Monday, February 10, 2014

Not All In One Basket: On the Town with GMS’s Must-Have List

Although Trader Joe’s has been around since the late 1950s, it really took off in L.A. in the 1990s, when shoppers in-the-know impressed their friends with fanciful delicacies and inexpensive but good wine. The supermarket strike of 2003-2004, which kept consumers out of the big chains like Ralphs and Vons, further reinforced the company’s stature as the go-to source for everyday groceries and even household paper and cleaning products.

The company’s website blows my mind as something that ties my pre- Internet life with the virtual window shopping of today. The other day, as I tooled around on the site, I was surprised by some of the 2013 list of“Customer Favourite Products.”

But one cannot live on Inner Peas veggie snacks and Tuscan Kale alone. Friends sometimes marvel at how I can go from store to store, hunting and gathering to fill my fridge and larder. Here is a list of the things that I cannot do without. Ever. While I do 90 percent of my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, there are some intriguing finds among that remaining 10 percent.  Along with my TJ’s staples, here are some local “favourites” that I have discovered since moving back to ‘Pedro.

Trader Joe's always has a well-curated selection of
the season's best, as well as staple produce for
day-to-day cooking, eating, and composition
of still lifes.

1-    For Love of Three Oranges

Or, three shallots, three papayas, or three Kadota figs. TJ's makes it easy to get your five-a-day, with produce that is consistent in quality and competitively priced. I have never purchased a mealy apple there, and berries are at least one-third more expensive everywhere else, except maybe Costco.

At most Trader Joe’s locations, the produce section is the first thing you see upon entering, which hopefully inspires shoppers to healthier eating. My staples are pre-washed bags of kale, rosy pink shallots that I use in everything, and thanks to NAFTA, blackberries and mangoes, nearly all year round. Seasonal not-to-miss faves are fresh figs (May-Septemberish, like my taste in men) and the divine Thomcord grape, the likes of which I have only ever been able to find at Trader Joe’s, and only for a few golden weeks the waning summer of September.

2-    “Designer” Bags: Join the Club

Why belong to a club if nobody knows it? The stylish and practical shopping bags at Trader Joe’s tell the world that a) you care about the environment; b) that you have great tastes in accessories; and c) that you are part of a discriminating and enlightened clientele. My personal favorites are the large canvas tote with the old-school TJ’s logo embroidered on it – I’ve seen people use these as yoga or diaper bags - they are that roomy – and the fabulous jute bag that came out a couple of years ago, that apparently was considered very cool in Japan. My friend Yayoi actually rocked one as a handbag

In the bag: My collection of TJ's totes.

3-    Nut Job: Rosemary Marcona Almonds

Marcona almonds in olive oil and seasoned with rosemary are so gilding the lily, but I love them. These are wonderful on salads, especially after being toasted a bit in the oven. Keep a close eye on them, as they will immediately blacken if you step away for more than 10 seconds. Toasting brings out the almond’s complexity and makes it a dressy alternative to Beer Nuts – perfect for all the football fests this season.

Another fun thing to do with these almonds is to melt some uber-dark chocolate and blob it over little star-shaped arrangements of these luxurious almonds on a wax paper-lined tray, making “turtles.” Serve with other equally pretentious sweets, such as licorice-coated chocolate lentils, bacon sea salt caramels, and orange-geranium infused chocolate. Sit back and enjoy the compliments.  

4-    Maître Pierre’s Tarte d’ Alsace

The only resemblance that Tarte d’Alsace bears to a frozen pizza is the fact that you may have to reposition the shreds of gruyere cheese and ham atop the thin flatbread crust, as the frozen contents will shift during transport. But that's where it ends. The flavors come from simple ingredients: a savory jambon, gruyere cheese, and crème fraiche, complemented by caramelized onions that form a marmalade-like cloak when baked. 

You have to be careful when preparing this savory pie, because it is placed directly on the oven rack during baking. There were a few that may have gone through a stretching machine too vigorously, ending up with a weak spot in the already diaphanous dough. Necessity and hunger are the joint-custody mothers of invention that inspired me to brace the weakened spot with a piece of aluminum foil, that I remove when the Tarte is more solid and only has about five minutes baking time to go. 

Baking the Tarte d'Alsace and its paper-thin crust is an
adventure, taking many forms. Shown here: The French Calzone.
I’ve always said that after diamonds, frozen food is a girl’s best friend. That being said, Tarte d’Alsace is a friend with benefits. I have this at least once a week, every week. It makes a great one-pan lunch, dinner with a salad, if that. I can eat the whole thing in one sitting, and not feel guilty. If there are leftovers, they make a great breakfast for the morning commute, eaten cold in traffic, with “Le Marseillaise” blasting from the stereo.

5-    100% Desert Mesquite Honey: Muy Bueno

Most commercial honey reminds me of pancake syrup with grassy notes. They tend to be thin and runny, and possessed of a nondescript, but cloying sweetness. TJ’s Desert Mesquite Honey tastes almost biblical. It’s way thicker than the supermarket brands, taking it from topping to a formidable starring ingredient in my Greek yogurt sundae. I also prefer it over maple syrup on pancakes.

When my sister Jolene was pregnant, I learned that you shouldn't feed honey to babies. Apart from the ungodly mess that would ensue, the digestion systems of infants under one year is not yet developed enough to ward off the botulism that may exist in dormant form in honey. Fortunately, we all outgrew that, and can enjoy baklava to our hearts content.

6-    Fish Tale: Cod Provençale with Ratatouille and Rice

My friend Matt has designated “Hamburger Friday,” so I came up with “Whitefish Wednesday.” But you can enjoy Cod Provençale with Ratatouille and Rice any day of the week. It’s like real food, but easier and faster to prepare. And the serving-for-one makes it a welcome response to the continual challenge of making a tasty but solitary lunch or dinner.

Among the cornucopia of choices in Trader Joe’s freezer section, it seems to be one of the most balanced meals. This is an entrée that I often enjoy at work, since I don’t have a microwave at home, but happily, it can be prepared in a conventional oven as well, although the nice “steamed” effect is a bit harder to achieve that way. Unlike the “Reduced Guilt” dishes that I also favor, this is a substantial portion (Filet of Sole with Rich Butter Beans & Seasoned Spinach is pretty good) of tasty cod, nestled on a bed of nutty, chewy brown and wild rice, with a flavorful ratatouille of zucchini, eggplant, tomato, and onion, on the side. 

Albertson's Salt and Vinegar Chicken Wings: If
Mother Nature hadn't meant us to eat
chicken, she wouldn't have made it out of meat.

7-    Albertson’s Salt and Vinegar Chicken Wings

I am usually not - I repeat – not a fan of chicken wings, or of the greasy fried chicken at is sold at supermarket delis. But one day not too long ago, I was out doing errands and ended up at Albertson’s on Western, the main shopping drag in San Pedro, right around dinnertime. My guilty secret when shopping while hungry is that I order a half dozen potato logs from the service deli there – big fat French fries, that have been dipped inexplicably and disgustingly in something like fried chicken batter – to tide me over until I get home for a proper dinner.

A free-standing steel island across from the deli counter caught my eye and I found it to contain several flavors of chicken wings. I passed over the three or four types that were thickly coated in crunchy breading. But I was curious about the mahogany-hued wings that looked as if they had been simply marinated, with sandy-looking crystals of salt encrusting the skin. I took some home, and I was hooked.

I eat these at least once a week. They’re even good cold, shredded onto a salad of TJ’s Power Greens with some olive oil, lemon, and some mashed avocado as a dressing. 

8-    Artisanal Cranberry, Raisin, and Walnut Bread - Sprouts

The name kind of says it all. Everyone loves cranberries in baked goods. They’re pretty and red, tart, yet sweet. Walnuts are a super-food, and raisins in bread is just one of those childhood flavors that one never outgrows.

This bread is the bedrock of my go-to commuter breakfast, slathered with TJ’s Crunchy Almond Butter. It’s also amazing with a very good cheddar melted on top (this week, I have Collier’s Welsh Cheddar from, where else? 

Sprouts' store-baked Cranberry, Raisin, and
Walnut Bread: A real cut-up, even when upcycled
into bread pudding.
9-    Primizie Thick Cut Crispbread – Smoked Dutch Gouda with Garlic - Sprouts

Another “shopping-while-hungry” find from Sprouts.

One evening before dinner, I had to have something that wasn’t sweet – no organic fig bars or lemon yogurt-coated almonds. There was a whole island of these chips/pita things in the bakery department, in their graphically-arresting white bags. In my pre-dinner haze, I had to read all the labels about three times before deciding on the Smoked Dutch Gouda with Garlic – the word “cheese” above the actual flavor was what hooked me.

Although the pictures on the bag depict the requisite “serving suggestions” of topping these triangles of yum with more cheese or hummus, they are exquisite just the way they are out of the bag. A pile of them with some nice red grapes makes a good 11 am snack at work!

10- Wallaby Organic Greek Nonfat Yogurt with Lemon – Whole Foods

I am, of course, very happy with my Fage Greek Yogurt, in the little cups with a “sidecar” of fruity toppings like blueberry açai, cherry, or passionfruit clementine. But it was far away from home, in a hipster coffeehouse/market/deli/café in downtown Austin (whose name I would provide here, if I could remember it – it was actually very cool) that I discovered this treat.

Upon returning to L.A., I had to find it, and harassed dairy staff at all the “healthy” markets I knew. Sprouts and Whole Foods carry Wallaby yogurt products, and I tracked down the lemon down at the Westwood location - only at the Westwood location.

Lemon is a very tricky flavor. It’s used with good intentions, but often misses the mark. Hints of Lemon Pledge Furniture Polish or worse yet, 7-Up, can ruin anything. But, old-school lemon bars, like my sister Joselyn makes from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, a hint of lemon on perfectly cooked fish, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and this almost decadent yogurt (did I mention it was fat-free?!), really do it for me, as the outstanding lemon topping of the Wallaby yogurt elevates your daily dose of calcium and cultures to a restaurant-quality dessert.

TJ's European Style Whole Grain Bread: I don't know a
word of German, but I can't help thinking auf Deutsch
when I eat this.

The overall thread that runs through these tried-and-true favorites of mine is that initial taste sensation that occurs when I first bite into, sip, or savor these. In a lifetime of eating, those moments are pretty few and far between, and I am someone who is especially attuned to flavor. But I’m only human – the day-to-day business of eating gets pretty routine at times. So I’m glad for these little discoveries, extravagances, and proven staples that can still make food an adventure every day.

1 comment:

  1. Never too many cooks when it comes to editing GMS!...Special thanks to guest editors Kate, Diane, and Matt, who gave it their writerly critiques and made it that much better!