Got a dollar? Buy a meal!

Ingredients galore at the discount store

Posted: August 13, 2009

WHEN IT comes to what's for dinner, the buck stops here.

As most families tighten their food-budget belts, help is available from a not-so-obvious source. The next time you head toward the supermarket, where the cost of everything from snack foods to dry goods continues to skyrocket, maybe it's time for a detour - to your local dollar store.

According to the market research firm Retail Forward, nearly three-quarters of Americans make regular trips to dollar discount stores. While you may have visited these budget emporiums for household items and school supplies, there's more to the story. Chains like Dollar Tree, Dollar Store, Family Dollar and the like can be an untapped source for foodstuffs.

And we're not talking bomb-shelter canned goods.

The typical dollar store works by buying bulk and surplus items, in brands both name and obscure, and passing savings on to the consumer. And, while every store offers a different mix, and some have more variety than others, you'd be surprised at what's on the shelf.

Chef Derek Davis sure was.

We asked Davis, who owns Derek's, in Manayunk, and Pizza Rosso, near Temple University, to put in some shopping time at the Dollar Tree in Roxborough. His trip down the aisles yielded an impressive dinner for eight people, including a crew of hungry restaurant workers.

All that for not a lot of scratch - dollar stores offer an average of 41 to 71 percent savings off supermarket prices, according to an analysis on www.money.aol.

com.

Admittedly, Davis doesn't typically use ingredients like frozen spinach and biscuit mix. The Philly-born chef, a culinary presence in Manayunk for 18 years, prefers fresh, local ingredients. His dishes tend to be creative and bright, with farm-to-table pizzazz.

But, desperate times call for desperate measures. And this down-to-earth chef is no stranger to simple fare. Davis' mother may have been the only Jewish mother who wasn't a good cook.

"A typical dinner would always have an iceberg lettuce salad with 'cellophane tomatoes' and bottled dressing, spaghetti and meatballs with Ragú sauce or maybe well-done broiled lamb chops," he recalled. "Frozen broccoli or peas was the vegetable."

Dollar-store cuisine does have its limitations. Most stores don't carry produce and dairy, nor will you fill your cart with organic offerings. But that didn't bother Davis a bit.

"You can cook real food from what they have," he said. "You don't have to eat fast food just because it's cheap. Build on protein and vegetables, and you have a meal."

Take a stroll down the typical dollar-store food aisle, and the first thing you may notice is a variety of canned fruits and veggies. For the best bang for your nutrition buck, select vegetables labeled as low in sodium, and fruit packed in juice, not heavy syrup.

Then there's the copious dried goods category, embracing pasta, rice, beans, cereals and the like. And on to juices, sodas, spices and condiments - from salsa and salad dressings to ketchup and mustard.

At the Dollar Tree, in the Andorra Shopping Center, a freezer case held ground chicken "cutlets" wrapped in bacon, fish sticks, flash-frozen shrimp, scallops and even ice cream.

Stock fluctuates, depending on the deals du jour, so dollar-store cooking tends to be of the seat-of-the-pants variety. Still, there are plenty of options. The key is to check your foodie snob at the door and have at it.

Cake mix? Sure, bring it on.

Canned chilies? Absolutely.

Bacon bits, boxed potatoes, canned corn? Yes, yes and yes.

In her book "The 99¢ Only Stores Cookbook" (on buy.com for just $7.80), author Christiane Jory concocts dishes like caramelized onion torte and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds from ingredients available at the West Coast 99¢ Only chain and at Big Lots (www.biglots.com), which has stores locally, including Norristown, Franklin Mills and Kennett Square.

Big Lots specializes in brand names - Dannon, Van Camp's and imported Rummo Pasta, for example - and offers a "100 satisfaction guaranteed or your money back policy" on everything.

Yes, it's a good idea to check expiration dates before you purchase, but the same holds true at your local supermarket.

After his shopping spree, with $4 change left in his pocket from a $20 bill, Davis had plenty to work with. Sure, instead of sesame-crusted tuna and barbecued Duroc baby-back ribs, he applied his eye for color, texture and composition to canned tomato sauce and pancake mix.

But the results were real-deal comfort food: spinach lasagna, and pepperoni-roasted-pepper-and-mozzarella bread with an olive butter spread. And, for dessert, chocolate chip crepes with berries.

The bottom line? Dinner for eight at an impressive cost of just $2 per serving. (He did supply butter.)

"We sampled the food for our staff dinner at Derek's," he said. "And everybody was happy."

Davis was surprised that the store seemed to have something for everyone.

"I have to admit that before I went shopping, my thought was that the products would be totally ghetto," said Davis. "I hadn't been to a dollar store with a freezer section. They had chicken breast and shrimp, even pork chops. They actually had the Plumrose brand of sliced ham that my grandparents always had in the house. And not everything was off-brand.

"I guess dollar stores are today's version of the old 5-and-10," he said. "You can get Mylar balloons, wrapping paper, razor blades, a loaf of bread and chicken breasts all at one place.

"Why pay retail if you don't have to?"

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