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The $20 Trader Joe's Challenge

Editor's note: We asked five Eating Our Words bloggers to head to Trader Joe's with $20 and write about what they were able to get. We've gathered their stories together here.

Katharine Shilcutt: Objective: Two meals for two for $20

My boyfriend and I hit Trader Joe's a little before 5 p.m. on a weekday, which ended up being a great time to miss most of the crowds. By the time we left an hour later (yeah, you get swallowed up gawking at everything -- even if there are only about five aisles in the entire place), the crowds were thickening and pulsating like The Blob. It was all we could do not to run out the exit.

Our goal was to cook two meals for two on $20, something which proved remarkably easy as long as you have some basics of your own at home (olive oil, salt, pepper, etc.). Josh went in one direction and I went in another, each of us purchasing products for two $10 dinners we planned to cook that weekend.

Josh ended up with a large packet of tofu, ready-cooked brown rice, Thai yellow currry in a jar, carrots, an onion, two potatoes and a bottle of Trader Joe's infamous Charles Shaw wine, a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck. I had gone the road less hippie-d and got two thick pork chops, a bag of pre-cut and washed kale and two potatoes. Potatoes. They go with everything.

That night, Josh whipped up a terrific vegan curry that we both wolfed down. The brown rice was particularly good, considering it had come from the microwave. We don't always have time to cook rice in the evenings when we're rushing around, so the Trader Joe's stuff was a pleasant find. Also good was the yellow curry, although it needed to be fleshed out a bit with some minced ginger and red pepper.

Far less pleasant was the Two Buck Chuck, a Shiraz that tasted like rancid butter and rubbing alcohol had been left to ferment in the July sun. We both spit out our first sips and vigorously threw the bottle out like it had killed our childhood pets. It was a disappointment to have spent even $3 on the bottle, so offensive were its contents -- especially considering that the bottle was supposed to stretch across two meals.

The dinner I cooked was served with milk, because that's all we had left in the fridge to drink -- but it worked out: I pan-fried the pork chops in olive oil and a few herbs from my spice rack, boiled and then mashed the Yukon gold potatoes with some butter and salt and steamed the kale, which only needs a bit of olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes to make an excellent side dish.

I was disappointed to find that the Trader Joe's bag of kale was more tough spines than it was leaves, but the produce and meat were otherwise top-notch. The thick, juicy pork chops were the star of the two dinners, leaving us both very full for only a hair under $6. And while I'm still more comfortable buying my meat from an actual butcher (Trader Joe's has none of the traditional grocery store accouterments like butcher counters or delis or fishmongers), the inexpensive meat would definitely do in a pinch.

Mai Pham: Objective: Cheese and Charcuterie Plate

What can you do with $20 at Trader Joe's? That was the mission put forth by my editor last week, and as I pondered the possibilities, I came up with a couple of ideas that I scrapped quickly. I could buy a week's worth of frozen lunches. Not too exciting. Or, I could make a gift basket out of their house-brand sweets, items like the Fleur de Sel caramels for less than $3.99, a box of their toffee-covered almonds, some cookies or biscuits, a nice tea or coffee, and a bar of chocolate, but it's not Christmas just yet, and still not so exciting.

So I thought, why not put together a cheese and charcuterie plate? The selection of cheeses at Trader Joe's offers a bit of everything -- from goat cheese to brie and gouda, blue cheese and gorgonzola to fresh mozzarella. And though the charcuterie selection is not extensive, the offerings run more gourmet than the run-of-the-mill Oscar Meyer bologna or turkey.

For my plate, I wanted at least two types of cheeses, a pate, and two or three types of charcuterie. I hit the jackpot with a truffle mousse pate, made with real bits of truffle, and sold in a mini rectangular baking dish for $4.49. A glance at the cold cuts section offered several choices: Italian salami, prosciutto, and a couple of different mixed-charcuterie packs. I chose the mixed pack, which included a salami, prosciutto, and capocollo for $4.99.

With the charcuterie out of the way, I moved to the cheese aisle. I don't know too much about cheeses, but I know what I like. I looked for my favorite, a triple cream brie cheese, and found a small slab for just $3.80. For my second choice, I wanted a firmer cheese, like a beemster, but I couldn't find one and instead selected something that looked similar, a Meadowkaas, described as "as very creamy and buttery with a slightly sweet finish."

For a condiment, I vacillated between cornichons to accompany the charcuterie, or something sweeter, like honey or fig butter, or fresh fruit. I wanted to get a box of fresh organic grapes, but I didn't have enough money in my budget for the $2.99 box, so I selected two Asian pears at 79 cents each, which would add sweetness to the dish and give some contrasting texture to relatively soft items on my plate.

For the starch component, I had a choice of fresh bread or crackers. I wanted a plain white French baguette, but they only had a choice of ciabatta or olive baguette, so I settled on a mild-flavored white loaf called Tuscan Pane.

In the end, the raw ingredients were enough to make approximately three of the cheese and charcuterie plates pictured at top. I adorned my plate with a couple of strawberries from my fridge to give it color, and some walnuts from my pantry to add a bit of texture (Marcona almonds, cashews, and pecans could work as well).

All in all, I couldn't have been happier with what I got: the charcuterie, especially the prosciutto, was just as good as what you could buy sliced fresh at a deli counter; the pate was more than delicious with bits of black truffle mixed in; and the cheeses were everything I'd hoped for, creamy and mild and a good complement to the cured meats. Not a bad way to spend $20 bucks at all.

The final tally: Tuscan Pane Bread: $2.29 Pate chicken and black truffle: $4.49 Tray Italian Combo Pack Daniele: $4.99 Cut Meadowkaas: $2.28 62% Supreme Brie: $3.80 Asian Pear: 2 @.79: $1.58 TOTAL: $19.43

Nicholas L. Hall: Objective: Stocking a Pantry

Building a basic pantry isn't hard. The goal is fairly simple: assemble the building blocks of meals, non-perishable items which, with a few fresh ingredients added, make for something actually worth eating. Of course, that means different things to different people, and no two pantries look (or cook) the same.

When I approach the concept of a pantry, I like to look at it with an eye toward the staples that inform my life and my eating. Pasta. Grains. Beans. Seasoning. Items around which a meal can be built and, when necessity dictates, from which a meal can be fashioned wholesale. When I went into the new Trader Joe's, armed with $20 and the mandate to construct a pantry from scratch, this is what I had in mind. The reality was somewhat different.

To put it bluntly, I don't think I like Trader Joe's. There's a sense of pointlessness to the place, as if it's more a novelty than a grocery store, and that sense bore out in my attempts to build a cheap pantry, a feat I'd have easily accomplished at my dear departed Fiesta down the street.

I'll admit that the conclusion of this tale, set up from the start, left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Right near the rear entrance, a display of potted plants drew me in. $2.99 for a pot of mixed herbs sounded like a great idea. Herbs add punch to most any dish, and they replenish themselves automatically. At that price, it seemed like a perfect addition to my cheap-o pantry. With the teasing onset of cooler weather, I chose a mix suited to the braises and roasts that will take over my kitchen in the coming months -- sage, thyme, and rosemary. Yes, rosemary. Call it a peace offering to my wife. That humble pot would be my undoing.

As I moved through the rest of the aisles, I found myself struggling to fill my cart with items that made sense as pantry staples. Olive oil was a no-brainer, as were rice and pasta. The prices were a bit steeper than I'd expected, and my tab soon ran up toward my Jackson limit. I wish I'd grabbed vinegar, so as to have dressings at the ready. Instead, I went with a tin of sardines, a surefire way to add savory punch to pretty much anything. Mash a few of those little fishies up with a fork, and nobody will ever know they're there. They will, however, notice that your sauce or stew has a little more depth.

If you want to get simple, mash those sardines into a pan drizzled with olive oil, add a few twists of pepper and a shake of salt (no pantry could ever be complete without the most basic of seasonings), and you've got something worth eating. A few cloves of minced garlic tossed in for good measure (I could find none at TJ's, though a shelf-talker advertised them in peeled-clove form), and you're getting close to something downright delicious. A pinch of crushed red pepper (a shocking $1.99 for a four-ounce jar of a $3/lb bulk item), and you're in business.

Those parentheticals are what had me most upset about my effort at Trader Joe's pantry construction. Simple things were either omitted (no dried beans, save for red lentils and a bag of suspicious "21 bean and barley soup") or overpriced, and the gist of the stock seemed focused on impulse buys.

Oh, and that foreshadowing? My $2.99 herbs ended up setting me back seven bucks. I'm willing to assume that I misread some confusing bit of signage, mistaking a my pot with another, skimpier one, but am reasonably confident that's not the case. I'd already planned to put back a can of coconut milk ($.99, and a great way to add volume and flavor to soups and sauces, or the foundation of a quick, cheating curry), and had to add a carton of mixed cereal grains to the culling. Too bad, as breakfast should fit into the pantry as well, and oats-et-al do double duty as savory or sweet for any meal of the day.

Final tally: $20.80

What it got me: 16.9 oz Extra Virgin Olive oil; 3.9oz sea salt; 1/80z black peppercorns; 3.75 oz sardines in spring water; 28 oz whole peeled plum tomatoes; 32 oz white basmati rice; 1lb dried spaghetti; one 6" pot of mixed herbs

Was it worth it? No. Given my overall impression that Trader Joe's is not the kind of place you shop because you actually need something, I doubt I'll be back. I will, however, concede that they've been more kind to the old theater than they had to. I worked in that building for the better part of a decade and, while I'm sad to see so many elements wiped away, I'm glad to see those that remain, and am thankful that they'll have a chance to stick around under new ownership. I even learned from a helpful employee that the store plans on screening movies where the old screen used to hang, above what was the newsstand. My recommendation? Jack Benny in Man About Town, the same film that played for the theater's 1939 opening night. He said he'd pass on the suggestion. I just might come back for that.

Brooke Viggiano: Objective: Game Day Snacks

Last week, I went to Trader Joe's with $20 in my pocket and one simple mission: to make a delicious game-time snack for my friends and me to share while chugging beer watching football.

I grabbed a red basket and perused the aisles until something fabulous caught my eye. And it did -- three kinds of pizza dough for only $1.29.

I tossed the herb and garlic dough into my basket right away, but went back and forth between the regular and the whole wheat about 25 times (did I mention I was indecisive?). Eventually, I went with the regular. This was, of course, after I consulted the interwebs on my phone (thank you, Google, and thank you, Steve Jobs) -- users had trouble with the texture of the whole wheat.

After that, it was a piece of cake; I found mini meatballs in the frozen section that looked tasty and plentiful. I picked up a pizza sauce and some cheese, but I had some extra monies and wanted to do something a little different. Enter the masala sauce and mango & ginger chutney, and boom goes the dynamite.

I jumped in line and checked out, double-checking my math to make sure I was under $20...and I was (God, I'm a genius).

Shopping List: TJ Regular Pizza Dough $1.29 TJ Garlic & Herb Pizza Dough $1.29 TJ Masala Simmer Sauce $2.49 TJ Pizza Sauce $2.49 TJ Whole Milk Fresh Mozzarella Balls $3.49 TJ Ginger & Mango Chutney $2.29 TJ Party Size Mini Meatballs $3.99 Total $17.33

All of that for just over $17 bucks -- not bad.

Making the flatbreads couldn't have been easier -- and I was really impressed with the quality of the dough. The meatballs were moist and flavorful, the marinara was slightly sweet, the masala, rich and creamy, and the chutney - it scored major points with the crowd -- just the right balance between sugar and spice.

The ingredients were enough to make six large flatbreads, but you can make them any size depending on how many people you are feeding.

Here's how:

Game Day Snack Menu: Meatball Flatbread Two Ways Masala, Meatball & Mango Chutney Flatbread mini meatballs, masala sauce, fresh mozzarella, mango & ginger chutney, plain flatbread

Meatball Marinara Flatbread mini meatballs, marinara sauce, fresh mozzarella, herb & garlic flatbread


Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Heat both sauces in separate saucepans and simmer frozen meatballs to thaw. Half or slice meatballs into thin rounds.

Separate pizza dough into desired-size chunks (I did three flatbreads out of each) and roll out on a floured surface.

For crisper flatbreads, place the rolled out dough on a pizza stone, pizza pan or baking sheet and cook, without toppings, for about three minutes. Flip over -- the bottom should be just beginning to brown.

Top with sauce, meatballs and mozzarella cheese (chopped or sliced). Top the masala flatbread with ginger & mango chutney as well.

Bake until crust is golden brown and the cheese is bubbling, about 8 to 12 minutes depending how crisp you like the breads.

Slice and serve with extra chutney on the side.

Phaedra Cook: Objective: Picnic

Last Wednesday marked the first time I ever entered a Trader Joe's store, but it won't be the last. I was surprised and pleased at the small but selective inventory at the new store on Shepherd.

I went with a mission: to pull together the makings of a romantic picnic for $20 or less. I wanted to have wine with our meal, but hoped to stay away from the notorious Charles Shaw wines, aka "Two Buck Chuck." I've actually heard that the brand isn't all that bad, but I was hoping for something more distinctive.

Should you take on this mission yourself, pull together a few things ahead of time:

  • Two forks, knives and spoons
  • Two plates
  • Two glasses or cups of some type
  • Napkins
  • Picnic basket or cloth bag
  • Blanket
  • Corkscrew

If you work in an office, you might be able to acquire disposable versions of all but the last three things from your break room, assuming your employer isn't one of those crazy, penny-pinching types.

Also, identify a park ahead of time that does not forbid alcohol if you plan to have wine. We made the mistake of initially going to Discovery Green, only to have to leave and find another park due to the no-alcohol rule. We settled in nicely at a tiny but pleasant one off of Jefferson and Brazos.

Now that you've got preparations out of the way, it's time to shop. I noticed a poster on the window advertising rosemary crackers for $2.49. That was a no-brainer. I'd thought I would also buy a salad to share, but when I went to get one, the shelves were nearly empty. All of the store associates were very nice and one recommended a rather generous container of chicken salad with poppyseed dressing, cranberries, pecans and walnuts. I thought it was big enough to satisfy the appetites of two hungry adults.

Initially, I was going to purchase a bottle of some type of sparkling wine for $6 or less, but I discovered that Trader Joe's has nothing refrigerated (to keep costs down, I'm sure). Since I was heading out to pick up my sweetheart right after the shopping trip, I opted for D'Aquino Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, a red wine that I thought would hold up to a bit of a temperature increase.

In my world, there is no having a romantic picnic without chocolate, so a $3.99 carton of coconut bonbons went into the basket. My husband loves coconut, so I knew this would score brownie points with him, too. I looked longingly at a wedge of triple cream brie, but even at the reasonable price of $4.99 for a good-sized hunk, I knew there wasn't room in the budget and went on.

I thought the wine demanded berries of some type, and a $2.49 carton of fresh strawberries fit the bill.

Even after tax, the total cost was a mere $18.69. How would it all taste, though? I picked up my sweetheart and we went to go find out. Everything came together nicely. The Montepulciano wasn't the best red wine I've ever had, but it was slightly dry -- light enough to go with the chicken -- and the strawberries seemed to enhance the fruitier notes. I actually dipped my strawberries into the wine, and they were delicious. The cranberry and pecan chicken salad went perfectly with the rosemary crackers. Unfortunately, the coconut bonbons were a little too sweet for our tastes. Next time, I'll try something else, like the salted brownies that caught my eye.

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Best of all, it was a beautiful October day and an excuse for us to carve a little alone time out of our busy schedules. When a romantic picnic is possible for less than $20, there's really no reason to not do so. I suspect I'll be hitting up Trader Joe's again in the future to pull together another one.

Ironically, Houston Press restaurant reviewer Katharine Shilcutt and her boyfriend spotted us on our picnic as they drove by. "Look, that will be us 20 years from now," she told her boyfriend. I think he probably gave her a dirty look, but I hope this is you in 20 years, kids. Trust me; it's not a bad place to be.

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