My article on food shopping for Irish Times Magazine, 8th September.
by Trish Deseine
I don’t believe that demonizing supermarkets is helpful to people trying to start cooking, especially for a family. How to shop less & cook more – for non-foodies.
‘Come shop with me.’ Irish Times Magazine, Saturday 8th September.
‘THEY MIGHT DREAM of pottering around farmers’ markets, but for now most Irish shoppers are doomed to push huge trolleys through supermarket aisles, swamped in choice, bewildered by labels and as excited by new cooking shows and books as a toddler on pre-ban blue Smarties. No wonder they end up reaching for something grey and familiar from the freezer cabinet.
In France, where every town has a market and the foundations of a meal made from a slice of good ham and a good tomato are as strong as those of heady gastronomy, people are more confident about how they shop, cook and eat. And they are healthier.
During the decades it might take our food culture to mature to something similar, how can we learn from the country with Europe’s best practice in food?
Sorry if this sounds a tad life-coachy, but getting a bit of what France has is not all about education or learning to bone a boeuf, it’s mostly an attitude we can all adopt, a sense of occasion, a sort of laid-back, grown-up understanding of what is good for us and pleasurable, in every sense, not just our physical health.
We could start by paying less attention to the media’s insatiable “look! new recipes!” machine and allow ourselves to be a bit less stimulated, even, dare I say it, bored, by our food sometimes? We could admit that Limerick will never be St Remy de Provence and stop blindly copying the food from our holiday destinations. And we could cook more simply in our kitchens, including when we entertain, and then let chefs make us the fancier stuff in their restaurants.
When friends ask me for practical help in rewiring their cooking, I don’t give them my “twist” on coq au vin, I give them my shopping routine. After 25 years in Paris, it’s definitely repetitive, arguably mundane, but I believe these are both good things.
This plan helps boost their confidence to do things their own way, change habits if need be, and ease them into cooking nearly every day, like many French people do.
I may be lucky to buy food in my St Germain-en-Laye market, but it is the principles behind that shop that matter. They can work just as well in any Irish supermarket.
SENSIBLE FOOD PURCHASING
Do a weekly shop. Unless you’re a retired banker on a guilt trip, it is impractical to romanticise ye olde labour-intensive days of yore. Supermarket convenience, no matter how soaked in evil you consider it to be, is progress. Use it.
Swap breakfast cereals, sodas, processed food, cakes, sweets and crisps for the best quality, fresh, Irish where possible, ingredients, buying enough for six or seven days at a time. If it helps, imagine you are Charlotte Gainsbourg shopping in le Marche d’Aligre in Paris. Anything to muffle the call of the prawn cocktail crisps and Magnums.
* Fill your trolly with this sort of thing:
One large piece of meat, fish, or a chicken, for stewing/braising/slow roasting, plus leftovers.
One piece of meat or fish for quick cooking for salads, stir fries.
Two portions per person of about five sorts of vegetables. A maximum of two starchy ones, and always salad leaves. In bags is fine.
One or two portions per person of about four or five sorts of fruit.
One portion per person of soft cheese for salads, open sandwiches, quiches
One piece of hard cheese for grating, pasta, pesto, sandwiches.
About two free-range eggs per person.
Full-fat yoghurts or fromage frais, a mix of plain and fruit
Real butter – about 200g for five or six people
Fresh full-fat or half-fat milk.
Some bacon, sausages, cooked or cured ham for salads, pasta, stir fries.
* Stock your kitchen with basics that keep well, provides a cheap, filling base for quick weekday meals, will vary and boost the taste of your cooking, and top it up regularly. Here’s what I always have in mine. Lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, pasta, porridge oats. Tinned tuna, sardines and tomatoes. Frozen beans, peas, sweetcorn and broccoli. Cashews. Fresh celery, mushrooms, lemons, oranges, onions, garlic, potatoes. Ketchup, miso, anchovies, curry paste, harissa, olives, chutney. Olive oil, mustard, vinegar, honey, maple syrup. Unrefined sugar, flour, chocolate, vanilla, salt and pepper.
* Visualise the Harvard plate. Your trolley should look a bit like a big Franco/Irish version of it. (I include bacon, sausages or cured ham in my shop because I still don’t know how to do without them, frankly. But now I buy better quality and use much less.
THINGS THAT WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE
* Sitting down for (reasonably sized) meals together is the single most important thing the French do to eat enjoyably and healthily.
* Serve fruit, vegetables and/or salad with every meal.
* Make one fancier, more time consuming meal (at the weekend, perhaps), with lots of leftovers. Slow cooking is great for cheaper cuts and a good chicken can be stretched to several meals.
* Make one faster meal with steamed or grilled meat, fish or chicken.
* Make very fast, very simple, non-meat things the rest of the time. Have sardines on toast, or boil an egg. Serve pulses, pasta or quinoa simply with sauteed onions and mushrooms and spices. They’re cheap and good for you.
* Make only one dessert and/or bake a cake or biscuits once a week.
* Make a soup or curry, quiche or gratin with the vegetables left towards the end of the week.
* Top up on fresh bread and milk throughout the week if you need to.
* Gradually try out new dishes, building your repertoire of recipes as you go.
* Try to use everything up, then start again – the vegetables might be a struggle at first. Don’t worry, you’re in it for the long haul, and after all, it’s only your dinner.’