My Grand Grocery Experiment*

*Or, My Love Affair with Food & Wine Magazine

The hours I spend in a grocery store feel like the most lost and wasted ones of my day. My struggle with grocery shopping–one that I realize is hardly a struggle and marks me as an extremely privileged human being–is mainly with the chore-like necessity of it; that, and the fact that I always seem to spend an inexplicable amount of money on what turns out to be a cart full of snacks, entirely devoid of nourishment.

My grocery shopping experiment, one that I hoped would inject the whole process with a booster shot of fun and usefulness, requires a bit of backstory. When this all started, I had just stumbled upon a free subscription for Food & Wine. Those who know me best understand my obsession with this particular publication. As a teenager, this magazine was the one that laid flat on the table in our breakfast room under a small, incandescent lamp. The cover was often folded under, grease stains covered the pages, and my dad would travel from the stove to the magazine, back and forth, as he made dinner for my sisters and me. This is what he used when he experimented with new flavors; the magazine was his guidebook on a quest for satiation (and still is today). The recipes, though new every time, are familiar, slightly pretentious, and very well-written, and I remember reading the instructions to my dad out loud before I ever knew how to make macaroni and cheese, or chicken salad, or anything remotely delicious for that matter. The recipes don’t come with stories or anecdotes; instead, they challenge you and excite you with new food vocabulary and kitchen jargon. For us English majors, it’s the most technical we like to get with our reading. For true chefs like my baby sister, the recipes respect culinary intelligence and nourish it, both literally and figuratively. 

Late last summer, I was flipping through the mag’s glossy pages, dreaming about the mere possibility of recreating these beauties. I dog-eared some of them, as I usually do, filing these gorgeous recipes away as “maybes” for future dinner parties or holidays or date nights in. And then it hit me: why not NOW?

I grabbed a pen and paper and started jotting down ingredients. Lots of lemon, herbs, garlic–basic, inexpensive stuff like that–then an occasional pork shoulder or unique seasoning or delicious cheese. I picked three or four of my favorites, made sure I had a list of everything I needed to make them, and off I went, into the madness.

Full disclaimer: I don’t eat a lot of meat. My recent posts may suggest otherwise, but it’s a true rarity for me. So when I emerged with multiple bags full of fresh, incredibly beautiful ingredients after spending a MERE $78, you can guess why. But I will say this: everything I created from this first experimental visit was filling, nutritious, and worthy of even the most carnivorous heart.

 

From this glorious array, my plan was to create three primary dishes: 1) homemade ricotta gnocchi; 2) a soppressatta sandwich of which the most pretentious Italian deli would approve; and 3) japchae, a Korean glass noodle stir fry. I had no intention of creating anything else beyond these three selections, but what resulted was a week of food like any other. This was no Blue Apron-cook-for-two-and-it’s-gone situation. The ingredients I purchased were so versatile that I had no problem feeding myself (and my cute roomie) for the entire week, and WELL at that. Nothing processed, nothing frozen, everything delicious, everything fresh.

I started with the gnocchi because I simply couldn’t wait. The method was simple and straightforward; the ingredients were quintessentially Italian (olive oil, lemon, basil, ricotta…YES), and there’s a little bit of whimsy in cramming homemade dough into a ziplock bag, cutting off the corner, and pretending you’re an experienced chef as you watch delicate dollops glide into a steaming pot of water and become soft pillows of goodness, plump with possibility.

I started eating pre-packaged gnocchi in college (god bless you, Trader Joe’s) when I realized that all it required was boiling water and cheese. This dish though? This made me feel like a grownup. It was refined and sophisticated, but filling. The flavors linger, rolling around on your tongue after each bite, and the beauty of it is that you can taste every single thing you used to create it.

I moved on to the sandwich next, layering the fresh-as-all-hell soppressata carefully and almost miserly, saving my quarter pound for other culinary adventures. The ingredients in this one–fresh mozzarella, quality deli meat, Calabrese chilies–were gifts that kept on giving all week.

On a much grander scale, the japchae did me the same favor. Giant prawns were the star, layered on shiny sweet potato noodles with egg and onion and garlic and ginger, asparagus and red chard, and–my favorite– oyster mushrooms. Having these ingredients in my fridge prepared me for just about any stir fry I cared to dream up later in the week, and since the recipe was meant to feed 4 people, I had a steaming bowl of japchae for lunch the nest day. I am a firm believer that shrimp is NEVER as good the next day, and this was no exception, but it definitely beats a turkey sandwich or a sad salad on a weekday.

At the end of that first week, I was hooked on a feeling. I decided to try the same concept using a different grocery store during a different week, and this was the result: outrageously instaworthy food.

Red pepper broth made with thick cut pork chops. Amazing base for a fresh batch of mussels.
Busiate pasta with brussel sprouts, mint, and two cheeses
Heirloom tomato salad with homemade savory granola and lemony ricotta
 

And the trips to the grocery store? Turns out when 1) you spend most of your time in the produce section and 2) know exactly what you need and refuse to loiter, looking for extras, it takes WAY less time and is FAR less stressful. And though it’s ideal to stick to the list, I welcome the occasional impulse purchase (chocolate covered raisins and a crazy gorgeous heirloom tomato were mine). Any recipe source will do, really; picking a culinary guide is just as personal as picking out a book to read on the plane. Here’s the thing though: to make this work, you have to like to cook, or at least be willing to try.

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