The Cheap Issue: Deal-icious

Chefs make over cheap ingredients into gourmet dinners

  • Jodi Miller photo
By Columbus Alive
From the The Cheap Issue: Deal-icious edition
The Before Picture: Don't pretend this stuff doesn't look familiar. Come on, you recognize the cheapie classics - like Kraft mac 'n' cheese, packs of instant ramen noodle soup, canned tuna and the frozen Jeno's pizza. Yes, this roundup of notorious groceries scored at a "big box" corporate store clearly represents many things to many people.

It's the basic food pyramid for struggling students, novice oven wranglers and/or disinterested cooks; it's sustenance for millions of families juggling an unwieldy budget in a downturned economy; it's a sloppy trip down memory lane for secret munchers who occasionally dabble with recreational convenience foods in the privacy of their own homes.

What it's not is the makings of an exciting dinner. Or is it?

The Challenge: Let two local top chefs be left holding the bag. In other words, dump a couple of identical bundles - each loaded with $25 of that "before picture" food - onto two hot-shot cooks accustomed to creating beautiful and sophisticated dishes out of top-shelf ingredients and then see what those pros could cook up with that mess o' cheap eats.

The ground rules were pretty loosey-goosey: Convert that $25 of "goodies" into dinner for four by using any or all of it to be aided and abetted by standard kitchen and pantry items (for example, oils, vinegars, condiments, onions, garlic and such were fine, but I drew the line at truffles).

The Spoiler Alert: Given the wit, talent and always-cranking imaginations of the two expert chefs I selected (they're two of my favorites who, by the way, instantly, graciously and - hell - laughingly took up this challenge), I certainly expected at least a nifty, cheap trick or three. But in no way was I prepared for the Pygmalion type of transformations that took place.

In fact, as I gazed upon - and tasted - all the deliciousness they'd imponderably cooked up, and even though their responses were completely opposite, I wondered if both had tapped into some kind of fairy magic. Because what each had accomplished was no less daunting than kissing a dodgy frog into a prince or dressing a sooty Cinderella into the belle of the ball. Keep clicking to see what I mean.