Next Food Network Star winner Melissa d’Arabian says she cooks the way any other budget-conscious parent would — but in her case, she’s writing it all down. The former Kirkland resident, now in the 7th season of her “Ten Dollar Dinners” show on the Food Network, has a “Ten Dollar Dinners” book out on eating inexpensively and eating well, and she’ll be at the Issaquah Costco (where, yes, she used to shop) at 11 a.m. Wednesday to sign copies as part of her 20-city book tour.
We spoke by phone in between her plane flights, and D’Arabian said she was thrilled to be coming back through town. “One of the things I loved about Seattle was that appreciation for real food, and for ingredient-driven food, and that the farmers markets were such a big part of the culture there.” She would go to the markets in Kirkland, Mercer Island, Bellevue, and, “of course, the ultimate, Pike Place.” The dollars she spent there “functioned in a couple ways,” she said, not just buying food but providing entertainment and education for her four young daughters.
“I would allow them to pick out the craziest squash they could find, and bring it home and make a fun recipe out of it…The extra dollar or two I would spend, I figured it was money I was saving on not spending $10 on a movie ticket.”
Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation:
Q: You’re not in Kirkland anymore. Why did you make a move?
A: “We moved to San Diego to be with my family. My sister lives there, and she has 5 kids. We bought a house a few doors down from her. It’s a big family reunion all the time!
“We really loved the Seattle area and were very sad to leave it, but we felt like it was the right choice…My husband still works in Seattle, he goes back every few weeks for a couple days.”
Q: Does it become harder over time to come up with ideas for your Ten Dollar Dinners?
A: “I remember the executive producer of my show when we were first meeting, saying “I just want to make sure we’re not going to have years of just chicken and tilapia!” We joke about that. But here’s the thing — I really do cook this way. When I run into people in the grocery store, they always look in my shopping cart and we always compare notes: “Pork shoulder’s on sale! Did you see it over there for 99 cents?”… It’s how I live my life, it’s not as though I satisfy this separate world of Ten Dollar Dinners from how I cook for my family. People across America are cooking for their families 365 days a year, and I’m just doing the same thing they’re doing, except I’m taking notes.”
Q: Do you have a favorite recipe from the new book?
A: “It has to be the potato bacon torte. It reminds me so much of my mother-in-law, who inspired the recipe — any recipe that has a personal story behind it is always going to be one of my favorites…I make it every year for my annual mother-daughter holiday tea…I also made it on Next Food Network Star and it was a real hit…I feel like it may have gotten me into the finale.”
Q: “What ages are your girls now? Is your cooking changing as they grow older?”
A: “They’re 7, 6, 5 and 5… Once I got out of the toddler phase, or the baby food phase, I think probably my cooking has not changed. There are some things that I’ll do a little less spicy, or put the spice on the side, but once everyone has teeth it’s the same line of cooking.”
Q: With three kids, I find it tough to cook meals everyone will enjoy. How do you do it with four?
A: “It’s tricky. I guess I just sort of play the statistics: If I’m at 75 percent for any given meal I count that as a success. You can’t please everyone all of the time. I always have whole grain bread or something healthy and something I know they can eat (on the table), so nobody’s starving. And I never serve all new dishes to them, I usually only introduce one new dish at a time…
“Believe me, the words “That’s OK, I hope you’re not hungry ’til breakfast” have certainly crossed my mouth. It’s a tricky balance. You want your kids to know they have an opinion
and that it matters. We want them to know they’re allowed not to like something. But at the same time, as parents, we don’t want to give them license to just dislike everything.”
Q: What do you tell people who want to start figuring out how to save money on food?
A: “There are so many different strategies. It’s not just about buying cheap food at the grocery store and cooking all the time with beans and rice, although that’s part of it… I’ve taken what I consider the top 10 commandments of Ten Dollar Dinner cooking and put them in my book…one example is, do your splurging in a safe place. My favorite place for a safe splurge is in the produce aisle…as long as you’re sticking with in-season produce and not buying peaches in January or something, you will have a hard time really breaking the bank in the produce aisle. And if you want to splurge on something fancy, do it there.
“My favorite example is a handful of wild mushrooms. Yes, they may cost a bit more than regular mushrooms, but if you’re going to make them the star of your dish, say a fancy mushroom omelet, or the star of a pasta dish, you may spend 75 cents more for that splurge, but it’s going to feel so much higher-end. In the meat aisle, getting filet mignon instead of sirloin steak, that (would) cost you an extra $15.”
File photo of Melissa d’Arabian and her then-2-year-old twins, Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times