I LOVE shopping at my local Gourmet Garage as much as the next guy. But sometimes I plop a can of chicken broth down on the checkout counter and think, “$2.19? For someone to boil chicken bones? I want that job.”
So when I heard that the food you can buy at 99-cent stores is more diverse than you might imagine, I decided to conduct an experiment. I’d make dinner every night for a week using mostly ingredients bought at these stores and then, on the eighth night — once I’d gotten my game down — I’d prepare a meal for friends made only from ingredients bought at 99-cent stores.
There are 99-cent stores, and then there is Jack’s. It’s Closeout Central, an off-brand oasis. Located at 110 West 32nd Street, near Herald Square, with satellite stores at 16 East 40th Street and 45 West 45th Street, Jack’s has not only lots of freezer cases and five or more aisles full of food, but also an upstairs gourmet section with more upscale items — Buitoni and Bertagni prepared pastas, Lindt and Ferrero chocolates, Hero jams — at prices ranging from about $1.99 to $4.99.
Making Jack’s my base of operations, I started with both the 99-cent and gourmet offerings.
I quickly met with my first surprise. Though there’s a constancy to the food items for which 99-cent stores are famous — pasta, rice, nuts, cookies and candy — other items sometimes ebb and flow.
Because the main Jack’s store can have an unpredictable inventory — yesterday’s huge display of Progresso soup is today’s much-smaller hillock of marinated mushrooms is tomorrow’s sad heap of slightly battered boxes of Royal gelatin — shopping there is a return to the improvisatory cooking of yore, when people made dinner with whatever was in the market.
The Tuscans have a saying, “Icché c’è c’è,” meaning, “What you see is what we have.” Only here, of course, your deity is not seasonality, it’s availability. Your seat, their pants: get to know them.
My first few meals mined the wealth of Jack’s staples. I made rice and beans one night, which we zested up with 99-cent canned jalapeños and sofrito (like enchilada sauce, with a slight burned taste); another night we had penne with cream and some pancetta I found in the gourmet section. Another night, after amassing some brown rice and cans of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and baby corn at Jack’s, I bought some Chinese broccoli off-site for a big stir-fry. For dessert each night we turned to the slightly wanton charms of the Little Debbie product line, particularly young Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies, whose velvety filling so perfectly captures an imagined marriage between buttercream frosting and Noxzema.
Whenever I hit an obstacle — Jack’s, like almost all 99-cent stores, has no butter, no good olive oil, no flour, very limited cheese and no fresh vegetables — I either supplemented with Gourmet Garage items, or got busy.
What kind of busy? I used frozen broccoli from Jack’s to make cream of broccoli soup (pretty good), frozen peas for pea soup (excellent), and a soybean oil-butter blend called Admiration to make soufflé (awful).
I trod more carefully when it came to meat — though the $4.99 Al Fresco chicken sausage that I tossed with some peas and farfalle one night was fine, I found myself neatly dodging the 99-cent ham cubes and the frozen fillets of tilapia and salmon, subconsciously putting them on my list of things I want to pay full freight for (surgery, sushi).
One day I grabbed some 99-cent Oscar Meyer sliced chicken breast, though, and served it with Inglehoffer horseradish mustard and some pumpernickel for a tasty $2.97 light meal, with leftovers. If I could make three sandwiches for what it usually costs me to buy half of one at a deli, then my investment was paying off at a rate of 600 percent. Sandwiches: the next stock market bubble.
Did I ever encounter spoiled food, or alarming sell-by dates? No. Other than some slightly leaden pumpkin ravioli from Jack’s gourmet section — it had the sludgy, earwax-like quality of something that had been unfrozen and then frozen again — the only bump on the road was the aroma emanating from the black plastic bags that Jack’s and other 99-cent stores use: they smell alternately like an electrical fire or a fish in transition.
(Ira Steinberg, vice president of merchandise and head of operations for Jack’s, said: “They’re made of recycled products. They may carry a smoky odor.”)
As my dinner for friends approached, I was feeling my nerves. Eager to test my true mettle, I’d decided that the ingredients would have to be exclusively 99 cents or less — the gourmet section had dulled my skinflint edge. So I cast my eye across the 99-cent world to see what other delicious treasures lay out there.
Over the course of three days, I visited 21 more 99-cent stores in Manhattan, including 12 in Harlem and Washington Heights, 4 in Chinatown and 1 in Spanish Harlem. Though this Marco Polo unearthed some delightful surprises at his price point — star anise, cinnamon sticks, capers, pecans, white balsamic vinegar — I fell hardest for Goya’s delicate dulce de leche wafers and their golden, slightly salty caramel filling. I have shown Little Debbie the door; Dulce’s my girl now.
The four friends I served dinner to included two who had shopped for food at 99-cent stores and two who had not. Guests were met with an antipasto tray — pepperoncini, olives, artichoke hearts, crackers, very greasy salami and a hockey puck of Brie that I had softened by baking.
Disparate nibbling yielded several polite, neutral comments. My guests stared off into the mid-distance as if in the throes of Art Appreciation. But the compliments started flying when I served my chilled pear soup — nothing more than a mixture of Goya and Kern’s pear nectars that I served in beautiful Chinese bowls with star anise floating on top. (Mark: “I feel like I’m at a chic restaurant.” Heather: “I’ve cleaned my bowl.”)
Our entree of penne with peas and turkey bacon in a light cream sauce gave way to much conversation about frozen peas. I explained that food luminaries like Marcella Hazan and the Silver Palate women approve of them. Heather told us how she had used bags of frozen peas to help soothe her mother after her hip replacement surgery.
The flourless pecan torte that I served for dessert met with approval, but nothing like the semiriotous adulation inspired by my subsequent offering of a 3.5-oz. Toblerone bar. (Scott: “Wow!” Heather: “Nice!” Greg: “Airport candy!”)
What has been my experiment’s legacy?
I will continue to serve my “pear soup.” I will continue to worship at the altar of Goya’s dulce de leche wafers. I will continue to make my pea soup using frozen peas, particularly as the recipe I devised is so wonderfully easy. (Slice and sauté an onion. Add 3 cups chicken stock, a 1-pound bag of frozen peas, 1/3 cup oats, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom, some salt and pepper. Bring to boil. Purée in blender.)
But more important, I will continue to look for incredible value. As I’m sure the folks at Jack’s know, bargain-hunting can be addictive.
Consider the Web site for the national chain 99¢ Only Store, which proudly displays an Andreas Gursky photograph of endless rows of candy and canned goods called “99 Cents,” taken at a franchise in Hollywood. The Web site informs us, “This photograph recently sold for over $1,999,999!”
One man’s penny is another man’s dollar.