There was a wonderful article in the Los Angeles Times this morning about the San Francisco neighborhood of Bernal Heights and how they have instituted a dept card to register points for shopping locally. The concept of local can extend far beyond food. When times are tough – and all businesses are suffering – the ones that I want to support are my friend’s and neighbor’s shops, restaurants and services. I have long been a proponent for mixed use developments. I think there is something healthy about living near to where you shop, work and play. I think that everyone should be able to walk to the corner grocery store.
I love little shops, green grocers, fish mongers, butchers and bakeries. Unfortunately, most of us have to shop at “supermarkets” for most of the food we eat. These bastions of “Big Food” are maze like arenas, designed to extract the most from the consumer without any real commitment to the health or nutrition of their neighbors. Like any maze, it is best to have a map.
I have developed a few guidelines to shopping in these places.
- Try not to shop when you are hungry. You will spend far too much and buy far too little.
- Stick to the perimeters. If you notice in most large grocery stores, the produce, dairy and meat sections are all on the perimeter isles. That’s not for your convenience. It’s because these are the areas that require the most restocking and therefore need to be nearest to the loading docks.
- Never go into the center isles without a list. This is the store’s profit center. There are a few items that you might need from time to time that are located there, like pasta, toilet paper, bread and beer. But generally there is nothing to eat in the middle. You will not find anything delicious between the light bulbs and the feminine hygiene products.
- Do not ever go down the frozen food isle. There is no food there. There hasn’t been since the 1960’s. I know I will get letters about this one. Frozen peas may be the exception but how often do you need to buy those? And if you really want ice cream, find a local ice cream maker.
- Read the packaging. If there is an ingredient that you can’t pronounce or suspect was made in a lab, put it back.
- Do not buy packaged produce or fruit unless you have no choice. If the store took the time to package it, they did it for a reason. Usually the reason is profit. Cutting up a squash takes 2 minutes. The package of cut up squash is more than TWICE as much the whole vegetable. That is the same with mushrooms, salsa and anything that requires a minimum of preparation. Meat and chicken are more likely to be older and not the quantity that you need.
- Get to know the butcher and fish monger. You may be shopping in a huge chain store, but the people that work there are your neighbors. If you are like me, you are probably in that store nearly every day. Introduce yourself and always say hi. You don’t always need them to help you, but one day you will.
- Except for household staples, do not buy anything that is not food related. Don’t buy anything that is at the counter and anything that says that there is a limit to the number that you can purchase. That is a little bit of grocery reverse psychology.
- If you are new to an area or a new store moves in, do a reconnoiter. Make a list of simple staples and go on a tour. Look in every nook and cranny. Look at the prices, sales and investigate the “club”. Identify where every item that you might need resides so when you come for a real shop you don’t have to wander around and be tempted by the end caps and snow tires.
- Unless you have no good alternate, do not buy wine at the grocery. The selection is usually limited to large producers. Also, by doing so, you are not giving the business to your local wine merchant, who will usually have a better selection, be more conscientious of how the wine is stored and be generally more informed than the grocer. There are exceptions to this but I urge you to please consider these factors first.
If you are in need of salad dressing, locate the section of the grocery where the bottled dressings live. Because, right next to them are usually the items that you need to make dressing. There is NEVER a reason to buy store bought dressing. It has crap in it. Why would you pour crap onto fresh vegetables? Here is one that I like. Strawberries are available year round most places. They aren’t always incredibly sweet in the winter, and that makes them perfect for this dressing. You can use frozen, but if you were paying attention, you didn’t go down that isle.
- 1 Pint Fresh Strawberries
- 2 Tablespoons Champagne Vinegar
- 1/2 Cup Olive Oil
- 1 Tablespoon Chives, minced
- 1 Shallot or 2 Garlic Cloves, minced
- 2 Tablespoons Fresh Lemon Juice
- Salt and Pepper
- Chef’s Knife
- Food Processor or Blender
- Storage container with lid
- Clean and cut strawberries into chunks.
- Combine strawberries, vinegar, chives, shallot and lemon juice in food processor (or blender).
- Add olive oil in a stream as you process, until balanced. Taste often.
- Salt and Pepper to taste.
- Refrigerate until needed. This should last for a week or so.
Vinegar and lemon juice amounts will vary depending on the tartness of the strawberries, the strength of the vinegar and the freshness of the lemons.