Food prices continue their roller coaster trajectory at a time when recession fears have the world on edge. Baltimore Banner readers can’t change the stock market (unless there’s something you’re not telling us), but we can control the way we shop at the grocery store. We checked in with three local food industry professionals to ask their advice on stretching dollars while food shopping.
Chef Mario Cano Catalán of Ouzo Bay said when it comes to groceries for his family, “We buy what we’re going to eat. We don’t buy anything extra.” The father of three said writing a list of items you need before you go is crucial so “you don’t get anything that’s going to go to waste.”
Cano Catalán shops around at multiple stores, including the Markets at Highlandtown, which has a good selection of products from his native Mexico.
A workhorse of his grocery list is cabbage, which is “not expensive, but it’s good.” He uses it to make a bright salad that goes well with anything from fish tacos to chicken. “I will shred the cabbage with a knife and then marinate with lime juice, salt and pepper” before adding cilantro, jalapeno and pieces of pineapple. The dish will last up to a week in the fridge, and best of all, it’s a hit with his 14-, 10- and 2-year-old. “I think the best judge you can have is your own kids,” he said.
Cano Catalán also uses cabbage to make enfrijoladas, an easy and economical vegetarian entrée that involves spreading pinto beans on tortillas and garnishing with the leafy vegetable and queso fresco. The chef, who previously worked at Petit Louis Bistro and Bar Vasquez in Baltimore, skips canned beans and goes for the dry kind when making it himself. Just soak them overnight and cook the following day, then puree or mash with a spoon. “It’s not a ton of work,” he said, and one pound of beans “can feed the whole family.”
When buying meat, Cano Catalán opts for cuts like a whole chicken instead of parts. He’ll roast the chicken with vegetables, then use the leftovers to make broth.
Chef Ben Lefenfeld of La Cuchara recommends skipping the grocery store entirely and setting up a community-supported agriculture membership or visiting local farmers markets instead. Once there, “Do a loop around the entire market, check out everyone’s prices and quality before you decide where to spend your money. The bigger the market, the more competition, the lower the prices,” he said in an email.
For meats, you can skip an expensive steak and braise a more affordable cut overnight. Home cooks can let the meat rest in its juices, then strain and reduce the braising liquid for a rich sauce.
Like other chefs we reached out to, Lefenfeld recommends using every part of your purchase: “Save broccoli stems for soup, chop parsley and cilantro stems very fine from the base of the leaf to one inch above the bottom then add to stir frys at the last minute.”
Another money saver? Start a garden. Even if you lack outdoor space, “a small indoor herb garden can reduce grocery spending in a big way,” he said.
In the discount shopping wars, Sumayyah Bilal, owner of Codetta Bake Shop, is firmly on Team Sam’s Club. The membership-only wholesale store has what she thinks are the best price on eggs, including the cage-free organic brown ones she uses to make the goodies she sells through her bakery, currently operating from a church in Federal Hill. She also turns to Sam’s for berries, milk and high-quality butter.
“I used to drive for Instacart way back when,” said Bilal, who noted that most of her clients were people who lived in food deserts and didn’t have cars to access healthy food options.
When shopping for herself, Bilal buys things like frozen halal meat in bulk, which she stores in her chest freezer at home. That way, “I don’t have to worry about running around town trying to find” meat when she can get it all at once, she said.
Chef Jesse Sandlin admitted she doesn’t “shop for home, to be totally honest with you.” OK, she’s busy: the owner of Sally O’s, The Dive and soon-to-open Bunny’s scarcely has time to scarf down meals between work.
One innovation that helps is her new Tovala, a combination oven that can steam, roast, broil or bake pre-made meals using a QR code. “It’s ‘The Jetsons.’ The food’s pretty good and it’s the easiest thing in the world. That’s predominantly what I eat aside from when I order cheesesteaks and wings at 2 a.m.,” she said. Meals start at around $10 per serving.
Not ready for “The Jetsons” age? Sandlin said to save money at the grocery store, focus on “plant-based meals as opposed to heavy protein bases.” Think lentils, farrow and tofu. “If you freeze tofu and thaw it and press it, it has a better texture and gets that chicken nugget texture and lends really well to frying.”
And don’t forget those favorite staples: “Beans are cheap still. Be creative and open to different things and spices,” Sandlin said.
In the days when she did have time to cook at home, Sandlin said her “go-to was always canned tomatoes and either white beans or chickpeas, plus onions and garlic.” Add chopped kale or spinach, and you have a healthy soup that goes well with pot roast or a piece of fish.