Stan Kletkewicz couldn't believe it. When he and his wife, Lisa, added up what they averaged each month on restaurant dinners and take-out meals, the total was upward of $1,000.
"Like everyone else, we wanted to look for ways to cut back on our food bill," said Kletkewicz, a recent retiree living in Mount Laurel. "We were spending an ungodly amount of money on dining out. It was time for a change."
For these two, and many others around the region, the change meant getting reacquainted with their kitchen by signing up for cooking classes.
Indeed, enrollment is on the rise at many area cooking classes, with aspiring chefs hoping to improve their skills to save money on their food budgets.
"When we started, people were taking classes for fun, to entertain at home," said Charlotte Ann Albertson, who started her cooking school in Broomall more than 35 years ago. "Now, I'm hearing that people want to make their food dollars count. Knowing how to cut up a whole chicken and make a lot of dishes from that one chicken saves money," she said. "Our fundamentals classes are consistently doing well."
Cooking classes vary in price, in the $40 to $70 range for each class, but there are lots of grocery stores, such as Wegman's, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, that offer free cooking demonstrations and recipe coaching for shoppers. And while the regular chef-taught classes at Foster's Urban Homeware are $50 a pop, the cooking demonstrations that take place every Saturday at 2 p.m. are priced to beat the economic blues: they're free.
Carol Saraullo, cooking class coordinator at Kitchen Kapers, can't swear that her full class roster is due to the downturn in the economy, but she does believe it's a factor. Although the store's retail numbers are down from last year, the cooking classes are outselling both 2008 and 2007 numbers to date: "Our ethnic cuisine classes are all full," she said. "Our four-part Kitchen Boot Camp series has already sold out for the upcoming morning session."
David Grear, executive chef for Dechert L.L.P. law firm, is one of Albertson's regular instructors, teaching classes in knife skills and basic techniques, including poaching, braising and roasting.
"Where we were getting eight to 10 students, we're now getting 20 and 22," he said. "It reminds me of the saying, 'Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime.'
"I want to help people take home practical skills they can really use every day," Grear said. "It doesn't matter where you work or what your income is. What's going on out there is affecting everybody. And who doesn't like the idea of getting more bang for your food dollar?"
Anything that takes the mystery out of cooking is a good thing, said Grear. "Sure, people save money by eating at home. But I want them to have fun, too. When you're having fun, everything tastes better."
For Doylestown resident Jason Zielonka, his commitment to taking cooking classes at Albertson's is nothing new. The Johnson & Johnson employee regularly drives from his office in Titusville, N.J., to Albertson's demonstration kitchen in Broomall. But the father of two teenagers is finding himself eating out less frequently and spending less for better meals at home.
"When I cook, I can control the quality and purity of ingredients better than when I eat at a restaurant," he said.
Chef Kathy Gold has noticed a definite spike in her hands-on core curriculum classes held at In the Kitchen Cooking School in Haddonfield, and her students have told her they are interested in preparing better food at home to save money. "I've had two sold-out classes back-to-back recently," she said. "We start with knife skills and learn sauce-making, braising, sautéing, grilling, and we finish up with sweets, desserts, and plating."
One of Gold's students, Michael Bartorelli of Haddon Heights, didn't sign up to cut back on his restaurant bill. But it's turned out that's what happened. "I'm separated and have my three teenagers with me three times a week," he said. "I used to help my wife in the kitchen, but I never made meals from start to finish before."
Now that he's more comfortable cooking, Bartorelli finds he can offer more healthful options to the kids.
"I'm not big on fast food. And cooking at home works better for juggling their busy schedules. I really enjoy it."
The Kletkewiczes signed up for a four-part class, "A Tour of Italy," at Kitchen Kapers, taught by consulting chef Karen Docimo.
"It was $175 for each of us, but each class included the meal we prepared, so it was still cheaper than going out to a restaurant," Kletkewicz said. "And we got to work with a really awesome chef."
In fact, coupled with a nutrition program they've been taking at Cooper Hospital, the cooking classes have ushered in a real change for the better, both for their pocketbooks and their overall well-being.
"We really had our eyes opened," said Kletkewicz. "The average restaurant meal can add up to 2,000 calories and 100 grams of fat. That's what most people need for the entire day. Now that we're cooking at home, we have the freedom to make better choices with better ingredients."
Instead of eating a 14-ounce piece of meat, he's opting for five ounces with plenty of veggies and salad on the side. Since January, they've skipped restaurant meals altogether and experimented with healthful recipes found on the Internet.
"We're buying fresh food and eating so much better," he said. The savings has been twofold, an average of $400 back in their pocket each month, and Kletkewicz is thrilled to have dropped 20 pounds.
"We're really having fun cooking together," he said. "We just feel so much better."
Classic Minestrone With Pancetta
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 ounces pancetta (or blanched bacon) minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 small leeks (or one large), white and light green parts sliced thin crosswise (about 3/4 cup) and washed thoroughly
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small dice (about 3/4 cup)
2 small onions, peeled and cut into small dice (about 3/4 cup)
2 medium ribs of celery, trimmed and cut into small dice (about 3/4 of a cup)
1 medium baking potato peeled and cut into medium dice (about 1 1/4 cups)
1 medium zucchini trimmed and cut into medium dice (about 1 1/4 cups)
3 cups stemmed spinach leaves, sliced into thin strips
1 can whole tomatoes (28 ounces) packed in juice, drained and chopped
8 cups low-sodium chicken stock
Salt to taste
1 can cannellini beans (15 ounces), drained and rinsed (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 to 3 cups cooked ditalini pasta
1/4 cup basil pesto, homemade or store-bought
Ground black pepper to your taste
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, passed at table
1. Saute pancetta in 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in large stockpot until crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. In the same pot, bring vegetables, tomatoes, low-sodium chicken broth, and 1 teaspoon of salt to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered and stir occasionally, until vegetables are tender but still hold their shape, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
2. Add beans and cook just until heated through, about 5 minutes. Remove pot from heat. Add cooked pasta. Stir in pesto. Adjust seasonings, adding pepper and more salt if necessary. Ladle soup into bowls and serve immediately, garnished with cheese.
Note: Pancetta, unsmoked Italian bacon, can be used to boost flavor in the soup. Because it has been smoked, American bacon can overwhelm the vegetables. Try cooking bacon strips in simmering water for one minute to wash away some of the smokiness. Soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 3 days or frozen for 1 month. If freezing, do not proceed with step 2 until defrosted and removed from freezer. Defrost food in a refrigerator, not on the counter.
Per serving (based on 8): 477 calories, 23 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 780 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.
Cajun Barbecue Shrimp
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined (reserve shells)
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning mix
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped.
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
Canola oil as needed
1/2 cup Pilsner-style beer
3/4 cup barbecue base (see below)
2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
For barbecue base:
1 lemon, quartered
4 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 pound shrimp shells
2 cups water
1 cup Louisiana-style hot sauce (not Tabasco)
2 cups Worcestershire sauce 2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
1. Toss shrimp with Creole mix, rosemary, and 2 tablespoons oil.
2. In a large frying pan, sear shrimp in oil, approximately 10 seconds each side. Remove shrimp and deglaze pan with beer.
3. Make barbecue base: sear lemon and garlic in oil. Add shrimp shells; cook until caramelized. Add hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce, water, Old Bay; reduce by a third; strain.
4. Add barbecue base to the pan with beer, and reduce by half.
5. Return shrimp to pan and cook through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat, swirl in butter, and finish with parsley.
Per serving (based on 6): 410 calories, 16 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 36 grams fat, 196 milligrams cholesterol, 545 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Arroz con Pollo With Chorizo and Capers
Makes 6 servings
1/2 pound Mexican chorizo or sweet Italian sausage
1 (3- to 3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
11/2 teaspoons ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice 1 red bell pepper, cut into ½-inch dice
5 large cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
3/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup crushed canned tomatoes
1 bay leaf
2 1/4 cups medium-grain rice
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons capers in brine, drained but not rinsed
Lemon wedges and hot sauce, for serving (optional)
1. Cut the chorizo in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1-inch chunks (it's easier if the casing side is up; the casing shouldn't come off, but if it does, just discard it). Set aside.
2. Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels. Season with 2 teaspoons of the kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Heat the oil in a medium (5-quart) Dutch oven or heavy casserole over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken pieces until deeply golden on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes (use a splatter screen if you have one). Transfer the pieces to a large bowl. Lower the heat to medium and sear the chorizo, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the chorizo to the bowl.
3. Pour off and discard all but 1 tablespoon of oil. Spoon out any burnt bits. Combine the cumin, paprika, turmeric, and chili powder in a small dish. Set the pot over medium heat and add the onion and bell pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring often; the moisture in the vegetables will deglaze the browned drippings in the pan. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are softened, about 3 minutes. Add the measured spices and cook, stirring, for 1 minute to let the flavors bloom.
4. Add the wine, tomatoes, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the bay leaf. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and chorizo to the pot. Add the rice and broth. Bring to a boil, cover, lower the heat to medium-low, and simmer for about 18 minutes, until rice is tender the the liquid is absorbed.
5. Remove the pan from the heat and let rest, covered, for 5 minutes. Sprinkle the capers on top of the rice. When spooning out portions, look for the bay leaf and discard it. Serve with the lemon wedges and hot sauce.
Per serving: 841 calories, 44 grams protein, 65 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 40 grams fat, 145 milligrams cholesterol, 2,065 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Braised Beef Brisket
Makes 8 servings
4 pounds flat cut beef brisket with at least 1/4-inch of fat left on beef
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds onions (2-3 large), chopped
1 tablespoon salt
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 celery rib, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
One 14-ounce can beef broth
2 cups water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar or white vinegar
1. Put oven rack in lowest position and preheat oven to 325°F.
2. Pat beef dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy skillet over high heat. Add the brisket fat side down and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Brown the other side an additional 5 minutes. (If your brisket is too large for the pan, cut it in half and sear one piece at a time. Beef has a tendency to curl. Place a heavy pan on top of the beef to keep it in contact with the hot pan.) Transfer the brisket to a casserole or roasting pan.
3. Add onions and salt to the skillet. Sauté over medium heat until caramel brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add garlic and celery to the skillet; cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
4. Add tomato paste and bay leaf. Sauté in pan for 2 minutes. Add the thyme and wine. Boil over high heat until reduced by half. Add the water and broth and simmer for 10 minutes.
5. Pour the mixture over and around the brisket. Cover the pan with foil. Transfer pan to the oven and cook until tender, 3 to 31/2 hours, or until a fork can be inserted into and removed from the center of the brisket with no resistance. Let brisket rest for at least 20 minutes, loosely tented with foil.
6. Skim off any fat, and strain the roasting pan contents through a coarse strainer into a large saucepan. Boil sauce over high heat until reduced to 2 to 3 cups. Stir in vinegar and re-season with salt and pepper.
7. Slice brisket into 1/4 inch slices and serve with sauce.
From Chef Christina DiMacali of Clean Your Plate, Philadelphia (www.CYPlate.com)
Note: This tough cut of meat is tender when cooked low and slow, a good choice for dinner on a budget. It's company-worthy, giving you lean uniform slices. This base recipe is flexible enough to make it your own, by using red wine, carrots, canned tomatoes, beer, ginger, or Spanish olives.
Per serving: 459 calories, 50 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 134 milligrams cholesterol, 2,122 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber