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Grocery Shop Like a Chef

Having spent a few years in professional kitchens, I’ve developed a style of home-cooking that very much reflects my early career.  It revolves around versatility.  Sometimes (oftentimes) crazy things happen in restaurants and you have to be able to wing it for a dinner special or a customer request.  This in mind, I’ve put together a few tips on how to stock your own home with the right foods so that you can produce something with little to no planning, and quite often, no trip to the grocery store.

1) Stockpile Staples

The key to being able whip something up lies in having a number of shelf stable ingredients on hand.  If you like to keep everything super-organized like I do, buy yourself some snap top glass jars or some of the plastic ones sold under various brand names.  The plastic ones are especially handy as they tend to stack well.  Below is an abbreviated list of the "dry goods" I keep on hand.  I am not including things like flour and sugar, because, duh.

  • Polenta

  • Basmati Rice

  • Sushi Rice

  • Wild Rice

  • Arborio Rice

  • Farrow/Bulgur/Barley

  • Couscous

  • Vinegars (Balsamic, Red Wine, White Wine, Sherry)

  • Dried Mushrooms

  • Dried Pasta (orzo, penne, linguine, orrechiette {a personal favorite of mine}, farfalle, etc)

  • Flaked Almonds, Pinenuts, Walnuts, etc

  • Cooking alcohols (Brandy/Rum/Madeira)

  • Panko Bread Crumbs

  • Beans (kidney, black, peruvian limas, garbanzo, etc)

  • Chicken/Beef Stock

      Again, this is an abbreviated list.  I also keep stuff like dried herbs, jarred pasta sauces, and shredded coconut....  One thing you’ll notice about most of this list: these items (mostly) all require water to be edible, which is where the chicken or beef stock comes into play.  I can guarantee you that home cooked beans made with chicken stock will be far superior to the canned versions available for .89 cents.  The idea behind keeping this stuff on hand is that you always have the “base” for a meal.  

      2) Meats in the Freezer

      Buy a deep freezer.....do it now.  It will be your best friend. Every so often I’ll head to the local farmers market to pick-up large quantities of meat.  I’m talking 30 to 50 pounds or so.  It sounds like a lot, but think about how much ground beef your family can go through in a week.  Taco Tuesday? 2 lbs.  Pasta Bolognese? 2lbs.  If you figure in a week when you also throw on some burgers you’re probably averaging 5 pounds a week for a family of four.  30 lbs disappears a lot faster than you might think, and often the farmer will give you a discount for bulk purchases if you ask nicely.  

      Sooooo...Buy a bunch at once and put it in your deep freezer!  Do the same with your favorite chicken products, pork, venison, whatever floats your boat.  Except fish.  Fish just doesn’t freeze as well, and it’s usually been frozen once before it ever hits your local store’s display case.  That being said, I’m certainly guilty of keeping a few salmon fillets in the freezer, but I try to make sure it’s truly “fresh”, not previously frozen.  

      I also keep a few frozen fruits around.  Things like blackberries, cherries, peaches, can all be made into delicious sauces or thrown into smoothies.  All of these will lose their structural integrity after thawing and as such are only suited to applications where you’ll be macerating them somehow.

       

      As a side note, buy a freezer that does not “auto-defrost”. The defrosting cycle will harm products left in the freezer for long periods of time.

      If you’ve gotten this far, you can now whip up various nutritious meals with a couple hours notice and no trip to the grocery store.  Example: Grilled Polenta Cakes with Herb-Crusted Pork Tenderloin and Blackberry Brandy Reduction.

      3) Fruits & Veggies Bought Daily

      Always, always, always buy these right before you cook them.  The exceptions to this rule are various fruits: Pineapples, mangos, pears, some peaches, and avocados to name a few, need a couple days to finish ripening before they’re pleasant to eat (to be clear, these fruits are not “ripening”).  They are rotting....which is ok.  Ripening happens while the fruit is still attached to it’s tree/bush/whatever, but the post picking “ripening" still produces good flavors).

      Aside from these exceptions, buy your fresh items the day you intend to cook them.  The benefits are threefold: 1) They do not have a chance to go bad.  We’ve all bought a pint of strawberries only to discover that they’re moldy two days later.  2) The longer they’ve been sitting around, the lower their nutritional profile.  Fresh fruits and veggies really are better for you. They also taste better. 3) When buying day of, it’s much harder to change your mind and forget about the scallions in the back of the fridge.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve bought stuff thinking “this will be great for Wednesday”, and then gotten lazy and ordered Indian food. Really, this is basically the same thing as number one but via another mechanism. 

      A few things I haven’t touched on are dairy products, eggs, coffee, and other odds & ends.  These are some of the only things I buy in a regular, scheduled manner.  Most dairy products will last a week in the fridge after opening, eggs last a marvelously long time, and all the other goodies are sort of hit or miss when it comes to my household consumption.  Coffee however I buy every 5 days or so, mainly due to the fact that it starts to taste stale after that period of time, and a 12 oz bag only lasts me 5 days anyway.

       

      If you follow my advice, you'll find yourself visiting the grocery store more frequently, but your time there will be limited and you’ll be able to breeze through the self checkout in 5 minutes...Something you are most definitely not doing with a weeks worth of groceries.  You will also find yourself throwing away less food, finding fewer science experiments in the back of the fridge, and knocking out tastier, fresher meals with less overall effort.  Bon Apetit!

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