Why Grocery Shopping Matters

Terranova Breads Just Baked In TheIr Coal-Fired Ovens

Why Grocery Shopping Matters

Buying groceries. For most of us it's a chore. Although I actually rather like it, except when I have to shop in Fairway's west side store a few days before a holiday. No one likes that.

I practice my own grocery manifesto: you can't be a great cook unless you're first a good food shopper. That's because most of the work and key decisions about our home cooking get done when we shop, not when we're back in the kitchen.

You'd never know this if you've drawn your understanding of cooking from the Food Network or Instagram. That's because there's not much to see when you're shopping, except for the blood sport that plays out in Trader Joe's the day before a blizzard. Plus, if you consider the volumes of cookbooks and food blogs, you'd think what matters the most is the recipe. It's not. It's the shopping.

Shop well and you'll eat well. It's a small idea. But it has big impact.

Grocery shopping is where the health, value, and pleasure of cooking converge. It's in the store when you can limit the amount of chemicals or hormones in your food. This is also when you'll choose the best ways to add flavor to what you're about to eat. If you doubt me on that, compare the taste of a scrambled just-laid egg bought at a farmer's market with one that's been sitting in a Gristedes refrigerator case for two weeks.

Let's stay with those eggs a moment longer. If your recipe calls for two large eggs, shouldn't you know whether the hens that laid the eggs were fed antibiotics to keep them laying a few weeks longer? Likewise if it's two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or a pound of ground beef. The provenance of the olive oil -- grown, pressed and bottled in Italy or Spain within the last two months (the label on the bottle says so) versus being blended in a factory somewhere near the Mediterranean more than a year ago. Or was the ground beef from a cow on hormones so that it would grow faster while being fed grain to make it fatter; or was it hormone-free and raised on grass? Taken together all these facts will have a huge impact on both nutrition and flavor. Grass versus grain fed may not matter to you and you may not be a locavore, but the point is that you should know what you're getting and be in a state of choice.

Your choices will also impact how your dish turns out. Buy cubed leg of lamb for a stew and it will be tough; buy the same amount of lamb shoulder and your stew will be tender. You need to know the right cut of meat for how you're going to cook it, which will not only get you a better result but often will also save you money. For example, that leg of lamb costs much more than shoulder.

Sadly, unless we're eating everything from our own farm, we can't be 100 percent sure of what we're buying. But there are ways we can improve our odds of knowing what we're paying for and what we're eating.

Putting The Manifesto To Work

We've all read romantic shopping narratives like strolling through open-air markets in Paris to buy bouquets of fresh basil and a Bresse chicken, or roasting whole fish caught just hours earlier in the Adriatic and dressing it with lemons picked off a cliff-side tree. But let's be realistic: these things don't happen in our daily lives. They probably don't happen very often in France or Greece, either, because folks there are as busy and stressed as we are.

What's more likely is that we put in an order from Fresh Direct or pick things up from a supermarket on our way home from work in a mad dash to have time to make dinner. It's already a commitment to cook instead of taking-out and what we want are ways to make it easier, not harder.

But with a few adjustments, and maybe an occasional road trip, you can put my manifesto into action and become a great grocery shopper.

Shop More Frequently

I get it that time is scarce. But if your habit is to do a weekly big shop for everything you'll need, instead use that shop to only buy the ingredients that make sense to get weekly. Then buy fresh ingredients as close as possible to the day you're going to use them. If you do the reverse and only shop the day you're going to cook, try to do a monthly big shop to buy pantry items and do this when you have time to think about how you cook, what you need, and what you're buying (see below about reading labels).

What I do is a weekly shop at a large supermarket and this is when I buy most meats, plus ingredients like boxed chicken stock, olive oil, canned chickpeas, tea, and other pantry items. During the week I buy fish on the day I'll cook it, and salad greens, fruits and vegetables two or three times a week.

While it's good to buy local and in season, for much of the year it's frankly just not practical, at least not in the four-season northeastern U.S. But in the summer months, I try very hard to shop at my neighborhood's weekly Greenmarket. This adds time and effort but the payoff is so worth it. Plus since lots of farmers markets are held on weekends, it can be a pleasant outing. Bring the dog!

If I'm making something special, like a holiday meal, or a recipe that needs unusual ingredients, I will make a trip to a specialty market. For me that may mean going to Esposito's, a favorite butcher in Hell's Kitchen, or to Zabar's cheese counter, or to Kalustyan's, the spice market in Manhattan's Curry Hill. I have always found that these detours are worth the trip.

Get and Stay Educated

There's never been a more important time to read labels. Additives, transfats, GMOs, organic, biodynamic, hormones. Buying groceries has a complicated language that we're obligated to learn. Plus it's hard to know who to trust and which claims mean anything.

Take, for example, the term "natural." Unlike "organic" which has a USDA-regulated definition, "natural" means whatever the food manufacturer and its marketing department want it to mean. Then there are the endless debates, for example, whether some sugars are better for us than others. Some will argue that honey is okay but corn syrup is not. Is it?

There are no simple answers for all this confusion. We can search out articles from trusted experts (as one example, I am a fan of NYU nutrition expert Marion Nestle), read a lot to keep up with new information and regulations, and be skeptical. The other prudent thing to do is avoid processed foods as much as possible. The more I've read labels, the less I want to eat what's inside; even Ronnybrook yogurt drinks have added sugar.

There are also resources like Monterey Bay Aquariums Seafood Watch. There are many food-related apps for your phone, but if you ever buy fish or shellfish, their app is essential.

(Still, it's hard to be a saint. I always have jars of Hellman's mayonnaise and Heinz ketchup in my refrigerator. That the perfect is the enemy of the good has always made sense to me, for lots of things, including food.)

Education is also about price. Ingredients are costly and prices can fluctuate due to weather or plant blights or animal illnesses (as with the recent avian flu and the subsequent price spike for eggs). But most of us tend to buy the same ingredients all the time and with a little added attention, we can monitor what our most-bought foods cost. I do this two ways.

First, if you're not already making a weekly shopping list, start doing so now. I start a new shopping list early in the week and begin to make notes of what needs to be replenished (did I just finish the last jar of capers?) and ideas for the next week's meals. This makes doing a list no big deal -- it's always a work in progress. I scribble mine on a notepad; others keep their list on their phone; I've know folks who keep a master list in a document to which they add and delete and then print the list out as they head to the store.

Since I shop in more than one place, I keep track of prices for things I buy regularly by making notes on my shopping list. Knowing this information can have a huge budget impact. For example, in my neighborhood the two main grocers both sell Rao's tomato sauce (which my husband loves; he adds it to his Sunday morning eggs) but one store sells the same large jar for $4 more than the other! Clearly it's worth keeping track and for the core items you buy almost every week, you'll know where to buy them.

Second, sign up for weekly emails from where you shop. Every large market, and most of the smaller ones, have a mailing list and you'll get weekly updates on sales and specials. I get emails from Whole Foods and Fairway and am often surprised by the huge savings on both basic and what I'd call luxury products, enough that the values can make me change where I'll shop that week. I also get regular emails from several wine stores in my neighborhood, each of which has private sales and otherwise publicized tastings. If you don't want to get more emails and are afraid of spam, create a Gmail or Yahoo email just for food-related mailings and check them when you're getting ready to go shopping.

Love and Learn From Our Local Markets

This is the most fun part of becoming a great shopper: seek out and get to know our specialty food merchants. We may not have time to do this weekly, but once in a while, I urge you to shop in a small market to buy both special and quotidian ingredients.

Seek out markets that sell your favorite ingredients. It could be a spice market, fish store, and an organic market for fruits and vegetables. Or a cheese shop, bakery, Asian food market, and wine store. The point is to periodically get closer to where the food comes from, and talk with people who spend their days scoring great ingredients for us. And when you do, ask questions -- how long have you carried this product, why do you like it, and what do you make with it?  

This kind of shopping is also a great outing for yourself or with your kids. It's both educational and inspiring and you're guaranteed to not only learn something but also have something delicious to cook with and eat.

I did this a couple of weeks ago when I went to the Belmont neighborhood of The Bronx known as Bronx's Little Italy, or simply "Arthur Avenue." It has a mix of neat homes, light industrial businesses, and storefronts, many of which are Italian food markets. It was a mild winter morning and the shops were busy with customers interrogating the shopkeepers about cuts of meat, or when the burrata was made, or asking for a sample of the salami before placing an order. The shopping was intense, personal, and practiced. For me, it became so much fun it was like a binge.

Following the guidance of an excellent article by Serious Eats, a friend and I wandered the shops and filled our shopping bags. I came home with a big round loaf of rustic bread, powder-fine breadcrumbs, two pounds of usually hard-to-find cavatelli, fresh bocconcini and buratta, a pound of fusilli col buco which is like a squiggly spaghetti (dry pasta), a whole guanciale and a whole slab pancetta that had been cured with hot pepper oil, and a pound of culatello, often called the king of prosciuttos, at half the price I pay for prosciutto de Parma at Zabar's.

But I also got lessons in what makes a good dry pasta from the owner of Tino's, a tour of the coal fired ovens at Terranova, and an explanation of how scamorza is made by aging what started out as a large, pillow-y fresh mozzarella made by the craftsmen at Casa Della Mozzarella.

What I didn't buy was olive oil or vinegar, which I can get at my usual markets for the same price (an example of why you should know what things cost).

As with most true marketplaces, all the shops shared a sense of bounty and generosity that is rarely found in a supermarket, no matter its acreage. Samples were often offered. Kindness was frequent. Compliments were generous. At Tino's, the shopkeeper whispered to the cashier to give me one of their best shopping bags after our conversation about dry pasta. These food merchants work very hard and it's gratifying when a customer shows interest and enthusiasm.

But how could I not? Stepping into these shops, where some of the foods, as with the buratta at Casa Della Mozzarella and the fresh cavatelli at Borgatti's, were made minutes before I bought them, it was easy to be curious and grateful.

When I launched The City Cook it was as much in tribute to New York's food merchants as it was to encourage very busy people with small kitchens to cook. After a visit to a neighborhood like Arthur Avenue, I still feel so strongly about the gift that we've been given by these merchants. I visit friends and family who live in the suburbs and sure, their gigantic markets are impressive. Fresh Direct can be a godsend. And places like Costco are great values.

But without a doubt, you will become a better, and frankly, a happier cook if you find the time to periodically shop at our smaller city markets. You'll be able to buy beautiful ingredients and you're bound to always learn something.  Plus they need our business if we want them to stay around because who else is so inspired to keep our ingredient standards high?

So take the time, even if only once in a while, to resist the supermarkets and instead seek out a Ukrainian butcher on the Lower East Side to buy a pork roast and then ask him how he cooks it. Get acquainted with Chinatown when you want to explore new vegetables. Develop a friendship with a fish store. Go to Astoria for feta cheese for your favorite Greek salad. Look. Ask questions. Buy. Taste. Then you'll know.

Unless we all become farmers, there are no food guarantees. But making grocery shopping as important to our daily eating as cooking is a good start.

Kate McDonough
Editor, TheCityCook.com

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Arthur AvenueGrocery ShoppingMonterey Bay Seafood WatchItalianBread & Bakery

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