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Gluttony on a Budget

Trader Joe’s â€" where the food is distinctive and the prices beat those other, more humdrum grocery chains.

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Born and raised over on the West-sigh-eed, I lived this crazy cloistered existence, which encompassed unincorporated University Place (now citified), Lakewood and Ruston Way (see last week’s column). Everything else was too far away, and downtown Tacoma was strictly off-limits.

I now live in the heart of Tacoma and make a bi-monthly trip back to ol’ University Place for a Trader Joe’s run because who can resist the lure of Metropolitan Market quality at Fred Meyer prices? I say “trip” because it really does seem that way for the amount of time it takes to navigate all the limited opportunities to take a left turn on Bridgeport.

While I always pick up the standard staples at T.J.’s (tomato sauce, stock, rice, etc.), it’s the fun and fanciful items that get my notice and therefore a mention in this week’s column. I’m like a kid in a candy store. Let me start with cheese. Even though the selection is not as vast as The Met (remember when we called it The Q(u)AT?), you can’t beat the prices on Manchego, Fontina and Cambozola, to mention a few.

One item that still has me reeling in cost-saving bliss is T.J.’s Tuna in Yellow Curry Sauce. Holy crap, this is good for the price. $1.49 for the boil-in-the-bag pouch filled with yellow fin tuna, coconut milk, yellow curry, potatoes, etc. I serve it over jasmine rice and sprinkle fresh chopped cilantro. By my estimate, each serving is less than $2. Fast, cheap and tasty!

Now I have tried a lot of their frozen products, but I have to say there are a few standouts. The first is their thin pizza with caramelized onions, Proscuitto and Gruyere. It’s light, tasty and not too caloric. Serve it with a salad and you’re golden. Even the husband liked it.

Second is Chicken Shu Mai, which is an exotic way to say chicken and vegetable dumplings. Pop them in the microwave and serve them with the sauce they come with. Or my favorite, Thai sweet chili sauce. This appetizer is great when you are unprepared for guests that rudely drop in without calling. On second thought, Shu Mai is too good for them.

I love items that make life easier but still make me look like I sweated for hours on preparation. Also in the frozen section you can find Dorot chopped garlic, basil and cilantro. They are sold individually in little cubes and are a perfect addition for a quick sauce or soup. You can have a meal ready in minutes. BAM!

Another favorite is T.J.’s mixed olive tapenade. I add it to a mixture of feta cheese, basil, onion, and tomatoes, stuff in chicken breasts, bread and bake. It’s another time-saver that’s inexpensive and tasty. Last time I shopped, there was none to be found, so I bought the roasted red pepper and artichoke tapenade with hopes the olive will be there next time.

Now all is not perfect in my grocery shopping nirvana. Some items at T.J.’s to avoid are most of the pre-marinated frozen fish. While the prices are good, they are over seasoned and in this girl’s opinion, nasty. Stick with the unfettered frozen seafood and do it yourself with some tasty marinade over on the next aisle. Or just follow the less-is-more theory and just add a little lemon, salt and pepper.

With food costs skyrocketing these days, food snotties like me need a little relief. I will never give up my cheese, cured meats, good bread and tasty condiments, no matter how tough it gets. I’ll move in with the folks before that happens (news to them I’m sure). Trader Joe’s will help me maintain my Grey Goose lifestyle on a Smirnoff budget. Speaking of vodka, the T.J.’s Bloody Mary mix isn’t bad either.

[Trader Joe’s, 3800 Bridgeport Way W., University Place, 253.460.2672]

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