Beth Moncel is a microbiologist by day and a prolific food blogger by night. Credit: Beth Moncel
Almost five years ago, Beth Moncel, creator of food blog Budget Bytes, found herself broke and in desperate need of good food and a fulfilling hobby.
"I was really desperate," she told us. "My budget was already strapped .... and I was having a hard time. I had already cut off my corners so I just had to cut back on food more so I started crunching the numbers to see if there are anything I could do."
Moncel, 33, had student loans to pay back for her bachelor's degree in nutritional science, and her job at Whole Foods just wasn't paying the bills. She started calculating how much it would cost to make different dishes and embarked on a new project: cooking tasty, balanced meals on a shoestring. Soon, her friends pushed her to start a blog and Budget Bytes was born. Today, Moncel's blog gets about 2.5 million visitors a month clicking on unique but easy recipes like Chorizo & Sweet Potato Enchiladas or Dragon Noodles — we can personally vouch for the Maple Dijon Chicken and Chipotle Sweet Potato Burgers.
We talked to Moncel, who is based in New Orleans, about her success and tested out one of the recipes from her new book "Budget Bytes." Moncel gave us two exclusive recipes from the book that are not available on her blog.
Do you still work your day job as a microbiologist?
I’ve been working full time this whole time until last month — I finally got to go part time with the book and freelance work.
Did you grow up in a house where there was a lot of cooking?
Yes. We had a family of seven and my mom for the most part cooked every day because it was cheaper. She never took us to McDonald's because it was too expensive. I hung around the kitchen and got all the basics back then so when I started the blog I thought I knew how to cook, but I really knew so little. I've picked up so much along the way. You learn so much. I browse the Internet a lot and there’s so much out there. Looking at pictures is enough to inspire me to try new flavor combinations. So I go by what I'm craving that week and get ideas to try something new.
Why do you think your blog has done so well?
I think timing was a lot of it. It started right when things were really bad financially for the whole country. Also at the same time in the past 10 years being health-conscious has really gained momentum and it was both of those things coming together and using real food and simple ingredients. I have a little background in photography and web design and you have to have those things to be successful in blogging so all the experience came together to make a blog that works.
Your blog is really different from other food blogs out there because it's not snobby at all. You're never asking people to scrape vanilla bean pods and it's all very accessible. What put you in that direction?
I guess because I saw a lot of people around me who didn’t have any cooking experience at all. They couldn’t boil water in a kitchen if they wanted to and I thought it was a tragedy and something that was lost in the past few generations. Feeding is a basic skill and if you don't cook, you're dependent on companies to feed you and they’re going to charge a lot because they can. That’s something our culture has to relearn how to do and I figure if I have the skills to teach people how to do it then I might as well. I don't mind doing work and other people can benefit from it.
You also tend to keep the ingredients list pared down and repeat a lot of basic staples.
All of the stuff I cook for my blog is what I actually eat that week. It happens naturally. I always shop in my pantry to see what needs to be used up. You’ll see an ingredient I use this week that’s leftover from last week — that’s a cost-effective way to cook. That’s how I think people should cook and eat in order to reduce waste.
It seems like you're targeting single, young readers. Most of your dishes are convenient for a single person to eat and put away in the fridge. Do you find that's what your readers are looking for?
That’s how I am cooking — for just myself — but surprisingly I think most of my readers are family people. I get a lot of emails from families – it’s a huge range of people. I get a lot of military families, too, and emails from people who are disabled who have a hard time spending a lot of time in the kitchen. A lot of people who are out of work. Maybe less college-aged people than I would think.
What’s the hardest thing for you when you have to come up with new recipes all the time?
The funny thing is the thing I don’t like the most is when I come up with something I’m so in love with but I can’t really make it again because I have to make something new every week. I think, 'Oh, that was so good,' but if I make it I have to throw it away. I don’t usually have that much trouble coming up with something new. I follow what my stomach’s telling me and there are so many places online with so much inspiration. Like on Pinterest, I'll see something and think, 'Oh let me make my own version of that.'
Are you surprised by how popular your blog has gotten?
Yes! It just took on a life of its own and it's had its own momentum. I’m just trying to keep up with it, which makes it exciting. Every day it surprises me. I feel really lucky that I fell into this. How many people get to do things that are fun and help other people out? The emails I get are touching and incredible.
What kind of emails do you get?
I get emails from people that are a family where both parents have lost their jobs and they're barely getting by, but now they're able to feed their families healthy stuff. I got an email from a recovering anorexic and she said cooking has been awful for so long but my recipes are simple and delicious and they’ve gotten her back into the kitchen.
Budget Bytes recipe test
Moncel gave us two recipes from her new book, and we were able to test her pasta e fagioli and crunch the numbers ourselves. Here are our numbers, using groceries from Trader Joe's in New York City.
Get Beth Moncel's recipe for Pasta e Fagioli from her new cookbook "Budget Bytes." Credit: Beth Moncel
Pasta e Fagioli
3 ounces bacon (3 to 4 slices), cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces ($0.75 - we used 4 ounces of Trader Joe's Ends & Pieces bacon)
1 medium yellow onion ($0.79)
2 cloves garlic ($0.10 - we used organic)
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes ($1.49 - organic)
1 (15-ounce) can white beans (Great Northern, navy, or cannellini), drained and rinsed ($0.89)
4 cups chicken broth ($1.99)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano ($0.05)
1/2 teaspoon dried basil ($0.05)
1 cup ditalini (small, tube-shaped pasta) ($0.40 - we used organic brown rice fusili)
(We also added about a quarter bag of pre-cut organic lacinato kale for $0.58.)
In a large pot, cook the bacon over medium heat for 7 to 10 minutes, or until it is crispy and most of the fat has rendered. (As the bacon browns, it may begin to stick to the bottom of the pot, but don’t worry—it will dissolve into the soup later and provide big flavor.)
Add the onion and garlic to the pot and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the onion has softened.
Add the tomatoes and their juices to the pot. Stir well and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
Add the beans to the pot along with the chicken broth, oregano, and basil. Stir to combine. Cover the pot, raise the heat to high, and bring the soup to a boil.
Add the pasta to the boiling soup and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the pasta is fully cooked.
Stir the fresh parsley into the soup and serve hot with a light sprinkling of Parmesan over each bowl.
Budget Byte: I frequently use small amounts of bacon in recipes to add big flavor. Rather than freezing or using individual slices, I cut the package across the slices into four 3-ounce sections prior to freezing. That way, I can grab just the amount I need from the freezer and add it straight to the skillet.
Moncel’s Tip: Cooking bacon can be intimidating, but don’t be tempted to use precooked bacon instead. The fat that renders from the bacon while it cooks eliminates the need for extra cooking oil and is pivotal to achieving big flavor in the finished soup. Cooking bacon in the bottom of a large soup pot is much easier because the tall side walls minimize dangerous splattering of the hot rendered fat.
Our result: We used mostly organic ingredients and we are based in New York — both factors up the cost. We also added a heap of kale for some extra green power. Still, the total cost of Moncel's pasta e fagioli was $7.94 for five generous servings. That's just $1.58 for a delicious, hearty bowl of soup that's full of smoky bacon flavor and high fiber beans.
1 tablespoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
1 large head cauliflower, cored and cut into bite-size florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and coat the foil with nonstick cooking spray.
In a small bowl, combine the paprika, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, salt, and some black pepper.
Place the cauliflower florets in a large bowl, drizzle them with the olive oil, and sprinkle the spice mix over top. Toss the cauliflower until it is well coated in oil and spices. (The more you toss, the more the coating will spread, so be sure to toss well, but be gentle to avoid breaking up the florets.)
Spread the cauliflower in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes, or until tender. Serve warm.
Moncel told us: "The Firecracker Cauliflower is a great side dish or snack and is so good that I can almost eat the entire batch myself!" That's high praise coming from someone who makes a new recipe every week.