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:
“So, my strategy is to purchase eggs, garlic, shallots, onions, potatoes, squashes and any fresh veg I can use up in a week there. I then supplement more perishable produce from my local produce store. The biggest challenge for me is staying with a strict discipline I’ve developed over the years which is quite simple but requires discipline on my part. I will not purchase anything that I’m not willing to wash, cut, core, and otherwise prep for meals immediately after I get home. This requires me to schedule in “post shopping” time (when I’m exhausted) after so much lugging... when I’d really rather plop into my comfy chair with that pint basket of fresh raspberries and the gourmet cold brew I couldn’t resist. But, having all my produce in the frig ready to grab and go when I need it for a recipe has eliminated waste, and saved me so much time and money. It’s also enhanced my cooking ability to always present a tasty, fresh, and healthy meal to my family. ”
— M P.
Comment

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!

41 Comments

Stacie N. April 30, 2019
My husband is the world's greatest pantry filler. When the veggies and the herbs in our garden start to become ripe, this book will really help me make great dishes from the produce I "shopped" for that day, along with the things we have already stocked up.
 
jude1 April 29, 2019
It seems to me that websites like these complicate shopping. Just go to the store, for God’s sake!
 
Beth April 28, 2019
As opposed to NYC, we live in a rather remote rural community and our organic grocery store of choice is about 50 minutes away. When my husband and I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I also shopped every couple of days for whatever we were in the mood for as far as dinner that night. Living here in the woods means making shopping lists and keeping track of my staples so I don't run out of butter, milk, or some other kitchen essential. I am NOT a fan of driving almost 2 hours for a forgotten ingredient, lol. We shop and run errands once a week, maybe twice if we have a special errand that pops up or a doctor's appointment that we couldn't schedule on our usual errand running day. I also plan my dinner menus a week at a time. We purchase 99% of our food at our organic store of choice and just a few other items at a conventional supermarket that the co-op doesn't carry or is out of. So meal planning and a shopping list are my essentials for organized shopping.
 
Karen April 28, 2019
I have found I spend a small fortune when I shop more than once a week . I’ve learned to make a menu and stick with the items on my shopping list using recipes that I’ve already tried and that have my own “A” rating and add two new recipes to try. Hardly anything goes to waste and I even share with my condo neighbors occasionally.
 
Dessito April 28, 2019
Useful advice, though mostly for a novice in the grocery shopping - home cooking area.

More general comment to the writer -- I'm sorry to say, but Trader Joe's is really not very good as a core/sole grocery store option. Their produce section in particular is unsatisfactory without supplementing with a different source. (Not to mention, I abhor all the packaging most produce there comes in! That's enough reason to shop elsewhere, as much as I love some of their delicacies.)
 
Tara T. April 28, 2019
Thanks to Bevi! I did not know about Carla's you tube videos !
MPs comment though I agree is critical to eating healthily all week.
Time for prep organization is essential and saves money and food waste.
A point of view that informs my routine: I agree Dry good basics ( grains beans honey hard cheeses, canned goods etc ) ideally are purchased in that 1-2x a month trip. That makes our week night trips to the veggie stand or co-op much easier . We practice the healthy planet diet ( very limited meat) that way most nights I'm mostly getting those highly perishible greens , tomatoes fruits berries for meals the next 2-4 days.
And yes making time to get things at least partially prepped is worth it.
Of note I do avoid those bags of ' precut' items at the store . First of all almost always wrapped or packaged in plastic or cellophane that doesn't keep fresh. Second cost is absurdly high. Better off using that money to light the fireplace and enjoy the process of chopping yourself:)!
 
M P. April 28, 2019
I have a favorite produce store I frequent here in SoCal. It’s got a farmers market vibe with the freshest produce available. I make a ritual out of shopping there and since its not real close to my home, I limit myself to shopping there to once a month which is really difficult. So, my strategy is to purchase eggs, garlic, shallots, onions, potatoes, squashes and any fresh veg I can use up in a week there. I then supplement more perishable produce from my local produce store. The biggest challenge for me is staying with a strict discipline I’ve developed over the years which is quite simple but requires discipline on my part. I will not purchase anything that I’m not willing to wash, cut, core, and otherwise prep for meals immediately after I get home. This requires me to schedule in “post shopping” time (when I’m exhausted) after so much lugging... when I’d really rather plop into my comfy chair with that pint basket of fresh raspberries and the gourmet cold brew I couldn’t resist. But, having all my produce in the frig ready to grab and go when I need it for a recipe has eliminated waste, and saved me so much time and money. It’s also enhanced my cooking ability to always present a tasty, fresh, and healthy meal to my family.
 
Debbie April 28, 2019
I’m sold!! I just ordered the book. It will be here tomorrow! Oh, and this morning I’m making the omelette.

Thanks!
 
Mary E. April 28, 2019
Carla Lalli Music IS the staple in my kitchen! That and I buy non specialized items online and just pick them up! Bread, veg and seafood are the things I love to pick out myself!
 
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.
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 23, 2019
Hi Wprawlings, thanks for reading! These tips are geared more towards guiding you based on what you already like to buy, since the whole idea of 'Where Cooking Begins' is that recipes are innately flexible and can bend to your likes/dislikes/cooking and shopping habits. The book does include a list of suggestions, in case that's helpful—I definitely recommend checking it out!
 
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
Truth!
 
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!
 
Nancy H. April 28, 2019
I disagree. First of all, many small businesses sell through Amazon. Second, I don't really need to keep a small business alive that merely sells boxed pasta. I for one am unimpressed with the quality of small businesses.
 
Nancy H. April 28, 2019
Unfortunately they simply don't provide the service, quality, price of selection that I rely on.
 
Nancy H. April 28, 2019
Well maybe but I'd rather just order something unusual on Amazon or shop at places with the attributes. Supporting small business is not high on my list of must-do items. My life is full of reducing plastic, recycling, reducing food waste, riding my bike instead of driving. And so on. You do what works for you. I'll do what works for me.
 
Nancy H. April 28, 2019
I don't agree with your claim of who or what 'made America' but your virtue signaling has become very tiresome.
 
jude1 April 28, 2019
I do like to purchase those heavy things locally because that keeps employees, my neighbors, working. I live in a rural, economically depressed county; every job counts. I shop at stores that I know pay living wages.
 
Author Comment
Brinda A. April 29, 2019
Hello all,

Thanks so much for reading! This is a really interesting topic with a lot of different points of view, and healthy disagreement and debate is informative and encouraged. However, I’d like to remind us all that our community, above all, is based on kindness, respect, and empathy, and our comments should always reflect these ideals—debates inclusive! Please keep this in mind as you’re navigating your conversations, here and elsewhere on the site. Feel free to check out our Code of Conduct (https://food52.com/code_conduct) for more info, and I’m happy to answer any other questions.

Thanks again!
 
jude1 April 29, 2019
But all that packaging that amazon products come in!! I usually go to a local store and simply carry my purchase out with no added packaging/bags, etc.
 
jude1 April 29, 2019
What does the phrase “virtue signaling” mean? I have never heard it before.
 
Nancy H. April 29, 2019
You are wrong so many counts. Actually it's when small businesses got big that they changed the country. Just how many blacksmiths do you think the original John Deere put out of business as his own big business grew to be a company that employs thousands and helps feed billions. The original big business in America was railroads, which were never little mom and pop operations. Productivity and innovation drive economies and wealth, big businesses are the source. Wishful nostalgia from yesteryear is not a substitute for history. Small business formation fell off a cliff in about 2007 and has not returned.

Stop lecturing, it's unbecoming.
 
Nancy H. April 29, 2019
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtue_signalling.
 
jude1 April 29, 2019
It’s a silly phrase.
 
jude1 April 29, 2019
In the rural county I live in small business is alive and well. They provide much needed jobs as well as quality products. We have support systems in place to help them start as well as grow, including in the national market. That kind of expansion brings even more jobs to our community.
 
Julie B. April 29, 2019
Yo, Sue K,

CHILL OUT!!
You do you and stop pushing “you” down people’s throats!
 
Nancy H. April 29, 2019
Let me help. The link clearly shows great distress among small business in the US - from 50% of GDP to 45% of GDP in about 15 years. Now this graph is relative, the reason for the shrinkage is because larger businesses are adding far more to GDP. The link also clearly shows that employment in small businesses has similarly shrunk. 80% of small businesses have no employees just the sole proprietor. Finally, small business make up 99% of all business but employee few and produce only 45% of GDP, in other words they are not very productive.
You're welcome.
 
Nancy H. April 29, 2019
Rural drivers rack up on average 13,373 miles annually while city drivers are down at 5,000. Would you care to address the carbon footprint of that difference? Maybe compared to Amazon packages?
 
Nancy H. April 29, 2019
Let me try to help again. Of course, I'm not saying anything as tendentious as your claim. But I will correct your arithmetic. 2019 minus 1837 is 182 not 350. You seem to have a problem with categories, an employee on the line for John Deere is no longer working in a small business. But we could compare lots of other enterprises like oh food production.
 
Nancy H. April 29, 2019
If the link you provided is wrong on so many aspects then why did you provide it?
 
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.