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How to reduce your grocery bill

To save money, try shopping at Trader Joe's.

To save money, try shopping at Trader Joe's. (May 1, 2006) Photo Credit: Ken Spencer

Q. HOW CAN I SAVE MONEY ON FOOD?

A. The recent news about the increasing cost of groceries was a reality check for Long Islanders: Supermarket prices are up 3.8 percent in the region from a year ago and projected, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to rise a further 3.5 to 4.5 percent in the coming year.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The best way to save money on food is to cook it yourself. You can make a better roast chicken, marinara sauce or salad dressing than you can buy from the supermarket, and it will cost markedly less.

Here are some more specific suggestions:

DON'T PAY FOR LABOR Stay away from bagged lettuce, cut-up fruit and grated cheese. Preparing these foods yourself will save money. Ditto chicken: Whole chicken is always cheaper than cut-up chicken.

EAT LESS MEAT Meat is usually the most expensive item in most people's shopping carts. Consider more meatless meals, or buying smaller steaks.

EAT DIFFERENT MEAT In general, cuts of meat destined for roasting or broiling cost more than those destined for braising. Instead of buying sirloins or strip steaks, buy a nice thick chuck roast and make a pot roast. Braise a pork shoulder (or, much quicker, some shoulder chops) rather than roasting a pork loin.

FREEZE MEAT Buy meat on sale and freeze it; defrost it for a day or two in the refrigerator.

BUY FROZEN FISH Fish that has been cleaned and frozen immediately can be in better shape than "fresh" fish that has been out of the water for weeks. Oily and dense-fleshed fish (salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi) freeze beautifully. Bear in mind that virtually all "fresh" shrimp in the U.S. has been defrosted; you can save money by buying it still frozen.

SHOP AT TRADER JOE'S I was shocked recently to learn that a friend was under the impression that Trader Joe's was an expensive "gourmet" market. Not only does it have an excellent selection of individually quick frozen (IQF) fish, but Trader Joe's prices usually can't be beat.

BUY STORE BRANDS For certain staple items such as sugar and butter, I dare you to taste the difference.

BUY IN SEASON It's a cliche, I know, but if you wait a month, you'll see the price of asparagus and strawberries plunge. For fruits and vegetables out of season, check out the frozen-foods aisle. Frozen produce often loses its texture in the process, but not the flavor. If I'm going for a puree, I'll often choose frozen spinach, broccoli or asparagus over fresh. Frozen blueberries actually work better than fresh in baked goods.

DON'T ABANDON YOUR PRINCIPLES If you drink organic, grass-fed milk because you want to avoid synthetic hormones in your diet, or to try, in some small way, to retard the industrialization of the food supply, I hope you'll keep it up. It's only because so many people started demanding organic food that prices have become more competitive with conventional. If everyone gives up organic, the prices will rise even higher.


Q. OK, HOW DO I ROAST A CHICKEN?

A. You can use any ovenproof 10- to 12-inch skillet for this method, but be sure your chosen pan can really take the heat. That means no nonstick surfaces, and no plastic, silicone or wood accents.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Dry chicken thoroughly with paper towels. Rub with olive oil or butter and generously sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2. Place skillet on top of the stove over medium-high heat. Pour a little olive oil into the center of the pan. Place chicken, back side down, in the hot pan and cook until the back of the chicken is nicely browned, about 10 minutes. Don't move the chicken around; leave it in one place, shaking the pan occasionally to make sure it is not sticking.

3. When the back is brown, place pan in hot oven and cook for anywhere from 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 hours. Every so often, check to make sure the pan drippings are not burning. If they are, pour a little hot water into the pan. When done, skin should be crisp; juices should run clear; the breast meat should register 160 degrees on a meat thermometer, the dark meat, 180. Take bird out of pan and let rest for 15 minutes before carving. Depending on the size of the chicken, makes 2 to 4 servings.

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