Monday, April 30, 2018

Reading "Grocery" in My Kitchen

American food, as explained by Michael Ruhlman's book Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, makes a very readable and relatable story. (In an earlier post I reviewed this book -- link). Inspired by Ruhlman, I'm going to explore the foods in my own kitchen and how I'm affected by the grocery store options that surround me. Ruhlman says that currently shoppers go to a number of stores, while in the past, most households had one main supermarket where they bought almost everything. At least some shoppers, he says, are much more conscious of where food comes from, how it was raised, and what health benefits it might confer. And grocery store owners, he points out, are very aware of how quickly they have to change as consumer demand changes. I think my experience as a shopper reflects these trends.

To check what drives my purchasing, I'm taking an informal inventory of how I cooked and what ingredients I've had on hand this month. I'm thinking about staple products that I always buy, where they were grown and processed, and which stores they came from, and what's in season. Of course winter isn't quite over here in Michigan -- our last snowfall was less than two weeks ago, so nothing is actually growing right now except in hoop houses!

Now for some details of what I cooked and where I bought the ingredients:

Curried chicken and vegetables. Ingredients: butternut squash from Argus Farm Market,
chicken breasts from Whole Foods (bought as 3 single-pound packages, stored in freezer),
a can of coconut milk from Trader Joe's, other vegetables.
Salmon patties made with frozen salmon from Trader Joe's,
onion from Argus, celery from Whole Foods, eggs, panko
bread crumbs, and spices. Served with hoop house lettuce
from Argus, cucumbers, and lemon from TJ's.
Other food in the freezer besides chicken and salmon includes:
  • Ground lamb from Argus (local producer: Ernst Farms).
  • New Zealand lamb chops from Costco.
  • Ice Cream from Target and TJ's.
  • Bread from Zingerman's Bakehouse.
  • A box of beef ragout that I made a few months ago for later use. Leftovers are always with us, including little boxes and glass dishes in the fridge.
Pantry and fridge ingredients for cornbread: corn meal, baking powder,
flour, butter, egg, sugar. I usually have all of these on hand all the time.
I buy them at any supermarket where I happen to be when I need them.
Using an LA Times recipe, I tried a new sort of cornbread, topped with brûlée sugar.
Interesting recipe: my usual cornbread includes hot peppers while this is a dessert.
A few more items that I almost always have in my pantry:
  • Cereal, cookies, and crackers mostly from Costco, TJ, Target. Not so healthy, but we still eat these items often. Cereal is only the second-most unhealthy food we use. (I think the worst is Diet Coke usually from Costco).
  • Dried fruit. I made some into fruit salad with tangerines to go with the cornbread. I use dried fruit for lots of other dishes as well. Costco sells only impossibly huge quantities of dried fruit so mine comes from TJ and Whole Foods.
  • Nature Valley Granola bars from Walgreen's -- not even a food store, but they always have the best sales!
Pantry and produce items going into a salad: tuna, white beans, olive oil,
vinegar, Campari tomatoes, parsley, celery, lettuce, bell pepper, zatar.
Tuna and white bean salad. With variations, I can almost always make this.
Besides fresh parsley (from TJ's), I used zatar, a Middle-Eastern spice blend which I brought back from Israel last month. Local summer tomatoes and peppers would of course be preferable for any salad -- if they were in season. I also recently made shakshouka, an Israeli dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, for which I used the Israeli spice blend, Hawaij, another spice from my trip. My spice shelf is incredible if I do say so myself!

Ingredients for shakshouka: canned tomatoes, spices, garlic, bell pepper, eggs.
Produce that I have on hand now:
  • Hoop house lettuce and carrots from Argus.
  • Cabbage & celery from Whole Foods. 
  • Campari tomatoes -- my favorite for this time of year. They are small, but bigger than cherry tomatoes, and have a bit more flavor than other winter tomatoes. The same brand -- usually grown in Mexico -- is sold at TJs, Whole Foods, Target, and Costco. Prices and quantities vary!
  • Grapefruit, apples, lemons, bell peppers, & tangerines mostly from TJs and Whole Foods.
Finally, the refrigerator always has orange juice, milk, Diet Coke, eggs, jam, mayonnaise, catsup, mustard, peanut butter, butter, yogurt, industrial and artisanal cheeses, deli meat for sandwiches, and a large variety of other condiments and sauces for Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, American, and other dishes. Just as Ruhlman suggests about my fellow American cooks, I'm brand-conscious on some products and price-conscious on others. Of course, he also discusses the other Americans who aren't cooks, and who shop quite differently.

From the Argus Farm Stop Website.
Ruhlman believes consumers today utilize a number of markets: I think I exceed the number frequented by his typical American. I shop, as my photos and lists indicate, at several different types of food stores which are very conveniently located in my area. Big national chains where I shop include Costco (3.5 miles from my house), Trader Joe's (1 mile), Whole Foods (1.7 miles), Kroger (2.3 miles), and Target (3.6 miles). The Argus Farm Stop (half a mile from my house) is an innovative consignment shop where local farmers and small-scale processors bring products including meat and produce, locally fresh-ground coffee, honey, maple sugar, jams, eggs, dairy products, and various other foods. Zingerman's Bakehouse (located fairly close to Costco) is a local source of very good bread. There's another locally-owned specialty market nearby called The Produce Station where I shop less often. There are no local chain supermarkets here like the family-owned Cleveland chain Ruhlman describes: the last one sold out to Kroger a few years ago.

What's missing in my kitchen that Ruhlman finds most popular with shoppers today? That would be food from the ready-to-eat food counters at Whole Foods, the pre-made foods in Trader Joe's freezer and refrigerator cases, the ready-to-eat foods in almost every food department of Costco, and many types of takeout food. I rarely use these products except when I'm in a temporary vacation rental without a fully stocked kitchen. (I've had more Costco rotisserie chickens in Hawaii than at home.) I'm really not with the times in this respect.

The fact of the matter is that I do look carefully at the things in the deli and the hot food counters at Whole Foods and on the tasting tables at Costco. However, I use these sights and samples as hints for dishes I could cook. I've been doing this for a long time as the Paris Charcutiers offered very similar ready meals during my various long visits there. After purchasing these very appetizing treats, I realized that duplicating a beautiful salad or roast from these elegant counters was far cheaper and the results were often fresher. Same is true here and now!

I'll be sharing this post with a group of other bloggers who write about their kitchens and what they have that's new and different. You can find them all listed at a blogging event called "In My Kitchen This Month," hosted by Sherry's Pickings. Check the list here to see inside the kitchens of bloggers on several continents!

Note: none of the markets or product brands I mentioned is sponsoring this post in any way. I never take any money or products or books for any mention on this blog! I respect bloggers who disclose economic connections when they have them, and I avoid blogs where I see obviously unacknowledged financial connections.


Sherry's Pickings said...

that's fascinating to see what you have food-wise in your kitchen and where it came from. i must have a saunter thru my kitchen too. thanks for joining us at IMK this month. yay- we finally had a cool night last night after a long, long summer. cheers sherry x

bermudaonion said...

I dislike grocery shopping and spend as little time doing it as I can so I'm a one store shopper.

Jeanie said...

I might have to get this book. Both because of the book and how it makes you think. This is one of the most fascinating of your posts I've read -- partly because it is like walking through your kitchen and your brain to see how you cook, what you buy and things like that just intrigue me! You cook more exotically than I do, and I love that! I've been pondering some food posts for awhile so I may have to "do an inventory" (so long as I don't shoot the messy, disorganized cupboards!) or something similar!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Really interesting post! I hadn't thought about it, but we shop at a bunch of different places, too. A couple of supermarkets, a specialty high-end supermarket (Straub's, since you know St. Louis), Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, an independent butcher shop, a couple of different Asian markets, an Indian market or two, an international market, and a fish monger. Plus at least three different wine/liquor stores (and we buy our cheese from one of these -- best cheese selection going). Mostly we buy ingredients -- very few convenience foods. Although one supermarket has really good ready-made dishes. I can see buying loads more of that when we get much older, and we may not be as interested in cooking. Anyway, good read -- thanks.

Unknown said...

Hello Mae, This is a very interesting post. Thanks for stopping by to say hello. Yes many people in the US do shop in many locations to get the best ingredients or to find what they are looking for. We have also found that depending on your location in the world and in a particular city, this also varies as to the options available. A very diverse world makes gathering supplies to cook a very interesting adventure. We really miss the fresh wet markets of Asia and have to travel far to get the items we need. Have a super weekend!

Jen Rose said...

What an insightful personal investigation! I'm already looking up the book...since we have a big family, with lots of growing boys, I tend to do most of my shopping by what's on sale, but I still try to avoid prepackaged prepared meals where I can, I think this week it was just frozen ready to bake fries/chips and spaghetti sauce since we're just beginning to teach our eldest how to cook. I was reminded of a funny little story as I read your post, my Australian husband when we went to visit my family in Arizona was looking for lamb for a dish we wanted to cook for them and he was outraged that the lamb in the grocery stores was from New Zealand and not Australia. You can take the man out of Australia but you can't take Australia out of the man. =)

Tina said...

I will check out In My Kitchen series, sounds interesting. As does Ruhlman’s book. I have to check out Trader Joe’s salmon cakes, I like the looks of those quite a bit.
Oh my, snow in April. I am trying to remember if we had snow so late in the year when I lived in Michigan, but that was many decades ago.

Jackie McGuinness said...

We do not buy any frozen or prepared food items. We shop around from Costco to the Market to Longo's, a local grocery store.
We never have soft drinks in the fridge.
We use lots of different spices.
Since I have to cook gluten free I tend to make most of our baked goods myself.
I like to know what goes into the food we eat so I like to make things from scratch.
This was a great post, got us all thinking.

Mae Travels said...

Hi everybody! It's great to hear how this post (and the book that inspired it) make everyone think about grocery shopping! Just one clarification:

@Tina -- clarification: those were not Trader Joe's salmon cakes, rather they were made from Trader Joe's frozen salmon filets, fresh onions, eggs and the other listed ingredients. Maybe TJ does have salmon cakes available, though; if they did, they would probably be good too!

Anonymous said...

So many delicious things in your kitchen. And yes, I too have been more conscious lately of where I am sourcing my food. Of course I prefer local and organic food and strive for it whenever possible. I do like to support local producers if at all possible although there are times I must be price conscious. Thanks for sharing your many thoughts and inspiration.

Beth F said...

We're in a small town. I shop one main place -- and the farmer's market.

judee said...

I do shop around at a number of food stores. The driving factors for me are quality and price. Costco, Aldi, Whole Foods are my key players. I look for organic at a good price.

Vicki said...

I love Aldi but the closest one is about a 45 min. drive. We're supposed to be getting one soon though. I usually shop at Publix, and once in a while at Winn-Dixie.

Carole said...

Interesting as always. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

Anonymous said...

Mae, I enjoyed reading this- a more interesting approach to IMK than most comparing your own purchasing and pantry contents with those discussed in that book. Your typical meals also look healthy and not unlike most Australian meals. I must say that we get a skewed version of American food here, believing that most Americans eat rather poorly and are obese due to the predominance of pre-prepared foods on offer. So this book puts the picture right to a certain extent.

I would like to see a similar survey and study done here. I tend to use supermarkets only for a few things- toilet paper, washing detergents, perhaps butter and yoghurt and the very basics in life. My pasta comes from a specialty Italian deli, my spices come from Indian shops or special nut/spice shops and my fresh fish comes from special fish markets.Most of my vegetables come from my garden. I travel 50 kms to get good stuff, once a week.

what I don't like to see on IMK is prepacked junk or advertisements for products, which is why I keep my posts fairly wholeistiic on principle. But= each to his own.
Thanks for the interesting post Mae.

Shaheen said...

We get Quaker products in the UK, but not cornmeal which annoys me a little as i'd love to make the cornbread

Deb in Hawaii said...

What an interesting look at your kitchen. One day I shall get the Michael Ruhlman book read! ;-)

Deb in Hawaii said...

What an interesting look at your kitchen. One day I shall get the Michael Ruhlman book read! ;-)