Pinch-hitting for penny-pinchers


POSTED: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How many times has a recipe or Food Network special looked so tempting, you jotted down the ingredients for the next potluck — only to end up standing in the supermarket aisle, clutching your wallet in growing dismay? Sure, the book club is your dear friends — but you didn't know they were going to be that dear.




Second in a 3-part series


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» Next Wednesday: Recipes on the cheap.


For me, the wake-up call came with some kind of shrimp salad made with sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, pine nuts and feta cheese — trendy novelties at the time.

Not only were the ingredients ridiculously hard to find, but the extravagance almost kept me at home. It was only after I got married and started to cook for more than potlucks that I wised up to the art of pinch-hitting in the grocery store.

No arugula? Heck, get baby spinach. Out of white wine? Just skip it and add more broth.

This doesn't always work, naturally. You can't substitute imitation crab for Lobster Fra Diavolo — or use baby spinach in an arugula salad if the flavor of arugula is the whole point.

But even the star attraction of a meal can be reconsidered if you happen across a worthwhile bargain: Hanger steak and tri-tips make tasty, affordable cuts for the grill; pork chops will work in place of lamb or veal chops; and pig lovers swear by the economical Boston butt or picnic shoulder for foolproof roasts, barbecues or stews.

There's hardly a menu out there that can't be trimmed down to fit leaner times. But no matter where you cut corners, don't compromise on food quality. Use bacon instead of pancetta if you must — but don't buy low-quality bacon, or it will drag down all your efforts.

The whole point of pinch-hitting, after all, is to make sure the results still taste like a million bucks.