There are those who can’t wield a knife to save their lives, those who can follow a recipe to the tee but feel uncomfortable opening something, and then there are cooks. You know professional. If you fall into category one or two, you probably think that the people in category three were born with a sixth sense that tells them which flavors go well with chicken and how hot the oven is when you want to roast carrots. But the truth is, having the right ingredients available is what matters to a good cook. Which means you have to be a good grocery buyer.
“I think being a good grocer is really, really difficult,” explains Chef Hawa Hassan. She recently released her first cookbook, In Bibi’s Kitchen, which is inspired by her Somali heritage and filled with intuitive, tasty dishes that you’ll want to cook every night. (To get a taste of Hassan’s cooking style, you can download some of the recipes digitally published by LG here.) “There are a number of factors to consider when shopping,” she adds, citing health, food cravings and what’s in there Season what’s for sale, what’s on your budget, and what your roommate or partner is getting into as elements that could affect your shopping cart. “Just being able to take two or three of these things into account is a great achievement.”
Then the question arises, if a good cook depends on being a good grocer, how the hell should you shop? Hassan also has a few ideas for this.
What to have on hand
A well-equipped kitchen can help turn any old meal into something delicious. Everything revolves around the spice! And having a stash of things that add oomph but don’t spoil quickly also helps with gathering meals during the week. These are the items that you buy either once a year or every few months – not every time you go to the grocery store.
For me at least, it’s hard to figure out what will be versatile (especially since sauces and condiments tend to be more expensive). Here are the things Hassan should be buying for you now and whenever you should use:
- Fish sauce
- Soy sauce or coconut amino acids if you are sensitive to soy
- Salsa, Hot Sauce, and Condiments: If you’ve got a Trader Joe around, Hassan recommends salsa verde, garlic chipotle salsa, and flavorful ketchup
- Spices: cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and berber are the most common uses of Hassan
- Legumes: Lentils (green lentils keep their shape, red lentils soften after cooking) and black beans are Hassan’s favorites
- Frozen vegetables like lima beans and corn
- Dried coconut
- Nut butter
- Popcorn kernels
What to buy if necessary
Then there are the things that spoil quickly, like fresh produce and meat. Week after week, Hassan believes that you should be in control of most of your food budget. “A general rule I strive for is to spend the most on fresh produce and buy a form or two of protein,” she explains. Most of the things in this category last at least a week or two so you don’t have to buy every ingredient every week. You will quickly find yourself using flavor enhancers like fresh ginger root and garlic. But things like berries, leafy herbs, and some cheeses can go bad overnight if you’re not looking. All of this to consider when you …
Make a plan for shopping
Hassan likes to start on Pinterest for inspiration on how to cook during the week. It’s not about following recipes literally – you really just want to get a feel for which ingredients or flavors go well together. If you’re not on Pinterest, you can also browse cookbooks, browse the New York Times Cooking app, or check out what’s shared on other social platforms (I do the same on Instagram and save things that look good for a folder ” Eat”).
Next, take all of these recipe ideas and come up with a basic idea of the things you want to cook for the week. Leave room for spontaneity. “With a general plan, you can look out for specific items and still be flexible,” says Hassan. That way, you don’t get a cart full of groceries you don’t need, but rather take advantage of seasonal opportunities. “For example, if I run a list but discover that a certain fruit or vegetable is for sale or looks particularly tasty, I can change my plans and focus on centering that article.”
Before actually writing it down, think about how many shops (the farmers market counts as a shop) you want to visit. Which products would you like to buy where? “As a New Yorker, I go to some stores that have the best prices for certain types of food or that have specialties,” explains Hassan. She also tells me that it’s worth exploring a business they’re not familiar with – you might find new ingredients you love, learn about the culinary quirks of another culture, and explore different flavors. Once you figure out where you are going, go back and write your list by gear. “This is the easiest way to stay on track and move quickly as you get everything you need at once without going back and forth across the store.” Organize your fresh produce in one block of text, dairy and eggs in another, and so on. Right now, when we are all trying to spend as little time in the grocery store as possible, it will massively streamline your shopping experience.
Use what you bought
Once your kitchen is filled with staples and fresh produce, you can play around with different flavor combinations. Instead of worrying about not having the exact ingredients a recipe calls for, improvise! Legumes and frozen foods make simple carbohydrate-based dishes or can be a full meal on their own if you’re feeling lazy. Nut butters make a protein-rich breakfast topping, a snack with bananas or a sophisticated alternative to sweets: When Hassan has a sweet tooth, she loves “to put dark chocolate in dates and drizzle with nut butter for super caramel, salt and sweets Snack. “Still a breeze when you’ve got the nibbles? Make some popcorn and top it with seasoning – Hassan’s favorite pairing is salt and berber.
The most important thing is that eating like a cook can be as easy as anything you’ve done before – it’s all about enhancing the flavors with the right cooking components. Everyone knows that the best jobs are done with a complete toolkit.
Photo via ITG