images by Christopher Sawyer
I have a love-hate relationship with food mags. While I’m seduced by the slick articles and toothsome recipes that lie within, I’m nauseated by the “fiesta” features depicting groups of impossibly beautiful and privileged adults enjoying lavish, lobster-laden dinner parties in Manhattan penthouses and Southern California beach homes.
As a form of protest against such show-off soirees, I go out of my way to throw low-budget/ high-fun feasts. My themes range from wine-and-wieners to fried-food fests (success rates vary). Are my friends appalled at the absence of foie gras? Hell, no. They relish the opportunity to find out which wines taste best with downscale eats like chili dogs and deep-fried cheese.
Just when I thought I’d attempted every bizarre pairing imaginable, my Wine X editor hit me with the ultimate culinary challenge: throw a successful wine-pairing dinner using food from the dollar store.
Dollar store food? The idea sounded ambitious, even by my deranged standards. Still, I’m not one to be cowed. Bring on the potted meat and dented cans, I cried!
DOLLAR DOES IT
I hit my neighborhood dollar store on a Saturday afternoon and found it mobbed. It was easy to see why: jamming the aisles were hundreds of bargains, from religious candles to stoneware dishes to men’s Jordache underpants (all together now: eeewwww). And true to the store’s name, nothing was priced higher than $1.
To my surprise, the food aisle was plentifully stocked with a variety of canned goods, dried pastas, spices and snacks. I thought back to the candles. What Would Jesus Eat? Loaves….fishes… (Two words: dust-free.) The results:
Happy Hour Party Mix (a combo of pretzels, cheese crackers and other salty snacks)
Tortilla chips (only one bag available, mostly crushed)
White Cheddar Pringles (one of the company’s lesser-known flavors, along with Roasted Ox)
Stuffed jalapeno potato chips (paper-thin chips, not actually “stuffed” with anything)
Corn muffin mix (we could make a loaf?)
Canned jalapeno peppers
Canned organic tomatoes (the same brand I buy in “normal” grocery stores!)
Crushed garlic in a jar
Mac ‘n cheese mix
Fancy wheat crackers (the meaning of ‘fancy’ is debatable)
Canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
Little Debbie Star Crunch snack cakes
Canned strawberries (strawberries? in a can?)
Canned pear halves
Canned mushroom stems (my favorite part of the mushroom!)
Fish steaks in hot sauce (fishes!)
If you don’t count the magnificent $1 fake flowers and colorful one-buck “Fiesta!” banner (take that, Manhattan!) I bought to distract my guests from potential food poisoning (really, canned strawberries?), the total cost for my dollar store shopping spree came to about 20 bucks.
Uh, now what?
DINNER IS SERVED
Unfortunately for my dinner guests, the rules set down by my editor forbade me from adding any “outside ingredients” to the dollar store vittles, other than those specified on the package instructions (e.g. oil, butter, water) or dried spices. In other words: no adding chanterelle mushrooms or sun-dried tomatoes to the off-brand mac-n-cheese mix.
Now I know you’re not gullible enough to believe I was able to whip up a gourmet meal using only unadulterated dollar store food. (And no, I couldn’t. Didn’t. Friggin’ editor.) But that wasn’t the point. The point, my friends, was to prove that wine can transform even a sorry dollar store dinner into a fun-filled feast. Tah-dah.
With that disclaimer, let’s get to the menu:
The dollar store’s snack selection didn’t leave much room for creativity, so I set out bowls of the assorted chips and party mix along with the jarred salsa. The highlight of my spread was undoubtedly the “fish steaks” in hot sauce (sardines swimming in a suspicious bright red liquid), served straight from the can with “fancy” wheat crackers. (Total cost: $6)
To give the dish some kick, I mixed in a chopped canned chipotle pepper and about 1/2 tablespoon of the adobo sauce into the bright orange goo (also known as “premium cheese sauce”). Since I couldn’t find any breadcrumbs, I pulverized the “fancy” wheat crackers in a food processor, mixing them with melted butter, then sprinkled them on top of the casserole. Then I crisped the whole thing under the broiler. Emeril himself couldn’t have done any better. Bam! (Total cost: $3.50)
LINGUINE WITH MUSHROOM STEM MARINARA
To make the sauce, I sauteed the canned ‘shrooms with crushed garlic, then added dried basil, oregano and organic canned tomatoes. About 30 minutes of simmering thickened the concoction up nicely. And guess what? It actually tasted good! (Total cost: $4.50)
I added a couple of diced canned jalapenos to the corn muffin mix before baking. The finished product was kinda dry (nothing a stick of melted butter wouldn’t fix), but the spicy peppers were a nice contrast to the sweetness of the corn. (Total cost: $1.39)
LITTLE DEBBIE DELIGHT
If you’ve never had a Little Debbie Star Crunch, you’re really missing out. (Imagine a caramel patty coated with Rice Krispies and covered in milk chocolate.) I was afraid the snack cakes wouldn’t live up to my childhood memories of them, but I was oh-so-wrong. (Total cost: $1)
MUSCAT MARINATED FRUIT
Have you ever seen canned strawberries at your neighborhood grocery store? No? Well, there’s a good reason: strawberries should never see the inside of a can. Never. Ever. They look nothing at all like actual strawberries – or any kind of fruit – and end up as squishy pinkish nuggets the size of raspberries. And they taste even worse than they look. I tried to tone down their fruitless, metallic nastiness by mixing them with canned pears and leaving them to marinate in sweet muscat wine for an hour, but it didn’t really help. (Total cost: $2. And my soul.)
Rather than sticking with the low-budget theme and pairing the dollar store dinner with, say, wines under $5, I decided to include wines from a variety of price points, from $11 to $24. Otherwise, what incentive would my friends have to show up for dinner? (Tina: Want to come over for dollar store food and Two-Buck Chuck? Friend: Sorry, but I have to wax my back hair.)
While an evening of wine-pairing adventure did pique my friends’ interest, the promise of sampling some good wines in the process closed the deal.
Following are the wines we tasted, with food pairing comments.
Twisted Oak 2004 California Rosado ($16) – This fruity pink (but not sweet) wine paired nicely with the subtle cheese flavor of the White Cheddar Pringles but didn’t fare so well with the jalapeno-spiced potato chips.
Angeline (Martin Ray) 2004 Gewurztraminer ($12) – Matching spicy foods with gewUrz has almost become a cliche in the wine world, but there’s a good reason for the repeated pairings: it works! The spicy peach flavors and touch of sweetness in this wine were a great balance for the jalapeno chips and the spicy mac-n-cheese. It also worked fairly well with the cornbread.
DeLoach Pinot Noir ($18) – This silky, medium-bodied pinot paired well with the linguine and mushroom stem marinara. We also tried it with the Star Crunches, but the sweet chocolate/caramel treats made the wine taste a little thin and harsh. (In fact, none of the wines we tested was a good match for our desserts.)
Dark Horse 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) – With a character that’s more spicy zinfandel than tannic cabernet, this red paired best with the macaroni and cheese – probably due to the smokiness of the chipotles – and the jalapeno cornbread.
Bogle 2003 Old Vine Zinfandel ($11) – Bogle’s round, flavorful zin was a great match for both the linguine and the spicy mac-n-cheese.
So what did I glean from this epicurean experiment, aside from the fact that canned strawberries are an abomination? I learned that even mediocre food can taste good if you have some tasty wine to wash it down with – and good friends to share in the feast. You don’t even need a loft space.