Saturday, December 04, 2004

Trader Joe's Posted by Hello

Trader Joe's -- A Southern California Institution

Ahh, 'tis the weekend and the thoughts of cooks turn to ingredient acquisition. Since its early days at locations throughout southern California, Trader Joe's is the market that comes to mind. And now, this is true in major metropolitan areas throughout the United States. Trader Joe's ( has grown and its expansion verifies the attractiveness of its offerings.

Many know the pre-expansion stories. Once acquainted with the food products offered, loyal TJ's customers returned again and again and again. Those who moved away to areas that were not an easy commute to a TJ's store also returned -- with empty suitcases suitable for stashing away a few favorites for a trip to new-home locales. Southern Californians received desperate messages from friends, asking for just ONE more shipment of a care package of TJ's items.

The TJ's institution maintains loyalty beyond belief. So, what do they offer, that promotes such enthusiasm? Simply lovely ingredients and products, at the attractive price points achievable by volume purchasing, from around the world. Whew! A lot to offer -- even more to deliver, consistently. And that's what impresses we customers so much.

Today, many of the products offered bear the Trader Joe's registered brand, including a slight variation to the Trader Giotto's, Trader Jacques's, etc. (you get the idea) branding on imported items. Staples such as oils, vinegars, pastas, rices ... refrigerated items such as dairy products, meats, fish, produce ... wines, liquors, liqueurs, mineral waters .... organic household products, soaps, lotions ... the list is endless and wonderful. Certain new items are promoted, periodically, in a printed mini-magazine (the current issue is usually viewable at that is distributed by mail and in-store.

People meet strangers in the aisles and sing the praises of something new that they have just sampled and enjoyed. Recipe ideas are exchanged and cooking triumphs described. Just yesterday, at another grocery store, as I waited in the checkout line, the man in front of me turned around to ask, "Do you know where the nearest Trader Joe's is?" Clearly, he was in need of an ingredient that could better be purchased at TJ's! I pointed him in the right direction, he thanked me gratefully and off he went, happily on the track of his cooking plan for the weekend.

Sadly, Trader Joe's does not offer online shopping at this time. But, the recent expansion into many major metropolitan areas offers the chance to check into a location near your home, or as you travel. And, of course, there's always the care-package approach from your TJ's-adjacent friends throughout the country .......

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Andalucian Hillside with Olive Trees Posted by Hello

Andalucian Hillside with Olive Trees

Posted by HelloAndalucian Hillside with Olive Trees

This is the image that was browsing languidly through my brain as my tastebuds sent messages from yesterday's marinated mushrooms recipe. Suddenly, I was back in the Andalucian hills, learning about olive oils -- no airline ticket required.

Extra virgin olive oils are taken from the first pressing of fresh olives. To receive this designation, the oil must have less than one percent oleic acid. "First Cold Pressed" indicates that no heat was used in the crushing process, allowing the maximum amount of fresh, true scent and flavor to be retained.

Wonderful, fascinating olive oils are produced in many countries of the world. France, Italy and Spain jockey for positions of predominance. In any given year, one or the other country will produce the most, or export the most, or do something olive-oil-significant the most!

The tour guide in the Spanish olive oil mill was quick to point out that not all olive oil shipped from Italy is actually from olives grown and pressed in Italy. Only those labelled "Product of Italy" adhere to that requirement. A significant amount of olive oil that is marketed by Italian olive oil companies is actually Spanish oil that has been shipped to Italy for packaging and export. Based on my tasting of Spanish oils, this olive-oil globalization seems to be a fine thing indeed, for we consumers. All of these countries -- and others -- produce superb oils and provide an extraordinary ingredient base for our use.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Marinated Mushrooms

Now then, on to the important part of our discussion -- the food!

I like this simple little method for preparing a tasty appetizer or side salad. Mushrooms, being the little flavor sponges that they are, become a wonderful vehicle through which to showcase the special character of a favorite olive oil. This marinade will change flavor, subtly, with the use of different olive oils. Spicy, fruity, nutty, rich -- all lend themselves well to this easy dish.


4 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon tomato catsup
3 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried, crushed thyme)
1 clove garlic, crushed
Salt & pepper, to taste

Combine the above ingredients and pour over 1 pound of sliced, white mushrooms. Marinate for several hours, or as long as 24 hours, before serving to allow the flavors to blend and develop.

Serves 4 to 6.

I recently prepared this recipe with olive oil that I brought back with me from Andalucia, Spain. During that visit, I enjoyed several opportunities to taste local olive oils and visited a cooperative mill at which the olives from local growers are crushed for oil.

As is confirmed in so many blind taste tests by culinary organizations, the most-expensive oils are not necessarily the ones that hold the most appeal for individual tasters. The tour guide for the cooperative mill visit suggested that, for a good all-around olive oil to take home with us, similar to the ones that we had tasted, we simply do what the local home cooks do: go to the supermarket and look for extra virgin oils whose labels included the "producto de cooperativa" logo (a red, round logo with a tree design in the middle).

I followed the tour guide's advice and couldn't be happier with the product. It is golden in color and smoothly fruity in flavor. Unfortunately, the bottle is already half empty so my sleuthing for similar oils, available in the U.S., is in progress. Several "finds" have already appeared. But, we'll talk about that another day! For now, I will enjoy memories of Andalucia's hillsides of olive trees as I enjoy some more tasty, marinated mushrooms.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Striking Oil

You never know when "ingredient inspiration" will strike. Or what will trigger it.

One sunny day in southern California, I was contentedly reading Frances Mayes' wonderful and inspiring book Under the Tuscan Sun. As you probably already know, this book describes the series of discoveries that came her way as she undertook the purchase and renovation of a home in the hills near Cortona, Italy. As I read the true story that sunny day, and each time that I have re-read it, I too was surrounded with a feeling of discovery. For, like all true cooks, Ms. Mayes found that the joy of her new location often focused on the gathering and preparing of wonderful new foods. Her descriptions of the experience would send even the most jaded taste buds into overdrive!

As I read her description about her first year's harvest of olives, the crushing of them and the bottling of her own, homegrown extra virgin olive oil, my inspiration began to take hold. Olive oil, it was becoming clear, had a unique personality, just like wine. Growing conditions, weather conditions during harvest and crushing method are all strong influences on the character of the oil. And each proud grower, whether harvesting a private crop of olives or producing a mega-crop for retail distribution, awaits with great anticipation and trepidation the verdict on the quality of the year's efforts.

Ms. Mayes described a Cortona festival, at which nine different oils -- from nine different growers -- were tasted as an afternoon's event. All were available, with bread for accompaniment, in the town's Piazza. She described how she and her husband were awestruck by the entire concept of the event. And then, in lovely detail, her words turned poetic and linked the flavor components of the oils, when tasted, to the area's hot winds of summer, first rains of autumn, sunlight on leaves. I couldn't wait to turn my attention to searching out new olive oils on my own, settling down to taste them and letting the wonderful essences work poetic wonders on my own palette!

My first selections, for my own private tasting festival, have now faded into memory. But, the astonishing realization of their differences in flavor has influenced my cooking ever since that day. I no longer trudge to my cupboard, haul out "the" (one and only) bottle of olive oil waiting there and perfunctorily splash a bit of it into a pan before cooking. No, not since my own personal "striking oil" inspiration. Now, olive oil is an integral element of my cooking. It is used to enhance and develop the flavors of a dish, to add just the right touch of spicy bite or the combining element of smooth richness that is needed to draw together the other ingredients in a dish.

As is so often true in cooking, the simple, straightforward uses of wonderful ingredients are often the best. This thought races through my mind each time that I take a piece of bread, dribble on some rich, flavorful olive oil and rub a freshly-halved clove of garlic over the oiled bread. Food of the gods, with a little help from serious olive growers all over the world!

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Welcome to the Ingredient Sleuth!

Thanksgiving Eve, 2004, seems to be an appropriate time to initiate a blog about the basic building blocks of cooking -- the ingredients!

No matter where you live, great ingredients are awaiting you. They also await you as you travel, hoping to be selected for an exciting trip home in your suitcase (in compliance with governmental customs and food import restrictions).

Add to the thrill of the find by using the ingredients to pep up a tired recipe -- or to create a whole new dish and name it after yourself! All it takes is keeping one's eyes open and one's taste buds in gear!

See you soon, with some thoughts about olive oil. And, in the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble 'til you wobble .....