1. Don't pay $$ for expensive imported tomatoes. Fancy Italian canned tomatoes, called San Marzanos, are delicious, sweet, available all year round, and incredibly expensive. Our secret way around the price? Buy other canned tomatoes on sale, and drizzle them with rice vinegar. The result will be so sweet and succulent you'll wonder why you haven't done this before!
2. If you're an avid cook, buy spices in bulk. The markup on spices from major brand names in the grocery-store spice aisle is hair-raising. If you can find a store that sells spices and dried herbs from large bins, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that the little jar of spices you paid $5 for at the supermarket is 89 cents for about three-quarters of a cupful when bought in bulk.
3. Shop at the ethnic market. One of our researchers found an entire pork shoulder for 99 cents a pound in her local ethnic market and the same cut -- from the same producer -- at $4.99 per pound at a neighboring gourmet shop. Ethnic markets cater directly to clientele who have to stretch their dollars as far as they can go. If you live near an Italian, Spanish, Asian, or African market, take advantage of it. You'll find savings on everything from pasta, rice and tortillas to tea, coffee and vegetables.
4. Substitute the parmesan. Real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano (not the stuff in the green cardboard can) can cost a big bundle. Forgo the fake stuff in the green can, and opt for a clever, more frugal substitute for the real thing: Look for easy-to-find Asiago or Grana Padano — very similar cheeses that cost a fraction of Parmigiano-Reggiano and still deliver a punch of flavor.
5. Save on olive oil. Buying a gallon of extra-virgin olive oil and decanting it into a smaller bottle as needed adds up to big savings. A gallon will run about $25, depending on the brand and country of origin, but even the most inexpensive oils usually run about $8 a quart — or $64 a gallon!
6. Get your gourmet goodies at the 99-cent store. Sure, you can find everyday items at your local 99-cent store. But if you look a bit more closely, you'll find loads of tempting gourmet goodies: we found fancy, imported chocolates; wild smoked salmon; smoky Spanish almonds; and sweet roasted peppers. Who knew?
7. Grow your own herbs; don't buy them. Why spend $2 to $3 for a tiny packet of fresh herbs in a grocery store, when the same amount of money would have bought you a potted plant of the same herb that could live in your windowsill? Rosemary is an amazingly hardy plant, as are thyme and mint, and the only problem with growing chives is to make them stop. Cutting chives merely encourages them to grow faster, so if you toss a handful of snipped chives in your scrambled eggs every few days, you'll never lack for them.
8. Hit the farmer's market at the right time. If you want to eat fresh food cheap, hit the market an hour to a half hour before closing and scoop up fruits and veggies, even baked goods and flowers, at a discount, sometimes as much as 50 percent to 75 percent off. Growers always want to unload as much as they can at the end of day, rather than haul it home. Just be sure your afternoon foraging begins with an open mind and palate and empty shopping bags (they often run out of bags at the end of the day).
9. Freeze in-season berries. Love blueberries and cherries but cringe at the checkout when you buy them in the dead of winter? Shop for them in season. Place them on a large, lipped baking sheet, pop them into the freezer, and four hours later, you'll have individually frozen, fresh-as-a-daisy berries. Store them in heavy-duty freezer bags for up to six months, and you'll never have to shell out hard-earned dough again to make a succulent, fresh blueberry pie or cherry tart in the middle of January.