Feasting On A Budget, Amy McCoy Shares Her Poor Girl Gourmet Secrets With Us

Amy McCoy love for good food was nurtured by her mother and grandmother's home cooking .

Landing a job doing promotional campaigns for Discovery Channel, A&E and other TV Clients allowed her to enjoy all the best foods the world had to offer.

After 13 years in TV land, the recession brought her career to a screeching halt.

She had been freelancing during the boom so there was no golden parachute, no safety net for Amy.

In no time, she had to change her spending habits 180 degrees, going from consumed to thrifty.

Having a lot of time on her hands, she decided to start a blog called Poor Girl Gourmet where she would share the lemonade that came out of her lemons.

Poor Girl Gourmet led in turn to Poor Girl Gourmet, the book, just published on June 1st, 2010 by Andrews McMeel.


Amy was kind enough to share her Poor Girl Gourmet secrets with us.

Here they are.

Q: Amy, did you have any writing experience prior to starting 'Poor Girl Gourmet' the blog or was it a clean start?

In my youth, I had always been a writer, writing creatively as well as serving as the editor of my high school newspaper. However, my  professional path didn't offer me an opportunity to write, though I   had taken a couple of writing classes over the years between college and the start of the Poor Girl Gourmet blog. One of those classes was a food writing class at Grub Street in Boston, during which the instructor suggested that we students keep a food blog. 
This was in 2005, and at that time, my schedule didn't allow me the ability to maintain a blog. Also, at that time, my financial situation was quite different. However, once I was out of work, it  made sense to start the blog as a way to chronicle how I was reining in my food spending and making sure that my husband and I  still ate the best quality food we could afford.

Q: You don't envision a life of food shopping based on sales and coupons only, do you?

I believe that it's smart to save money in every area we can, especially now, so I do expect that I will continue to use these same techniques for the rest of my life. Shopping sales and using coupons is a positive for me, as it creates opportunities to use different cuts of meat or vegetables based upon what's on sale.

Q: In your introduction, you quote spending $160/200 per week on food shopping in your flush days, where you eating out a lot as well?

We didn't eat out a lot before I was out of work, as I have always enjoyed cooking at home as a way to be creative, and often find that a home-cooked meal is more satisfying than a meal out. We tended to reserve our dining-out spending for special occasions or restaurants where we loved the food.
Once I was out of work, dining out wasn't an option.

Q: In most metropolitan areas, dinner for two with wine, tax and tip could cost as much so all things are relative, don't you think?

Yes, of course. However, the situation at our house was that dining out wasn't an option. Even now, we're on a very tight budget, so we have to do the best we can with that budget each week.


Q: In the book, you use the tern 'fancy cheeses', do you mean by that imported and artisanal ones?


Q: Any cheese lover on a budget will have a hard time finding many nice options under $10 a pound, any cheese bargains in your tip box?

I do believe that we all should be able to splurge from time to time, so my best advice is to buy a small amount of cheese for those times you are splurging. Even with a cheese that retails for $20 or more per pound, buying just 1/4-pound is a good way to get a taste without breaking the bank.

Q: Does it all start with a menu and a shopping list (and sticking to both)?

I believe that it does start with making a plan and sticking to it. In my opinion, this is the best way to properly budget your food spending for the week, as it allows you keep your spending in check and also allows you to know that you will have enough food to get through the week.

Q: You price each recipe and on occasion give the unit cost, was it to make it clear to readers how much they spent or wasted when buying say a cookie for $1,50 when it would cost them 20 cents to make?

I broke down the cost to show how good a meal (or cookie!) could be made for such a small amount of money. Quality is equally important to my husband and me as is keeping our food spending down, so the food has to be good as well as inexpensive.


Q: Is your food strategy a better fit for people with a light work schedule?

Many of the recipes in the book are simple to make, so they do work for working people as well. If I have a busy day, I'll make one of the quick meals, and save a more complex meal, such as the butternut squash ravioli, for the weekend or for a weekday where I have more time to prepare dinner.

Q: Would vanilla add something to your carrot and ginger soup? Vanilla Bean or Pure Vanilla extract?

I haven't tried this, but please let me know if you do and what you think of the addition.

Q: Is ice cream making as easy as you claim? What main dish would your sweet corn and basil ice cream complement as a garnish?

I think that making ice cream is easy; as with many things in life, it requires patience, but it's not a complicated task. I haven't considered the sweet corn and basil ice cream as a garnish - please let me know if you come up with any suggestions!

Q: I did not find any mention of French or South African selections in the wine pages, are you partial to Spanish and Italian offerings?

The wine chapter is, of course, not comprehensive. As mentioned in the introduction to that chapter, it would take at least one whole lifetime to do justice to value wines and lesser-known varietals, and this is something that one chapter in a cookbook can't possibly cover in detail. My primary goal in writing the wine chapter was to get people thinking about wines that are not as well-known, so that, ideally, they'll be inspired to try wines from all areas of the world, knowing that there is a whole legion of delicious wines beyond those that are the most common (or familiar) varietals.

Q: In order to lower your food budget, is it necessary to shrink your meat consumption?

For us, it is necessary because we don't want to change our standards (such as opting to not have added hormones in our food). Much of the way we do this is to eat meals with a little bit of bacon or pancetta, rather than to eliminate meat entirely, though we do also have meat-free meals each week.

Q: If this is a must, what would you say to those who claim they don't like vegetables?

I encourage people to try different vegetables even if only once. They may be surprised. For instance, I did a cooking demonstration recently, and two people were hesitant to try fennel. Once they did try it, though, they were both surprised to find that they liked it. 
So there's always hope for a vegetable or two to appeal - even to  professed vegetable haters - if given a chance.

Q: For produce (veggies and fruits) is the ethnic market the way to go?

In my area, my local farmers market and farm stand offers the best value for produce, and I do grow a lot of vegetables in my garden, so that helps our produce budget as well. While I realize a garden isn't practical for everyone, for those with limited space, I recommend growing a favorite herb in a container or pot. The ethnic markets in my area are a good resource for spices, specialty meats and grains for less money (and often better quality) than what I'm able to find at the supermarket. In many areas, ethnic markets are often a good option for produce as well.

Q: Has saving money on food allowed you to do other things like travel that might not have been possible otherwise?

For the time that I was out of work, we really didn't have any extra spending money at all, so saving money on food was and is a necessity at our house. Sadly, there hasn't been any travel in quite a while.


Q: On a personal level, what has been the most positive effect of embarking on this 'Poor Girl Gourmet' odyssey?

Thank you for asking this question, Serge. I had long been dissatisfied at my television job as it wasn't creative; I managed the budget, schedule, and correspondence with clients, so very much the business end of things. I couldn't have known it at the time, but when the economy tanked, as frightening as it was to have no income, the blog became a culmination of all of the things that I had always wanted to do: cook, write, and do photography. Without the loss of my job, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do something that I truly love.

Q: Could you see your next project be 'Eating on $200,OOO Budget'?

Given that I expect to be using these same techniques for eating well on a budget for the rest of my life, I think I'll stick with Poor Girl Gourmet for a bit!

Thanks Amy for sharing some of the lessons learned and Tammie Barker at Andrews McMeel for making this interview possible.

(* Illustrations are top to bottom from following recipes:  Ribolita (page 17), Roasted Carrots with Thyme (page 92), Cornmeal Crust Peach Crostata (page 166)...)

Previously: Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma Makes Time for Our 5 Questions Interview

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