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Building culinary knowledge on budget

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Economic focus is in the news more than ever these days and everyone seems like they're searching for ways to tighten their purse strings, especially at this time of the year when the Christmas credit card bills are rolling in.

There are ways, however, to expand your knowledge in the culinary world without affecting your personal/family grocery budget. Let's face it, we all need to eat food to stay alive and adding some variety to our home meals is a way to make “eating in” more exciting.

How many times has the normal trip to the grocery supermarket resulted in bringing home the same old products you always buy for your never-changing home menu? Well, this can be changed very easily without any drastic impact on your monthly food budget.

Here's what I challenge you to do: every week or two weeks or month, I want you to buy just one product you would never buy normally. This could be a produce item, a spice, an herb, or something down the imported food aisle.

Take your blinders off, step outside your habitual boundaries, and be receptive to all the wonderful products we have available at our finger tips. No matter where you live, shopping today has a greater abundance of selection than ever before.

The other great resource we have access to, whether it's at home, work, or the local library, is the internet. This will allow you to answer questions about the certain product you have purchased that you may know nothing about, such as what do I do with it, how do I prepare it, how is it normally served, and how is it best stored?

You and your family are going to be eating food anyway, and chances are you will continue to do so for the rest of your life. So what harm will it be to spend, for example, $2 or $3 per month on one product you normally wouldn't purchase?

Continue to do this for a year, while researching and educating yourself on each product, and you will have expanded your culinary knowledge by 12 items at the minimum. This will add variety to your home menu forever and build your culinary knowledge at the same time.

Many cities/towns also have gourmet food stores. Make it a habit to talk to these people, tap into their expertise, and make your weekly/monthly one product purchase there instead of, or alternating with, your regular grocery store.

If you have even more room in your monthly budget, take a cooking class once per month instead of dining out. I know my restaurant friends will dislike me saying so but the return on your investment in a cooking class is far greater than just a full stomach from one “dining out” visit.

As the old saying goes, “Give a person a fish and you will feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for life.”

Dear Chef Dez:

I like onions and someone suggested trying shallots.

What is the difference between onions and shallots, and why are shallots are so much more expensive?

Harry N.

Yorkton, Sask.

Dear Harry:

Shallots are a relative of the onion and basically are milder and sweeter than regular cooking onions, and thus they tend not to overpower other flavours.

They are so expensive mainly because of supply/demand. In my hometown, for instance, onions usually are priced around 60-75 cents per pound while shallots are $3 per pound.

If there was a gradual increase in the demand of shallots, the cultivation of these root vegetables would be increased and the price eventually would start falling.

I'm not a gardener by any means but from what I understand, shallots can be produced successfully wherever onions are grown.

Send your food/cooking questions to dez@chefdez.com or P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, B.C., V2T 6R4.

Chef Dez is a chef, writer, and host. Visit him at www.chefdez.com

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