my friends call me cheap, but i like to think I'm a savvy food shopper. Thrifty? Must be my Scottish heritage. If there's a bargain to be had, I can sniff it out. I'm always baffled when I'm standing in the eight-items-or-less line at a supermarket with my on-sale cans of cat food -- and I do have a cat -- and the customer in front of me blows 14 bucks on stuff I know where to buy for a fiver.
Seven dollars for a head of cauliflower? Not in this lifestyle, pal. After decades of living on the fiscal edge -- fabulous years, I might add -- I've learned a thing or two about subsisting on a pittance.
Since I'm in a sharing mood, I'm going to let those living on a limited budget in on my penny-pinching secrets. You, too, can shop smart!
Either of downtown's Chinatowns, Dundas West at Spadina or Gerrard East at Broadview, is a great place to start. Sure, the stores aren't as orderly as the local supermarket, but most items are a third of the cost elsewhere.
My current favourite is Sinnon Supermarket (70 Huron, 416-596-8996), a somewhat dumpy greengrocery where 2-pound bags of cooking onions and carrots are two for $1, green peppers are 59 cents a pound, bananas 29 cents a pound and large bottles of Srirachi hot sauce, the ketchup of Thailand, go for only $3.69 each.
Across the street, Hong Lee Trading (449 Dundas West, 416-597-2141) has bunches of fresh coriander for only 50 cents. A few doors down, squeaky-clean grocery Tai Sun (407 Dundas West, 416-593-6964) sells chicken legs and thighs for 89 cents a pound, bean sprouts for 29 cents a pound and bags of rice vermicelli for 99 cents. For less than a 10-spot, you've got the fixin's for several substantial meals.
Around the corner in Kensington Market, bulk store Casa Acoreana (235 Augusta, 416-593-9717) sells all manner of dried beans and lentils (69 to 99 cents a pound) essential for chili and stew. At Fong on Foods (46 Kensington, 416-598-7828), you can get tofu that's made on the premises (12 blocks for $1.89). Persian grocery Avland Food Mart (214 Augusta, 416-597-2252) sells packages of six whole-wheat pitas for only 80 cents.
You'd think that after working with blocks of cheese day after day for years on end, the pushy people behind the counters of the cheese shops along Kensington Avenue would have figured out that when a customer asks for a pound of cheddar, a pound and half isn't OK. Rip-off or what?
The only fromagerie in the market that regularly gives you the count you ask for is Cheese Magic (182 Baldwin, 416-593-9531), a friendly spot that also has a good selection of olives -- kalamata, stuffed Spanish green and Moroccan sun-dried -- for 99 cents per 100 grams. Only want a quarter-pound of butter? No problem -- that's exactly what you'll get.
Cheese Magic's sister store, My Market Bakery (172 Baldwin, 416-593-6772), supplies bread to many local restaurants, but you can eat these great loaves at home for a fraction of what they'd set you back in a fancy joint. Life-preserver-sized Calabrese rings go for $1.49, a half-loaf of seed-covered multi-grain for $1.69, and St. Urbain bagels from Montreal are 40 cents each (6 for $2.25). As well, these affable folks offer free-range eggs ($2.79 a dozen) and 99-cent chunks of do-it-yourself pizza dough big enough for a pair of pies.
And don't miss the day-old dollar bin. Like most bakeries -- Harbord (115 Harbord, 416-922-5767) and the many Futures included -- it offers yesterday's bread at bargain prices. Once you get your stash home, pop it into the freezer, where it'll last longer. Take it out to toast as you need, and no one'll be the wiser.
The only time I ever go to a supermarket other than for cat food (and even then it's got to be at a reduced price) is when non-perishable staples that can be easily stockpiled are on sale. I buy a three-month supply.
Stuff like half-price cans of baked beans or jars of peanut butter, 900-gram bags of pasta and 14-ounce cans of tomato sauce at 79 cents each, Mike Harris's infamous 69-cent cans of let-them-eat tuna, and 49-cent cans of cream of mushroom soup. You never know when the urge for tuna noodle casserole is going to strike.
Although its fresh produce is more expensive than in Chinatown or Kensington Market, the extensive veggie bounty at Fiesta Farms (200 Christie, 416-537-1235) is still a lot cheaper than at big-name supermarket box stores.
Chicken legs seem to be perpetually on sale at 79 cents a pound, and Italian standbys like Barillo pasta ($1.19/450 grams) and huge 100-ounce cans of Paese Mio plum tomatoes ($3.99) are major deals.
Fiesta even carries reasonably priced organics: orange juice ($1.99/litre) and mozzarella sticks ($3.59/200 grams). Bulk dry cat food, too ($2.50/kilo).
Now that you've got a kitchen full of food and you're rarin' to cook, it's always a good thing to think long range. Go ahead and make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce, but you'll need somewhere to put the leftovers. Pick up several small reusable plastic containers that go from freezer to microwave at Honest Ed's (581 Bloor West, 416-537-1574) or any of the gazillion dollar stores around town. The square type are best -- they'll maximize the space in your fridge.
One final frugal tip: only a fool buys anything but a lottery ticket in a convenience store.