Healthy cooking from dollar stores

I've noted before that my experience buying food at dollar stores has been dicey at best, not so much because they sell off-brands but because they often sell old off-brands, items so far past their expiration dates as to present gastric health hazards. Also, a lot of this so-called food has very little food in it; the list of ingredients reads like a chemistry experiment. Apparently, though, a couple chains have stepped up to the dinner plate since I last ventured down a dollar store grocery aisle and are offering "many healthful, name-brand and even organic products" at deep discounts.

Leading the way are 99 Cents Only Stores. The chain, which has more than 250 locations across the country, has produce specially grown for its stores. Foods that are canned, dried or otherwise prepackaged make their way to the stores' shelves if the manufacturer has discontinued or produced too much of an item, or even if the packaging has been changed.

Armed with this knowledge--and a copy of The 99 Cent Only Stores Cookbook--I might be inspired to try food shopping there again. Starving artist Christiane Jory, already a dollar-store devotee, was moved to do so when she saw a woman who looked like she could afford better buying wine at a 99 Cent store. Jory decided to develop the recipes for the cookbook as a means to feed herself and her fellow impoverished friends.

The cookbook features recipes for green chile and cheddar scalloped potatoes (total cost for all ingredients: about $1.99) and apple pie (total cost: about $3.99). On the more gourmet end, there's chicken tetrazinni and pinot noir poached pear tart; the latter dish bolsters my theory that 99-cent wines are best used for cooking.

Even though the brand names may be more recognizable, I'm still skeptical of the quality of food on dollar store shelves, and I'll glean as much information as I can from its packaging before I buy it. I was tickled to note that the LA Times reporter who set out to make a three-course meal from items found at the 99 Cent store feels the same way I do about unwittingly bringing home food that's past its prime: "Having paid only 99 cents," she says, "we didn't feel too bad about setting those aside."

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