Cooking From Scratch : How To Shop

My wonderful other half has returned from Canada, and appears to have lost our camera.  Now, I love him anyway, with camera or without (not to mention the fact that he’d bought me a really fancy large bottle of Canadian maple syrup and a box of maple fudge – fudge which I will have to try to replicate at home.  I must, for I am not sure that I can live without it any longer, and we’ve only been reacquainted for one short night!), but for the moment my ability to photograph food is somewhat limited.  No, don’t blame him, transatlantic flights make everyone (I’ve ever heard of or from) brainless.  I’m just glad I got him back in one piece!  If the airline won’t find our camera, a new one can easily be bought.

In the meantime, you get yet another list-post.  Why?  Because I’ve been too busy to cook anything fancy (though ok, I did make that millionaire’s shortbread, but I will have to repeat it to make sure the recipe works with all the tweaks before I post it!), and because I’ve wanted to write this one for a while.

I have a Jewish thing with bargains.  This includes everything from utility companies to shoes, and, of course, food.

Fillet cut of Norwegian salmon

Now, wanting to get a bargain does not mean I would compromise on quality – after all, buying something cheap for cheap is no kind of bargain at all.  That’s so against my religion and philosophy on the subject, it is not even funny – but on the other hand, there are things, mostly what would be considered luxury food items, which in my opinion (unless you are allergic to them, or hate them with a passion) should always be purchased when and if they are seen on sale.

The reasons why that is so vary, but most of them have to do with things that keep, things that are typically expensive, and therefore in general, to improving the quality of what I eat while minimizing food budget.  The list is by no means exclusive of other things you may consider necessity and to be always bought for you, but as always, I give mine as a guideline and an idea, not a rule set in stone.

So, here’s the list of things I always buy if I see them on sale:

Salmon filet, fresh – by fresh, I mean not frozen, and not more than 1 day old (as in delivered to the store the day before purchase).  Salmon is not on sale often, not even in Sweden, and it freezes amazingly well in plastic-bagged portions.  It is healthy, good to eat in any shape from raw to marinated to salted (gravad) to broiled, grilled or pan-fried, to soup, or really whatever.  Most versatile fish in terms of cooking methods, it is fantastic with nearly any sort of marinade and spices, and it’s rich in Omega-3 oils to boot.  While not exactly expensive, it is nevertheless not cheap, and thus whenever you do see it cheap, it should be bought.  It keeps for months in a below -18°C freezer, and defrosts easily either in bottom of the fridge overnight, or in a bowl of cold water if quick defrost is needed.  Bonus to freezing it and keeping it frozen – 2 days at -18°C or below, and you can defrost and eat as suchi or sushimi or make gravad lax.  Deep freeze eliminates certain types of pathogens which otherwise may be in the fish.

Large raw (uncooked) prawns or shrimp, fresh or frozen – the either-or situation here is because they are biologically distinct, but gastronomically interchangeable, and both delicious and high in protein and microelements, like most seafood.  Be they fresh or frozen, I recommend keeping them in the freezer, since they go off very quickly if refrigerated and keep near-forever when frozen to below -18°C.  Fresh prawns freeze just fine portioned up in plastic bags, and frozen ones are usually individually frozen so that you can keep the bag in the freezer and take them out as many as you like at a time.

Good-quality bacon.  And Jewish or not, I don’t bother with Kosher (I’ll take the philosophy and leave the dogma, thank you very much!), and I simply love, adore, worship bacon.  Streaky for me, whatever floats your boat for you.  The reason I mention good-quality specifically, is that inexpensive bacon is often on sale, and is well… inexpensive.  And good quality bacon or pancetta 1 – keeps forever in freezer (or even a chill part of fridge if you have a meat compartment in the bottom), and 2 – can be a quick base for so many delicious things, either as a flavor addition (like to mushroom risotto or a root veg soup or… you name it!), or as a meat component of a dish in its own right.  Or, barring all, a good BLT sandwich, which is the ultimate homemade comfort food, simply requires good thick-sliced bacon.  In short, you want to have this at home.  Yes, you do.

Kalamata (or other) olives in vinegar or brine – canned or jarred.  Or olives in general if you dislike kalamata, but I adore them, and therefore specify so.  Green manzanilla ones as well.  Unopened olives last essentially forever (or a couple of years at least), and they (olives) are not cheap if they are good quality.  On sale = buy.

Dry salami – or any similar cured sausage by another name – whole, unsliced, still in the form of a dry, non-refrigerated sausage.  These keep for months in refrigerator, and longer in the freezer if you are worried.  Again, generally expensive but as they are used in large quantities in our household (we are rather antipasti-happy for lunch or any sort of meal), they are to me, worth buying if I can get them for less money and they will get eaten eventually.

Saffron, threads – the most expensive spice in the world is, by definition, always expensive.  However, a tiny pinch of this goes a long way, and it is absolutely amazing.  If you have never had saffron, try, and if you have, you’ll know the heady, rich aroma and just a few threads (crushed and sprinkled in) add a new dimension to soups, seafood, risotto, baked goods (oh yes!), cream desserts, and much more.  Also, unlike most dry spices (see below), saffron keeps very well so long as it is stored in an airtight jar.

Parmigiano Reggiano (or other hard cheese such as romano, gran moravia, grana padano, etc.).  This keeps forever in the fridge (we are talking months).  It is usually expensive, but sometimes you can buy it in larger chunks for less per kilo, and it is very very much worth it.  I shred this into pasta sauces, on top of pasta, into soups, on top of salads and any vegetables I’m roasting.  Even at full price, hard cheese is a bargain in terms of flavor vs tiny amount of it needed to impart it, and if you can get it on sale (and don’t already have a huge chunk, or do have space in freezer), do so.

On the other side of the equation are the things which should only be bought if you are going to use them soon, as they do not keep forever (even if some people think they do):

Tea and coffee – unless the coffee is vacuum-packed (in which case it keeps ok till opening), neither tea nor coffee keep very well, and taste best as fresh as possible.  Therefore, while finding a good tea for not too much money seems like a bargain, if you are like me and own a whole shelf of teas, you should consider carefully whether it will get used before it goes stale – or whether it’s best to finish what you have before buying this one.

Ground dry spices – the majority of ground spices do not keep beyond 1-2 years.  I can’t count the times I’d been asked to cook at a friend’s house (yes, they all know I can be counted on for that…), have opened their cabinets to find a store of sad, dusty glass jars full of unidentifiable grey flakes or powders.  The owners usually couldn’t tell me how old those were, or shrugged and said “…old”, to which I invariably suggested putting it all (or most) down the garbage and investing in a pepper mill and maybe 1-2 other jars of what they’d use.  An exception to this rule is salt with spice(s) mixed in – presence of salt tends to preserve the flavor longer, especially if kept in an airtight jar.

There are probably more things which ought to go on this list, or a similar seasonal one (which I think I should write seeing how we are almost done with fall, but winter is about to begin), but I think this is a good start and a year-round inspiration (at least to me it is!).

So, do you have an always-buy list?  And what sorts of things are on it?  Please do share, I’d love to hear!

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5 thoughts on “Cooking From Scratch : How To Shop

  1. A very wise list.
    Hmm.. your pic just reminded me we haven’t had salmon for awhile now. Been buying local farmed fish. Unfortunately no farmed salmon in this part of the world … yes, this, is on my list. :D

    1. Thank you!

      So, what local fish is farmed there? I know I buy a lot of farmed prawns and shrimp from your part of the world (om nom nom!), and NZ greenshell mussels too – those are lovely!

      And salmon is great. I can (and do) keep it around for when I can’t be bothered to cook, and just defrost-slice and eat it with a bit of dipping sauce. Lazy sashimi is lazy! And lazy Veronika is having it for mid-afternoon snack (since I had no lunch and it’s past lunchtime already…) How do you like yours?

  2. We get lots of carp, barramundi, and some I don’t even know the names of .. haha, I just know how to eat. Tsk, I know.
    Sashimi is the way to go for me if the salmon’s fresh. Why waste a good piece by cooking it? Lazy/simple is sometimes the healthiest too! I saw your sashimi post but haven’t checked it out properly yet. Going over now. Catch ya there.

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