Saturday, September 22, 2012

The single supermarket solution

At least I don't have to crack and grate them by hand.
I live near both a Safeway and a Whole Foods. When I need aluminum foil, sugar, Windex or Rice Krispies, I go to Safeway and buy everything else on my list there. Except fish. If I was thinking of cooking fish, I decide to cook something else. My friend Lisa once said: "I won't get a flu shot from a place that sells fish, and I won't buy fish from a place that gives flu shots." I haven't been able to buy fish from Safeway since.

If I want fancy stuff like, I don't know, melons, prosciutto, dark chocolate, or French cheese, I go to Whole Foods and buy everything else on my list there, although if we need paper towels, I decide we can go another week without them. I can't bring myself to buy paper towels at Whole Foods when they are so much cheaper at Safeway.

Thursday was a Whole Foods day. I had filled my cart and was looking for sweetened coconut because I was making a Lane cake from my new copy of Southern Cakes and it calls for coconut. There was no coconut in the baking aisle, so I asked a clerk where they kept their sweetened shredded coconut.

He said, "Actually, we only have unsweetened coconut. You should probably know we're not really into sweetened products here."

Gosh. So foolish to assume that a store devoting half its shelf space to gluten-free Oreo knockoffs, chocolate-coated energy bars, organic toaster pastries, grape Vitamin Water, and soy ice cream would sell something as gross as sweetened shredded coconut.

Why can't one of the supermarkets in this town sell both good fish and sweetened coconut? Bulk beans and affordable dishwasher soap? Camembert and Snickers bars?

My life is very hard.

Lots and lots of cashews in Suriani cooking, and The Suriani Kitchen includes a recipe for a fresh cashew saute. Thursday night I made cashew chicken which involves cubed chicken breast, onion, yogurt, spices, and cashew paste. Lathika George makes clear that no component can be allowed to brown "as this will add color to the creamy whiteness of the dish." I allowed nothing to brown and the dish was indeed very white, almost scarily white. Tasty, though. There were the usual timing/quantity glitches I have come to expect from The Suriani Kitchen, but I can usually work around them. She calls for 8 chicken breasts to serve 4 people, which is way too much chicken. You need 4 chicken breasts (actually, chicken breast halves) to serve 4 people. Not a big deal.

Instead of rice to accompany the chicken, I made parotta, which, as the name suggests, is related to the more familiar paratha. George describes parotta as "a delightfully flaky bread. . . . The dough is folded, stretched, coiled, and then rolled into thick disks and cooked on a griddle. The flatbreads are then crushed lightly to fluff them up, which makes them soft and flaky."

This was not my experience of parotta. What I made was more like stiff pita and useless for soaking up the delicious cashew gravy. My fault? The recipe? I'm fascinated by George's roster of rice-based breads and pancakes, but they almost all call for "roasted rice flour" which I have yet to track down.

For dessert we had the Lane cake. It was fantastic, a vanilla layer cake filled with a rich, supersweet custard of egg yolk, sugar, butter, chopped raisins, pecans, coconut and bourbon, and topped with fluffy white icing. I didn't take any pictures, but this is how a proper Lane cake looks.

On another subject, I reviewed T. Coraghessan Boyle's San Miguel for NPR's web site. It's a terrific book. The heroines would probably give their eye teeth for any supermarket at all.

Today, we resumed work on our oven. The brick arch is giving me a lot of heartache.


  1. Wegman's seems to have all the things. Whenever I visit PA, I get jealous of the huge counters of wonderful everything. I wish they'd come to Cali.

  2. My only experience with Whole Foods was at my mother's home - I needed gelatin (unsweetened) and nope, they don't carry gelatin of any kind.

    I'm very happy to have a single store that stocks a huge Asian ingredients section, a fantastic deli/cheese department, and their fresh departments (meat, seafood and fruit/vegetables) are the best around.

    The store is called "Central Market" and they are in the Seattle area. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I realized that I could buy pancetta and fresh miso at the same store.

    Yes, the prices are more expensive and if I have lots of pantry staples to buy I'll go to a different store. But 80% of the time I'm at Central Market and am happy to support a local independent grocery store.

  3. I live in the Twin Cities, land of grocery co-ops. I don't think ours has sweetened coconut, but it was unsweetened that I've used to delicous effect many times since everything else in the recipe is sweet. It sells beans and soap in bulk, good fish (though small selection), great cheeses, and while it doesn't carry Snickers it does carry the Salty Dog bar, made by a local chocolatier, with dark chocolate, butter toffee and sea salt: I do all our grocery shopping here, but I do get paper products at Target. I used to go to 2 or 3 stores, and my life is so much simpler by going to just one.

  4. Ms Reese,
    Read your review of Boyle's new book.
    "nervy" and "sere." You are one fine writer with a gift for placing words in a subtle and careful way.
    Thanks for posting and sharing your stories.

  5. I share your lament, Jennifer. My twice monthly weekend trek: Berkeley Bowl and Safeway. Even if funds were unlimited, which they will never be, having been raised by my Depression era parents I could never justify buying cereal, paper products, and such at BB. I also long for a single store that satisfies the frugal foodie in all of us.

  6. That WF guy is kind of a jerk. I used to work at a hippie co-op and lots of us loved sugar and I never saw any employee be snotty to anyone about their food choices.

    The PNW has a couple of regional chains that carry gourmet foods alongside your Hefty bags and whatnot: and

  7. Dear Mrs. Reese,
    I understand your frustration. That's why I don't buy fish anymore...Don't get me wrong, I love fish, I'm from Germany's only country with two coasts (Nordic and Baltic Sea) but I decided I can go without fish rather than without a steak. But I get ever so frustrated when the cheapest foreign ingredients ( like brown sugar, corn syrup and such) cost a million Euro here in Germany. We have a lot of markets selling great cheese and bargain tissue at the same but above always bothers me. You know what a BC or DH cake mix costs here? 5€ or 6 something Dollars at least. Probably you sell the same for Dr. Oetker baking products...
    Whatever, I buy a lot at ethic stores and I try to make do with what I have. That's also why I love your book. Marshmallow fluff I'd have to mail-order and it would be 4€ a jar.Making my own from your book is 0,90 ct. Same goes for many other items. Happy to hear from you, Susanne

  8. That Lane cake is insane. InsLane.

  9. I can't believe that Whole Foods person said they don't go in for sweetened. What a snit. That store is chock full of sugar!!!! all sorts of cookies and chocolate and desserts. Who do they think they are kidding?

  10. Just thought I'd drop a quick comment about the chicken breasts. Chickens come in a huge variety of sizes, particularly when you're working from a foreign recipe book. When I lived in the USA I was very surprised to see the chickens at the meat counter were twice the size that I was used to in Canada. And yes, half an American breast was fine for one person, but in Canada a whole bird barely feeds three people.

  11. Move to the northeast and shop at Wegmans. :-)

  12. Hi Jennifer,

    I just thought I would let you know that Michael Ruhlman referred to your review of "Ratio" in Slate today, saying it was his favorite.

  13. I miss Central Market in Texas. There is no equivalent here. I can't believe they gave you attitude at Whole Foods. Oh wait, yes I can. Are you building a temporary prop for your oven arch? I can see how this would be the most difficult part...

  14. howzabout a nostalgic drive over to the sunset for a shop at andronico's?
    i seem to recall they have the staples at semi-reasonable prices plus good meat and fish.
    and there's always that asian fish market down the street.

  15. I had the same experience with finding sweetened shredded coconut for a fruit ambrosia salad. I was there for something else and thought "what the hell, i'll get it while i'm here" only to find that it was nooo where.

    I bought the unsweetened kind anyway just in case and ended up using it in a batter for chicken, but I just had to comment because this literally happened a month or two ago to me!