Cutting food bill at dollar stores

There are surprising food finds at dollar stores that can be made into semi-gourmet meals, such as pasta with sun-dried tomatoes.

You may be surprised by foods you'll find at local dollar stores — and what you can make using $1 ingredients.

When I bumped into a great cook I know in the food aisle of a Dollar Tree store recently, she gave me an enigmatic smile.

Was she embarrassed to be caught in this one-price-buys-all emporium? Or signaling that we shared a valuable secret?

Soon I had my answer.

"I cut my grocery bill in half by coming here first," she confided before rolling her rapidly filling cart away.

I can't claim to have saved that much, but after weeks of visits to Dollar Tree and a rival, Dollar General, I see their appeal.

With food prices climbing higher, more grocery shoppers may give dollar stores a look.

Here are a few common perceptions about dollar stores and what I actually found:

Perception: Dollar stores are only good for bulk goods and pantry basics such as pasta and canned tomatoes.

Truth: This was the happiest surprise, as I found sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers and other "gourmet" products for great prices.

Perception: Dollar stores sell products that are damaged or have reached their expiration dates.

Truth: I found no evidence of the latter. It did seem as if there were a few more dented cans than you'd find in a supermarket.

Perception: Dollar stores sell only obscure "off" brands.

Truth: In fact, the products are a pretty good mix of national name brands and others you probably won't recognize. Some of the latter are regional brands or come from other countries, but all that we sampled passed the taste test.

Dollar stores say they can sell at low prices by using their bulk buying power, taking advantage of product overruns by other vendors and keeping their own costs low, according to the stores' Web sites.

"Our buying power is not to be taken lightly," Dollar Tree spokeswoman Shelley Davis said of the Virginia-based chain, which boasts more than 3,200 stores in 48 states.

About 40 percent of the chain's food products come from outside the United States, which is why you might find brands of sweet pickles from India or roasted red peppers from Turkey that you wouldn't find elsewhere. But other imports, such as Barilla pasta from Italy, are well known.

What drawbacks to dollar stores did I find?

Not everything is actually a dollar and/or a good deal.

Of the big four chains — Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar and Big Lots — only the first still sells everything for a dollar or less. About two-thirds of the products sold in Dollar General, for example, cost more than a dollar. One dollar for a can of tuna, as some dollar stores charge, is actually more expensive than the supermarket.

Organization and cleanliness also vary from store to store, even within the same chain.

Products are limited and not always available.

Dollar stores sell packaged products with long shelf lives. There are no fresh sources of protein or produce (at least not for a dollar). As for packaged goods, that great deal you found last week may not be on the shelves today.

Good deals

Here are some products we found for $1 at Dollar Tree and Dollar General stores:

-- 12-ounce jar roasted red peppers.

-- 12-ounce jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in water.

-- 2.5-pound bag long-grain rice.

-- 1-pound box Barilla pasta.

-- 9-ounce jar pimiento-stuffed green olives.

-- 16-ounce jar salsa.

-- 1 bag (15 count) flour fajita-size tortillas.

-- 7-ounce box Carr's stoned wheat crackers.

-- 10-ounce jar marinated mushrooms.

-- 1 can (20-ounce) pie filling (chocolate, key lime and other flavors).

-- 8-ounce jar minced garlic.

-- 1 bag (3.5-ounce) dry-roasted almonds.

-- Graham cracker pie crust.

-- Dried herbs and spices, 50 cents to $1 each per bottle.

-- 1 box (18.25-ounce) Duncan Hines yellow cake mix.

-- 1 tub (15-ounce) Pepper Jack cheese spread.

Deluxe pasta

A restaurant might add some freshly grated parmesan to this dish. But with the strong flavors provided by the sun-dried tomatoes, olives and other ingredients, tasters didn't really miss it. As it is, the cost of the recipe, which makes 6 to 8 servings, is about $2.50.

Deluxe Pasta

1 pound penne pasta

2/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes (the kind that come packed in water or oil), chopped

2 whole roasted red bell peppers (from a 12-ounce jar), cut into strips

1/3 cup pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced

1/4 cup chopped roasted almonds or other nuts

3 tablespoons olive oil or olive-vegetable oil blend

Minced garlic (from jar) and Italian seasoning to taste

Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions and drain. Toss pasta with remaining ingredients and serve.

Key lime pie

A quick and easy twist on egg white-based meringue, the marshmallow-and-coconut combo that tops this pie is addictive. Substitute chocolate pie filling if desired. Cost of pie, which makes 8 to 10 servings, is about $3.50.

Key Lime Pie With Coconut Marshmallow 'Meringue'

1 graham cracker piecrust

2 cans (20 ounces each) key lime pie filling

2 cups mini marshmallows

3 tablespoons unsweetened grated coconut

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spoon pie filling into piecrust. Spread marshmallows evenly over filling and sprinkle with coconut.

Bake about 15 minutes or until marshmallows and coconut are lightly browned.

Remove pie from oven and cool on rack. Refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.