Grocery Guide

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.

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Katharine Shilcutt