Kitchen Hacks

How Changing the Way I Grocery Shop Has Made Me a Better Cook

And I have Carla Lalli Music, Bon Appétit's food director, to thank.

April  3, 2019
Photo by Gentl and Hyers

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm pretty bad at grocery shopping (see exhibit A and exhibit B for proof).

My routine goes a little something like this: Go to Trader Joe's on a Sunday and stock up for weeks on end; wait in line for about an hour; try to lug all of it home on public transportation and get stuck in the subway doors; realize I forgot at least three things, so I can't make the dish I wanted to; cook a big batch of a miscellaneous something and eat it for too many days straight; become traumatized by the whole experience and avoid going back to the store for about a month and a half. (By then, my local takeout delivery people know and greet me like an old friend.)

But I'd like to be better! I dream about all of the fresh and exciting produce I could be cooking with; the crust of a locally baked sprouted sourdough that could crackle under my serrated knife; the sweet, fresh mozzarella balls I could be throwing into my salads. The fragrant spices! The fresh handmade noodles! Nope. Frozen spinach with dried pasta and long-since-expired paprika for me.

That is, until I picked up a very special book that's just about changed everything for me.

Bon Appétit's food director, Carla Lalli Music, just released her brand-new cookbook, Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook. Ostensibly, the book is about, well, how to begin cooking: It's packed with guiding strategies and shopping lists; comprehensive instructions on seven all-purpose, need-to-know fundamentals, like boiling and simmering, steaming, sautéeing, slow-roasting, and making the most foolproof pastry dough; and 70 really tasty recipes that showcase the preceding tips and techniques.

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Top Comment:
“I’m also in nyc and feel your trader joe’s pain, going on a thurs or fri evening is way less excruciating than a weekend, i go once a month for stuff i can only get there. Otherwise i order from peapod (which is more budget friendly than fresh direct) for pantry stuff and anything heavy. There’s a small produce market i go to twice a week or so on my way home. I make almost all of my meals, delivery options near me are total crap so that’s not even tempting ”
— Ttrockwood

And the lessons I learned from it have been interesting, to say the least—revelatory, even. Who knew I could pan-roast a wedge of savoy cabbage the exact same way as I would butternut squash? How could it be I've never thought to confit a bunch of lemon slices or a large can of whole tomatoes? Most importantly, why have I been hoarding a bunch of once-used spices, and continuing my Sunday ritual (slog) of big-batch cooking, and dutifully grocery shopping to feed myself for weeks on end, dragging all my purchases home and later finding tons of unused produce shriveled or spoiled in the fridge?

In Where Cooking Begins, Carla shows us that yes, there's a better, faster, more efficient way.

And luckily, doing things the Carla way turns out to be the way for me, too. Here are some of Carla's rules of thumb to menu plan, stock up, and make the most of your pantry as you cook (read: you'll get away with buying a lot less at the store!).

  • Shop in person for the food that excites you. Shop small. Shop often. (Even better news: This way, less stuff will probably go to waste.)
  • Go online to get the ingredients that barely change with the seasons or that come in a box, bag, can, or jar. (No more stressing out at the store to cross everything off your list, or hauling the heavy and bulky stuff home. Plus, if you're like me, setting and forgetting is a gift.)
  • Keep a lean but diverse assortment of pantry items, seasonings, and perishables on hand. (Carla recommends her 15 must-have spices, and a small collection of other essentials, but I've tweaked these staples to jive with my own cooking habits and preferences.)
  • Purchase only what you have room to store. (That Costco flat of soy milk and four-pack of industrial-size tomato sauce jars will have to wait until I move out of my N.Y.C. apartment.)
  • Cook what you buy; finish it up. (I need this to be tattooed on my forehead. Limp carrots and dried-out half bunches of mint, it was nice to know you.)
  • If you prefer a different flavor profile, change the recipe. (Carla, for example, says in the book that she loves dried fennel seeds. I can't stand them, and much prefer to use cumin. No freaking out here—this is no biggie.)
  • If you're missing something minor, leave it out. (You mean I don't have to go to three stores to buy three different types of chile?!)

Beyond changing up the way I shop, Carla's tips have allowed me to look at my "usual-suspect" ingredients in a whole new light—and my cooking is the better for it. Read on for three simple, flexible, totally delicious meals that put these principles into practice. They'll make your cooking much easier, and a whole lot more fun.

Omelet with Whipped Ricotta for Two

I eat breakfast for dinner pretty regularly. I'm definitely no stranger to a plate of creamy scrambled eggs or a runny yolk sopped up with toast. But even for me, the ol' egg rigamarole can start to feel tired, and could definitely use a little seasonal update every now and again.

Carla's springy, smartypants solution to amp up an omelet involves velvety ricotta and a handful of tender, sweet pea tendrils. And these two things are probably all you'll need to buy from your local farmers' market or the store (eggs, Parmesan, olive oil, and S+P are likely already in your fridge/pantry).

And feel free to "spin it" any which way you choose: Use small-curd cottage cheese or cream cheese instead of the ricotta; baby kale or watercress in place of the pea tendrils; cheddar or Grana Padano swapped in for the Parm; sherry or cider vinegar, if you don't have white wine vinegar on hand.

Slow-Roasted Mixed Peppers

I stick slivers of raw bell peppers in my salads almost every day. I eat them, cut into thin strips, with a load of hummus or yogurt-y dip or aioli. I char them on the stove till they're soft, peel and chop them, and put them in pasta. I pretty much always have them on hand.

But I've never slow-roasted them like this, with pantry-friendly olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon post-roast—and boy, have I been missing out. Their sweet, jammy selves would be at home in my usual salad or pasta, or really, by themselves, with ribbons of shaved Parm and slices of crusty baguette.

P.S. Swap out the red peppers in this recipe with just about any other vegetable you like or have on hand, and watch 'em get ridiculously melty and tender. Carla recommends halved fennel or beets with greens, hearty cauliflower, kabocha squash, unpeeled shallots, or drained canned whole tomatoes.

Spring Lettuces with Anchovy Cream

Spring means all the produce and long-awaited greenery, and all the greenery means all the ways to mitigate sad-sack salads. This little number uses a slew of pantry powerhouses (oil-packed anchovies, walnuts, garlic, red-wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, S+P) plus a few fresh, peppy accents (a splash of heavy cream and parsley, if you please) to create a silky, dreamy blanket for some sweet and crunchy spring lettuces.

You can use any kind of lettuce your heart desires (Little Gem, Boston, radicchio, or endive) and any kind of nut in place of the walnuts (almonds or pecans are Carla's suggestions). You can also use a few dashes of fish sauce in place of the anchovies. Either way, you'll find yourself eating the dressing by the spoonful—but be sure to save some for your veg.

Do you shop the Carla way? Let us know your favorite grocery-store tips, and what you make with all your stocked-up mainstays, in the comments!


Wprawlings April 18, 2019
Great ideas and recipes too. But nowhere did I see mention of a list. When I make one I shop more strategically and buy less of the things I don't really need. I grow a lot of my own veggies but do like to sometimes have large items delivered to my house.
Bevi April 5, 2019
I am a huge Carla fan. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than watching her Back-to-Back Chef videos on youtube. If you haven't seen these, you haven't lived.
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 8, 2019
jude1 April 4, 2019
Go online to purchase items that come in boxes, bags and jars?! Shop local, please. Keep small business alive.
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 4, 2019
Definitely agree on keeping small businesses alive, jude1! For me, shopping locally ends up being great for produce, breads, locally milled grains, and other fresh or easily perishable items. But for heavy things like pasta sauce and canned beans, where I don't always have brand loyalty (and is, for me, a challenge to carry home), it makes more sense in my world to have them delivered to my home, usually in bulk. You do you, of course!
Ttrockwood April 4, 2019
I’m also in nyc and feel your trader joe’s pain, going on a thurs or fri evening is way less excruciating than a weekend, i go once a month for stuff i can only get there.
Otherwise i order from peapod (which is more budget friendly than fresh direct) for pantry stuff and anything heavy. There’s a small produce market i go to twice a week or so on my way home.
I make almost all of my meals, delivery options near me are total crap so that’s not even tempting
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 4, 2019
Thanks for these awesome tips Ttrockwood! I'm going to try out Trader Joe's tomorrow night...
zoemetro U. April 3, 2019
I agree with panfusine 100%--great rules to live by! Indeed, emulating the French idea of shopping a bit every day or two for super fresh ingredients to then be mixed with pantry and frozen staples makes for delectable dishes. Thanks you Brenda! I must read this book.
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 4, 2019
Let me know if you end up cooking from it! A real gem.
Smaug April 3, 2019
And I have the author to thank for informing me that there is someone named Carla Lalli Music; such simple pleasures are what give life grace.
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 4, 2019
Her name is great, and her recipes are even greater!
Panfusine April 3, 2019
This is an amazing and useful list of rules to live by. Yes to 1,3,5 & 6, still working on 2,4 & 7, (taking into account 3 distinct food preferences for a family of 4), PArt of the cooking fun is to yield to flashes of spontaneity and surprise suggestions from the non contributing minor minions.
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 3, 2019
So glad these are helpful to you, too, Panfusine! Can't tell you how much they've changed my shopping/cooking/eating outlook for the better. Agree 100% that spontaneity and flexibility are paramount for good (and fun) cooking.
Eric K. April 3, 2019
Anchovy cream, yes please.