By Nick Mangigian • Read time: 5 minutes
During non-pandemic circumstances, going out to eat has to be—hands down—the quickest way to get a jolt of novelty and fun into your life. You get fresh flavors, different dining rooms, a hospitable human interaction. Sometimes, when you go out to eat, you’re really just trying not to do the dishes—but a lot of the time, even if you’re not trying to spend a zillion dollars, you’re still hoping that you’ll be low-key transported to a different frame of mind.
It’s probably the one thing that I miss the most about going out: how easy it was to get something new in front of me, without having to sweat for it.
What I will say, though, is that I have been saving a ton of money not going out to eat as often. And with necessity being the mother of invention, I have leveled up my cooking at home. My partner misses going out to eat even more than I do; I have done my very best to put together some awesome meals that offer an elevated experience without driving the stress level up. What I’ve discovered is that there are actually some real advantages to cooking at home, assuming you keep a few guiding principles in mind.
But first, you should know this: for a restaurant that starts service at five in the evening, they have cooks in the kitchen starting as early as nine in the morning, preparing the dishes that are going to be served for dinner. Often, house-made sauces and stocks are prepared a couple days in advance. A lot of work and effort has already gone into making the delicious meal that gets placed, elegantly, in front of you, once you’ve chosen it off the menu. So when I’m cooking a more involved dinner at home, I try to be mindful of just how much effort I actually want to exert; if I stress myself out cooking dinner, then I’ve effectively defeated my own ultimate goal of enjoying a nice evening.
That means you have to be holistic in how you look at things. Luckily for you, you have a couple advantages as a home cook that can drive the effort-to-enjoyment ratio in your favor. I’m going to go to bullet points here:
- You can afford really high-end ingredients: Did you know that the only other place you could get beef from Pork and Plants was the Bachelor Farmer? We are going to miss that place because of their thoughtful commitment to what they put on your plate. If you’re trying to cook steak for dinner, our beef from Peterson and from Pork and Plants is only found at high-end restaurants—you will not see it in the grocery store—and it is way more affordable to buy it from us, since we don’t have to charge you for the prep. A ribeye that might cost you over $120 at a restaurant can be had for $50 from us—not bad.
But I’ll add, too: make a risotto Milanese with real saffron—why not? It’s simple, and perfect. And the $15-20 container of saffron will make you a good half-dozen dishes if not more, including an epically perfumed whole chicken. Which—while we’re talking about chicken—if you’re going to order chicken at a restaurant, there are only a small handful in the area that buy the same chickens we buy. Our Green Circle chickens were co-developed by some big names in the New York culinary world for use in their own restaurants—Jean-George, Daniel Boulud—and if they’re good enough for them, believe me: they’re awesome cooked simply at home.
- Elevate Your Pairings: As Karina touched on in her previous blog post: when I’m at a restaurant, I’ll spend $40 on a bottle because that’s the cost of doing business. You’ll get a decent bottle of wine that flatters the food. But if you spend $40 on a bottle of wine at the liquor store—and you get a little guidance from one of the helpful somms working the floor—you will probably get your mind blown.
But also, think about this: if you’re making fish tacos at home (use our halibut: they will be the best fish tacos you’ve ever had) and wanted to pair them with a margarita, make a fresh margarita with real, fresh lime juice. It is literally the perfect drink to make at home (along with its cousins, the daiquiri and the Tom Collins) because the effort-to-enjoyment ratio is incredibly favorable.
- You can reverse-sear your ribeye: Most restaurants cook their steaks sous-vide because it’s the easiest way to cook at scale. Sous-vide is sort of miraculous, but if you’re asking me: I think reverse-searing flatters the meat more. It’s the kind of technique that is only inefficient at scale; at home, it’s actually quite efficient, and you can multi-task while the steak is in the oven.
- You can make this Green Chile: It might seem silly to highlight just one recipe in a discussion about general principles, but honestly: after having lived in the mountain west for a couple years, the thing I miss the most is Green Chile. It is very, very hard to find a good version of it in the Twin Cities. If you’re feeling up to some slightly more elaborate cooking, this is a transcendentally delicious dish, probably my favorite of all time, and it’s not that hard.
- You can make our Cardamom Half Chickens: Okay, okay: one more individual dish to highlight, because it is that good. Make our Cardamom Half-Chickens by browning them on the stove, then finishing in the oven. Deglaze the pan with a quarter-cup of white wine. Throw in a knob of butter, maybe a little extra garlic. Stir, stir, stir. You’ve basically made a poor man’s beurre blanc. Ladle over fresh white rice and an oven-roasted or grilled green vegetable.
- You can make Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce: Alright, the real last individual suggestion, because this is a prime example of what’s known as a “pantry recipe,” assembled entirely from staples. Canned San Marzanos, a stick of butter, an onion, your favorite pasta, and you are living like the Romans did, my friend.
If you are a pasta-inclined person at all, talk to one of our mongers about their favorite pasta recipes. There is a rich tradition of very simple pasta preps—carbonara, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio—which can often be made out of ingredients you already have at home, combined with a vegetable or a protein, and served with a mic drop.
Ultimately, the one thing I really want to emphasize is that if you can be a little mindful ahead of time, you can eat an elevated dinner—like, a meal that you will impress yourself with, and enjoy the heck out of eating—without stressing yourself out, and it will cost you a lot less money than going out to eat. I’m going to go to bullet points again to highlight the key techniques:
- Fresh, not Fussy: Freshness of flavor is how I personally like to drive the effort level down, when I’m trying to elevate my cooking. Use a mortar and pestle to grind some fresh coriander or saffron—it’s easy to grind, easy to clean, and in the scheme of things is a small, extra step that pays big dividends. Get some fresh basil or tarragon or mint. Use some citrus zest (I use a lot of citrus zest—way more flavorful than the juice). Don’t feel like you need to do something really elaborate in order to feel like you’re experiencing something new. There’s obviously a time to bone out a whole chicken and stuff it with risotto Milanese—that time is when you’re feeling an unstoppable surplus of energy. If it’s a regular Friday night? Maybe just make a fresh chimichurri sauce, man.
- Coursing It Out: Getting the timing of your dinner right can be tricky. For this reason, most of the time, I recommend no more than two different cooked/hot components, at most three if the starch is really easy to cook. And I serve things family style—i.e., all at once—so that when you’re done cooking, you’re done cooking. Consider making a salad or crudité plate to go with your meat and potatoes or pasta, or serving a good loaf of hearty bread with your vegetables and meat. Anything you can do to get the degree of difficulty down while keeping the quality high.
- Self-Knowledge: Many of the home cooks I know fall into two categories: cooks and bakers. Cooks tend to be comfortable improvising; bakers like to use recipes. Both can learn a lot from the other, but the most important thing, in my opinion, is a degree of mindfulness. Cooks: have some semblance of a plan, mainly so that you don’t get carried away and end up dumping the entire spice cabinet in your dish in a fit of enthusiasm, but also so that you don’t wind up unexpectedly in the weeds. Bakers: go into things with the mentality that a B+ effort relative to the recipe will still sparkle, because ultimately it’s not just about the food—the big picture is absolutely about keeping things mellow.
In conclusion: there are a lot of ways to cook something that is legitimately awesome, that can give your palate some much-needed variety, and that can bring a smile to your face, and we would love nothing more than to help you set the menu. So do some mulling, maybe a little research—or maybe, don’t do any research—and hit us up. We’ll get you ready to roll with something really, really good. Scout’s honor.