Posts Tagged ‘grocery store’

What to buy in a Cajun grocery store

grocery2 Usually Pat and I write about buying specialty foods in overseas grocery stores, but Cajun cooking stands so far apart from most other American regional food that the grocers have developed lines of goods we can rarely find anywhere else.

The pickled tabasco peppers, gumbo file powder, and various hot pepper sauces shown above are cases in point. In fact, I was once told by a northern grocer that file powder was illegal. (Not true, but it is allegedly mildly carcinogenic. If you eat three pounds at a time, you might develop a tumor in 20 years.) Needless to say, file powder can be hard to find up here in the chilly north.

grocery1 The ingredients immediately above are even more local. Dried shrimp might be a worldwide commodity, but Louisiana dried shrimp has a distinctive flavor of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s great in a shrimp cream sauce or a soup. The garlic sauce from Poche’s is an essential ingredient in some quarters for dousing boiled crawfish tails. The instant roux mix, while not so different from Wondra flour, makes a great tan roux.

grocery3 The last item is a latecomer, at least to legitimate grocery stores. At 100 proof, this colored corn likker has the requisite kick to be called moonshine — minus the chemicals to make you go blind.

What to bring home from a British grocery store

British groceries Whenever I visit a British grocery store I scour the shelves for the most unusual items. But it’s really the comfort foods that define a cuisine — or at least taste like home. That’s the lesson I learned from a lovely woman in Leeds who had lived and worked in Taiwan for 15 years. When I asked her what I might want to buy in the city’s big Sainsbury grocery store, she immediately rattled off the items that she had most craved during her years abroad.

At the end of every visit home, she would pack herself a big care package for her return trip to Taiwan. Here are the foods she couldn’t do without:

Heinz Tomato Soup. It’s ultimate comfort food.

Heinz Baked Beanz. Brits consider this version superior to the American version.

Heinz Salad Cream. This tangy dressing has a consistency like mayonnaise. Dubbed “pourable sunshine,” it’s as popular on sandwiches or baked potatoes as it is on salads.

Marmite. This yeast extract with a strong, salty flavor is equally loved and hated, even in Great Britain. The dark brown paste is usually spread on toast, with or without a little butter.

Walkers Salt & Vinegar Crisps (potato chips, to Americans). Walkers is the favorite brand in the UK and the salt and vinegar variation has a tangy, salty flavor that is quite addictive.

Cadbury Dairy Milk Whole Nut Bars. Introduced in 1933, this bar pairs Cadbury’s creamy, high milk content chocolate with whole hazelnuts.

And here are a few more items that I like to throw into my grocery cart:

HP Sauce. This secret-recipe brown sauce has been manufactured since 1899 and is a favored accompaniment for beef. The original version is available in many U.S. grocery stores, but it’s worth seeking out some of the other flavor options, including the blend of HP and Guinness.

Branston Rich & Fruity Sauce. This mix of tomatoes, apples, and dates is blended with herbs, spices, sugar, vinegar, and molasses to make a sweet but tangy brown sauce. It’s good on scrambled eggs.

Cadbury Flake. The crumbly bar of thin sheets of milk chocolate is the classic adornment to a scoop of ice cream.

All menus lead to Rome

Ultimately, we did visit the amazing museums at Vatican City—and here’s our sneaked photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling to prove it. (Yeah, like we were the only ones….) But we have to admit that we were originally waylaid by Rome’s greatest gourmet food shop. And who could blame us? Gastronomy is Italy’s other art. Or maybe its other religion.

When we’d finished eating lunch at Franchi (see previous post), we decided that it was a good time to stop in at Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196, Tel: 06-68-74-383, www.castronicoladirienzo.it, open Mon-Sat 8am-8pm), reasoning that since we were already stuffed, we would be immune to the lures of the merchandise. It was only next door, and we’d still have plenty of time to get back to the Vatican.


The legend over the door reads Castroni Droghe Coloniali, but like some pop stars, the place is famous enough to go by a single moniker. And Castroni is indeed a name to conjure with. Since 1932 the flagship store in the Prati district east of the Vatican has proved that all gastronomic roads lead to Rome. On seeing the walls lined 15 feet high with gourmet goodies, David pleaded, “Do we have to go to the Sistine Chapel today?” Pat gave in, and we postponed the museum trip by a day.

Many ex-pats swear by Castroni for the tastes of home—the full line of Twinings teas, for example, or a broad range of Fauchon products from Paris, or good smoked Spanish paprika. But all the flavors of Italy also find their way to this wonderful shop. This year is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, and while north and south, right and left seem no closer to real unity than they have been since the days of Vittorio Emanuele II himself, Castroni brings all the regions together for a gastronomic love fest.

There’s a modest bar with some casual food, so it’s possible to pop in for lunch and then to spend an afternoon just shopping. (Or drooling.) Bins hold virtually every variety of dried bean or chickpea grown anywhere on the peninsula. The store’s own brand of dry pastas include bags with mixed Roman monuments (maybe the ultimate gastronomic souvenir), and Castroni’s own coffee (whole bean or ground) makes an authentic-tasting Roman espresso—dark and syrupy with some high, almost lemony notes that suggest a lot of East African coffees in the blend. If you find the flavor addictive, the shop also sells a coffee concentrate passed off as an energy drink.

Had we demonstrated the foresight to bring an empty suitcase from home, we would have stocked up on all kinds of goodies that U.S. Customs would let us bring in, including the dazzling array of pestos from Abruzzo made of ripe Leccino olives, of asparagus, or of radicchio. Just add hot pasta and you have a stupendous meal. We also would have loaded up on duck liver and orange pâtés and the jars of small green peppers stuffed with duck liver mousse, not to mention hot-pepper-inspired salsas from Sicily and white truffle and porcini salsas from Umbria.

But since we were traveling light, we limited ourselves to squeeze tubes of tomato paste, mushroom cream, black olive puree, and mixed vegetables. (A squirt of the mixed vegetables paste into chicken broth makes it taste like minestrone.) We find them amazingly versatile in the kitchen, allowing us to add a dollop to eggs, salad dressing, soup, or a sauce to shade the flavor one way or another. (They also make great gifts for friends who cook.) In fact, the only thing we expected to find at Castroni but didn’t were the truffle products of Acqualagna in Le Marche, where the local motto is ”truffles all year long.” More on that next time….

24

06 2011

Bites worth standing for

It’s easy to get a good, quick lunch in Rome. Usually we opt for a couple of slices of pizza in whatever pizzeria is closest when we’re hungry. But for even more variety, we sometimes head to a tavola calda—an amazing array of hot and cold dishes ordered at a counter, served up quickly and almost always eaten standing up. One of the best in Rome is found at Franchi (Via Cola di Rienzo 200, tel. 06-68-74-651, www.franchi.it.), which is also one of the city’s most extravagant alimentari (local food stores).

Outside of meal time, this is the spot in the Prati neighborhood to buy sliced cold cuts, cheese, and cooked dishes to take home for dinner. But at lunchtime, the shop is swarmed with office workers (including those from the nearby Prati courthouse) who order from the daily selection of dishes on the tavola calda. The chefs are known for their arancini: breaded and fried balls of risotto drooling with mozzarella inside. But they also make other good things, such as a cold rice salad studded with shrimp and layered with slices of cured salmon, deep-fried cod fillets, oven-roasted vegetables drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, creamy pools of polenta and melted cheese, manicotti….

The scene is a bit chaotic. You place your order, return to the cashier to pay, grab a tray and wait for your food, then hope you can score a tall table or bit of counter space to balance your food while you eat standing up. (Be careful who you elbow aside—the courthouse guards are packing.) Our last visit was a reward for shuffling in the long and pointless lines to visit St. Peter’s. We needed the break before plunging into the crowds at the Vatican museums. The rice balls did not disappoint, the slice of lasagna was as good as any we’ve eaten in a white linen dining room, and the slab of polenta was rich and cheesy.

19

06 2011

What to buy in a Paris grocery store

It is funny that France is such a fantastic country for eating but we rarely discover as many finds in French grocery stores as we do in other countries. Part of the problem is that most of the good stuff (like the sausages and the fresh produce and seafood) can’t be brought home. The other factor is that many French foods are available in our local groceries, so we have learned to be restrained. We have also found that the fancy stores like Bon Marché and Galeries de Lafayette are big on stocking what they consider exotic delicacies-like American ketchup. There are a few things we just cannot pass up. Here’s our shopping list when we visit Paris:

Herbes de Provence. We’ve been told that this blend of dried herbs typical of the Provençal countryside was invented as a marketing ploy in the 1970s. We don’t care. The blend is handy to toss into almost everything from a stew to a vinaigrette. Why bother to bring it all the way home from Paris? Because, unlike American manufacturers, the French don’t muddy up the flavors by putting lavender flowers and leaves in the mix of savory, fennel, basil, and thyme. And the herbs are cheap if you skip the fancy crockware packaging.

Cassis mustard. Talking with French mustard makers, we learned that even in Dijon, much of the mustard seed comes from Canada, even though it is processed in France. And we are fortunate that some good French mustards (usually Maille) are fairly available in our local stores. But we never see cassis mustard in the U.S., so we always try to pick some up. Its sweet-savory flavor makes it the perfect spread for a sandwich made with leftover charcoal-grilled chicken.


Dried morel mushrooms. Again, they’re available in the U.S., but here in New England they tend to cost an arm and a leg. In France they are relatively cheap, and 3 ounces of dried mushrooms yield about the same volume as a pound of fresh morels. The flavor is intense and meaty. We think the simplest treatment-a morel mushroom omelette-is the best. Rehydrate them by soaking about 5 minutes in warm water and sauté lightly in butter before adding them to the eggs.

Tinned foie gras. Tout le monde makes preserved foie gras, but only the French seem to do it really well. Or, more specifically, the Alsatians. We like the goose foie gras from Strasbourg, which is poached and packed in tins. Once in a while we’ll use some in a sauce, but it’s really best lightly chilled and cut in thin slices spread on a plate and served with a sweet wine. The French prefer Sauternes, but it’s also nice with an intense gewürztraminer from any of the Rhine regions (preferably an auslese).

Crème de marrons de l’Ardeche. This sweetened chestnut cream is France’s answer to Nutella. It’s used in cookies and making millefeuille pastries, as an additive to whipped cream, or just spread on a buttery croissant. The French also like to squirt some from the tube on a crepe and roll it up to serve. It makes a pretty impressive dessert with very little effort. This is one French fast food we heartily endorse.

Drinking chocolate. Every culture does hot chocolate (chocolate chaud) a little differently. In Paris you usually get a little pitcher of hot milk and a little pitcher of concentrated chocolate to mix to taste in your cup. The next best thing to ducking into Angelina (226 rue de Rivoli, (0)1 42 60 82 00) on a chilly Paris day is mixing up a pot of thick hot chocolate at home. The fancier grocery stores in Paris tend to stock Angelina’s mix along with several others. We often pick up extras for the folks who have been feeding the cat or picking up the mail.

08

06 2010

Rum cake finds a new incarnation

Hot Miami chef Dean James Max (who happens to be up for a James Beard restaurateur award this year) is also the talent behind one of our favorite Grand Cayman restaurants, The Brasserie. Part of what makes The Brasserie so terrific is that Max and his staff use local fish, local produce, and all kinds of goodies they grow in the restaurant garden. The menu is also inspired by Caribbean traditions. Of the restaurant’s complex chicken pepper-pot soup, he says, “The peppers you get here on Grand Cayman are just incredible.”

So leave it to Max to find a fun use for the ubiquitous island confection, Tortuga rum cake. (You might recall that we wrote about the cake in What to buy in a grocery store on Grand Cayman Island.)

Alas, we consumed the last of our rum cake stash in late January, so we’ll have to wait for a return visit to make this bread pudding, which we have slightly adapted from his recipe in the April issue of his newsletter. Max comments, “This has been such a cold winter, even for us in Florida, that we really need to coax in the warm summer with a great island style rum cake. I hope you enjoy this simple and tasty recipe! Bring on the heat.”

Tortuga Rum Bread Pudding

Serves 6

Ingredients

8 oz. Tortuga Rum Cake (diced)
2 cups cream
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean
4 eggs
1 cup dried sour cherries
1/4 cup Tortuga rum
3 Tablespoons soft butter

Directions

1. Toast the diced cake pieces on a baking sheet in the oven until they dry slightly and become crisp. Let cool.

2. Mix cream, sugar, and vanilla bean in a saucepan and heat until hot. Remove from heat.

3. In a small bowl, beat the eggs. Stir a small amount of hot cream into the eggs to temper them, then blend eggs slowly into the cream.

4. In a separate small saucepan, heat the rum and cherries and let them soak until cooled. Add cherry-rum mix to the egg-cream mixture.

5. Generously butter a baking pan and scatter the cake pieces to completely cover. Pour the custard over the bread and let it soak at room temperature for 10 minutes.

6. Set the baking dish in a water bath in a preheated 325 degree oven. Cover top loosely with foil and bake for about 30 minutes or until the custard has set. Remove dish from oven; remove foil and let cool. Cut the pudding and serve warm or chilled.

15

04 2010

What to buy in a grocery store on Grand Cayman Island

The explosive growth of top-flight restaurants on tiny Grand Cayman has jump-started local agriculture on this haven for snowbirds and international finance located west of Jamaica and south of Cuba. At the Brasserie, for example, much of the produce on the menu comes from the restaurant’s own gardens and much of the rest from tiny farm patches on the east side of the island.

We would love to bring home some of the local fruits and particularly the Cayman seasoning peppers, which have all the flavor of a Scotch Bonnet and only a fraction of the heat. But US Customs would frown. There are, however, a few preserved foods worth tucking into your suitcase. The Foster’s IGA grocery stores carry Caymanian products that are impossible to find off-island. They also cost far less at Foster’s than in souvenir shops or the hotels. The grocers also carry a nice selection of Jamaican and certain British goods.

Here’s our Grand Cayman shopping list:

Hot pepper jelly.
A tiny amount of Scotch Bonnet pepper supplies the heat to this jelly from Pepper Patch on Grand Cayman, but Caymanian seasoning peppers are responsible for the depth of the flavor. Some 16 ingredients in all go into the tangy jelly, including traces of sweet spices like allspice (called pimento in the Cayman Islands), nutmeg, and cloves. Local residents spread it on water crackers, but we find that a dab of the jelly is the perfect accompaniment to Manchego cheese from Spain.

Cayman sea salt.
Sea salt in most countries is an inexpensive commodity often produced by evaporation in heated pans. This delicate salt is made strictly through solar evaporation and is hand-harvested. It is too expensive to use in marinades, but makes a good finishing salt. The flakes provide delicious salinity and textural crunch. We sprinkle them judiciously on grilled fish and on salads with mangos and baby greens.

Tortuga Rum Cake.
Except for turtle-shaped key chains, rum cake is the #1 Cayman tourist souvenir. They are sweet, dense crumb cakes with a light rum flavor enhanced by the addition of key lime, coconut, or chocolate chips. We are not huge fans and consider them pricey (even at Foster’s). But some of our friends love Tortuga rum cakes, so we bring them home when we have space in the luggage.

Hot sauces.
Our appreciation of hot sauces is restrained, since every yahoo with a kettle seems to have started a hot sauce company. Even so, it’s worth cruising the aisles at Foster’s for either of the local companies. Hawley Haven Farm makes down-home farm products, including a hot pepper sauce, while Cayman Islands Sauce Company emphasizes firepower with the likes of Hotter N’ Hell Sauce. Both products are worth a try, though we are just as likely to resort to the Pickapeppa Hot Sauces from Jamaica, readily available at Grand Cayman markets. A few drops of the Spicy Mango or the Gingery Mango Pepper are especially good on grilled mahi.

20

01 2010

What to buy in an Italian grocery store

Since so many of the regional Italian cuisines are based on food that is fresh, fresh, fresh, we’re limited in what we can bring back home. But there are some dry goods and conserves that turn out to be very useful in cooking Italian dishes. We’ve learned not to bother with colored pastas, which cook up to a gray mess anyway, because we can buy good imported dry pasta for about the same price we’d pay for it in Italy.

Here’s our Italian grocery list:

AnchoviesAnchovies.
Many Americans think they don’t like anchovies because they have never tasted good ones used with the restraint characteristic of Italian recipes. We look for anchovies packed in glass jars so we can make sure they are firm and whole. We also check the jar for an expiration date several months in the future.

Dried mushrooms.
Dried fungi, especially dried porcini mushrooms, are central to a number of pastas and risottos. Alas, purchasing in an Italian market doesn’t provide much of a price break over buying in US gourmet import stores, but because Italian cooks use a lot of dried mushrooms, the shelf stock is always fresh. Even dry, porcini should remain flexible.

RicesRice.
We buy arborio for most risottos, but always get some vialone nano for seafood risottos, and Roma for Roman rice dishes. They’re all strains of short-grained, oval rice. The less expensive riso originale (the more generic mother strain) is a good choice for soups or arancini, but we rarely buy it unless we have a lot of room left in the suitcase. The same one-kilo box of vialone nano we buy in Italy for two euros is nearly $15 in the U.S.

Bouillon cubes.
Bouillon cubes and soup bases differ from country to country-even the international brands like Knorr. Those sold in the Italian markets are seasoned to Italian taste, and work very well as a backup for having your own homemade stock. We like the Starr brand, especially the porcini mushroom bouillon cubes.

Mushroom salad.
Jarred marinated mushrooms provide an instant antipasto. We generally look for mixed “woods” mushrooms for variety of colors and shapes. Fior di Bosco is a good choice.

Tomato pasteTomato paste in a tube.
Often ridiculously expensive at home, the tubes of double-concentrated Italian tomato paste are a perfect solution for providing just a touch of tomato to a soup or a sauce. The flavor is typically richer and a little sweeter than canned tomato paste.

Herbs.
There are few dried herbs used in Italian cooking that we can’t buy at home, but we like the aromatic sweetness of Italian oregano for seasoning sauces and salads.

Salt.
Like the Spaniards, the Italians typically use sea salt to season their food, though their salt is usually more refined than the Spanish. Italian processed sea salt is usually found in both fino and grosso (fine and coarse). The coarse salt is intended for oven-roasting fish or meat, but can do double duty in a salt grinder.

MostardaMostarda de la Cremona.
The great cookbook author (and all-around generous soul) Michele Scicolone turned us on to this conserve of small fruits poached in sugar syrup until they become nearly translucent. A secondary seasoning with mustard syrup gives the mostarda a sweet-savory quality similar to a chutney, but even more beautiful to serve with a bollito misto (a ring of mixed meats). You can buy it in bulk at deli counters as pictured, but mostardas are also sold in jars (easier to take home).

18

12 2009

What to buy in a Spanish grocery store

SpanishpimentonWe love visiting fresh markets when we travel, but except for dried herbs and spices, most of the goods won’t make it through US Customs. Once we’ve snapped dozens of photos of mounds of vegetables and tables of glistening fish on ice, we head to a neighborhood grocery store (the kind where homemakers, not tourists, shop) to stock up on food essentials to bring home.

Here’s our Spanish grocery list:

Saffron.
Spaniards claim their saffron is the world’s best and price it accordingly. The larger the container, the better the deal. We usually purchase saffron in 20-gram boxes or larger. (A half gram is sufficient for a 15-inch paella.) Stored in an airtight container out of the light, it will keep up to seven years—or so we have been told. It never lasts that long for us.

Pimentón de la Vera.
The colorful tins holding this smoked paprika from Extremadura are almost irresistible. The earthy red spice with a mild hint of smoke is used to season chorizo and most forms of paella. It’s most commonly available as dulce (sweet) or picante (hot). The dulce, which is slightly hot, is the best to add a touch of warmth and deep coloring to rice dishes and soups and is the main paprika used in Spanish sauces (including Bravas sauce). The picante is at least as hot as most Mexican chile peppers, and should be used sparingly. If we plan to make a barbecue dry rub, we look for the less common ahumado, which has a strong smoky component.

Sea Salt.
Flaked sea salt is a current foodie favorite, but we prefer the coarser Spanish sea salt sold for roasting fish or fowl. It can be ground in a salt grinder to use at the table or tossed into liquids as a seasoning. Our favorite brand, Sal Costa from the Costa Brava, costs less than a half euro per kilo.

fishtinsCanned fish.
The Spaniards are canning geniuses, and their tinned anchovies, oysters, squid, octopus, clams, and sardines are the secret behind half the tapas served in the bars. The white anchovies in particular are so good that the Italians import them.

Olive oil.
Olive oil is a matter of personal taste, but Spaniards tend to concur that the best in Spain comes from Andalucía—either from Núñez del Prado, or from hill towns around Úbeda. Best bet is “bionatur” oil packaged in tins rather than bottles.

Bomba rice.
This heritage strain of rice introduced to the Valencia area from North Africa around 800AD is the premium rice for paella. It’s twice as expensive as “Valencia” rice, and worth every cent for its ability to absorb flavor and maintain its toothy texture.

Manchego cheese.
This aged ewe’s milk cheese is the pride of Spanish cheeses. We sometimes bring an entire three-kilo wheel home, but big vacuum-sealed wedges are also available in most grocery stores. It keeps fine for several days without refrigeration.

PouringhotchocolateValor chocolate.
Anyone who visits in cool weather soon discovers the soothing pleasures of Spain’s unusually thick hot chocolate. Valor is a common supermarket brand for recreating the treat at home. It’s even good without the accompanying churros.

09

12 2009