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.

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 13 – Baked Bean Soup

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Just don’t eat this before a date or there could be some embarrassing Blazing Saddles moments (video below).

  • 2 cans of 400g baked beans
  • 900ml chicken stock
  • 2 medium onions
  • a little olive oil
  • some Worcestershire sauce

How to cook:

Cook the onions in a little oil till soft but not brown. Add the stock and baked beans. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and cook for 20 minutes or so. Its really tasty and would be especially nice with chopped up sausages or chorizo.

Adapted from a recipe in A Celebration of Soup by Lindsey Bareham.

Day 11 – Soup Attempt #2 (with coffee creamer)

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  • One 400g tin of butter beans 
  • one medium onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 500 ml water mixed with about 20 or so tablespoons coffee creamer
  • 500 ml of beef stock
  • some olive oil

How to cook:

Mix water with coffee creamer until the water is as creamy as possible. 

Heat a little olive oil in a pan. Thinly slice the garlic and onions and add them to pan cooking for about 5 minutes – don’t let them burn or go brown – until soft.

Add all ingredients

Bring soup to boil, then reduce the heat and then simmer for an hour or so.

Turn off heat and season to taste.

Notes: After my first attempt at a soup ended with something very bland and tasteless, I thought I’d try again. Without cream or butter though, I wasn’t sure how I could create a soup with a nice creamy texture. I made myself a coffee to mull over the problem and ah-ha! in my hand was coffee creamer, the milk substitute I’ve been using. So I filled a 500ml jug of water and kept adding coffee creamer till the result was something resembling cream. Then I made my butter bean soup again this time with my ‘cream’ and it tasted great! Who’d have thought it? Not me.

Day 9 – A wholly pointless soup

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My recipe for Butter bean soup (borrowing a little from Raymond Blanc) using – you guessed it  – only ingredients from Le Magasin de Livre Sterling. 

  •  One 400g tin of butter beans 
  • one medium onion
  • 4 garlic cloves (yes you can buy garlic. not fresh but under oil)
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 4 large pinches of ground white pepper
  • some olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • some bay leaves if you can steal them of a tree in someones garden

How to cook:

Heat a little olive oil in a pan. Thinly slice the garlic and onions and add them to pan cooking for about 5 minutes – don’t let them burn or go brown – until soft.

Add all ingredients except salt and stir together.

Bring soup to boil, skim the frothy bits off, reduce the heat and then simmer for 50 minutes.

Add salt then continue to simmer for 10 minutes.

Now you’ll taste the soup and find, as I did earlier when I tried this recipe, that it is very bland and a bit pointless.  It needs jazzing up a little. I’d suggest some chopped bacon. Or if you too are without refrigerated goods maybe some corned beef? I have a phobia of meat you can only access with a key and so added a few more handfuls of salt to my soup. Salt makes everything taste better.