Dine from the 99

Any chef can create amazing meals with high quality ingredients, but true talent comes with using humble ingredients.

In cooking, I love using seasonal fruits and vegetables, a variety of cuisines, and creating fusions from my many travels.

In my college years I learned some great lessons about shopping on a budget. Buying in bulk, seasonal specials and stretching my dollar as far as I could.

I challenge myself regularly to re-purpose leftovers and create yummy fusions.

One such task was to create a meal sourcing only ingredients from the 99-cent store. If you didn’t know, most 99 cent stores now carry fresh produce, dairy, meats and even wine.

First let’s discuss how products arrive at the 99-cent store. Many think its off brand or expired products. The fact is, 99 cent stores are sellers of (1) new market entries (2) mislabeled products (3) short dated (4) overstock.

New market entries – these may be products that attempted to enter the grocery industry unsuccessfully. Entry into the grocery store requires your first born and 3 kidneys, so it’s no surprise the number of products that don’t make it in. Some large manufacturers also find that the product their marketing team thought was genius, didn’t go over as well with the general population.

Mislabeled products – whether it be language, portion, size, color… for whatever reason the product doesn’t meant manufacturer standards. Please also note, there’s a pesky group of lawyers in the grocery industry who’s only goal is to find such mislabeled products and sue its manufactures for misrepresentation.

Short dated – this is where the myth of the expired product comes in. I don’t recommend stocking your zombie apocalypse pantry with these products, but for regularly used items it’s a great money saver.

Overstock – this is where the fresh produce comes in. Do button mushrooms really have a “brand”. The little saran wrapped blue square is pretty much universal. Clear plastic baskets of cherry tomatoes aren’t going to vary much from other stores. Fact is, when you’re a distributor for a farmer you need to move the produce as fast as possible to avoid loss/waste…. but that’s another story.

First course is a garden salad with a garlic cilantro aioli dressing

You can add as many fresh salad ingredients as you like; I used romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, carrots and croutons.

Cilantro garlic aioli

  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 4 tbsp garlic
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 cup mayo
  • In blender, combine all ingredients. Add milk to desired consistency.

Next, we will prepare a pasta Florentina

Pasta Florentina is named after Florence, the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany.


Pasta Florentina

  • 12 oz pasta
  • 4 tbsp butter (softened)
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 3 cans chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper, or to taste
  • 4 cups fresh baby spinach, chopped
  • 10 oz grated Parmesan
  • 1-pint cherry tomatoes, halved


In large skillet, melt butter. Add garlic and sauté mushrooms. Remove mushrooms, add pasta and chicken broth. Cook until al dente (10-12 minutes). Add heavy whipping cream, 5 oz (half) of the Parmesan, salt and red pepper. Cook until sauce is creamy (3-5 mins). Add garlic, tomatoes and spinach. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, tossing gently a few times. Let rest for 3-5 minutes before serving. Garnish with remaining Parmesan.

A quick garlic toast to go with your pasta

Garlic spread

  • 4 tbsp butter (softened)
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp dried basil

Combine ingredients, spread on bread and pan cook or bake at 350 ‘til golden brown



Chef’s note:

If adding chicken, cook strips after sautéing mushrooms. If adding shrimp, add with spinach.

For dessert I made banana cream pudding (Royal), follow box instructions, add your favorite fresh fruit.

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