Monday, May 17, 2010

0 Where To Find Uncommon Recipe Ingredients - My Sources Finally Revealed!

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A few of the recipes on this blog call for ingredients that some might think of as "unusual." Of course, this depends on one's frame of reference. :) One's cooking & eating experiences, cultural background, and familiarity with various cultures all play into that vantage point. While some people might not typically store these types of food stuffs in their kitchen, other people very well might.

Several of you have asked me where I get some of these recipe ingredients, especially those that are more "uncommon" and hard-to-find. The truth of the matter is that, because I live in a city, I'm able to get most of what I need at local ethnic and/or gourmet markets -- whether specialty shops or chain stores -- versus resorting to online resources.

For those of you who live in the Greater Metropolitan DC area, here's a list of some of my favorite local resources:

Balducci's (DC-MD-VA) - Formerly known as Sutton Place Gourmet. Pricey but good selection. Their food bar/counter is an excellent place to grab lunch. Delicious, fresh, bistro-style meals (soups, salads, sandwiches, etc.). Many menu selections are health-oriented. I don't shop there quite as often as I used to mostly because the locations are no longer as convenient for me as they once were.
Bread and Chocolate (DC-VA) - I have a particular nostalgic fondness for the one in Old Town location in Alexandria, VA location. Erik and I used to go here after our runs together. I am thinking of one particularly memorable 9-mile run (and 3 mile walk) along the gorgeous GW parkway trails. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and if memory serves correctly, we ran all the way from Bellvue/Belle Haven to Mount Vernon, and then doubled back, walking the last bit into Old Town. We might've run or walked a bit longer -- I believe the entire Mount Vernon trail is around 18 miles or so. Anyhow, we stopped into Bread and Chocolate and had the most delicious meal. Food tastes particularly good when you're ravenously hungry, but at this place, even more so. :) As the name implies, they have a particularly wonderful selection of breads and gourmet products. You will find fresh and (mostly) healthy food here. You can check out their menu here.
Dean & DeLuca (Georgetown, Washington DC) - Excellent Italian products, both fresh and packaged.
Chennai Spices/Malabar Indian Mart (Gaithersburg, MD) - Good prices, particularly for bulk spices & fresh produce. Less selection than International House (also in Rockville), but the prices are MUCH better here.
Costco (nationwide) - Particularly excellent for fresh produce and gourmet items.
Firehook Bakery (DC-VA) - Wonderful, fresh breads. I particularly recommend their ciabatta, and apparently, so do many other people. :) They also have a decent selection of sandwiches, which are of course are made daily, using slices of their fresh bread, as well as a small cache of other products.
Giant Food (Mid Atlantic region, i.e., DC-DE-MD-VA) - Certain locations have particularly good gourmet/ethnic/organic fare.
Grand Mart (MD-VA) - If you don't read Korean, you might have some difficulty deciphering the page contents for the link I've just provided, but at least you will be able to make out the locations at the bottom of the page; they are in English. :) Lots of hard-to-find produce here.
International House (MD) - A good resource for spices and South Asian specialty products. A good selection of products.
Marvelous Market (DC-MD-VA) - They are expensive but carry a good variety of cheeses and fresh breads, etc. I particularly recommend their kalamata olive bread, which is much better than Firehook Bakery's. :)
Maxim (Rockville, MD) - Great source for Asian goods and produce. Fresh food, clean store. They have fairly inexpensive Zojirushi rice steamers, which I've gotten as presents for some of my foodie friends. :)
Mediterranean Bakery & Café (Alexandria, VA) - This is my lavender source. :) They also have really good halvah and a huge selection of spices. Good food at their café too.
New Asia Market (Rockville, MD) - I mostly go here for inexpensive kitchenware (steamer baskets, wok pans, chopsticks, etc.). Warning: This place doesn't smell very good (particularly due to the seafood, which is extremely pungent), so you might want to either go to Maxim's instead or bring a clothespin for your nose. Haha! Maxim doesn't smell anything like this place does (it's clean and smells rather nice!), although the location of New Asia Market might be more convenient for some of you.
Safeway (nationwide) -- I particularly love the gourmet Safeway on Lee Highway in Falls Church, VA. Their artisanal breads (i.e., their "Artisan" brand) are surprisingly good too.
Sam's Club (nationwide) - Surprisingly good resource for gourmet items and fresh produce.
Trader Joe's (MD-VA-DC) -- Good source for organic and healthy gourmet foods.
Wegman's (nationwide) - There's one in Fairfax, VA (the most convenient location at present), as well some other VA locations (Leesburg, Sterling) that are a bit too far away for me. :) One is also coming soon to Germantown, MD. Also, there are reports of one possibly coming to Columbia, MD, as well. It seems they are getting 'round to expansion in this area. I wonder when one will come to DC itself.....
Whole Foods Market (nationwide) - Sometimes jokingly referred to by some as "Whole Paycheck." ;) I shop here very rarely, usually only when I've exhausted all other resources for specialty or organic produce. :) In truth, this place really gouges you for many things that, thankfully, can now be found elsewhere. :) However, this place has saved my rear when I've been in dire straits, particularly on one occasion when I needed several fresh apricots to make my apricot clafouti recipe for visiting guests. :) I'd scavenged everywhere for fresh apricots, but at the time, every other place had been sold out. They were in season too. I guess it's because most of the larger chain stores typically only carry a small amount in each store, and they tend to sell out quickly.

There are probably more stores I could add to that list, but these are the ones which most immediately come to mind.  As you can see, some of these stores also offer online shopping options as well. :)

I would encourage food shoppers to frequent the smaller, "niche" grocery markets because not only do they still carry a wider variety of specialty items which are still harder to find at some of the chain stores (particularly hard-to-find fresh goods like jackfruits, lychee, galangal root, kaffir lime and curry leaves, taro root, etc.) but many of them are currently struggling to make a living and need our support if we want to continue to have these invaluable resources available to us. Also, while some of the chains might carry certain more common ethnic/specialty items at a lower price, there are still many products -- spices sold in bulk, for example -- which are a MUCH better buy at local ethnic markets. Furthermore, in many cases, some of these markets are actually closer to certain residents than the larger chain supermarkets.

However, I realize that for many of you, shopping at specialty stores might not be a viable option, either due to access/availability or location, &/or limited free time for grocery shopping scavenger hunts. ;) Of course, if that is the case, online stores provide the perfect solution. Online resources are a perfectly good fall-back, because not only do these outlets provide you with a source for these ingredients, but you can also sometimes get certain ingredients, particularly when bought in bulk, at a much better price than even some of the local resources. (Internet-based companies don't have the same overhead expenses as store front locations; plus, they typically have large warehouses and cheaper forms of transportation which make their prices highly competitive and attractive.) Also, as many of you surely already know, several online retailers will give discounts or free shipping when you reach a certain threshold -- either for the total cost of your purchases or for a wholesale-like deal for large quantities of a particular item or set of items bought in combination.

In the past, I've shared many of these online food shopping resources with you here, via previous posts on this blog (either as information appended to the end of recipe posts or as separate posts dedicated entirely to a discussion of these sources), and have also shared this information through other channels (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) as well. To simplify the process, I've decided that, from now on, I will instead be listing these resources via my Amazon store. For this purpose, I've recently added a new category/section to my store entitled "Favorite Gourmet Groceries." Here, you will find listings for many hard-to-find specialty ingredients like black and white truffle oils, sumac, culinary lavender, semolina flour, Belgian chocolates, chía seeds, flaxseed, epazote, ghee, saffron filaments/threads, hing/asafoetida, tamarind paste, amchur/amchoor (mango) powder, black mustard seeds, curry leaves, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, etc., and many other products.

Additionally, you will also find separate sections for "Favorite Cookbooks" and "Favorite Kitchenware" that I highly recommend.  I hope you will enjoy checking out all of the aforementioned resources and that you find them helpful when you go to shop for some of the ingredients for the recipes on this blog. :)

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