Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Recipe Rescue: Smart supermarket swaps

By Patrick Mathieu   

Features Nutrition firefighter First Responders wellness

Photo: Patrick Mathieu

Upgrade your cooking with quality alternatives

I often find myself at a crossroads when visiting the supermarket these days, trying to find the fine balance between keeping things easy and the soaring food costs. In a super busy household and firehouse, my goal is to make the best-tasting food in the least amount of time possible, without sacrificing quality—if there’s a convenient supermarket product that’s going to help me get there, all the better. Unfortunately, sometimes those convenient supermarket products end up veering into the “sacrifice on quality” territory.

Here is my list of common supermarket ingredients that you should avoid putting in your shopping cart, along with suggestions on what to look for instead.

Fresh” shrimp: The vast majority of “fresh” shrimp seen at the supermarket are frozen shrimp that have been thawed out on-site—the same frozen shrimp they sell you by the bag. Once thawed, shrimp have a very limited shelf life, which means that unless you literally see those shrimp alive and kicking before you buy them, it’s likely that those shrimp are already on their way out before you even get them home. Instead, buy bags of IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) shrimp. Kept in their bags in the freezer, they’ll last for months, and they take only 10 to 15 minutes to thaw under cold water.

Full-sodium broth or stock: Full-sodium broth may taste better straight out of the box or can than its low-sodium counterpart—which explains why stocks with the highest salt content win taste tests)—but it’s less versatile. Many soup, stew and sauce recipes call for allowing stock to be reduced to concentrate its flavour. Reduce a full-sodium stock and the taste becomes pretty salty before you even get a chance to season it on your own. Instead, simply buy the low-sodium stock option of your favourite brand.


Beef broth: Canned or boxed beef broth contains almost no beef at all, instead relying on yeast extracts to provide it with a savoury aroma and flavour. Instead, in most recipes boxed chicken broth will provide far better flavour than boxed beef broth, even for traditionally beef broth-based dishes like beef stew or onion soup. This is because most boxed or canned chicken broth contains double the amount of protein to liquid as in beef broth.

Cooking wine: Cooking wine has salt added to it, which means that, like full-sodium broth or stock, it’s impossible to reduce without making your food overly salty. Of course, it’s not particularly tasty wine, either. Instead, buy regular inexpensive wine. You don’t need fancy wine to cook with—anything dry with no overtly off flavours will do.

Salad dressing: Most premade salad dressings are designed to be shelf-stable, which means that they lack the freshness of a homemade dressing. Moreover, when buying pre-bottled dressing, you’re paying premium prices for low-quality oils and vinegars. I suggest making your salad dressings fresh. The flavour you’ll get out of high-quality olive oil, good vinegar, and fresh citrus juice and aromatics will be brighter and fresher than anything in a bottle, and cheaper as well.

Powdered sauce/spice packs: We love a good hollandaise in the firehouse (right, Hollandaise Jay?). Real hollandaise is thought of as being difficult to make, which makes instant hollandaise an attractive option. However, instant hollandaise—made with powdered butterfat, starches, stabilizers and artificial flavourings—is nothing like the real thing. Despite its reputation, real hollandaise is easy to make using a foolproof two-minute method (see my recipe in this article). Get yourself some eggs, butter and lemon juice, and treat yourself to the real deal.

Pre-grated cheese: Pre-grated cheese comes coated with cornstarch or some other powder intended to prevent it from clumping. However, this anti-clumping powder can affect the way the cheese melts or incorporates into sauces. Does your macaroni and cheese come out overly thick or grainy? Pre-grated cheese might be the culprit. Plus, pre-grated cheese generally costs more than its ungrated counterparts. Buying blocks of cheese and grating them yourself can save you money, will give you more control over quality, and will also ensure that recipes come out the way they were intended to.

Frozen hamburger patties: With rare exceptions, frozen burger patties are made from scraps of beef that could have come from anywhere on the carcass or from any number of carcasses, ground extremely fine and packed very tight. You’re losing the battle for good burger texture and flavour before you’ve even started to cook. If you want a great burger, you need to start with good beef. Buying fresh ground beef from the glass display case is a step up, but for the best burgers, buy whole cuts of meat and ask the butcher to grind them for you. That way, you have full control over the flavour and texture.

Fresh vegetables in sealed plastic bags: Without being able to touch and examine your produce, it’s difficult to gauge its quality. Those brussels sprouts or cauliflower that look okay through the plastic window may reveal blemishes on closer inspection. Sealed plastic bags are often more expensive as well. Buy your vegetables from the loose-produce displays, where you can pick and choose what you’re paying for.

Out-of-season tomatoes: Most tomatoes are picked while still green and firm to be able to withstand the rigours of cross-country travel in the back of a produce truck. Some vegetables and fruits will ripen just fine after being picked. Not tomatoes. While picked green tomatoes will eventually turn red, they will not develop flavour. The result is tomatoes that look bright red and ripe but taste mealy, watery and bland. Tomatoes are best enjoyed seasonally—at the end of the summer and into the fall—from a local grower who picks them when they’re fully ripened on the vine. If you must buy tomatoes during the off-season, choose smaller varieties, like cherry, grape, or plum (Roma) tomatoes, which are generally picked riper. For cooked applications like sauces and stews, canned peeled whole tomatoes will invariably be better than fresh tomatoes because they’re picked fully ripe before canning or jarring.

Jarred garlic: The chemicals that give garlic its characteristic aroma and pungency are created and released as soon as plant cells are ruptured through cutting or crushing. The thing is, the sweet, aromatic compounds (i.e., the desirable ones) tend to disappear faster than the sulphurous, overly pungent compounds (i.e., the ones you want to limit). Pre-chopped or pre-crushed garlic has all the bad qualities of garlic and none of the good. Instead, buy fresh garlic in whole heads. Peeling and chopping or crushing individual cloves is very easy and, when left in its papery skin and stored in a cool, dark place, a head of garlic will last for weeks.

Dried delicate leafy herbs: Some succulent herbs that grow in particularly dry, hardy climates—like rosemary, bay leaves or oregano—will retain plenty of flavor even when dried. Delicate leafy herbs—like parsley, basil, tarragon, cilantro or chives—have much more volatile aromatic compounds; once dried, they lose any quality that makes them worth cooking with. If you can, spring for fresh herbs. Stored upright in a sealed jar with an inch of water, they’ll last for weeks. For even longer storage, chop and freeze them.

Smoked salmon eggs benny with firefighter-proof dill hollandaise

1 recipe firefighter-proof hollandaise (see below)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill fronds

4 English muffins

8 slices smoked salmon

4 large eggs, poached with this method

Sliced scallions, to garnish

Capers, to garnish

Combine hollandaise with 2 teaspoons dill. Toast the English muffins and divide between 4 plates, top each English muffin with 2 slices smoked salmon, then a poached egg. Spoon dill hollandaise over each egg, garnish with extra dill and sliced scallions if desired and serve immediately.

Firefighter-proof hollandaise

2 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon water

1 teaspoon lemon juice from 1 lemon

Kosher salt

1 stick unsalted butter

Pinch cayenne pepper or hot sauce, optional

In a cup just wide enough to fit the head of an immersion blender, combine egg yolks, water, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. In a small saucepan, melt butter over high heat, swirling constantly, until foaming subsides. Transfer butter to a 1-cup liquid measuring cup. Place the head of the immersion blender into the bottom of the cup and turn it on. With the blender constantly running, slowly pour hot butter into the measuring cup in a thin stream. It should emulsify with egg yolk and lemon juice. If needed, tilt the blender head up slightly to help the emulsification process. Continue pouring until all butter is added. The sauce should be creamy and thick enough to coat a spoon but still flow off of it. If it is too thick, whisk in a small amount of warm water, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, to thin it out to the desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper or hot sauce if desired. Serve immediately, or transfer to a small, lidded pot and keep in a warm place for up to 1 hour before serving. Hollandaise cannot be cooled and reheated.

Patrick Mathieu is a Captain Training Officer with Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He has appeared on Food Networks Chopped Canada and is the author of The FireHouse Chef Cookbook. Please email him at and follow him on Instagram @stationhouse_

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