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Secrets of frugal foodies

You can still be a gourmet without spending like crazy. Here, experts offer strategies.

June 22, 2008|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Marketing consultant Shauna Dawson likes good food and good deals, and that has turned her into a bold shopper.
The 34-year-old Carthay Circle resident will troll a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, checking to see whether the "sell by" date on a product is that very day. It's almost like food bingo. When Dawson finds something she wants, she asks a clerk for 50% off.
"I bought a package of fresh cream puffs this way -- just the other day," she said.
It can be tough these days to be a gourmet. With food prices rising at the fastest pace in 18 years, Dawson and other shoppers must look harder and shop smarter to get the special items they want. But they say they've figured out ways they can still afford some of those premium goodies such as a double-cream brie, perhaps a juicy rib-eye steak or even a small bottle of truffle oil.
Despite raging inflation, it's possible to eat well without spending like crazy, Dawson and other food gurus say. You just need a strategy.
For some secrets to eating well for less from chefs and other foodies, turn to Page C4. Have a plan

That's almost universal advice from shoppers and experts surveyed. Most people head off to the supermarket with little idea of what they need or any sort of menu plan. They toss food into the shopping cart, head home and then try to figure out what to make.

"Knowing what you want to make before you go shopping and taking a shopping list is a sure way to save money, and you will wind up throwing less food away," said Jeff Lavia, a partner and chef at Dinner MoJo, a personal chef service in Long Beach.

And that will leave you more money to spend on that special bottle of wine or sumptuous Camembert that you might otherwise do without.

Learn to cook

Right, that's the typical advice of chefs and people who sell fresh food. To a person, they agree. It's not all that daunting.

"You save enormous amounts of money if you sidestep the takeout department and buy your own fresh ingredients," said Lynne Rossetto Kasper, who hosts American Public Media's radio show "The Splendid Table."

And it doesn't need to be hard. If you have a grill with a rotisserie, you save money and will eat better by putting your own chicken on the spit rather than buying the prepackaged rotisserie chicken, she said.

Lavia and Kasper are big fans of simple dishes, such as easy-to-make meals built around a high-quality brand of pasta like Barilla Plus, a multi-grain pasta rich in protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.

"I love the texture and the flavor. It has the resilience and spring of properly made pasta and is really delicious," Kasper said.

Lavia serves the pasta with sauteed fresh vegetables, a can of diced tomatoes from Trader Joe's, olive oil and garlic.

Buy high-quality meats, serve smaller portions

Whether purchasing a tender rib-eye or a marbled London broil, that's the strategy used by Beverly Hills real estate agent David Flate when he heads for the meat counter at Whole Foods Market.

"A 5-to-6-ounce portion is more than adequate, especially when you are serving more than a salad with the meal," Flate said.

He's also not shy about picking a larger piece of meat and asking the butcher to cut it into smaller portions that will better fit his appetite.

Whole Foods expects people to shop this way, said Erica Dubreuil, director of perishables for the Southern Pacific region of Whole Foods Market.

One of Dubreuil's favorite meals is rib-eye steak, brushed with olive oil and some salt and pepper and then a dash of herbes de Provence before it hits the barbecue grill. She serves it with bread -- warmed on the top shelf of the grill as the steak is finishing -- a salad and green or yellow vegetables.

But if you are dining at Dubreuil's house, don't expect a giant steak. She serves 4-to-5-ounce portions of red meat because that's more healthful.

People who don't shop at Whole Foods and other high-end stores can do the same at their regular supermarket, said Lavia of Dinner MoJo, who goes to a service meat counter at an Albertsons in Long Beach.

"Go to the meat counter and get exactly what you need instead of a big package," Lavia said. "I can buy just one or two chicken breasts instead of a package of four."

Check out specialty retailers and suppliers

When Julie Anne Rhodes, a personal chef and small-event caterer from Hancock Park, wants really fresh fish, she goes to Santa Monica Seafood, which has retail stores in Santa Monica and Costa Mesa.

"It's not inexpensive, but you are getting it as close to the sources as you can unless you know a fisherman," Rhodes said.

Lavia does similarly in his neighborhood, buying his fish from Long Beach Seafood Co., which is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will pack the food in ice.

This is how to get fresh restaurant-quality fish without dining out, the chefs say.

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