It has been just over a year since I started this column, and writing those 50-odd articles, which were often about food shopping, has allowed me to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: wandering aimlessly in any kind of market, from the fanciest gourmet shop to the dingiest corner grocery. Honestly, I’d rather shop for the ingredients for my dinner than peruse a restaurant menu. Hours of my life have slipped away while I sniff peaches at the farmer’s market, or taste every kind of olive oil at Fairway, or ask for sample after sample of feta cheese at Titan in Astoria (it doesn’t hurt that they have employed a ridiculously handsome young Greek God to man the counter).
Along the way I have made many discoveries that have changed my pantry forever, though most have not fit into any article. Here are my ten favorite new staples (in no particular order).
Chiankiang Vinegar $1.59 at Sunrise Mart (21.2 ounce bottle)
I bought this hoping it would taste like the vinegar that sits on the tables at my favorite dim sum restaurants, and it does. I like to mix it with soy sauce for dipping pork and shrimp jumbo dumplings from May May or wontons from Bo Chang Food & Meat Market.
Homemade Kimchi $3.99/pound at Natural Land
I have always liked kimchi, but when it appeared in my neighborhood grocery store, I became disturbingly addicted to their particular version. It is very spicy, crunchy, and gingery, and not overwhelmed by fish sauce, as many are. As soon as I set foot in this store, the guys behind the counter start making fun of me “Need some kimchi?”
Muir Glen canned tomatoes $2.19 at Whole Foods (28 ounce can)
I love canned tomatoes. I think tomato sauce should be made from them for all but the most summery meals. I used to get sidetracked by all the nice looking Italian labels, but I have settled on the Muir Glen brand, which is organic. It just tastes better, plus they make whole peeled plum tomatoes without any basil in the can, which is surprisingly rare.
Koura Saifan Extra Virgin Olive Oil $19.99 at Sahadi’s (2.88 liter jug)
One of the earliest lessons I learned from my mother was to buy olive oil in bulk and store it in a cool, dark place. This unfiltered, first-cold-pressed oil from Lebanon is dark green, intensely flavored—and a lot less expensive than similar Italian varieties.
Flying Pig’s Farm uncured smoked bacon $10.50/pound (slab or sliced) at Union Square Greenmarket and Grand Army Plaza Farmer’s Market
It is tough to pick just one product from this company, as they have the tastiest pork around, and I have a bit of a pig obsession. But the bacon, which I received for free not long ago as a bonus for buying a ham hock for my white bean soup, was a particularly pleasant discovery. It is smoked but uncured, with no nitrates added. It adds intense flavor (but not intense saltiness) to mustard greens or kale. They also sell fresh pork belly.
All Natural Cream Cheese $8/pound at Russ & Daughters
Philly’s tastes fine until you try the natural cream cheese at Russ & Daughters. Last year, Emily Cantor, a former restaurant cook who does a lot of the ordering for the store, introduced her staff to the wonder of cream cheese without the chemicals and gum in supermarket brands. There is no sticky, tacky, or gooey element—they put the cream back in cream cheese.
Dodonis Feta $6.99/pound at Titan Foods
Made from sheep’s milk, this is my favorite among many delicious fetas behind the counter at my favorite Greek market. It has a creamier, less crumbly texture, and a richer, more complex flavor than the saltier varieties.
Koine Primitivo $10.99 at Chelsea Wine Vault
I grew up drinking wine and developed a very specific taste for it, which is exactly the same as my father’s (dry, intense, never fruity). Out of pride for the motherland, I have followed in his footsteps and rarely purchased anything un-Italian. But unlike him, I do not have the attention span to read about vineyards and certainly do not carry around a crazy little notebook for my wino observations. Instead, when I find something I like, I just keep buying it. Koine is a primitivo from Puglia and I’m buying it.
Gorilla Coffee $10/pound at Gorilla
Gorilla coffee, roasted right in Brooklyn, is my favorite. The stuff brewed in the coffee shop is strong enough to pull me out of the deepest Sunday morning coma, and when I’m too lazy to get to the shop, I make it at home. Nicaragua is the darkest bean they carry, and they all work great in a French press.
Bhutanese Red Rice about $5/pound at Kalyustan’s
Did you know there was such a thing as red rice? Did you know there were several types of red rice? Well, you can go to Kalyustan’s and buy them all, but my favorite is from Bhutan, between India and China, partly in the Himalayas (remember when Cameron Diaz went there on her environment show? No?) The rice is a fat, stubby short-grain with a strong earthy flavor. Plus, your friends will be impressed that you know that the official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha.