The New York Times does Dollar Store

Courtsey of Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

What every human seeks is companionship, the feeling that among all the billions of people on this planet of ours there is at least one person that can see you for who you are and shares common beliefs.

I am not alone.

The New York Times journalist, Henry Alford, has ventured into the world of 99 cent store dining. His aim was to create a meal a night using only ingredients from the dollar store and then end this experiment with a dinner party for some poor souls …. or friends as we like to call them.

Alford found that the dollar stores didn’t have any butter, good olive oil, flour, fresh vegetables. So far so British pound shop. But it seems that American stores have refrigerated sections. Oh the luxury! So Alford made a chicken dish one night (I’ve sampled canned meat but I think I would have to draw the line at 99p chicken…) and made soup with frozen peas (yum) and broccoli.

I was interested to know whether the journalists dinner party was of the same, ahem, calibre as my own dinner. As soon as I read that his first course was an antipasto tray consisting of pepperoncini, olives, artichoke hearts, salami and Brie, I knew the answer. Finding artichoke hearts in my pound shop would be like finding a Christmas tree in the Sahara desert. This course was followed by chilled pear soup with a star anise floating on the top for decoration. STAR ANISE?! Artichoke hearts?! What sort of pound shop was this? The gourmet Upper East Side pound shop? A pound shop in Brunei? My pound shop is in an area of London called Holloway. It would be hard enough to find those ingredients in a local Holloway shop let alone in the pound shop.

To continue to read from Alfords menu would depress me. You can read the results for yourself here.

Suffice to say his pecan dessert looked very pretty and tasty though perhaps it lacked the ‘creativity’ of my dinner party cakes. At least thats what I like to tell myself.

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Dinner Party from (Pound Shop) Hell

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Remains of Will’s Hansel and Gretel Cake

“At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.”

– W. Somerset Maugham

The great writer would have been sorely disappointed if he had arrived at my pound shop dinner party on that chilly November evening. My guests certainly did not eat well or wisely.

Finding guests to come had been surprisingly easy. My friends were curious to see what I’d created and foolishly not scared of possible food poisoning. Maybe I should have have written that disclaimer on the invite: ‘the host takes no responsibility for the death of her guests.’ But without knowing that their lives were in peril, I had six people arrive at my house one Saturday evening. One guest had bought a tiramsu with them as a gift specially sourced from their local pound shop in Surbiton. Knowing as I do that a tiramsu is usually made with fresh cream and alcohol, I suspected this might not be the nicest tasting version of the italian dessert ever made. I quickly checked myself: who am I to complain when I was about to serve my guests soup made with coffee creamer?

Yes my infamous coffee creamer bean soup was the first course. I can understand how disgusting it is to contemplate a soup made with a powder intended as a substitute to cream but I think the soup is rather nice – its creamy, and with the addition of butter beans and fair amount of stock, pretty tasty too. Everyone agreed: they’d never have guessed it wasn’t made with cream and…SHOCK HORROR…people even asked for seconds. It could only go downhill from here.

And that’s exactly where it was headed; straight down the culinary ladder from Michelin to Little Chef in one course. Oh the main course. Horror movies could be written about it with the main course in the starring role. That’s how ugly, horrific and wholly unappealing it was to look at.

I had an idea to make a Moroccan tagine. I knew that I could pretty much get all the ingredients needed form the pound shop: almonds, apricots, tomato sauce, some spices, chickpeas. Rather than make this tagine vegetarian (which is retrospect would have been a wise move) I decided to be clever and buy tinned meat from the pound shop. It was made by a respectable UK brand (the same that make the tuna) so I had my fingers crossed that it wasn’t made up hunks of old horse. The meat chunks were covered in a sticky, sickly brown gravy. So I put my meat in a colander and washed off the gravy hoping to leave behind a nice meat to make up my tagine. I was left with ribbons of the most horrid fatty ‘meat’. Into the pot it went along with all my other ingredients. If you’ve been unfortunate to ever try tinned meat beforeyou’ll know that it has a very particular flavour. And that flavour infused the whole stew. I tried to disguise it with herbs and spices in the same way that heavily spiced curry was invented to disguise rotten meat, but to no avail. It tasted awful. A stony silence fell over the dinner table as people just willed themselves to eat as much of the gloopy stringy dish as possible.

I won’t mention any names, Liam, but some guests were great experts at moving their food from one side of the plate to the other to make it look as though they’d eaten something. Clearly a skill learned in adolescence when your mum gave you horrible green vegetables to eat.

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Remains of my colourful cake – look, mostly gone!

Dessert ended on a high. My boyfriend and I had much fun creating Willy Wonka style cakes with half a marble cake each and a lot of frosting, chocolates, biscuits and sweets. The pound shop is a treasure drive for the sweet-toothed. My dentist bill goes up if I just walk through the entrance of the shop.

Day 23 – A dog’s dinner

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If you’ve had sleepness nights wondering what kind of horrors I’ve been eating, wonder no more. This is the thing of true nightmares. Tinned meat. Its unique quality is that it manages not to look or taste like meat at all. And no, of course I didn’t eat this…it went straight into the bin and I doubt even a freegan would take it out again.

Day 21 – Dumpster Diving

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It was my brother, Chris who set me this pound shop challenge. And it is my brother Chris who is already plotting the next bet. This time he wants me to become a freegan. ‘What’s a freegan?’, I hear you cry. For those who don’t know here’s the blurb from Wiki:

Freeganism is an anti-consumerism lifestyle whereby people employ alternative living strategies based on “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.

Yes, basically you root around in bins looking for food.

There are many restaurants, supermarkets and cafes that throw away their goods because they have expired when the food is still edible. In a world where others are struggling to find food to eat, this really is a disgusting thought. I have heard of schemes in Italy that organise ways of talking the expired food to homeless shelters and places of need. Here it is illegal, as far as I understand, to give away food that is past its sell-by-date. So they have to chuck it away. And this is where the freegans step in, to prove what a wasteful society we are.

So I’m considering this bet….but not until Christmas is over. I want my not-very-likely-to-be-found-in-a-bin roast goose first….

Day 20 – Pound shop risotto

 My Italian Grandfather would be turning in his grave…

Normally, arborio or carnaroli rice would be used to make risotto. This is because both rices are high in starch which is gradually released as you slowly cook the rice giving it a nice creamy texture.

Well I tried it for this blog and can report that ordinary rice can make a pretty ok risotto. I treated the rice (I used American long grain rice) as I would an Italian rice, that is to say I first softened some onions in unsalted butter then added the rice and stir-fried it for a couple of minutes. Then, chicken stock at the ready, I ladled in one spoonful of stock at a time, letting each be absorbed by the rice before adding another. You do repeat this until all the stock is used which normally would take about 20-30 minutes but with the non-risotto rice I used it seemed to use much much more stock and take a lot longer for the rice to lose its crunchiness. Some point halfway through cooking I would add my flavour – for this some tinned asparagus, the nearest I could get to a vegetable.

The result is not quite risotto but not a bad imitation at all. Sorry Nonno.

Day 18 – I need your brain

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My imagination has run dry. I need your suggestions for recipes using only ingredients from the pound shop (list below).

You suggest it. I’ll create it. Maybe. And if you’re really unlucky I’ll make you taste it.

  • honey
  • tinned tomatoes
  • rice
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • chocolate of every variety you can imagine
  • muffin mix
  • lemon juice
  • tinned tuna
  • tinned crab
  • tinned ‘meat’
  • tinned sardines
  • tinned pink salmon
  • corned beef
  • white bread
  • olives
  • olive oil
  • dried chilli
  • garlic cloves in oil
  • tracker bars
  • breakfast cereal
  • flour
  • sugar
  • tea
  • coffee
  • nuts – cashew, peanuts
  • crisps
  • croutons
  • chicken soup
  • baked beans
  • liquorice
  • candy floss
  • peanut butter
  • ready made pasta salad
  • mustard
  • dates
  • dried apricots
  • raisins
  • sweet and sour sauce
  • BBQ sauce
  • Curry sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • cranberry sauce
  • Mayonnaise
  • peppers under oil
  • tinned white beans
  • tinned macaroni
  • chicken stock
  • beef stock
  • fray bentos pies
  • paella in a box
  • beef risotto in a box
  • beef curry in a box
  • jarred red cabbage
  • jarred white asparagus
  • gherkins
  • chicken cup-a-soup
  • tomato cup-a-soup

Day 17 – Waiter, there’s some dry shrimp in my paella

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And now all the way from sunny Spain, via King’s Lynn, comes paella in a box! That’s right folks everything for that authentic Spanish flavour in one handy box: dehydrated vegetables, dried shrimp and everyones favourite Monosodium Glutamate. Hear the castanets, watch the swirling skirts of the flamenco dancers as you lift a forkful of that tasty rice to your mouth. Oh can it get any better than this? No, no it can’t, for you dear friends are eating a Vesta paella meal for one.