Ok, so you’re in a restaurant looking at a menu. The walls are unrefined brick or cement with steel beams, the ceiling has an old warehouse look, the lighting is dim, there are subway tiles on the floor and Edison style lightbulbs. The menu has fancy cocktails and dishes like pork belly, brussel sprouts, and charred octopus with feta garnish.
Can you guess the restaurant?
Trick question! It could be any one of 12 identical small-plates places that recently opened in Cambridge! I think they are mass producing these places at a factory in Vermont and shipping them to us in the hopes that young tech people will just throw their money at overpriced, mediocre restaurants without a second thought. To some extent it seems to be working. These places always look mobbed, and at 50-60 dollars per person for a drink and few small plates, they must be making a lot of money. But for those of us who don’t want to spend 50-60 dollars every time we go out to eat, or are sick of charred octopus with feta garnish, or are (*whispers*… vegetarian) the options are a bit limited.
While I do like to go out occasionally and have some favorite places to go, I’ve found that inviting friends over to cook dinner is a great alternative to eating out, from both a cost and quality standpoint. For less than ~30 dollars a person, you can get a nice bottle of wine, good dessert from a bakery, and pretty extravagant food from a grocery store.
The other day I planned such a grocery shopping and cooking evening with my friend Nick. Here is a blow by blow of our trip. We met at Hmart with the plan to get gourmet fajita ingredients. We gathered some fish, cilantro, peppers… but then we discovered that avocados and limes were absurdly expensive. So we left with only those few ingredients and decided to get the rest at Trader Joe’s. We chatted about research and life and what not during our trek to TJ’s, and then picked up the makings of salsa and guacamole at Trader Joe’s. Then on our way to my apartment we realized that we didn’t have any dessert or wine, so we stopped by Whole Foods.
The Whole Foods (in Cambridgeport) dessert counter apparently has a cannoli filling station! Nick, being a cannoli-buying veteran, very calmly ordered some cannolis at the counter while I very indignantly inquired as to why there was no filling. We then all had a good laugh at my ignorance while the baker filled the cannolis and we went on our merry way.
After having visited nearly every grocery store in Cambridge we finally went to my apartment to cook and amuse/feed my roommates. We had homemade salsa and guacamole with chips, beans and rice, sautéed peppers and onions, breaded fish, sour cream, cheese, and warm tortillas. I might still be full from that dinner two weeks ago, especially if you consider how much dessert we ate… but for 4 people (Nick, me, and my 2 roommates), I think we spent under 60 dollars total and had a delicious meal with plenty of leftovers.
I also love the social component of shopping and cooking with my friends. You get to know the other person’s tastes better, and you often walk away with funny stories from the adventure. My friends and I have gotten to know the people behind the meat and fish counters at Whole Foods, which adds community spirit to the mix. (The guy at the meat counter at Whole Foods once told us we were the strangest customer encounter he had ever had… does that mean we win?)
The options are limitless. Another of my friends bought a set of gourmet cookbooks from different cultures for whenever he has friends come to cook with him. He just chooses a particular style of cuisine for us, we get a bunch of ingredients and then try to make what looks good. Sometimes disaster strikes in the form of painfully spicy papaya salad because I didn’t know how many hot peppers to use. But friends are there to grin and bear your faults, right? Even if you don’t want to turn it into a big cooking ordeal, just getting some nice cheeses, breads, cured meats/fish, fruit, wine, etc. can be a perfect meal too.
I recently discovered that some of my friends don’t like to cook, or lack confidence in their cooking abilities. One even told me she looked up a recipe for a hard-boiled egg, and then messed it up. Though not knowing how to cook can seem like a handicap, it is really an opportunity. From experience, the best way to learn is to try, and it’s going to be a lot more fun with friends!