The frugal formula

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In this post, I proclaim that I am the creator of the phrase “formula cooking“.  I’ve googled around and can find no other references to this that aren’t about something completely different.  After this phrase catches on and gets it’s own Wikipedia page, you can say that you read it here first!  Even if I actually am the first to use the phrase, I’m far from the creator of formula cooking and to some extent every professional and home cook does this every day.  I wanted to explain my thoughts around formula cooking because it’s a fun way to cook and super frugal, of course.

Formula cooking is the idea that behind every recipe there is a formula.  The formula dictates what kinds of things go into a recipe and roughly what’s done with them.  That formula might be the same for literally hundreds or thousands of similar recipes but with each combination of specific ingredients yields something unique.  The easiest way to illustrate is with an example.

Here is a recipe for Macaroni and cheese:

  • 1lb elbow macaroni, cooked al dente
  • 8oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2cup milk
  • 2T flour
  • 1t salt
  • 1cup seasoned bread crumbs

Mix first 5 ingredients and pour into a small baking dish.  Cover with bread crumbs and bake at 350F for 30 minutes or until bubbly.

This is a simple recipe but specifies exactly what goes into the dish and in what order.  Here is a formula for Macaroni and cheese:

  • Some kind of pasta
  • Some kind of cheese
  • Some kind of sauce
  • Some kind of seasoning
  • Some kind of topping

Mix in some order and heat until all ingredients are cooked.

With this formula, you can create a practically unlimited number of dishes that could be called macaroni and cheese but are distinctly different from the first recipe.  You already do this when you happen to be out of cheddar cheese and substitute monterey jack instead.  Now, think about every part of a recipe being replaceable and your now using formula cooking.  This flexibility will allow you to create your own variation that might be:

  • Healthier
  • More suited to the tastes of your family
  • Easier to prepare
  • More interesting
  • Better matched to another dish that this will accompany
  • Best of all… Less expensive to make!

Now let’s say that I’m planning to make a Cajun meatloaf for dinner tonight.  The meatloaf is already in the oven and I need to make a quick side dish.  There are some chopped vegetables left from making the meatloaf.  I have some left over rotelli pasta that’s already cooked and some mild cheddar I got on sale because my family doesn’t like sharp cheddar.  Why not make a Cajun macaroni and cheese to go with the Cajun meatloaf?  Here’s what I come up with.

Cajun Stove top Mac & Cheese

  • 1lb Rotelli pasta, cooked (pasta)
  • 6oz mild cheddar, grated (cheese)
  • 2T flour (sauce)
  • 2T butter (sauce)
  • 1/2 cup milk (sauce)
  • 1/2 cup onions, chopped (seasoning)
  • 1/4 cup bell pepper, chopped (seasoning)
  • 1/4 cup celery, chopped (seasoning)
  • 1/4 cup andouille sausage, diced (seasoning)
  • 2t Cajun seasoning salt (seasoning)
  • 5 dashes Tabasco (seasoning)
  • 1/2 cup stale goldfish crackers, crushed

Cook the butter and flour over medium heat in a large sauce pan until the flour turns lightly brown.  Add the onions, bell pepper and celery and cook about 5 minutes or until soft.  Add the andouille and seasoning salt.  Add the cheese and milk and stir until it forms a sauce.  Add the pasta and tabasco.  Turn off the heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes for it to thicken.  Sprinkle with the crushed crackers.  Serve with Cajun meatloaf!

I’ve never made the above recipe, but bet it would be good!  It’s just an example to show how when you use the formula you can come up with something completely different that you can be pretty certain will still be recognizable, and probably delicious.  Next time you’re looking at a recipe, see if you can figure out the formula.  If you do that, I bet you’ll immediatly come up with ideas to make your own version that’s probably even better!

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