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2009: Eating Really Really Cheap


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Food is a big percentage of our household budget, and I imagine some people would think our food budget is ridiculously high, but in any case the operative term is budget. Abstract ideas for saving money just can't compete with a weekly budget with a hard spending limit. When I've tried to economize, I've gone to the grocery store once a week with $X and resolved not to spend more than that. I keep a running estimated tally while selecting groceries for the cart, and prioritize at the checkout. Usually I'm within the limit, but if the subtotal gets up to the limit then I 86 whatever is still on the conveyor belt (thus the need to prioritize at checkout). That's it. No more groceries for the week. You can actually eat quite well this way, even on a tiny budget. You can do a couple of splurge (splurge as in taking up a larger percentage of the budget, whatever the budget is, than other meals) dishes (fish, grilled meat, etc.) at the beginning of the weekly cycle, then you get into the cheaper slow-cooked and soup/casserole-type stuff mid-week. By the time Friday comes along (I shop on Sunday) you're into leftovers and staple starch items like pasta, potatoes and rice.

It's also helpful to do an analysis of what you eat for breakfast and lunch. Assuming dinner is the big meal of the day, it's often surprising how much money can be wasted on breakfast cereals, deli stuff for lunch, etc. Yet these meals can be extremely low-budget if planned well.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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My answer to this is 'Split Peas'

I have known about them for ever, but only recently sourced them and made soups salads and just plain paste with them. as we would with mushy peas in England

Everyone who has tried them with me has been on about the way they are meaty and good eating.

Clickety

Also, it can be good to substitute mushrooms for meat, one of our national papers came out with this last week:

Clickety

healthy, slim and in pocket, what more do you want.

Whatever you do, don't give up the wine :biggrin:

Martial.2,500 Years ago:

If pale beans bubble for you in a red earthenware pot, you can often decline the dinners of sumptuous hosts.

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Buy whole chickens. Not only are they less expensive that way, but you get extra bits (necks, backs) that can be put to good use in soup.

Eggs. Don't underestimate the power of the egg. They are inexpensive and ultimately versatile. They can serve as the basis of a meal. They can add substance to another dish (mixed in with rice and beans, for instance). They can be an unusual accent (a poached egg on top of a pizza? maybe.).

Save your vegetable trimmings (the ends and skins of things that you don't plan on eating) in a container in the freezer. When the container is full, make a vegetable stock.

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It's one of my goals to be more frugal and less wasteful about food this year. I know I can economize and still eat well, but there are a couple of things I'm not cutting back on. Free-range chickens - I freeze all the bits and pieces and make stock; I feel I'm justified paying the higher price as I use and reuse everything. The stock is destined for soups, stews, braises & risottos and I get a lot of mileage from it. I save & freeze vegetable trimmings also for the stock and I'm pretty much always ready for the next batch as soon as I've stock-piled enough chicken carcasses & pieces.

Using the Reynolds Handy-Vac has made a big difference to extending the fridge/shelf life of things like cheese, green onions, vegetables, chocolate, nuts, spices, lemon slices - an endless list, actually. I'm not throwing stuff away anymore the way I used to.

I really need to do better about taking lunches to work; I'm always really glad when I do but have been inconsistent in my efforts. Freezing lunch-size portions of the above-mentioned soups, braises, etc. will give me more impetus.

I read something very recently about bargain shopping for discounted meats at markets and supermarkets, unfortunately I don't have it to hand but I'll continue looking and post the link.

I was isolated at home over the holidays because of appalling snow conditions and pretty much existed on pantry and freezer items until I could shop. I dined on pasta for Xmas, but I did actually rather impress myself for ingenuity and good meals.

Good luck, Maggie and I'm sorry for your tough times. From your posts I know you're an innovative and imaginative cook - you'll soon be producing tasty, inexpensive meals with no trouble at all.

Rover

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We did a "budget stretchers" cooking class back in September (which was underattended....what a difference a few months makes!), and here are the recipe titles and the ideas behind each, just to spur some thought.

Potato Mushroom Gratin--Hardly anything is as cheap as spuds, and even with the "luxury" item of mushrooms, the idea was to get students thinking of all manner of gratins, especially as a vehicle for disguising leftovers. As I usually have a package of dried mushrooms on hand (and Trader Joe's sells them for about $2), there's hardly any cost there, for a great smokiy depth of flavor.

Oven-Baked Polenta- If there is anything cheaper than spuds, it could be cornmeal! Again, a great vehicle for stashing leftovers, to delicious effect, and also, great leftovers in their own right! Oven-baking is a miracle, in my opinion, as it liberates the cook, and you can use that oven energy to bake something else at the same time, and conserve your own!

Caramelized Onions-- Cheap culinary gold. I discovered this year, no doubt on eG, that you can caramelize (well, nearly caramelize--I finish in a sautepan) a massive quantity of onions in a crockpot, and they freeze beautifully. Great in either of the two above recipes. My local market sometimes has a special--6 lb of onions for a buck.

Braised Greens with "Mollica"--variation, pasta mollica. Mollica being toasted bread crumbs, which have been used in various cuisines as "poor man's stand ins" for nuts or cheese. It's amazing what crunch and depth of flavor these little leftover crumbs can bring to the table.

Poulet au Vinaigre-- Sounds much more appealing than "Vinegar Chicken", but really...it's cheap and delicious, and most folks usually have vinegar around. (Plus, it's better if you use good, but not budget-blowing vinegar!)

Sausages poached in wine--Cheap, but drinkable wine, and I'll admit, this was a shameless ploy to have an open bottle to consume--can't let those "left-overs" go to waste in a bad economy! But seriously, sausages are tasty and usually inexpensive, and along with a gratin or polenta, you've got a satisfying meal for very little cash.

Fruit Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce-- The idea here was to use local, in season fruit, which of course is cheaper than the "flown first class from the other hemisphere" stuff, and tastes better, too. Leftover bread gets used, and caramel is "cheap as chips" to make.

It was a fun class to put together, and the attendees are still reporting back about what fun they've had coming up with variations on our themes.

Here's to a wonderful and prosperous '09!

"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

www.chezcherie.com

Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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Food is a big percentage of our household budget, and I imagine some people would think our food budget is ridiculously high, but in any case the operative term is budget. Abstract ideas for saving money just can't compete with a weekly budget with a hard spending limit. When I've tried to economize, I've gone to the grocery store once a week with $X and resolved not to spend more than that. I keep a running estimated tally while selecting groceries for the cart, and prioritize at the checkout. Usually I'm within the limit, but if the subtotal gets up to the limit then I 86 whatever is still on the conveyor belt (thus the need to prioritize at checkout). That's it. No more groceries for the week. You can actually eat quite well this way, even on a tiny budget. You can do a couple of splurge (splurge as in taking up a larger percentage of the budget, whatever the budget is, than other meals) dishes (fish, grilled meat, etc.) at the beginning of the weekly cycle, then you get into the cheaper slow-cooked and soup/casserole-type stuff mid-week. By the time Friday comes along (I shop on Sunday) you're into leftovers and staple starch items like pasta, potatoes and rice.

It's also helpful to do an analysis of what you eat for breakfast and lunch. Assuming dinner is the big meal of the day, it's often surprising how much money can be wasted on breakfast cereals, deli stuff for lunch, etc. Yet these meals can be extremely low-budget if planned well.

This is exactly what I do. I usually splurge and buy something different, like lamb shanks, shrimp, a duck (a delicious and extravagant item that I get breasts, rendered fat, stock, and confit legs from).

I eat a lot of legumes and kale which I eat instead of spinach and it only takes slightly longer to cook. You can cook it in a ton of different ways too (potato/kale soup, braised with garlic/lemon, kale + starch gratin, even raw in a very acidic vinaigrette to fatigue it until tender, etc.). I take it as a challenge to learn more about what I can do with a single ingredient and really explore it's properties and get the most out of it. It's fun--I think of it as spending time instead of money and you can get added value even if you don't spend added money.

nunc est bibendum...

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I'm back in school this year so both unemployed and paying tuition so I feel your pain. A lot of great suggestions already that I've embraced. I'll add buy proteins on sale and freeze. Every week the grocery has something else on sale. This has helped me make far more interesting meals without feeling like I'm skimping.

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Maggie, I understand your situation. Since my wife died, I have had to learn to cook (OMG) and I am on old age pension. I have learned....

Check the flyers every week. For example this week foodland has green peppers on for $1 a lb. 3lbs of bacon for $5..Thank God for freezers.

Baked beans are cheap and dirty and healthy. The only expensive thing is the Maple syrup.

http://gonewengland.about.com/gi/dynamic/o...m/recipe13.html

These are the best I have ever tasted, bar none.

Good luck and God Bless

Bill

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I was a destitute graduate student for longer than I should have been, and with a very small food budget I managed to eat very well using the following guidelines.

1. Shop ethnic markets. This was suggested above, but is worth saying again. Two days ago, I went to the Grand Mart here and got a week's worth of produce for $10. And it's gorgeous, fresh stuff too. Staple foods like spices, rice, and beans will be much cheaper here as well.

2. Shop Big Lots. They have a couple of food aisles with higher end pastas and things like olives, preserves, and roasted red peppers for really low prices.

3. As was recommended above, shop the sales flyers and look for double and triple coupon days, which are becoming more and more common around here. I think the grocery stores are feeling the pinch as well.

Best of luck to you. I hope that you end up needing none of our suggestions!

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Chicken leg-quarters are on special frequently in 10-pound bags. At about $0.49/lb, they are a steal. The day I buy them I trip, brine the thighs and make stock with the rest. However, you can make some meals with the drumstick -- really nice deboned and then stuffed, cooked then served with a great sauce.

Chicken giblets are also underutilized. My favorite way to have chicken livers is to simply fry them, but you can make some nice meals with them, too, sautéed and served in a sherry sauce, paté, etc.

A big money saver for me was to eliminate carbonated drinks from my diet. It was rough at first as I started my mornings with a huge Diet Coke, but after reading about the harmful effects of the sweetener in it, I quit cold turkey. I keep iced tea on hand at all times and lemons by the bagful. Just a splash of lemon in water is a great refresher.

Have you considered making your own homemade fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheese? For the cost of some milk, you can make some great cheese.

With this group you’ll have some great meals. One picture that keeps running through my mind is fish-head soup.

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Ya know, usually when i cook i try to utalize everything... which tends to help out in the end good food wise... Low money doesnt mean cheap food.. For Example

ROASTED CHICKEN, Gnocchi with Chicken essence :) (two meals in 1)

Buy 1 whole small chicken.

2-3 Potatoes

2 onions

1-2 springs of green onions

(dried thyme, rosemary) should be in your pantry.. mines probably years old... but who cares.

Flour.. you should have... but its cheap.

Salt pepper

carrots... 1-2pc.

1 egg...

SO Roast your chicken, stuff it with an onion, put thyme and rose mary, oil that sucker up, bake it at 500 for 10-15 mins till golden brown, lower to 350 and bake it another 35-50 mins to finish.

So after its roasted, take the meat off the bones, while doing this, deposit bones into a pot, keeping the meat to eat now... (meal #1)

If you have meat left great, but not necessary, whatever is left over shred it up.

So now you have a pot o bones, cut up your carrot, used whatever you didn't eat of the stuffed cooked onion and put it in the pot, or if you ate it, use the other raw one... now pour water into the pot... you probably want 3/4 more water then chicken... so if the chicken bones take up half the pot fill it 3/4 way up with water.

Low boil for about an hour, skim the skum off occasionally, strain and save the liquid. You can toss the veg and the bones, or i suppose you could reuse the veg...

Take strained liquid and clean out pot you used, and start reducing that stock until its Nappe (as in it coats the back of a spoon) you can prepare the rest while this is going.

Potatoes, if you have a toaster oven use that, as it saves more energy, which means more money u dont spend in the end. If you have to use an oven then so be it...

Poke holes in potato with a fork, bake at 350 till fork tender. Which means you can stab it with a fork and the fork slides out easily. remove from oven and peel immideatly, If you have a ricer, rice the potatoes, if not use a wire strainer, and push the potatoes through. add 1/2 the amount of flour as potatoes, and add egg, salt pepper, and maybe alittle olive oil, or any cheap oil (just a table spoon or less)

Work the dough until it all comes together, you just want it out of the sticky dough phase... so just as it stops sticking stop working dough Add flour as needed.

Form long logs, about 1/2 inch wide, as long as you want. Cut into small rectangles, about 1 inch long, 1/2 inch wide. Store on a lightly floured surface.

Prepare a pot of boiling water, and cook Gnocchi. If you have made alot, cook the pasta and freeze the cooked portions you are not going to eat.

The pasta is done when it floats. Remove it and let dry on towel or whatever.

Your stock should be reduced by now, depending on how much stock reduction you have... you can add a chunk of butter, and or cream. Taste the sauce to see if it needs salt or pepper. When the sauce is the perfect taste, toss in cooked pasta, toss around, put in a bowl, and add your (biased sliced) green onions. (oh add chicken if you had saved any)

VOLIA!

A beautiful restaurant quality style meal, well 2 meals, for less then 10 bucks, and feeds well over 10 people total. :)

**********************************************

I may be in the gutter, but I am still staring at the stars.

**********************************************

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Sorry to hear about the job loss. My wife lost hers at Christmas a few years back very unexpectedly with aftereffects still felt today.

We play "how low can you go" when shopping and I think we are better for it. That beef heel may sound unappetizing, but some hours in the crockpot with a few seasonings renders as good a bourginon as any other cut.

We watch sales especially when they have the ten for $10 frozen veggies at the supermarket. Not fresh, but the nutrition is there and in a stew who cares.

That and plan. Make basics from basics that go with other things. We routinely buy chicken quarters on sale and can get everything from stock to tacos for very little money. A standard tomato sauce likewise can make spaghetti or pizza or chili.

There is a perfectly serviceable old vine wine from France called Carignan that is our staple now. $5 a bottle.

Good luck to you and yours.

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Maggie, thanks for this post. Such a scary time, you have my best wishes.

Greens such as kale, escarole, and collards are relatively inexpensive for fresh veggies. Not only great as a side dish, but tossed with pasta, as a filling for a frittata or omelet, or as the basis of a soup. I mention them not only because they're delicious but because they're very nutritious, and healthy eating often falls by the wayside when money is tight.

Condiments and additions like cheese can make a meal out of simple things. Broccoli doesn't feel like much of a meal on its own, but sauted with garlic and red pepper flakes, tossed with some chopped black olives and some crumbled feta cheese, and that's one of my favorite dinners. So while having olives, some parm cheese, etc. in the fridge may seem like a splurge, they keep a long time and a little goes a long way when you use them.

Please keep us posted on what you find works especially well.


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In the end Maggie, I hope it won't be all about soup. I hope it will be all about JOY!

Let me tell you a small story. When I was very young my mother died and I went to live with my Grandmother. She had raised 5 of her own children and had taken in an orphan child of her cousin. She did this all on a War Widow's Pension given after her husband was killed in France during World War I. The time I speak of was just after the Second World War when rationing was still very much in effect in Britain. Sugar was about as precious as gold. Sugar bags were never discarded without first being taken apart seam by seam to get every last grain. On a very dark and dreary winter evening, when the only light the two of us had was from a coal fire as she had run of shillings for the electric meter, she took a precious handful of sugar and tossed onto the dying coals. For a brief moment in time we watched as the sputtering fire burst forth in bright colour. We laughed together as only the very young and the very old can understand. Many would have been horrified that she wasted sugar so frivolously. But here it is 60 years later and like you we are finding life is tough but I still know that one cannot forgo JOY. So Maggie, make sure on occasion that you dip into the sugar bowl and toss it away and laugh like a maniac!

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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In the end Maggie, I hope it won't be all about soup.  I hope it will be all about JOY!

Let me tell you a small story.  When I was very young my mother died and I went to live with my Grandmother.  She had raised 5 of her own children and had taken in an orphan child of her cousin.  She did this all on a War Widow's Pension given after her husband was killed in France during World War I.  The time I speak of was just after the Second World War when rationing was still very much in effect in Britain.  Sugar was about as precious as gold.  Sugar bags were never discarded without first being taken apart seam by seam to get every last grain.  On a very dark and dreary winter evening, when the only light the two of us had was from a coal fire as she had run of shillings for the electric meter, she took a precious handful of sugar and tossed onto the dying coals.  For a brief moment in time we watched as the sputtering fire burst forth in bright colour.  We laughed together as only the very young and the very old can understand. Many would have been horrified that she wasted sugar so frivolously.  But here it is 60 years later and like you we are finding life is tough but I still know that one cannot forgo JOY.  So Maggie, make sure on occasion that you dip into the sugar bowl and toss it away and laugh like a maniac!

Annie, I think, no...know, I would like you

Bill

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If need be, I think I could survive very well on rice, beans, Tabasco sauce and jug wine.

spring for a chunk of grana or parmesan -- then risi e bisi will taste great even if you don't throw in pancetta; so will any kind of pasta. i used to make a fast and filling soupy-stew with farfalle, garbanzo beans, canned italian tomatoes and whatever seasonings i had around (plus grana). and then there's pot roast with the cheapest beef, carrots, potatoes and those canned tomatoes again, plus some brown sugar and vinegar... who the hell needs prime rib, anyway? bon appétit, maggie...

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Sorry about the job situation Maggie. I myself just lost my job about a month ago, and understand how rough it is right now without a whole lot of income.

A lot of great ideas have been mentioned ( I especially love the gnocchi one, I just made a batch the other day to store in the freezer), and to be perfectly honest it was sort of a good thing, I've been trying to watch what I save and use a lot more now, and have found myself doing more from scratch than I normally did at home.

Making my own cheese has been a big thing. Many soft cheeses are easy to do, and makes for great snacks or breakfast with bread or crackers, and doesn't cost much more than milk and just a few small ingredients.

Chowders are there too. Simple corn chowder isn't more than 5 ingredients - Onion, carrot, milk, butter, flour, corn - season it how well you want, and you have a decent lunch that will fill ya up.

Many potato things have been mentioned too, and gratins are cheap and good, and you can come up with all kinds. Another simple idea is a warm potato salad. Warm potatoes sliced, tossed with vinaigrette and a fresh herb or two. Potatoes soak it up, and you have a delicious salad.

Hope that helps a little. You just gotta keep your chin up and get creative with what you have, plus I wanted to say you aren't the only one in this boat! All the best to you :)

Cheese - milk's leap toward immortality.

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Friends and family who still have a job should be put to contribution. Do not hesitate to accept invitations. You can also host pot luck dinners and enjoy the benefit from all the leftovers... including wines.

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Sorry to hear about the job situation.

I plan on cutting back on food costs this summer and into the fall by converting any useful space in my back yard into veg gardens. If you have a house, spend your free time tending the land.

Another suggestion is use meat as a supporting role in meals instead as the starring role.

Good luck with the job market.

Dan

edit: Oh, and don't forget Costco or other wholesale shops. Bulk is sometimes cheaper. But do you really need 5 gallons of pickle spears? :unsure:

Edited by DanM (log)

"Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea." --Pythagoras.

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I'll add another voice to those singing the praises of "ethnic" food markets. I do a lot of my shopping in various Asian and Hispanic markets here and find substantial savings. Produce is usually 40 - 60 % less than the mainline grocery stores. Plus better prices on meat and fish...and often live seafood from fish to crab aand eels. And all those wonderful sauces and produce and rice you can't get in a regular store.

Many years ago when I was headed to graduate school I decided to learn how to cook some basic Chinese dishes. At that time I could live well with a wok, a stock pot, a pan, a cast iron skillet, a cleaver and a paring knife on a food budget of $40 per month, and I assure you I did not suffer. (Okay, it was more than a couple of years ago, :smile: but you get the idea.) Stir-fried wok dishes are great for cleaning out the fridge, and there are many Thai and Vietnamese dishes that are great though inexpensive.

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Any ideas about making fresh food for bad times, with variety?

I think about this a lot.

Some of the very best foods are the least expensive. Bon Appetit Magazine dedicated the January 2009 edition to this theme: The Value Issue, Eat Better For Less.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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At one of the markets where I shop there's always a rack of about-to-disintegrate fruits and vegetables for a dollar a bag. Sometimes you can get like six eggplants for a dollar, or a ton of apples. I recently saw a bag of about a dozen zucchini and yellow squash on the rack and decided to build a vegetable curry around that. I made so damn much of it, it must have worked out to about one cent per serving.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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If you have time to spend in lieu of $$, I think foodie on a budget can definitely be achievable.

As others have pointed out, buying whole chickens instead of prepped parts is a great way to go. It saves you money, gives you more flexibility, and can provide you with homemade stock instead of purchased.

Treating less expensive cuts of meat with the time-intensive care they require is another great time/$$ tradeoff. A smoker can be an instrumental tool here - if you don't have one, I bet you could pick one up used for next to nothing. One big pork butt provides an intensely-flavored bounty that can be used as the main ingredient in a bunch of dishes (just noticed the mention of pulled pork in the original post, so this is probably not big news). Turning pork belly into your own bacon yields super-high quality at cut-rate grocery store prices. Making and smoking your own sausages is another great endeavor, and if you have a local source of good inexpensive fish, cold and hot-smoked fish is easy and fantastic.

Again as others have mentioned, getting acquainted with various ethnic cuisines can be a great help. Indian cooking comes immediately to mind - amazing flavors from dishes where expensive luxury proteins can be minimized or omitted completely. I would particularly recommend looking into dal (lentil/split pea) dishes.

If you have the time and motivation, the options are endless. Purchase your product based on your budget, and use time-tested techniques for elaborating it into amazing food.

Food Blog: Menu In Progress

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