Shopping is the first step in cooking great food. As my mom always says, “All you need is good ingredients and love.” Those good ingredients can be easy to buy and still keep your bank account above water. Take the time to plan and shopping for food will turn from a hassle to a breeze.
My golden rule is go for the basics. I never buy something I can make myself. Prego red sauce, sliced bread and anything pre-made is off my list and out of budget. Instead of spending too much for bad quality, stocking up on the staples eases your wallet and health. No more sodium filled microwave food!
My must haves are: olive oil, grains, pasta, beans, flour and veggies. Buy what is fresh and what is cheap, a pound of tomatoes can be less than a dollar and spending a few cents on garlic will intoxicate your food with its wonderful aroma.
How to buy the right stuff:
When it comes to olive oil, know which kind to get. The most common label is “extra virgin olive oil” (EVOO). No, that doesn’t mean it has never been kissed, it just means the oil is the first press created with no added heat to extract the liquid goodness. EVOO is the highest tier in the hierarchy of quality. Lowest on the list is “pure” and, despite the name, it is far from pure. The trade off: EVOO has the best taste but lowest smoke point, (temperature at which it burns) while pure olive oil offers poor taste with a higher smoke point. My solution: keep two bottles at all times. One top shelf EVOO and one “cooking” bottle. Always buy a dark, preferable glass bottle and keep it away from heat and light. The back of the pantry is my hiding spot.
Not all grains and rice are created equal. Long grain rice, such as Basmati and Jasmine, are great for soupy dishes since they soak up liquids like a sponge. Short grain sticks together more and is great for East Asian dishes. Brown rice is hardy and a tougher grain, and is best with meats. Other types of wild rice can get pricey but is worth experimenting with if you are feeling fancy. Quinoa is all the rage among vegan diets and for good reason. Its versatility lends itself to cold salads, warm breakfasts and is a great bed for plating a main course on.
Pasta is a life source for me and many other Italian food junkies. Its ease of cooking and simple base for flavor make it a must for all buff kitchens. Different shapes serve different purposes. Most useful is Spaghetti; its goldy-locks thickness makes it perfect for everything from red sauce, pesto to simply topping with raw veggies. Fettuccine’s flat and wide noodles are great for thicker cream sauces. (Fettuccine Alfredo any one?) Fusilli is what I grew up on and is great for simple dishes of parma, capers and EVOO. And Macaroni is best for cheese (but you already knew that).
Beans are my go to source of protein. Meat is neither affordable nor a favorite choice of food for me. Black, kidney, garbanzo and just about any other type can be cooked into any ethnic flavor palette and are the best way to fuel a day on the slopes. I prefer to buy them in dry bulk since they are cheap and more eco-friendly than cans of hydrated beans.
Flour: I stopped buying bread months ago. Who needs to spend $5 on a spongy loaf of soon-to-be-stale bread when $5 of flour will reap loaves of the fresh stuff. Bread flour comes in handy to thicken sauces, to make fresh tortillas and to pretend you are LeBron James, recreating his chalk toss. If you plan on being a nut like me and waking up at 6 a.m. every day to bake bread, pick up some packets of dry yeast to rise your heavenly loaves.
Veggies: The most critical aspect here is that they need to be fresh. Buy local, buy often and search for veggies with the right purpose. If you plan on making red sauce, first check out my recipe, then buy a bulk order of “saucing tomatoes.” These guys are past their prime and would be mushy for sandwiches but are perfect for sauces, hence the name. Other necessities are onions, garlic and parsley. These make up the staples of soffritto, the base of all Italian cooking. Parsley may seem like a luxury but spend the extra dollar on some green leaves and turn any dish into a feast. Whatever looks fresh and you want to cook, put it in your cart! See some firm eggplant? Go for it! If purple cabbage fits your fancy, buy two! See a sale on strawberries? You can never have too many. And if you do, make some preserves.
Lastly, I like a little vanilla in my morning yogurt. Instead of buying overly priced quasi-vanilla yellow-glop, I get the cheaper plain yogurt and add in the vanilla myself. A cheaper, better option that is a great example for the ways shopping for the basics is better in every way.
This shopping list works under the terms you have a pantry with the right seasonings. Jars of curry, cinnamon and sugar may spike your shopping bill but they are must haves in keeping total costs down. Invest in flavor and it will reward you with delicious food that you can fine tune yourself and experience much lower costs for food.
Contact Grapevine Culinary Contributor Jackson Barnett at Jackson.Barnett@colorado.edu.