Earlier this week, the always-interesting kottke.org pointed to a couple of pieces on 99-cent fine dining. First, from the March 21st episode of National Public Radio’s Day to Day, comes a story about cooking gourmet with 99¢ food.

These days, the idea of making a three-course meal for a family of four for less than $20 can seem impossible. Unless, that is, you shop at the 99¢ Only Stores. There are more than 200 of them throughout the West — not to mention other bargain variations like the Dollar Store — true to their name, everything costs exactly 99 cents.

Christiane Jory thoroughly embraces this fact in her book, The 99¢ Only Stores Cookbook. The idea may sound silly, but the book is filled with recipes for gourmet items like gruyere beignets, salmon souffle and Pinot Noir poached pear tarts. Many of the recipes have been adapted from culinary classics like the Joy of Cooking and the Moosewood Cookbook.

Don’t miss “The 99-Cent Evangelist” in the sidebar, a debate over frugality: Can produce bought in a discount store really be worthwhile? On a related note, the March 26th issue of The New York Times featured an article from Henry Alford about how to survive in New York on 99 cents:

When I heard that the food you can buy at 99-cent stores is more diverse than you might imagine, I decided to conduct an experiment. I’d make dinner every night for a week using mostly ingredients bought at these stores and then, on the eighth night — once I’d gotten my game down — I’d prepare a meal for friends made only from ingredients bought at 99-cent stores.

Both stories note that cooking with food from the 99-cent store requires creativity — you can never be sure what will be available. And, of course, the selection isn’t as wide as at a traditional grocery store.

Alford’s climactic dinner for friends is impressive, but less so due to the insane lengths he goes to in order to locate ingredients. “Over the course of three days, I visited 21 more 99-cent stores in Manhattan, including 12 in Harlem and Washington Heights, 4 in Chinatown and 1 in Spanish Harlem.” Right. That’s not exactly practical for somebody considering this is a lifestyle choice and not just a lark. For that much trouble and travel, you might as well shop at a regular grocery store, where there are plenty of frugal options.

Do any of you buy your groceries at the dollar store? Can you really make healthy, tasty meals from the food you find there? Or are stories like these mere novelties?

(You may also be interested in another New York Times story about a sort of 99¢ Iron Chef.)

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