I Dream of Italy (How do you shop?)

T’s parents are great people with whom I get along very well, so it’s not surprising that when T and I visit Stockholm and stay with them, I offer chef services for the family, and they are happy to let me cook for them a few times while we are there.  I love cooking, and I love cooking for people I care about, and they love eating my food, so it’s happiness all around.

The only complication – and I don’t call it a problem, because a problem it isn’t – is that we have distinctly divergent ways of thinking about shopping for food, and deciding what to cook and eat.   What I mean is – T’s parents tend to decide what they want to eat before they leave the house.  They check the recipes, write a precise shopping list, and go to the store with it, following it exactly.  This isn’t criticism – it is actually a very good way to avoid buying more of what you don’t need, and therefore wasting less money.  My method of shopping involves some planning and making lists too – but those lists are of pantry-restocking items, slowly added to over a week or so, as supplies (salt, flour, coffee, etc.) run out.  And a lot of times I do decide that I want to make and eat something, in particular if there is a party in the works, or if I want to buy a large piece of meat and cook it for eating it over the course of many days, or if I have a specific craving for something.

Where the difference really lies is that I engage in what I term opportunistic shopping.  What I mean by that is when I arrive at the store, and see that they have just gotten in a giant pile of nice cuts of good meat on special, or a pallet of cans of artichoke hearts, or gloriously pretty seasonal vegetables, or any number of things that I know I will eat and/or that won’t go bad if I don’t eat them in a week (like the cans of artichokes or hard cheeses or cured sausages), I will buy those, and decide what I make for dinner based on what the opportunity has provided.  I rarely if ever impulse-buy candy or clothes, but I am known to impulse-buy vegetables, and also nice waterfowl, or 2-4kg cuts of pork shoulder.  I should not be left unattended near a case of frozen ducks or baby geese.

I think this behavior throws my in-laws off a little (but they are nice and don’t say anything, really), because I wander the supermarket in apparent aimlessness, looking for inspiration without a clear idea of what I want to buy, cook and eat in mind, until I either find it, or decide on a staple.  And I like it better when I do find it, because, when life gives you me scamorza affumicata, a large tub of Italian mascarpone, artichoke hearts, or a chunk of pecorino Toscano, who am I to disagree and say no, I don’t want Italian delicacies, I had planned to buy a sack of turnips and a block of random cooking cheese*!

*It’s important to note that I do stick to my strict lists when I am on a small food budget, unless the items on sale would provide a better value, by which I mean that they are either equivalent or close in price, or I would use less of the more expensive item because it has more flavor.  However, within the constraints of my food budget, I am happy to replace a block of hushållsost (not particularly fancy but good cheese I buy for cooking) with a block of something more awesome, especially at a good price.

Truth be told, yesterday morning, I went out to shop very prosaically – we’d started to run low on basic stuff like coffee, onions, cabbage, and garbage bags.

No, I don’t eat garbage bags, but they are acquired in the same place as food, and the garbage bag situation had become most urgent, so I picked up my running list of “things I am low/out of in the pantry”, and went out.  And that is how I found myself on my way to shop with a list and no interesting food thoughts in mind.  The prose lasted until I got to Lidl, and once there, I realized that it’s Italian food week, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is pure food poetry.

When you live in the latitudes of Central Finland (Stockholm supermarkets, I miss you!), even with access to a gourmet supermarket (and we do have a decent one in town), some things are not within your everyday reach.  Things like scamorza affumicata, or tubs of gorgeous mozzarella di bufala Campana, fancy mascarpone, or generous chunks of prosciutto di Parma, and bags of artisanal pasta.  This makes me a sad panda because I do love Italian food – I’ve loved it before, during, and after visiting Italy, which truly didn’t disappoint.  But, during their Italian weeks, Lidl, of all places, brings the joy of Italian food shopping even to Central Finland.  And so I have bought a pile of Italian staples for my pantry, some for a specific tiramisu purpose – ladyfingers and mascarpone, I am looking at you! – and some because it’s never a bad idea to have a bag of fancy dried pasta, or a tub of seasoned olives around – unless you have celiac disease and hate olives, in which case it’s (a) not a good idea, and (b) I am sorry for you.  But I love olives and I do happily eat high-quality gluten, so there is much rejoycing.

So, thanks to the opportunity to buy Italian food, I have changed my plans for the week somewhat, although I still dutifully bought garbage bags and toilet paper, because those aren’t exactly the sort of food-related items you can, or want to, replace by a hunk of good cheese.  The rest of what I have bought have been pure inspiration – smoked scamorza (mozzarella-like cheese) for hot openfaced canape sandwiches, to go with a tomato soup later in the week, ladyfingers and mascarpone for a traditional-with-yes!-raw-egg-yolks-in-it no-holds-barred tiramisu, rainbow-colored fancy pasta for a pasta with fresh spring greens when those show up – I am thinking asparagus or something equally evocative of spring.

And pecorino… there are just so many ideas that make me drool.  Grating it into bread dough to make amazing cheese bread.  Shaving it over some simple fresh pasta with a drizzle of truffle oil.  Shaving it onto a nice salad of bitter greens with a sharp vinaigrette dressing… the list goes on an on.  Needless to say, I’ve never had a piece of pecorino go bad in my fridge.  For lunch today, my plan is to boil some spaghetti; throw chopped olives, capers, maybe some lemon zest, and minced garlic into a pan with olive oil, sizzle for a few seconds, and toss with the spaghetti.  Add in a generous handful of flat-leaf parsley, and shave some of my precious pecorino on top of that.  I don’t know if it’s any sort of authentic Italian preparation – if it is, that is purely coincidental.  I make no claims of authenticity, but the very idea of it makes me drool.  I’ll let you know how that turned out.

And now, a moment of curiosity – do you shop opportunistically, or do you stick to your lists?  Do you look for food inspiration in what’s available and/or beautiful in the stores or markets, or do you stick to your menu plan and ignore temptations?  Does this change depending on the size of your budget?  Within your food budget, do you have your own impulse-buy splurge items that you feel it’d be just wrong to leave at the store?  I’d love to hear from you.

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6 thoughts on “I Dream of Italy (How do you shop?)

  1. I make a list, complete with cost estimates, and add a couple of “optional” items, should they be available at the market. This happened yesterday when I just needed a can of coffee (Melita Classic Blend, if anyone is interested) and I made a detour to the produce department to see if any pickling cucumbers were available. And there they were! 2-pound bags. In the middle of winter. Unwaxed and ready for lacto-fermentation! My homegrown, home-fermented pickled cucumbers from last year’s harvest finally ran out on Christmas, but I’ve managed to secure a few bags of these “salad cucumbers” from time to time since last November, and they ferment very well in about 7-10 days. So I’ve had an uninterrupted supply of delicious, juicy, garlicky, semi-sour pickles since last July. The end.

    1. Your lists with cost estimates are closer to my in-laws’ style than to mine, because I tend to ‘re-purchase’ all the basics (flour, sugar, oil, vegetables) on a regular basis as they run out in the fridge or pantry, and I know what they cost.

      Your pickle-cucumber purchases are much closer to how I shop in terms of any sort of variety – when I see something I know I will use and enjoy, and if it fits into the discretionary food budget (outside of the staple stock replenishment), I will buy it.

      That said, one of the things I love about living in the boonies of Finland, is that they consider fresh, lactofermented pickled cucumbers a basic necessity akin to milk and sugar, and they have them in buckets or barrels to buy by weight even in the corner shops and kiosks. Supermarkets will typically have several varieties – and they are all awesome. I’ve gotten spoiled rotten with pickled cucumbers here. :D Rye bread and pickle heaven!

  2. I’ll have to remember to take a few shots of the sourdough rye bread racks in the supermarket – those are awe-inspiring!

  3. I shop a lot like you; I have a running list of things I run out of, and generally I plan meals to last until the next grocery trip. However, I am also known to get very excited and spontaneously create meals in my head as I shop, if a magical ingredient presents itself. Italian, as it happens, is often the inspiration!

    1. I think the reason Italian food is so popular (other than pizza and spaghetti), is their general food philosophy. Italians think food should be good, and not just something to not starve, and they believe that good food can be healthy (and it can if done right) – and conversely, that healthy food should also taste good, or else no one would want to eat it. I think it’s this spirit of enjoying food unabashedly without the guilt is what makes Italian cuisine so inspirational – and, obviously, results in such amazing food products.

      And I think opportunistic shopping is actually potentially no worse in terms of saving money in the long run, provided that you don’t forget about things and allow them to go bad; although it’s less even – if I buy 10kg of great beef from a farm and stuff my freezer, that eats up a large chunk of food budget for a month, but I will eat it for half a year, and it does even out.

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