The Frugal Gourmet Picnicker

Who can afford Whole Foods anymore? Dazzle your friends with an upscale repast from the city’s downscale outlets.

It was the Friday before Memorial Day, and the guy behind me in line at the Oroweat Outlet on Greenwood and 70th clearly had the right idea. I could barely see his head, obscured as it was by a cloud of hot-dog buns floating on his outstretched arms. I leaned over to peer at the price—$1.19 a pack—and calculated: The bun cloud was costing him less than $10. I'd just laid a single bottle of mustard and one loaf of bread next to the cash register, and I thought, "This guy is a lot smarter than me."But then, hot dogs weren't on my shopping list. I was on an expedition to see how elegant a picnic a man on a budget could put together by rooting through the shelves of Seattle's outlet stores and discount markets. With food prices skyrocketing, these places have become more appealing than ever. You may burn up a lot of gas getting to them, but the satisfaction of getting a bargain will make up for it.I decided to start with smoked salmon—which is pretty much synonymous with "gourmet picnic." But where to find it at deckhand prices? The Port Chatham Smoked Seafood retail store in Ballard sells packs of the "trim" of its cold-smoked wild king salmon. "We cut our lox into the shape of fish," the guy behind the counter explained to me. "So whatever doesn't fit into that shape, we trim off." I bought a 16-ounce package for $6.95, and when I brought it home, experienced my first setback. What the salesman didn't mention is that the salmon isn't just being trimmed for aesthetic reasons. When the fish is cured prior to smoking, its thinner outer edges soak up the most salt. One forkful of the Portlock trim sucked all the moisture out of my mouth and shriveled my tongue. It was clear that the salmon needed to be blended into a mousse with a lot of cream and butter—or, at minimum, mixed with some goat cheese.Which took me next to Big John's Pacific Food Importers, the SODO warehouse where you can find a half-dozen varieties of Romanian eggplant spread, bulk caraway seeds, and liter tins of Spanish olive oil. I found a $3.45 tube of French chèvre to mix with the salmon, as well as a pound of Sicilian-style mixed olives for $5. Big John's soon presented a conundrum: Yes, the olive-oil crackers, amaretto cookies, and pomegranate molasses in my basket were probably cheaper than I'd pay for them at Metropolitan Market, but how many gourmet products should a man on a budget use? Half of the contents of the basket went back on the shelves, with the exception of one splurge, a roasted-pepper and feta tapenade ($5.45).A similar question dogged me when it came to wine. What was the limit on bargains? Trader Joe's has a good selection of cheap, drinkable whites—and I'm not talking about its Three-Buck Chuck, which tastes one step up from Mad Dog 20/20—but it's buyer beware. Seeking to taste before I bought, I visited the SODO branch of the Wine Outlet and asked the woman at the tasting bar to pour samples of under-$10 wines. Many of the overstocks and odd lots that owner (and P-I wine columnist) Richard Kinssies picks up for his SODO and Interbay stores are bargains in the sense that a bottle will set you back $30 instead of $50. However, the salesperson talked me through sips of about eight whites, rosés, and reds. I settled on a clean, crisp, raspberry-and-rose-tinged Rosé de Côte Bleue from Jean-Luc Colombo for $8, which she swore to me was currently on Bricco della Regina Anna's wine list for $9 a glass. Bargain! (The shopping Schadenfreude works both ways: I later saw at Grocery Outlet, for several dollars less, a bottle of one of the same Australian whites that Wine Outlet currently stocks.)I decided to serve the smoked salmon and goat cheese on rye bread. Oroweat's selection was too small to include many specialty breads, but I found a long, thin loaf of caraway-studded light rye for $1.69 at the Franz Family Bakeries outlet in the Central District. The retail store attached to the factory sells everything from glazed doughnuts to crusty sourdough rounds at up to 50 percent off grocery-store prices, so I added to my bag a box of molasses cookies for 99 cents and a loaf of take-and-bake French bread for $2.79. The saleswoman threw in an extra baguette. Bargain bonus!But a man cannot picnic on jarred spreads and bread alone, or at least boast about it. Finding meat for the meal proved the biggest challenge, because it brought me up against my dietary prejudices. "Discount meat" are two words that should never be strung together—unless you're talking about meat designed to survive the apocalypse. And that's what I found at Rainier Valley's Oberto Factory Store: a $2 dry-cured salami that, while far from Salumi's finocchiona, was good enough to make the picnic.The last challenge was to find vegetables. The quest for fiber first took me to Grocery Outlet on MLK and Union. This chain of discount grocery stores has expanded so fast over the years that it has begun supplementing its bizarre overstock items with more readily secured products. What that means is that the days of finding Turkish breakfast cereals may be over, but you'll always be able to pick up some off-brand canned tomatoes. From Groce-Out's limited produce section, I scored a $1.49 bag of mixed carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower for what we called in my catering days a "crudité platter," along with a bag of shredded cabbage and carrots with a looming—but not past—due date. I also found some Best Foods mayo co-branded with a NASCAR campaign that had worked its way out of the major grocery stores, "no garlic" dill pickles that clearly hadn't been a success for their producer, and a pack of "environment-friendly" plates made out of sugar-cane fiber.Next, I looked through the bins at Beacon Hill's MacPherson's Fruit and Produce, famous for stocking Seattle's cheapest fruits and vegetables. If you pass over MacPherson's gently wrinkled red peppers and eat-them-today-or-else apricots, there are always finds, such as bundles of asparagus for 79 cents a pound (the top halves of which were edible), small red potatoes for $1.49 a pound, and a bundle of floppy dill for 69 cents. The produce store that impressed me even more was Top Banana in Ballard, my final stop, which charges slightly higher prices but backs them up with much higher quality. I walked out with a $9 bag of groceries that included a sweet, fragrant honeydew melon for $3.99 and a pint of gigantor California strawberries for $2.50.Then it was time to retire to the kitchen.The final menu—in which only oil, vinegar, and spices came from my pantry—cost about $60, not counting the gas expended driving all over Seattle: Open-faced sandwiches on light rye with smoked-salmon goat cheese, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Curried coleslaw with apples and raisins. Potato salad with pickles, fresh dill, and a Dijon vinaigrette. Blanched asparagus and fine crudités with smoked-paprika mayonnaise and roast-pepper tapenade. A melon-strawberry fruit salad. Miscellaneous bites, such as a baguette, Italian dry salami, olives, and molasses cookies. And to accompany it all, a bottle of rosé.There was enough food for six to eight people. Of course, forgoing the smoked salmon sandwiches in favor of a few packs of hot dogs from Grocery Outlet and an armful of buns from Oroweat would have fed the Weekly's entire editorial department. We may be in a recession, but that's no excuse to compromise on your tastes.Mixed vegetables: $1.49

Potato salad: $3.22+2.49+1.19+.69+.22+.69 = $8.50

Fruit salad: $3.99+2.50=6.49

Olives: $5Cole slaw: $1.49+.67+1.99 = $4.15

Asparagus with mayo: $1.77+ .99 = $2.76 jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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