MIA Ingredients

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Of all the phrases in the culinary lexicon, the words "available in any market" and "available everywhere" strike the most fear in my heart. Why? Because the celebrity chefs who speak them seem to think that New York, Chicago, and LA constitute the entire country.

It's not just celebrity chefs who suffer from this syndrome. A recent discussion at the cookbook forum revolved around the same issue---recipes supposedly aimed at the general American public which called for strange, hard-to-find, and unavailable ingredients.

The fact is, for many---perhaps most---of us, ingredients are the hardest things to locate. What may be commonly sold in New York is irrelevent, because it's a special ingredient if you live in, say, Salt Lake City. Or, to put a point on it, "everywhere" doesn't include Richmond, KY.

I was wondering, therefore: If you had a choice, what missing-in-action ingredients would you like to see available locally that aren't?

For me there's a long list. And it changes frequently, because I do such diverse cooking and recipe testing. But high up are the various specialty peppers: Aleppo, for instance, and Piment d'Espelette. The fact is, even sechuan peppercorns are unavailable locally, and I have to search long and hard for ancho chili powder.

Another group would be seafood. Although it's certainly better now than in the past, most fresh (or even FAS) seafood, taken for granted in the coastal cities, is MIA in central Kentucky. I would love to try grilling fresh sardines, for instance. But I've never seen one, let alone been able to toss it on the barbie. Striped bass are available only because I catch my own from our lakes. But nonanglers have to do without; as they do with most shellfish and finned fish.

Then there are......well, enough of my desires. What "available everywhere" ingredients do you most miss?
 
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  Alot of the spices you can get online.  One place Ive found with a nice selection is spicebarn.com  

  Also if the city you live in has a Chinatown, they usually have many hard to find ingredients at great prices.
 
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Closest china town is a 250 mile round trip so I know what KY means. Most of the Asian condiments and spices are unavailable locally as an example. Yes you can get some stuff online but frequently the shipping doubles the cost of the item. In the middle of nowhere Minnesota fresh fish is not available and a lot of the stores only carry frozen tilapia, pollock(blech), or processed into fish sticks mystery fish.
 
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When I go back to my parents' house, which is in a small town in Louisiana, I realize how spoiled I am living in a larger city. The grocery stores have only the most basic produce, rarely any fresh seafood, and margin steaks at best. The thing I miss the most when I'm there is the variety of produce that I can get where I live. For example, I was trying to make mirliton dressing a while back, but mirlitons aren't available in their local store. Quite a disappointment.
 
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That's really strange, Tyler, considering how much mirlitons are associated with Louisianna cookery. Just goes to prove that even "common" ingredients may not be so once you get out of the metro areas.

Hey, tirednoodles, welcome to Cheftalk. Hope you find it a nice place to hang out.

You're missing the point of this thread, however. Many of us do not live in large cities, or even medium sized ones. So the diversity of ethnic and specialty ingredients is absent (mostly because we don't have ethnic neighborhoods, like Chinatowns, either).

Sure, ordering on-line has made things more available, if you're willing to pay high prices and even higher shipping.

To put this in perspective, I live in the rural area of a county whose largest city has a population of 75,000. The nearest large city, Lexington, has a population less than a half million. The Lexington Metropoliton Statistic Area, which includes the city, Fayette Cty., and part of my county, including my city, is only aroun 650K.

The nearest big city is Cincinnati, with roughly 2.3 million. I'm sure there are ethnic and specialty food stores there. But it's a 190 mile round trip; not something I do very often, and certainly not something I'd do for just one or two "available everywhere" ingredients.
 
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Population density is the county I live in is 15 people per square mile, closest place to shop is a town of 16,000 and that is a 50 mile round trip. Super WalMart and 2 local grocery chains are my choices. 250 mile round trip to anywhere with stores that would carry anything beyond the ordinary grocery items.
 
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MaryB do we know each other? I'm in the same boat as you with a 140 mile r/t each shopping day.

I do have Canada just a few more miles past that, but our NAFTA contract makes it impossible for me to bring back to America those hard to find items, simply because the USA forbids me to.

If it is not grown in Canada or the USA forgetaboutit!

Everyday ingredients that I find "Normal" I can not get.  Silly things like radicchio, rapini, mirlitons, fresh ginger, lemon grass, the list is endless.

To make matters worse, when the local store DOES get an item in, they usually do not know how to merchandise it so, it is left on the shelf to rot, or gets soaking wet under those sprayers they have on the shelves.

Sushi is the hot ticket item here these days and the stores sell some pre-made in those plastic clam shells with various pieces in them.

Trying to find the ingredients to make my own, I have to go to a health food store to get Nori, or Kombu, and even the rice, because local grocery chains don't carry them.....as yet.
 
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Y'all know it's not always population density or demographics that determines these things. Sometimes it's just stupidity.

For instance, despite being a university town, and despite being included in the SMSA of the second largest city in the state, our local supermarket is classified by it's chain masters as being a "country" location. Among other things, that dictates what the store does or does not sell. In the case of this chain, that means little in the way of ingredients used by even a semi-sophisticated public.

Take Chefross's short list: radicchio, rapini, mirlitons, fresh ginger, lemon grass. Other than fresh ginger, none of these things has ever appeared in our local Kroger. Despite a growing Latino population, its "Mexican" section consists of tortillas, canned refried beans, and taco kits. Even Walmart does better than that.

What really amuses me is watching some of the food competitions. Top Chef and The Next Iron Chef for instance. When those people go shopping it's most often at the local Whole Foods. Uh, huh! We've got a Whole Foods in Lexington. The entire store would fit in the seafood section of the one used by those shows. About the only thing similar between our Whole Foods and the one in New York is the prices.
 
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Lucky me! I live at a 5 minute drive from a small town with 45000 inhabitants. Like in many european cities there's an ever growing population of "allochtones", mainly from Marocco and other African countries. So, in one street we have 2 exotic supermarkets with all kinds of products you won't find in regular supermarkets over here; all kinds of herbs and spices, bundles of fresh Thai basil, dille, tarragon, koriander (aka cilantro, aka Maroccan parcely), bomba rice to make paella, also very good for risotto, all kinds of feta and the like cheeses that you have to fish out of brine yourself, presented in big metal containers, all kinds of veggies not available in regular shops over here like sweet potatoe, chard, butternut pumpkin, quince!, figues, jerusalem artichokes, baby aubergines, all kinds of hot peppers...., spice mixes such as garam massala, ras al hanut, chinese 5 spices,...etc. etc.

Also, all kinds of dried beans, an essential part of food in African countries. I searched very long for fresh broadbeans (known inItalian cuisine as "fave" beans) until I found them frozen in one of these shops.

In the same street there's also a Maroccan butcher (lamb!), a Maroccan bakery producing all kinds of goodies such as a pan-baked Maroccan flatbread, a Turkish bakery/grocery with that wonderful flatbread covered in sesamseeds, rich fat yoghurt, nice Turkish honey...

The negative part is that there's also an extended trade of unallowed stuff in the street, not necessarely considered food, you know what I mean, so many autochtones -except me and a few others- don't get there. Also, when I use the word supermarket, you have to think north-African "souk", which doesn't bother me at all. I love some "couleur locale".
 
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You know what, Cris? Nobody likes a braggart! /img/vbsmilies/smilies/biggrin.gif

I'd kill for that neighborhood. Moroccan food is very big in this household, and I either have to make many of the ingredients (i.e., harrisa, ras el hanout, preserved lemons, etc.) or order them on-line---which often requires a second mortgage. Not that I mind making those things; homemade is always better. But just getting the ingredients can require some serious detective work.
 
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Speaking of ingredients in recipes that are not available here, the one that probably bothers me most is canned broth. I do make my own broth occasionally, when i want pastina in broth, but otherwise I'm not about to make broth to use a cup of it in some recipe.  I've found some chicken bouillion powder in some organic food stores, and at least it's not 90% msg, as ALL the others are here, and they have Liebig beef extract, which i guess is just simply a reduction of beef broth, reduced to a sticky dark brown stuff.  But actual canned broth, it would be so handy. 

I miss many other things but they're not actually  "ingredients" - top of the list, even before Bagels, is Thomas' English Muffins.  Even in the UK they don't have english muffins like this - with the big holes and the chewy texture. 
 
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You know what, Cris? Nobody likes a braggart! /img/vbsmilies/smilies/biggrin.gif

I'd kill for that neighborhood. Moroccan food is very big in this household, and I either have to make many of the ingredients (i.e., harrisa, ras el hanout, preserved lemons, etc.) or order them on-line---which often requires a second mortgage. Not that I mind making those things; homemade is always better. But just getting the ingredients can require some serious detective work.
To put the cherry on top, I forgot they sell terracotta original Maroccan tajines too! And all kinds of couscous in medium, fine and course sizes...Don't drool too much my friend!

Oh, and everything you mentioned, even ready made stuff to literally blow your mind out, like this;

 
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Go ahead. Rub it in. See if I care.

But when you least expect it, expect it. /img/vbsmilies/smilies/thumb.gif
 
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Here, look around on this blog called "Absolutely delicious with Soulafa" , the best blog around Moroccan cooking I found. It sounds english, but alas, it's in French. I do hope you speak a little french. If you really want some translation, yell.

http://absolumentbon.canalblog.com/  

BTW, the harissa is next to the chermoula...
 

kcz

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I live in northern New England, and while I have a better fish and seafood selection that some of you, I can relate to this whole topic very well.  Besides the aforementioned hard-to-find ingredients and ethnic foods, the things I miss most are fresh vegetables.  From October to May, every vegetable in the supermarkets here has been on a truck from California or a ship from Chile for weeks.  Everything is wilted and tasteless.  Blech.
 
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You know, KCZ, that's a problem we all share in the winter months.

One slight correction, however. The supermarket produce is wilted because of how they handle it. It usually arrives in perfect shape. As for the tasteless part, blame for that does lay with the growers. It's an unfortunate part of the food distribution system we live with. The fact is, supermarket produce is tasteless in high summer as well.

There are noteable exceptions. For instance, in your part of the world, check out the work being done by Eliot Coleman, who produces fresh, tasty produce in Maine in the dead of winter.
 
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kcz

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Just looked at his website.  It appears he only actually sells vegetables June-Sept, like every other farmer here.  He's not near me anyway, so I guess it's a moot point.
 
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Quote:
That's really strange, Tyler, considering how much mirlitons are associated with Louisianna cookery. Just goes to prove that even "common" ingredients may not be so once you get out of the metro areas.
My parents live in North Louisiana, where mirlitons are a little less used than in South Louisiana.

I actually thought about this thread as I was shopping today at the local Central Market. I picked up some beautiful lamb loin chops, organic Washington purple potatoes, and some great fresh herbs. None of that would have been available anywhere back home. It's great living in a large city.
 
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I want Semolina flour.  How hard is that?  Even when I lived in Austin, TX, the biggest grocery store chain didn't carry it.  Where I am now, in the suburbs of the "sticks" in TN, if it ain't self-rising, AP, and if you go to the really "cool" stores, you can pick up BREAD flour, but otherwise, you're SOL. 

Forget about vanilla beans, or anything remotely exotic in produce.  If you asked for bok choi, they say "bless you".
 
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. The fact is, supermarket produce is tasteless in high summer as well.
   That is a sad statement...yet very true.  

    You may have trouble getting some ingredients where you live, but there are many that you grow yourself that can turn all of us a bit envious.

   dan
 
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