish. In the end, he chooses cod, haddock, shrimp, and swordfish. He grabs canned tuna—he likes the Genoa and Cento brands because they use better-quality olive oil. And I throw him a bone and offer up some leftover frozen calamari.
>> Want to see what Longworth's Thanksgiving meal looks like? Check out our photo slideshow to see more
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but then I saw this,” said Adam Longworth, holding up a clear plastic card with purple-and-gold writing. “I was looking at turkeys and they were going to break my budget. Then I saw the sign that said if you had a Giant card the turkey was only $12.”
The 701 chef had accepted our Frugal Foodie challenge to cook Thanksgiving dinner for six for less than $50, not including pantry items. He was taking it seriously. He beat me to the grocery store in order to scout out ingredients. He insisted that the amount of sugar and butter he needed would be more than what’s considered fair pantry item use and included both in his budget. And now he was the proud owner of a Giant card so he could save a few extra dollars.
>> Want to see what Olivon's ingredients and meal look like? Check out our photo slideshow to see more
Steaming bowls of monkfish with garlic aïoli. Plates of soft cheese and rabbit pâté. Cassoulet thick with white beans and pork sausage.
France is renowned for its cuisine, but so much of it is meat-based. What will a French chef do when challenged to make a vegetarian dinner for two for less than $15?
Chef Patrice Olivon—who grew up in Provence, cooked at the Embassy of France and the White House, and now teaches at L’Academie de Cuisine—agreed to give it a whirl. Not including standard pantry items—sugar, flour, olive oil—this vegetarian feast can’t exceed $15.
Suited up and ready to go, the chef at Firefly in DC’s West End has accepted the Frugal Foodie challenge and agreed to cook a tailgate party for 15. Not including drinks or standard pantry items—sugar, flour, olive oil—the bill can’t exceed $75.
At the supermarket, Bortnick studies his meat options before choosing a roast sirloin and two large packs of wings. He then powers through the store, snagging bread, artichokes, chickpeas, and other ingredients. Grand total at the cash register: $71.38.
The newly appointed chef at Rustico in Alexandria researched grocery stores, scoured the Web for deals, and joined Harris Teeter’s VIC program for extra savings for this Frugal Foodie challenge.
“I signed up for their program just so I could get this special,” says Mannino pointing to an ad with an offer for a five-pound bag of potatoes for $1. “I planned everything around this.”
Mannino has agreed to cook an Oktoberfest-themed dinner for six. Not including the beer or standard pantry items—sugar, flour, olive oil—the bill can’t exceed $25.
With the potatoes tucked into his cart, we take off through the store picking up the rest of the ingredients he needs. Mannino admits how out of practice he is when it comes to shopping at an actual grocery store instead of through wholesale purveyors.
“Who wants gray, soggy steak?” asks David Varley as he presses a piece of skirt steak between two paper towels. He knows the question is too ridiculous to wait for an answer, so he continues, explaining that the key to a good steak on the grill is removing the excess surface moisture.
For this Frugal Foodie, Varley—executive chef at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak in the Georgetown Four Seasons Hotel—agreed to whip up a steak dinner for four for less than $25 (the budget doesn’t include standard pantry items such as sugar, flour, and olive oil). He’s not going to let this steakhouse-tastes-on-a-burger-joint-budget affect the quality, so we drive to H-Mart, an Asian grocery store with significantly lower prices and hard-to-find ingredients. After much debate in front of the store’s meat fridge, Varley chooses a skirt steak. He rounds out his purchase with Chinese eggplant, sugar-snap peas, a cucumber, red potatoes, apricots, a lime, and heavy cream. Grand total: $20.63.
John Snedden studies a big package of jalapeños, looks at the rest of the items in his cart, and does a quick tally. Turning to one of the store’s employees, he asks if he can take just half the package. While the employee unwraps and re-wraps the jalapeños, I ask Snedden how he found this market.
We’re standing in the produce aisle of the Panam International Market on 14th Street, Northwest, just north of DC’s Columbia Heights. The market is in a nondescript building and lacks any of the frills of the chain stores. The aisles are tight, the ceiling is low, and the food is jammed onto the shelves. But the selection is surprisingly varied and the prices are phenomenal.
Spices, fresh herbs, red meat, cheese. These costly ingredients have proven to be the biggest challenges for chefs taking on our Frugal Foodie challenge. In December, when we asked Grille at Morrison House chef Dennis Marron to whip up a brunch for six for less than $20, he offered some cost-saving advice: Grow your own herbs.
It makes sense. Even a small windowsill garden offers a bounty of flavor for far less than what you’ll spend at the supermarket—a small package of herbs costs $3 to $5. So when I heard that Washington National Cathedral was hosting its annual Flower Mart, I turned Marron’s challenge back on him. Including plants and pots, could we put together a cook’s garden on my small patio for less than $40?