specialty items

Last month, I was at Pike Place Market with my dear friend Katie. It was her first visit to Seattle, and after showing her the flying fish, the first Starbucks, and all the amazing food vendors, I paused on the cobblestone street and said, “I just need to grab something from this Indian grocer.” I quickly strode into The Souk and found what I was looking for: black mustard seeds. After paying a couple dollars, I reconvened with Katie outside the store, and she commented, “I don’t think I’ll ever cook anything that calls for a spice that’s not available at a regular supermarket.”

Katie’s comment got me thinking. Trips to multiple markets = delightful or aggravating? Certainly it depends on the person. But me? I’ve never met a market I didn’t love. Just yesterday I went to three groceries before noon (no way am I buying romaine hearts at Fred Meyer for $2.99 when they’re $1.99 at Trader Joe’s!). And markets that carry specialty items are the best. Many agree with me, obviously. But several fall into the other camp, usually sticking to the standard spices and ingredients. And then there’s actually a third camp, which I sometimes fall into. This is those of us who love using special ingredients, but often don’t have what we need on hand and decide to make the recipe anyway, hoping it’ll turn out okay. Sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t. So from the me who went into The Souk that day to get the mustard seeds, here’s my reccomendation:

Step 1: Find a recipe that calls for something you’ve never heard of.
Step 2: Google the ingredient so you understand how it’s sold in the U.S. and what you’re looking for once you get to the store. (Be sure to check if it has any alternate names in English.)
Step 3: Find a store.
Step 4: Make the trip, even if it takes some effort.
Step 5: Cook the recipe and be prepared to have your taste buds amazed.

For inspiration, here are a few of my favorite recipes that call for ingredients not available at most “regular” stores.

Cucumber Peanut Salad 101 Cookbooks
This is the salad that calls for black mustard seeds. It’s very easy to make, minus the chopping of the cukes, and the cheapness of the ingredients makes up for the effort you have to make to get the mustard seeds!

Pasta with Mustard Greens Pesto, Shiitake Mushrooms, and Smoked Mozzarella Bon Appétit
This recipe is borderline. It’s very possible to find all the ingredients in a standard grocery, and definitely at Whole Foods, but there are still some specialty ingredients that are necessary to make this recipe as written. And if you’re not going to try it as written, you shouldn’t bother. The smoked mozzarella and shiitake mushrooms are a must.

Palak Daal 101 Cookbooks
The first few times I made this I couldn’t find urad dal anywhere, so I substituted chana dal and brown lentils. And the dal was good. But when I finally found urad dal at an Indian grocer, I was delighted by how improved this dish was.

Laarb (Thai chicken “salad”) Mark Bittman’s “The Best Recipes in the World”
Laarb (Laab, Larb) could very well be my favorite dish in the entire world. It’s a Laotian dish made with meat, fresh herbs, fish sauce, and lime juice. It’s usually served with cabbage and other fresh vegetables. Ground toasted rice is an important component of the dish. It’s not too hard to make, but you do need to stock your pantry with some specific ingredients from Asian grocery stores.

Salmon in Bengali Mustard Sauce  Saveur
Shout out to Rachel who told me I had to try this recipe. It fit well with a weekend trip to Pike Place, where we picked up salmon and mustard powder. I think it would work well with other fish besides salmon. Serve with some yummy basmati rice.