Let’s be clear about one thing: I have high-end tastes. Whether it’s my wardrobe, my housewares, or my appetite, I like the finer things in life. Christian Louboutin, Zac Posen, Judith Leiber – I have caviar dreams. Unfortunately, I also have a canned tuna budget. These days, I buy off the rack and spend more time dining out at the local BBQ joint than at the new Brazilian steakhouse across town I’m drying to try.

Luckily for me, my husband has an uncanny ability to pilfer recipes. Whether it’s figuring out how to make a Juicy Lucy, like the one Adam Richmond sampled in one of our favorite episodes of “Man vs. Food,” or perfecting his own homemade version of Olive Garden’s salad dressing, my spouse can literally see, smell, and taste a food, then go home and whip up the exact same thing – sometimes even improving on it.

I know he missed his calling in life. In a world where the Internet is overrun with recipes by chefs, for chefs, my husband has mastered culinary terms like macerate (it’s like marinate, but for fruits) and knows the difference between reducing and reconstituting a particular food. He’s fluent in foods like arborio rice, thinks kale actually tastes good when properly prepared, and knows that true key limes are yellow, not green.

Because of our shoestring budget, we spent the better part of the last two years dining out at home. Thanks to my husband, it’s possible to eat restaurant-quality food – and I mean high-end restaurant fare – at home for a fraction of the cost.

For example…

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 30th birthday. Unfortunately, it happened to coincide with prom weekend in our area, which meant that (A) all the local restaurants were booked solid and (B) if we had managed to find an open table, we would have been seated adjacent to a dozen squealing 17 year old girls and their dates. In other words, not my idea of fine dining. My husband asked me what I wanted to eat as I welcomed in my fourth decade of life. I had been craving a truly moist tenderloin with balsamic glaze and a fairly heavy cream sauce.

My husband made it happen.

I’m not the cook in our family (if you hadn’t already noticed), so I can’t give you the nitty gritty. Since I do the grocery shopping, I can tell you the ingredients he sent me out to buy were absolutely affordable:

  • Pork tenderloins were on sale at our grocery store, buy one get one; I paid about $5 for a moderately-sized cut of meet that was enough to feed me, my husband, and our two best friends
  • One fresh clove of garlic (cost: less than $1)
  • One package of lite Philly Cream Cheese ($0.49, thanks to a $1 off coupon I had, which the store doubled)
  • One bottle of Newman’s Own balsamic vinaigrette ($1.50, thanks to an in-store promotion)
  • One large bunch of fresh asparagus ($3.99)
  • One bag of red potatoes ($4.99 for a five-pound bag)
  • One oversized bottle (1.5L) of Chardonnay ($10.99 – luckily, I happen to like cheap wine – a holdover from my college days, I’m guessing)

In all, the total price tag for my at-home birthday dinner was less than $30, with tax. My husband’s creations – he channeled a past visit to a local restaurant that serves traditional Southern dishes to come up with the recipe for the main course – were able to serve four adults, meaning we paid under $7.50 per person. (Note: our best friends brought over dessert in honor of my birthday, which is an added expense for which we didn’t have to pay.) By comparison, at an upscale restaurant in our area, dinner for four with a bottle of wine – plus tax and tip – could easily have cost us $100 or more.

Reader, what’s your favorite “pilfered” recipe? From which restaurant did it come?

Libby Balke
Libby Balke