I’ve been considering some basic cooking “cheats” and this is my biggest one. This works for everyone from barely competent cooks looking to improve their food, to highly skilled cooks in a hurry or on a budget. One simple thing that opens up the door for more interesting meals? Find the Spanish/Latin/Ethnic section at your local grocery store.
No, I don’t mean the Old El Paso taco and burrito kits. Get out of here and don’t come back! I mean at least the Goya stuff, which is the heart of what I think of as “home cooking” as a former kid from the Bronx.
There’s two big benefits here. The first one is that you’re going to find big bold flavors that you’re maybe not used to, for really reasonable prices. Replace the salt with adobo and add a packet of sazón con culantro y achiote to your rice, and add a tablespoon of sofrito and/or recaito to a can of beans, and you’ve got a cheap and hearty dish with barely any prep time. Marinate your cheaper cuts of chicken or pork in some mojo criollo, then grill or broil it and serve over rice or on a hoagie roll… and one bottle is good for a couple of meals. You’re going to find a bunch of “weird” stuff in that section of the store, but it is all tasty and rarely excessively spicy.
Speaking of spicy, this is where the second benefit hits. Have you ever looked at a recipe that called for a spice you rarely use? And then you go to the store and look for it and find out that a tiny jar costs more than any other ingredient or sometimes as much as all the other ingredients? Well, before you give up you should check the “ethnic” aisle. Very often, they’ll have small packets of ground spices that are just enough for that one recipe, or larger containers for half as much as they cost in the spice aisle. You can save a lot of money and try a lot of different spices without having to commit to a larger container that’s going to sit in the cabinet for three years until you randomly need it again.
So have fun, and cook something nummy!