We Gave $10 to a Cookbook Author to Buy Dinner Essentials at Trader Joe’s — Here’s What He Bought

published Nov 21, 2023
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Shopping cart in Trader Joe's
Credit: Lauren Masur

Weeknight dinners don’t have to be hard or expensive — even if you have multiple mouths to feed. If it ever feels like you have to choose between having a really delicious meal and a dish that says, “I put food on the table,” I’m here to tell you the exact opposite can easily become your reality. There are so many budget-friendly meals that are not only flavorful, but also eye-catching in a way that rivals restaurant meals.

Trader Joe’s is my first stop for finding affordable, yet fresh ingredients to cook. One zig-zag through the aisles and you’ll notice there are lots of options to make a fantastic weeknight meal under $10. I specifically picked the ones below to make this Savory Gochujang Rigatoni — a hearty, pretty, rich pasta that will satisfy your tight budget and hungry belly. Let’s go shopping (and get cooking)!

Credit: James Park

1. Italian Rigatoni, $0.99 for 16 ounces

Dry pasta is a no-brainer when feeding a big family. I like rigatoni because it’s a pasta shape that makes me feel like I’m eating at a restaurant. Trader Joe’s dried pasta, despite its incredibly low price, tastes as good as the fancy branded ones that cost more than $5. The texture comes out perfectly al dente, and when it’s cooked with the sauce, it absorbs the flavors deliciously. 

Credit: James Park

2. Cento Flat Fillet Anchovies in Olive Oil, $1.79 for 2 ounces

Canned anchovies are my go-to ingredient in salads, pasta, and more to add lots of umami and salty flavors. This particular canned anchovy has a perfect amount of olive oil and anchovy filets — they are tightly packed with plenty of oil to cook. Even though this is not a Trader Joe’s-branded product, I find the price is typically lower than at other retailers, so it’s one of those pantry items that I always get whether I need it or not. 

If you’re wary of anchovies, trust me — you won’t see chunks of anchovies in your dish (which I support!) once you cook them down. The anchovy-infused olive oil acts as an instant flavor boost.

Credit: James Park

3. Gochujang, $1.99 for 7.05 ounces

Gochujang is a Korean red pepper paste, and it’s a delightful way to add a little spice to this pasta and your everyday cooking. As a Korean immigrant who cooks lots of Korean food, I am so happy to find this Korean pantry staple at Trader Joe’s. It’s not as thick and spicy as I prefer, so I get this gochujang in a pinch. It’s an ideal size for an affordable price and, at the end of the day, it feels nice knowing that more shoppers have access to a Korean pantry staple I love and use so much.

Credit: James Park

4. Large White Eggs, $1.49 for 1 dozen

I’m so glad we can get affordable eggs at Trader Joe’s now! Remember when a carton of eggs was more than $5 because of inflation? I certainly do. Thankfully, eggs are about 60% cheaper now, compared to January 2023. They are one of the most versatile ingredients (try frying them in chili crisp or swirling them in savory, kimchi oatmeal). 

Just adding an egg can elevate the dish. Because we get a dozen for under $1.50 (or 12 cents per egg!), we can be a little generous with them, which is why I use them in different ways in this dish (like using the rich egg yolk as the sauce) to bring maximum flavors. 

Credit: James Park

5. Green Onions, $1.49 for 6 ounces

If there’s one ingredient that I use the most, it’s green onions. I garnish them over my favorite charred scallion dip or make scallion-infused oil as a base to build flavors. I get green onions from Trader Joe’s because they are truly one of the cheapest options I’ve seen at the store and they always seem fresh. Sometimes the scallions at other grocery stores look slightly wilted, but at Trader Joe’s there are almost double the amount of scallion bundles in a package, with bright green tops and clean roots. 

Credit: James Park

6. Garlic, $0.49 for 1 bulb

I rarely cook anything without using garlic. It’s one of a few ingredients that you can pick out individually in the Trader Joe’s produce section, so you can be more selective with the size. I like that it’s priced by the bulb, not by weight, and the price is just as cheap as other places. 

Credit: James Park

7. Lemon, $0.49 per lemon

Lemon’s bright, zesty flavors are often what make a dish shine. (I use it two ways — freshly squeezed lemon juice and lemon zest — in this pasta.) It’s another Trader Joe’s essential item because it’s one of the cheapest places to get fresh lemons. They are big, firm, and not bruised (most of the time!), and they are priced per item, not by weight. You can get two large lemons for less than $1.

Grand total: $9.73

Now, we’ve selected our items under $10 (with a whole $1 to spare, too!) — let’s start cooking to make a delicious, rich, savory pasta that will feast your eyes and soul at the same time. 

Credit: James Park

How to Make Savory Gochujang Rigatoni 

We are going to riff on the idea of carbonara, with two major additions that make the pasta even more flavorful: anchovies and gochujang. Here’s how to make it.

Chop some scallions (I use 4) to make scallion-infused oil, which is a base of the sauce (reserve a tablespoon of green parts of the scallions for garnish). Mince 3 or 4 cloves of garlic. In separate bowls, zest and juice the lemon.

Separate the yolks and egg whites of 5 eggs into two bowls. Set aside the egg whites. Add 2 tablespoons of gochujang to the bowl of egg yolks, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and stir with a spoon until combined.

I cook the pasta one minute less than the package instructions say, and reserve 1/2 cup of starchy pasta cooking water for the sauce.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook the entire can of anchovy fillets with the oil over medium heat, stirring frequently and breaking up the anchovy fillets with a back of spoon, until the anchovies dissolve into loose paste (for 2 minutes). Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, chopped scallions, and minced garlic cloves, until fragrant (about 1 minute). Add the reserved egg whites with a pinch of kosher salt into the flavorful anchovy-garlic-scallion oil and cook them until they are set for 1 minute. 

Transfer the cooked rigatoni into the skillet. Keep the heat over medium-low, and add 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water while tossing everything together to create the sauce.

Credit: James Park

Pour the gochujang-egg mixture over the pasta and toss vigorously to combine. Slowly drizzle in more pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time, to create a creamy sauce if necessary. Finish the pasta with freshly squeezed lemon juice and lemon zest. Divide the pasta into serving bowls, and finish them with another raw egg yolk, which becomes a rich sauce to coat the pasta, with more freshly cracked pepper.

Savory, crumbled egg whites are mixed into holes of rigatoni, and gochujang and egg yolk create a fantastic sauce that’s slightly spicy and delightfully rich.

This pasta dish is also endlessly riffable: You can add crispy bacon bits or mix in shredded rotisserie chicken for additional proteins besides egg whites. But, even without those, this carbonara-ish pasta is so delicious, you might even forget that you spent less than $10 to make it. 

What’s your favorite budget-friendly ingredient to pick up at Trader Joe’s? Tell us about it in the comments below.