Part I: Shopping—See how we source and select ingredients when testing a recipe, and learn insider tips for finding fresh, flavorful, and even hard-to-find foods.
SAVEUR’s test kitchen is in New York City, a location that provides a bonanza of grocery shopping opportunities—sometimes all on the same block. But that same bounty of goods can often engender confusion. What makes a tropical yam different from a sweet potato? Can we find full-fat buttermilk nearby? The process of testing our recipes always begins with research to familiarize ourselves with the items we’re looking for; then we head out to track them down.
For me, seeing friends we’ve made behind the counter while we’re out grocery shopping is one of the best parts of the job, and the list of stores that we frequent gets longer with each issue we work on. For instance, a recent shopping trip, which included a search of Asian markets for vegetables—from Chinese bitter melon to yam leaves—and a journey to Russian grocery stores in Brighton Beach introduced us to two shopkeepers who will surely make our task easier in the months to come. Over the years, we’ve built fond friendships with many vendors who are as excited about supplying new ingredients for us as we are about cooking with them.
We also pay very close attention to how we shop. Buying ingredients for recipe testing is not the same as buying them for use at home—a withering onion or stale spices can not only change the flavor of a dish but also make a recipe test unsuccessful or inaccurate. For that reason, we teach our interns, whose assignment often involves much shopping, the ins and outs of choosing impeccably fresh seafood, how to distinguish ripe fruits from ones that are past their prime, and determining the age of dry goods on the shelf.
As a SAVEUR reader, you probably like to shop off the beaten path as we do. Here are a few things we keep in mind while out at the stores.
• Know your shopkeepers. Do you have a produce buyer who calls you when she has the first rhubarb of the season? Or a butcher who will grind a special cut of meat for you? Stop by and tell your shopkeepers how your dish turned out, or, better yet, take them a taste. Talking with them will broaden your knowledge of the products they’re selling.
• When we’re shopping at ethnic grocery stores in particular, we do a little homework first. You need to spend only a few, frustrated minutes in Chinatown to realize that having a photo of or a translated name for an ingredient will get you much further when you don’t share a language with the person behind the counter.
• Don’t rule out buying online or via mail order. It’s not an especially cost-effective method, but ordering some of our special ingredients over the Web or by phone exposes us to small-batch producers or importers with whom we wouldn’t otherwise have been in touch.