The $5 dinner (for two) and other secrets of Not Eating Out

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway. Photo by Amber Marlow Blatt

Brooklyn may be on the verge of its annual 10-day restaurant fest/dining-out extravaganza, but not eating out is a pretty big part of the borough’s foodie ethos too–Crown Heights food blogger Cathy Erway made her name from it. In September 2006, Erway, up to then a frequent restaurant-goer, became fed up with the expense of restaurant dinners and the sameness of the weekday, store-bought sandwiches. So she gave them up: Anything that went into her mouth, Erway was going to make herself.

And so was born Not Eating Out in New York, a popular blog. Then came a radio show on “food, dating and everything in-between,” and now a memoir about her two-year experiment. (She returned to the world of restaurants in 2008, but not like before). We asked Cathy, 28, what we should make for dinner tonight with only $5, and a few other questions.

When you first stopped eating out, were there any initial freak-out moments, when you seriously considered quitting
I had a really rough patch when I was moving, when it was really hectic and then my kitchen stove and oven weren’t hooked up for about a week. The first night of moving in was really rough… I think I had a jar of mixed nuts.

Were you ever tempted to sneak out for a meal?
Even though I was eating only home-cooked food, I was still really into the city’s buzz about the next greatest restaurant/taco place/ramen place. And a lot of new places opened up in my neighborhood, so that was always tempting. Instead, I’d try to cook something even better and try to remember some of the best things from my favorite restaurants and try to re-create them at home.

Grilled pizza

Erway's grilled pizza

How did you do?
Making pizza at home turned out to be a lot better than most pizza places—I can’t say all pizza places, because I know a lot of people are stalwart for Di Fara’s and Motorino. Plus you can try different toppings and have a pizza party with your friends. It’s really cheap.

How much did you save weekly when you swore off eating out?
I figured out that I was spending about $25 on groceries on a regular week. I spent about $100 a week the way I used to live, which was a mix of eating out and sometimes cooking. So that’s $75 a week in savings—it’s pretty significant.

Where do you get deals on food?
I always like Grand Army Plaza green market. There’s this perception that green market food—organic, all-farmed, heirloom stuff—is more expensive, but a lot of times, farms have large bags of produce, which are a huge steal. Like apples in a huge bag for $2, or carrots… you can find really good deals that way.

Do you have a favorite spice or herb?
Cayenne pepper, if you use it minimally. With roasted vegetables the other day, instead of black pepper, I just used a tiny bit and spread it around pretty evenly. I toss it in eggs before scrambling them. It’s a nice full, bright, spicy flavor and it adds a little color too. 

What’s a great thing to cook for a first date?
I think you should always tailor a home-cooked meal to the other person. It’s kind of like giving them a gift. But say it’s like a blind date situation, say there are no dietary restrictions: a braised steak and some nice, seasonal sides. It’s really cheap and you can get a nice cut, like a hanger steak—it’s so quick to make and so impressive to look at. And you can do a little reduction sauce with the pan juices.

You have $5 to feed two people tonight. What’s for dinner?
Lately I’ve been putting a poached egg into the center of something delicious, like a gooey, soupy bean and vegetable dish. How about a white bean puree with a poached egg… this should be even less than the $5.

Now that you’re not eating in all the time, what’s your favorite Brooklyn restaurant?
I like Franny’s, because they’re all about farm-to-table. And it’s just really good food, simple and not too expensive.

Cathy Erway’s new book is called The Art of Eating In: How I learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. Find a Brooklyn bookstore here.

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