Luxury on the cheap

Warehouse clubs offer beautiful buys for assembling a dinner party for 10

By Devra First
Globe Staff / December 16, 2009

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Hello, lifetime supply of toilet paper. Greetings, bottle of mustard big enough to slather an entire Fenway Park full of franks. You are what I think of when I think of shopping at warehouse clubs. I do not need that many diapers because I’m not Octomom. I do not need that much soda because I’d like to keep my teeth.

I do, however, want to throw a fancy holiday dinner party without spending an extravagant sum.

Thus I found myself prowling the aisles of Costco and BJ’s, stores that make me break into a cold sweat, alternating between panic and pure consumer lust. (There’s too much stuff here! And I would really love that flat-screen TV.) My mission: to see what kind of dinner I could pull off by shopping almost entirely at these wholesale stores. In addition to selling bulk basics, they are purveyors of a gourmet lifestyle, and in a big way. Costco is one of the biggest retailers of presliced prosciutto di Parma in the country; warehouse clubs move prime steaks, cheese, champagne, in volume. “It can be a huge game changer for a brand,’’ says Ron Tanner, spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. Could it be a huge game changer for a host as well? I wanted to see if a warehouse repast would pass food-snob muster. And I wanted to find out how inexpensive it would actually be.

But first, where to buy what? A spin through several BJ’s and Costco stores revealed slight differences. BJ’s is less focused on bulk. Those branches that sell alcohol have fewer high-end wine offerings than the Costcos that do, but a much wider selection of other festive beverages; Costco seems more attached to Robert Parker’s point system. BJ’s offers the likes of Legal Sea Foods chowder and Cabot cheese, while Costco is more focused on its house brand, Kirkland. And Costco has a wider selection of high-end items.

Thus I began my quest at Costco in Waltham, eyeing a package of prime steaks: New York strip for $11.99 a pound, as opposed to the nearly $50 a pound you might pay if you ordered them online. They were beautifully marbled and extremely tempting. Until I saw leg of lamb for $3.99 a pound. The steaks would have to wait. (Prime steaks and leg of lamb were $1 more a pound at BJ’s.)

Next I headed to the seafood station. There were coral-colored crab legs, oddly beautiful in the fluorescent light. There were tiger prawns the size of babies’ thighs. Should the first course be crab cakes? Shrimp remoulade? No, it should be scallops: There before me was a 2 1/2-pound bag of U15s (15 per pound) for $21.99. They were previously frozen, but they were also wild and from the United States.

I had my proteins. Now what to do with them? I headed to the produce section, where I found a pot of gold. Well, a plastic container of golden Meyer lemons: four pounds for $6.99. I adore Meyer lemons, so sweet and fragrant. I’d just seen them for $2.99 a pound; these were $1.75. I began contemplating dessert.

It would certainly involve some pristine, mold-free blackberries and raspberries, better than the ones in the supermarket. Volume means quick turnover, which means fresher ingredients. The raspberries were $3.99 for 18 ounces, as opposed to $5 for six ounces at my local market. I began to get that Filene’s Basement feeling: If these jeans cost this much, how much am I usually overpaying? I picked up 2-pound bags of haricots verts, large tubs of organic mixed baby greens, and 5-pound sacks of purple, red, and white fingerling potatoes. There is a giddiness from buying such large amounts of things, perhaps ancient impulses at work: We cave people won’t starve this winter.

Particularly when we have snacks. I picked up smoked sockeye salmon, black and green olives with feta, hunks of Manchego and goat-milk brie big enough to double as bookends, Marcona almonds, and prosciutto di Parma. And was that pate? Yes, two generous tubs of it, made by award-winning charcuterie company Les Trois Petits Cochons. I was skeptical.

On my way to check out, I grabbed some half-and-half and a package of precious vanilla beans: 10 for $11.99. At one local supermarket, it’s $14.99 for two. I had to buy them. And maybe that flat-screen TV, too. . . . I was getting warehouse fever. Definitely time to leave.

But I still needed vino. I picked up a bottle of Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne for $32.99 and a 2008 Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc for $21.99, plus a few bottles of less-expensive 2009 Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc ($12.99) and 2007 Andre Brunel “Cuvee Sabrine’’ Cotes du Rhone Villages ($11.99). And what’s this? Kirkland bottles a 10-year-old tawny Port? It could be terrible, but at $16.79 it seemed worth the gamble. (Later research revealed the Cloudy Bay was $30.99 at a nearby liquor store, but the Kim Crawford was on sale for the same price Costco offered; the champagne was $43.99. The Cotes du Rhone averaged $14.79 a bottle online.)

Hours later, 10 hungry people in cocktail attire arrived at the door. We drank a champagne toast by the fire and snacked on Manchego (boring) and goat-milk brie (tasty). The smoked salmon became canapes, on pumpernickel toast with creme fraiche and chives. The fish was mild and delicious. The best surprise was the pate, topped with a layer of aspic. It, too, was mild (perhaps strong flavors are safer when you’re selling to the masses), but with rich flavor and a light texture. I would buy it again.

For the first course, I seared the scallops and served them with lightly dressed greens and a draping of prosciutto, topped with relish made from the Meyer lemons I’d intended for dessert. The relish was a hit, but I found the presliced prosciutto to be gummy. Salumeria Italiana in the North End sells prosciutto for $20-$23 per pound, not that much more than Costco’s (12 ounces for $13.89). In the future, I’d sooner buy a half-pound sliced to order for $10.

As for the scallops, “previously frozen’’ turned out to mean “actually still frozen,’’ which had me worried that they wouldn’t sear. But after thawing in the refrigerator on layers of paper towels, they were fine. In fact, they were beautiful, fresh and sweet. Costco doesn’t allow sodium tripolyphosphate, or STP - a common additive that both plumps and preserves - in its scallops. At $8.79 a pound, they were a deal; smaller dry sea scallops were going for $15.99 a pound at my local fish market. It was $10 cheaper to buy 2 1/2 pounds of scallops at Costco than the 2 pounds I actually needed at a specialty store. Shopping at warehouse clubs can be just shopping, or it can be a slicing and dicing of personal values, an exploration of class in the marketplace. How much is it worth to you to patronize your small local business? The dollar amount that is your answer may or may not depend on how many $10 bills are in your pocket.

Which leads us to the cost of meat, at a time when many - concerned about animal welfare and personal health - are paying more for the naturally, humanely, and locally raised. The lamb was undeniably a delicious deal: mild and tender and $18.87 for a leg that would have cost $28.33 at the supermarket. According to Costco, it was also grass-fed and free of hormones and additives. And it came from Australia. I rubbed it with garlic and herbs, grilled it, and served it with blanched haricots verts, roasted fingerlings, and a generous side of food miles. I doubt many locavores shop at wholesale clubs. You pick your battles, and some days those battles don’t include vanilla beans from Africa or berries from Mexico.

Those two ingredients became dessert: vanilla bean panna cotta with raspberries and blackberries. With more time, I would have made Meyer lemon sables as well. Guess what? I still can. I have more Meyer lemons than I know what do with.

Over Kirkland Port, we discussed the meal. It was good - not just for a dinner made from warehouse club shelves, but good period. (So was the Port. Turns out it’s made by Fonseca, whose 10-year-old tawny can sell for $29.99.)

With food and drink, it cost about $30 a head, significantly less than it would have to buy the same things at other stores ($52 a head). But if I had simply bought the amount of food and drink I needed at those other stores, it would have cost about $34 a head.

Of course, we wouldn’t have had leftovers. Lamb sandwiches the next day made for an exciting lunch, and we had to send home salmon, prosciutto, and berries with friends. There was no way we were going to eat all that, and our freezer was full. Getting a bargain feels smart, but buying so much more than you need feels gluttonous.

Next time we’ll just have to throw a bigger party.