Most young people are doomed before they ever leave the supermarket.
If you leave the store with the wrong ingredients, or with a cart full of processed food, cans and boxes that will just rot away in the back of your pantry, you're not going to cook well! Good ingredients = good food. Now, that's not to say that you can't use canned elements with great success -- anyone who soaks their own garbanzo beans overnight instead of just buying canned either has way too much time on their hands, or is completely out of their gourd. This being said, canned gourds are a good idea as well (there is no excuse for NOT using canned pumpkin. Seriously, if you have the time to de-seed, scrape, roast, and puree a whole freaking pumpkin, get more hobbies. Or read a book. When's the last time you read a book?). We're going to use canned and boxed food here every once in a while, but it should be the exception, not the rule.
So, the supermarket -- and yes, a supermarket is just fine for almost all of your shopping needs. You don't need to have access to a brilliant butcher, a 4th generation fishmonger, an organic farmers' market. Of course, having access to all of these things is fantastic, and when you can get to the good stuff, for goodness' sake, do it!
This being said, 95% of the food shopping that the average person does takes place in a big-box supermarket. Hopefully, this post will help you do as well as you can with what's at hand.
The 5 Rules of Food Shopping:
1.) Stay on the "outside" of the store.
Every supermarket in the country has the same layout -- on the "outside loop," you'll find produce, meat, fish, dairy, and usually a bakery. In other words, all the perishable items. This is done in order to make it easier on the people who work there -- the storage rooms are all behind the walls, so, when it's time to swap out the post-dated milk, or put the fish away for the night when the fish counter closes, it's a quick and efficient process. The produce is on the outside and of course, is the first thing you see when you enter in every store, around the world, so that you have the impression that you're in a green-grocer's shop, where surely, everything is at the peak of freshness.
Eddie Izzard explains the phenomena:
So, to that end, here's what you see when you walk into the Fresh Grocer:
Cheese to the left, fish straight ahead, and then tons of good fruits and veggies to the right. Again, this is done for the employees, but it should tip you off -- this is what you want to eat! You want to eat perishable items, items that aren't throttled through with preservatives, items that can't sit on the shelves for months at a time. If you stay on the "outside" of the supermarket for 90% of your shopping needs, your food won't just taste better, it will be better for you as well.
2.) If you do need to buy packaged food, read the ingredients.
Avoid the following: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Phenyl-anything, Sulphites, Benzoates, Nitrates/Nitrites, and ascorbic acid. They're all in your packaged food, so that your food doesn't do what it's supposed to do when it sits around -- spoil.
If you are going to buy canned or packaged food, look for minimal ingredients. If it doesn't sound like food, it's not food. If the first ingredient isn't what the picture on the front of the label is (except water, smart-ass), it's not food. Canned veggies are usually a safe go, and can be useful when you don't have the time to peel, boil and slice, say...a beet. Still, check the label.
3.) If you're not going to use it in the next three days, don't buy it.
See above note about spoilage.
4.) Don't shop hungry, and know what you want to buy before you go.
This can be hard to do -- most of us go food shopping at the end of the day, after work, and before we've had a chance to have any sort of real food. When we do this, our bodies crave immediate satisfaction, which means sugar, salt...in short, junk food. There are two solutions for this -- go food shopping during your lunch hour and store the food in your office fridge (my usual option), or keep some good, healthy snacks (that's another post) in your desk, so that you can have a nibble or two before you leave to hit the store. A person that shops full shops smart. Take a list (or even better, the recipe that you want to make) with you, and shop towards it. One great hint: Take a cookbook with you to the store -- stick it in the top of the cart, and, just like that, you have a traveling recipe reference.
5. Always buy what looks best, and be prepared to change your plans!
Maybe you really want a New York Strip Steak, but when you get there, all the steaks are brown! Maybe you want to make Bananas Foster, but all the bananas are green! Have a contingency plan for what you want to make, and don't try to force bad (or out of season) ingredients into good recipes. You'll still get bad food. And hey, since you brought your cookbook with you, you'll be able to find something new to make within seconds. Brilliant!
Hopefully this will help get you off on the the right food. We'll tackle our first recipe (and first cocktail/beer pairing!) next time.
Music: The Clash -- "Lost in the Supermarket":