Reviews: 10 Dollar Dinners With Melissa D'Arabian

I started writing this column the evening following the first episode last week but, when I read it over, I felt like I was being too unfair. So I let it marinate for a week so I could watch a second show. While I know that these were probably all taped the same day, I was willing to let her get one under her belt.

It was a good call, as the second episode was much better than the first. It was more what I expected of her — that being a meal I hadn’t seen before (Moroccan) done on a budget. Surprise, to make dishes flavored from other regions of the world, one needs just use regular old American ingredients with different spice combinations. Cumin and cinnamon gives you Moroccan flavors. Who knew?

As I’d mentioned before, the reason I was kind of “meh” on her victory was because this show exists on the network already in multiple incarnations. Her “confessional” shot at the beginning and coming back from breaks is very reminiscent of Giada’s shows. The price structure is similar to Money Saving Meals. The kitchen is similar to Sunny’s. The degree of difficulty is similar to 30 Minute Meals. It’s just a rehashing of a lot of different shows.

Her poise and presence are fine. It works for someone who is taping their first couple of shows. Her confessional shots are somewhat awkward and she speaks slower than me doing a podcast which, for those who’ve never heard me on a podcast, is friggin slow. And she’s not quite up to engaging the camera and cooking at the same time, but I’ll chalk that up to “first round of tapings” and call it a day.

But what bothers me most is that they called it $10 Dinners. The assumption seems to be that the viewer is a cook with an absurdly overstocked pantry. It’s impossible that any cook can put these meals together for under $10. So, because I minored in math and because Google has a good conversion system and because it was too hot to leave the apartment this weekend, I started doing the numbers. Using Fresh Direct to get prices, Google to convert measurements, and the Windows Calculator, I decided to figure out exactly what these dishes cost.

The rules I used for deciding what to buy: I chose the first matching result that exactly fulfilled the amount needed. For example, her dough recipe called for two sticks of butter and the first result was the standard 1 lb, 4 stick box. I chose the first 2 stick box. I didn’t choose any organics or generics. I did not buy in bulk and nothing “lite” unless it’s specifically called for. If I had a choice between a larger and a smaller product, I chose the smaller. I counted everything except salt and pepper because, well, c’mon. If she used the zest of lemon in one dish and juice in another, I didn’t count the lemon twice.

Now, I will grant that I’m buying things at New York City prices, so your mileage may vary.

Episode One – Perfectly-Priced Parisian

Green salad
– Mixed Greens: Only available option for mixed greens is a prepackage — $3.50

– Clove of garlic: I toyed with not including this either. We’ll say there are about a dozen cloves in a head of garlic. $2.99/lb ~= $0.75/head — $0.06/clove
– 1 tbsp of Dijon mustard: This is where the math gets fun. $3.69/8 oz. = $0.46/oz = $0.46/2 tbsp — $0.23/tbsp
– 1 tbsp of balsamic vinegar: $2.39/8 oz. = $0.30/oz = $0.30/2 tbsp — $0.15/tbsp
– Splash of soy sauce: We’ll call it a teaspoon. Doesn’t she know that you can’t use math on a “splash”? $2.29/10 oz. = $0.23/oz. = $0.23/6 tsp — $0.04/tsp
– Olive oil: She didn’t say exactly but in my limited experience making vinaigrette it’s around a cup. This is an ingredient with a gigantic variance between prices. Within my rules, I chose the first non Extra Virgin option: $9.99/25.5 oz = $9.99/3.2 cups = $3.12/cup.

Appetizer: $7.10
Degree of Difficulty: 1. I’ve done a vinaigrette before — they’re easy. And I’m totally yoinking the soy sauce idea.

Potato Bacon Gruyere Torte

– 2 sticks of butter: Easy enough — $2.69
– 2.5 cups flour: Also easy — $1.89/2lbs = $1.89/3.75 cups = $0.50/cup — $1.50
– Egg for egg wash: Yes, I’m counting this. $1.99/doz — $0.17

– Sprig of fresh thyme — $1.49/sprig
– 2/3 cup heavy cream: $2.39/pint = $2.39/2 cups = $1.20/cup — $0.80

– 4 slices of bacon: This is going to be complicated because I don’t really know the average weight of a slice of bacon. I’ll say 4 slices is about a quarter-pound. $5.99/lb — $1.50
– Shredded Gruyere: Again, this is pretty inexact. I didn’t use Fresh Direct’s regular search feature because it gave me only sliced. So I used the cheese shop. I’m also not quite sure what “shredding some Gruyere” would be in weight. According to Chef2Chef, a pound of firm cheese yields about 4 cups when grated. She calls for 1/4 cup. $13.99/lb = $13.99/4 cups = $3.49/cup — $0.87
– 2 big/3 medium potatoes: We’ll say that’s about a pound. — $0.99/lb

Entree: $10.01
Degree of Difficulty: 10. For me, anything involving making a crust is a 10.

Applesauce Granita with Maple Topping
– Applesauce — $3.39
– Lemon — $0.50

– 1/2 cup yogurt: Had to go pretty far down the list for the first non-organic, full fat version. I’m presuming she just means regular old plain, unflavored yogurt. $3.19/32 oz = $3.19/4 cups = $0.80/cup — $0.40
– 1 tbsp real maple syrup: Real maple syrup is not Mrs. Butterworth’s, people. I had to violate the non-organic rule as ALL the non-corporate syrups were organic. $7.69/8 oz = $0.96/oz = $0.96/2 tbsp — $0.48

Dessert: $4.77
Degree of Difficulty: 1. We tried this without the topping. It was OK. Maybe the topping sweetens it up and makes it better.

Episode Total: $21.88

Episode 2 — Less Money, More Moroccan

North African Meatballs
– 1/2 onion: We’ll call it a third of a pound. $1.49/lb — $0.50
– 2 tbsp olive oil: Presuming the same rules from episode one. $9.99/25.5 oz = $9.99/408 tbsp — $0.02
– 2 cloves of garlic: I toyed with not including this either. We’ll say there are about a dozen cloves in a head of garlic. $2.99/lb ~= $0.75/head ~= $0.06/clove — $0.12
– 1 lemon — $0.50
Kalamata olives: She had a 1/2 pint container, which is about a 1/2 lb. $7.99/lb — $4.00
– 1/2 cup of white wine: Bleh, we’ll be generous here and say she used a $4.99 bottle of wine. $4.99/750ml ~= $4.99/3 cups = $1.66/cup — $0.83
– 1 can of tomatoes — $1.79
– 1 tbsp red pepper flakes: $0.79/2.75 oz = $0.79/5.5 tbsp — $0.14
– 1 tbsp cinnamon: $0.79/3.5 oz = $0.79/7 tbsp — $0.11
– 2 tbsp of brown sugar: Light and dark cost the same. $1.19/lb = $1.19/2.27 cups ~= $1.19/36 tbsp = $0.06
– 1/4 cup chicken stock: $3.39/32 oz = $3.39/4 cups = $0.85/cup — $0.21

– 1 egg: Still counting it — $0.17
– 2 tbsp tomato paste: $0.99/6oz = $0.99/12 tbsp — $0.08
– 3 tbsp of cilantro — $1.49/sprig
– 1 tsp cumin: $0.79/3 oz = $0.79/18 tsp — $0.04
– 1 tbsp fresh ground ginger: Ground it off of ginger root, which is by count. Each root is about 6 oz. $2.99/6 oz = $2.99/12 tbsp — $0.30
– 3/4 lb ground beef: $2.99/lb — $2.24
– 1/4 cup of whole rolled oats: Ground up to replace breadcrumbs. $3.39/18 oz = $3.39/2.25 cups = $1.51/cup — $0.38

Total: $12.98. Melissa claims this dish costs just under $7. Maybe without the super fancy olives.
Degree of difficulty: 4 — Mixing up raw meat and rolling meatballs is a 1. Browning them without burning them is a little tougher. Getting a sauce to not suck can — well — suck.

Easy Couscous
– 1 cup couscous: I’m assuming plain and not flavored. $2.99/17.6 oz = $2.99/2.2 cups — $1.40
– 1/4 cup dates: Best I could find on Fresh Direct was $5.79/bag. A bag is 8 oz. 8 oz is about a cup. — $1.44
– 1 cup chicken stock: $3.39/32 oz = $3.39/4 cups = $0.85/cup — $0.85
– 1 tbsp olive oil: Presuming the same rules from episode one. $9.99/25.5 oz = $9.99/408 tbsp — $0.04

Total: $3.73. She claims it’s just over $2. I guess that is true.
Degree of Difficulty: 1 — it’s rice, people.

Cumin Carrots
– 6 carrots: Her recipe calls for 3/4 lb of carrots. She had at least 6 carrots on the table. Fresh Direct claims that 6 carrots is over 2 lbs. They claim 3/4 lb is only 2 carrots. I’m going by what she made, not what she claims. $0.79/lb at 2.4 lbs — $1.90
– 1/4 cup chicken stock: $3.39/32 oz = $3.39/4 cups = $0.85/cup — $0.21
– 1 tbsp butter: One stick is 8 tbsp. From before, $2.79 for 2 sticks — $0.35
– 1 tbsp of brown sugar: Light and dark cost the same. $1.19/lb = $1.19/2.27 cups ~= $1.19/36 tbsp = $0.03
– 1 tsp cumin: $0.79/3 oz = $0.79/18 tsp — $0.02

Total: $2.51. She claims the entire dish is under $1. Using her claim of 3/4 lbs ($0.59) this is much closer to true, coming in at $1.20.
Degree of difficulty: 2 — It’s sliced carrots, people.

Episode Total: $19.22

I don’t understand is the price label on the show. It makes no sense and is impossible to pull off. Even if we assume that the cooks have all the ingredients in their pantry, the specialty ingredients she uses are pricey. Katamata olives? Gruyere cheese? If they can’t even keep it in the ballpark of $10, why bother? And, for that matter, is $20 Dinners With Melissa D’Arabian too pricey? Did the marketing people say “$20! Who has $20 in their wallet? That will price Middle America right out of the market!” At $20, both meals are in the +/- 10% ballpark even for a city snob like me. Mr. Tuschman, I expect more from you.

I guess I’m neutral on the show. They obviously want to market her as the new Rachael. I just don’t know if she’s engaging enough yet. I used to work at the supermarket chain in Upstate NY (Price Chopper) where Rachael started doing 20 Minute Meals in front of a live crowd. She had that natural engaging ability to hold a crowd. I don’t know if Melissa has that — but she’s got enough that her show isn’t insulting.