If you don't care enough to be bothered with a multiple-stop shopping trip, of course go right ahead and buy whatever you want at your local Albertsons or Ralphs. Try buying the following five things from specialists just once, though, and you'll be astonished by the increase in quality you see.
To the naysayers who say they can't spend the time going hither and yon, I say this: it takes me two hours a week to do my grocery shopping, including the farmers' market, a bakery, a butcher (when we eat high-end meat) and a fishmonger. Some of those even come to the farmers' market.
Obviously, if you don't live near specialists in these foods, it will be time-consuming and aggravating; if you live in OC Weekly's readership area, though, you've got a world of specialists just outside your door, whether you live in Talega or Yorba Linda, Long Beach or Santa Ana.
If you're going to buy fish in a supermarket, you've got to know what you're looking for and you've got to be slightly insistent about inspecting for quality (which means smelling the fillets or steaks, looking at the eyes of whole fish, etc.). That tends to put off supermarket fish counter salespeople. Often, fillets are brought in pre-cut and stacked atop each other and the purchasing is done at one (or two) removes from the people actually wrapping it in butcher's paper.
Go to a fishmonger and you'll see an immediate difference; fish will be stored on ice, rather than on other fish, the quality will be higher, and in many cases local fish will be featured rather than fish with wide appeal but distant fisheries.
One exception to the fish-in-supermarkets rule tends to be Asian markets. The Taiwanese-owned chains in Southern California tend to have higher-quality fish than “usual” markets.
With very limited exception, supermarket bread–even the more expensive, just-baked kind–is inferior to bread that comes from a bakery. It tends to be spongy, have no texture whatsoever to its crust, and it's often chock full of preservatives meant to keep it looking good on the shelf long after good bread would have turned hard or moldy.
Some supermarkets have taken it even a step further and import bread from real bakeries. It's very common to see La Brea Bakery bread in supermarkets in the Los Angeles area; while this is a huge step up from “FRENCH BREAD 16 OZ.”, it's only a good idea right after the bread is delivered. Buying a La Brea baguette at 5 p.m. when it was delivered at 7 a.m. is a sad waste of money.
Go to a bakery and talk to the people who make the bread. Tell them what you're making and ask for recommendations. If you get stonewalled by the counter help, ask if the baker can spare you a couple of minutes.
Supermarkets are where cheese goes to die. Very, very few markets have knowledgeable cheesemongers, and very, very few markets treat their cheese right. Even in higher-end supermarkets, the cheese is pre-cut, wrapped in
plastic, stickered with the weight and sold by people who may have been
stockers or baggers two weeks earlier.
Why, you may ask, is it so bad that cheese is sold that way? Well, first, there's plastic issue. Plastic film causes two problems. Leaving aside any anthropomorphic bibble-babble about cheese needing to breathe, wrapping cheese in plastic traps moisture close to the cheese. This causes the cheese to start to break down from the outside. In addition, the plastic itself leaches an off-taste into the cheese after a couple of days. (Some cheesemongers do keep their cheese covered in plastic; it gets removed often enough in a shop with turnover to prevent this issue.) Any person knowledgeable about cheese can tell in a heartbeat if the cheese was stored improperly.
Second, cheese remains good longer when it's left whole. Cutting cheese dries it out faster. In a place where the cheese sells reasonably quickly, this isn't a problem, but parceling up cheese–especially soft cheeses like Brie and crottins de chèvre–causes it to dry out more quickly.
Buy your cheese in a real cheese shop, someplace where you can taste it and see that it's being treated well. Once you get it home, for heaven's sake don't serve it cold out of the refrigerator, because that blunts the flavor; artisanal cheese ought to be served at room temperature.
The quality of meat in the American supermarket has improved dramatically in the last decade, but if you are looking for a celebratory steak, don't head for the Mega-lo-mart. Almost all beef sold in the supermarket is USDA Choice, which is fine for everyday cooking. Some is USDA Select, which is not a good choice.
When you're hankering for that dry-aged ribeye, though, head for a real butcher shop. Not only will you benefit from the years of specialty training your butcher has, but a butcher is more likely to be able to lay his or her hands on USDA Prime beef, the Holy Cow Grail (and what's served in fancy steakhouses). You can also have the beef cut to your specification, and the butcher will know how it was treated prior to sale (wet aging, dry aging, etc.).
This is one place where, given no other option, buying in a higher-end grocery store such as a Whole Foods or a Gelsons may be okay; you may pay more than you would at a full-service specialty butcher, though.
Sure, those rows of carefully-stacked peaches look tempting, but in many cases that's as much as they can do; look tempting. Even with the much-vaunted “Local” designation on the sign, supermarket produce is several steps lower in quality than what's available at the local farmers' market.
The reason is simple: supermarkets are huge chains and have to purchase in huge quantity to distribute to their stores. The logistics of purchasing from many small farms are too hard for most supermarkets, so they buy from a cooperative or a huge farm, and they buy underripe produce to minimize losses during transit. This translates to fewer choices, and wooden-tasting produce.
Buying your produce from a produce stand or a farmers' market, which are abundant in Southern California (and elsewhere, especially in summer) will re-introduce you to the pleasures of sink peaches (so juicy you have to eat them bent over the kitchen sink), fragrant strawberries that don't come in a clamshell marked “Driscoll” and varieties of vegetables you may never have seen.