In recent years, as I’ve become increasingly relying on ALDI for my weekly shopping, I’ve found a set of ingredients that I’ve used to create a revolving repertoire of meals.
But just as that started to feel a little limited and restricting, to the rescue comes Milwaukee author Jeanette Hurt’s “The Unofficial ALDI Cookbook: Delicious Recipes Made with Fan Favorites from the Award-Winning Grocery Store,” published in paperback by Ulysses Press.
If you purchase the book from the publisher, you'll get a free "Entertaining with ALDI" recipe booklet, too.
Hurt, a nearly lifelong ALDI shopper, has expanded the repertoire with dozens of recipes that are illustrated and easy to follow for everything from breakfast hash brown casserole to smoke salmon dip to grilled barbecue shrimp to chicken parmigiana to cherry surprise cupcakes with dark chocolate ganache.
I caught up with Hurt – author of the recent "Wisconsin Cocktails," "The Joy of Cider" and "Cauliflower Comfort Food" – to ask her about her favorite ALDI ingredients, her book and what else the productive author is working on.
OnMilwaukee: You've been a long-time ALDI customer, right? How have you seen the offerings there change over the years?
Jeanette Hurt: When I was a girl, shopping with my mom, the produce was pretty sad, and the labels were really boring. The stores weren't lighted that well, and it was like shopping in a warehouse almost, but not like Sam's Club or Costco, smaller and not as well designed.
The atmosphere has totally changed, and the newest stores and the remodeled stores feel warm and welcoming. I remember when the Greenfield store closed for a week or two for remodeling – and they added pretty words like "bakery" above sections. So, that's a big thing that changed.
As far as offerings go, I would say the number of organic, vegan and vegetarian, non-dairy and gluten-free offerings have all gone way, way up. If you are on any sort of restricted diets or have allergies, you can find good things at ALDI. The company also has plans to go sustainable and organic by a certain year – 2025, I think – and it shows.
The produce has really, really improved. I've seen some of the best spring mixes around, as well as fresh berries (and my kiddo loves berries so we go through a lot of them every week!), and unless I've forgotten something or ran out, I get most of my produce at ALDI or local farmers markets. Sometimes, when developing a recipe, though, I might need something like jicama – which isn't always on the refrigerated shelves at ALDI – or fresh basil, for example, and then I'll have to shop elsewhere. But that's one thing about my book - you don't have to run to another grocery store – the basic recipes can be made with just one trip to ALDI.
But, for example, my sangria tastes better with brandy - and ALDI doesn't sell brandy.
Do you think the perception of ALDI has changed in recent years? What would you tell someone who hasn't gone there in years, or ever, about it?
I think it has changed and is changing, but some people – some friends, actually – still think it is the same small, limited store with sad, sad heads of iceberg lettuce that are wilting. ALDI is a great store – a modern store – and you can get pretty much everything you need, and you can get it at sometimes half the cost or even less.
How did you get the idea to do the cookbook?
I was thinking about what might be the next book idea for me to pitch to my publisher – who had wanted another idea after Cauliflower Comfort Food – and I started thinking about my life and my interests, and I also thought about the cookbooks my publisher publishes, and they publish a series of Trader Joe's cookbooks. I love Trader Joe's, too, but I do most of my shopping at ALDI, specifically, ALDI grocery stores that are near to the clubs where my son practices gymnastics; previously, I shopped at the West Allis ALDI on Highway 100, and I now shop at the ALDI stores on Brown Deer Road and Port Washington Road.
Since I knew Trader Joe's and ALDI were connected – one of the two brothers who owned ALDI also has a stake in Trader Joe's, I believe – and since both grocery stores almost have a specific fan following, I thought writing an ALDI cookbook might fit in well with both my publisher's interests and my real life, and it did. It was a fun book to write, and some of the recipes are recipes I've been making for my family for years.
I definitely think some ALDI generics are at least as good as, if not better than, some of the name-brand versions. What are some of your favorite ALDI picks?
Tomato paste. At 41 cents a can – and for about the last decade, the price stayed at 33 cents, and they just increased the price about a month ago – it's a bargain. Anywhere else, you're going to pay at least 75 cents or more, and tomato paste is tomato paste. My husband loves pasta so I make a lot of homemade sauces – marinara, meat, bolognaise, etc. – and my kiddo loves to make homemade pizza, and he likes making his own sauce with tomato paste.
Organic, grass-fed, ground beef. Pasta sauces, tacos, meatloaf, hamburgers ... at less than $5 a pound, it's a steal, and it's as good or better than anything you can find anywhere else.
Cheese. I've seen Sid Cook's artisan cheeses (Carr Valley) on the shelves, Sartori, and imported manchego, brie and aged gouda. For the last few months, there's also been a selection of several Irish cheddars, too. Some of the offerings change, but the imported manchego is an always there item.
I love their non-GMO tortilla chips and their salsas, which I regularly buy, and my hubby loves their hummus.
I regularly buy their bacon and their sausage. Their bulk, breakfast sausage is one of the best around – anywhere – and having written a book on making sausage, I always read the list of ingredients on sausage, and their bulk, breakfast sausage has no additives or preservatives – just meat and spices, imagine that?
What are some of your other favorite ingredients for recipes?
If I'm making any dips, their sour cream and cream cheese are top-notch.
The entire produce section is something I spend a lot of time in. I love their spinach, their onions, their fruits, their red peppers and their avocadoes. Though ALDI doesn't usually have fresh herbs, it almost always has cilantro, so I buy all the ingredients to make homemade guacamole, and also avocado toast.
Their eggs. Their regular eggs sometimes cost as little as 60 cents a dozen, and besides poached eggs – and hollandaise sauce – omelets, quiches and for baking, too.
Raw shrimp. It's sustainable, and it's fantastic. Actually, all of the seafood is. I also love their fresh salmon. I make a lot of salmon dishes, and as far as shrimp, usually shrimp scampi, but sometimes appetizers, too.
Their wine selection is really good for a grocery store, and it's also really reasonable. I use a lot of wine in my cooking, and I also love drinking a glass of wine with dinner sometimes.
Canned mushrooms – throw them in omelets or on pizzas or in pasta.
I love making candied bacon (in the free, Entertaining with ALDI cookbook that you can download if you go to my publisher's website - it's a group of 12 recipes that I fell in love with after having already written the book!), and I love using bacon and spinach from ALDI in spinach salad.
Do you have any ALDI "guilty pleasures"?
Their Intermingle red blend wine is lovely. I also love their seasonal Advent calendars – I bought my best friend a cheese calendar for her birthday last year.
And I always check out their AOS aisle – I've gotten Christmas presents there, found a fantastic swimsuit, dog toys, silicone baking liners ... you name it, it's probably been in that aisle.
My son loves their pepperoni French bread pizzas. I also love their cauliflower crust pizzas.
I'm also a big fan of their chocolate, which is mostly all imported from Germany. I sometimes bake with it, but more often than not, it's a snack .. .and it pairs really well with wine, too.
I always have good cheese in my fridge, and a lot of it is from ALDI. I usually always have an aged cheese, a chevre and something else that's interesting on hand.
You've been really flooding the bookstores with titles lately. Was that the result of an intense period of writing or just a number of long-simmering projects coming together around the same time?
It was both. My agent was shopping around my cider book, and just after it sold, I met an editor at UW Press, and suddenly, I was working on two books, and then I met an editor at Ulysses Press, and suddenly, I'm finishing one, then consistently working on two books at once.
I've actually worked on more than one book at two other times. It's not something I plan, and I certainly don't recommend doing it when you're writing your very first two books at one time, but to paraphrase Amelia Earhart's "When the opportunity for adventure presents itself, you don't turn it down," to when the opportunity to write a book presents itself, I don't turn it down.
It is definitely an intense period of writing when I'm working on multiple projects.
Can you keep it up?
Well, the ink is just drying on a two-book contract I signed with the University of Kentucky Press to do two cocktail books. I'm working on “The Whiskey Sour” right now, and right after that's done, I'm doing a second cocktail book that involves multiple spirits.
I hadn't planned to jump right in on another book project, as I'm still promoting my ALDI book and my “Wisconsin Cocktails” book, but like I said, when a book-writing adventure presents itself, I never turn it down. I never know what I might learn or what interesting rabbit holes I might discover and then go through.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.