Not long after we hit the “publish” button on my Nov. 13 story about ScratchDC — in which I prepared one dish three ways to see whether convenience-oriented cooking could compare to the genuine scratch kind — we realized we had overlooked one important test: We’d forgotten to see just how cheaply we could make the Ethiopian meal.
If you recall, I ordered one of ScratchDC’s twine-tied “bundles” — a $28 box that contained all of the pre-measured, pre-chopped and pre-marinated ingredients needed to make awaze beef tibs with kik alicha — and prepared the meal at home the next day. Despite a couple of hiccups, the bundle produced an astonishingly authentic Ethiopian dinner. Then I re-created the meal twice, with items bought at the grocery store: first using as many convenience foods (chopped onions in a container, diced tomatoes in a can, etc.) as I could find, and then using, with the exception of pre-ground spices, whole ingredients.
Most important, I tried to buy ingredients that matched the organic and locally sourced ones that ScratchDC favors. That was my blind spot. I never thought about trying to produce the same dinner on the cheap, a rather comical omission given my secondary gig over at Weekend as the $20 Diner.
So this past weekend, I went shopping again for the same ingredients, this time at Snider’s Super Foods, the reliable (and cramped!) supermarket in Silver Spring that sells affordable meats and produce. Unlike Whole Foods, however, Snider’s does not carry bulk spices, which forced me to buy (ugh) little plastic containers of spices and, once again, try to calculate the percentage of each one I used in the recipe.
For the record, I spent $53.38 at Snider’s for ingredients, and that did not include the green split peas or the injera, which the store does not sell. Those last two items ran to $1.45 and $6, respectively (before calculating the percentage used in the recipe). All told, the ingredients totaled $60.83. Not cheap, but not what it actually costs to prepare this dinner, either.
Once I performed the calculations, the amount spent on the actual ingredients used in the recipe totaled roughly $18.91, a good $9 cheaper than the ScratchDC kit. The price would have been even (slightly) lower had I been able to buy bulk spices.
The biggest price break came, as expected, with the meat. I originally shelled out $13 for grass-fed, hormone-free sirloin at Whole Foods; this time around, I paid $6.71 for the store-brand boneless sirloin. I realized price savings on butter, onions and tomatoes, too. But as with my original story, I did not try to figure in transportation costs. Nor the emotional fatigue of going from store to store to find the necessary ingredients.
For this preparation, the price savings was clear. But what about the time involved in making it? Or, more important, the taste?
Apart from travel time (which always chews up more minutes than you expect), the meal required more than two hours to prepare, mostly due to the green split-pea stew. I didn’t soak the dried peas long enough to cut down the cooking time. But the meal’s flavor compared favorably to the one prepared from the ScratchDC box, though the meat was a tad chewier.
How to account for that similarity in quality? I think it has to do with the nature of Ethiopian cooking, which is arguably less ingredient-driven than, say, Italian cooking. Sure, Ethiopians have told me that they avoid doro wat in America because the chicken here is inferior to that in their home country, and that if you don’t have high-quality beef, you shouldn’t even bother eating tere sega. Those entrees notwithstanding, Ethiopian cuisine relies heavily on stews and sautes, spice- and butter-rich dishes that can prove satisfying even with inferior proteins and conventionally grown produce shipped from God knows where.
The bottom line: Nine times out of 10, I’d select the ScratchDC preparation over the cheapo variation (for obvious reasons: convenience, better ingredients, slightly improved flavor, eco-friendliness), but if I wanted to save a few bucks, I wouldn’t feel cheated with my cut-rate version.