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Frugal Fine Fare: Tips For Three-Course Meals On Less Than $5

Don't get us wrong: We know fine food can come at a price. But leave it to Michel Nischan, the chef behind Dressing Room restaurant of Westport, Conn., and the president of the non-profit Wholesome Wave, to serve up a first rate, seasonal dinner at the down-home price of $4.50 per person.

And who was dining? About 800 movers and shakers at the Partnership for a Healthier America's summit here in Washington, D.C. With the First Lady Michelle Obama as honorable chair, the PHA is enlisting big retailers — from Hyatt Hotels to Walmart to restaurant chains — to help stamp out obesity.

Earlier this year, I reported that the First Lady convinced Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, to cut calories and sodium in its dishes. It's all part of a vision of a retail landscape where consumers have lots of healthful, affordable food choices.

To further prove that restaurants (and home chefs) can cook up healthful, easy meals on the cheap, Nischan took to the stove last night.

"You don't need to do much to make great ingredients taste good," Nischan told The Salt as he prepared a chopped herb salad. He was joined by chef Floyd Cardoz of North End Grill in New York City, who served up some of his own favorite recipes with a reality-check budget.

Now, Nischan is no stranger to posh nosh. If we'd been dining at his restaurant last night our options would have included a $23 locally-raised chicken served with foraged mushrooms and brandy cherry reduction, a $17 spicy lobster and mussel stew or a $12 beet trio salad. Yep, it all sounds fabulous.

But here are some tips that helped him pull off the much more affordable three-course menu for PHA. It included an ancient grain risotto with autumn vegetables and an herb salad with mustard vinaigrette for under $5 per person.

  • Buy in season. The autumn veggies in the risotto (see the recipe here) are all available in grocery stores and farmers markets. Nischan says if he were making this recipe in April, he'd use asparagus. When veggies are at peak harvest, prices tend to fall.

  • Buy in bulk. One of Nichan's favorite grains is farro piccolo, the oldest cultivated variety of the heirloom grain farro. Nichan says he loves it for its nutty flavor and all its nutrients. We checked in with (one of his suppliers) and found that we could buy a 24 pound bag at a cost of $4.12 per pound. When it's cooked, Nischan says, one pound of grain becomes about 3.5 pounds of cooked farro, bringing the price down to about a dollar a pound.

  • Herbs and spices add "zing." Nichan bought the cilantro and herbs for his chopped salad from a local farm for $10 a pound, which he says is more than enough for 20 salads. It adds "zip and zing" to simple salads. Spices are another way to add a lot of flavor. Floyd Cardoz used cumin, tumeric, cloves and cinammon to give his basmati pilaf a lot of kick.

  • The chicken thigh secret. For his chicken kebabs, Cardoz used chicken thighs, which are significantly cheaper than breasts. The recipe calls for marinating the thighs for 4 to 12 hours so the meat is moist and absorbs the ginger, garlic and rosemary marinade.

  • Not every meal requires meat. "We're hard-wired to consume meat," says Nischan. But we don't need it every day. Nischan says on Sundays at home he'll cook three different pots of grains so he's got them ready for the week. "If you do it right, you can cook really inexpensively using all vegetables," Nischan says. And his three-course meal last night was testament to this philosophy
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