What I Buy at Trader Joe’s – Part 2

Oh, this list can go on forever, but I’ll try to fill in the blanks little by little, each time with a new list of goodies. I have fun at Trader Joe’s. I have fun at supermarkets period. At farmer’s markets. At Costco. At foreign supermarkets, outdoor markets, little food stores. Seeing food on display, deciding what you want, imagining recipes, discovering new products, sampling, happy to see the season’s new crops…I love all of that. It’s my idea of a good time.

New List of My Trader Joe’s Favs:

Fresh Artichokes – 4 medium artichokes to a pack – cheap money

Fresh Artichokes at Trader Joe's

Fresh Artichokes at Trader Joe’s

I am an artichoke junkie. I love the Italian word for artichokes: carciofi. Finding fresh ones, consistently, that aren’t the size of tractor trailers, that are human-sized, that you can cook up in the many ways I love to cook them (here’s one recipe), is sometimes the equivalent of obtaining the Holy Grail (yes, I exaggerate). But these are gold-like to me. And TJ’s is the only place where the packages are stacked high and easy to buy. I grew up eating them “Italian-style” then shared an apartment on LI with a California friend (hello, Castroville, CA, American capital of artichoke growing) and learned her way of eating them and then we came up with a recipe we both adored: boil or steam them till the heart is tender. Make a dip of mayo, lemon juice and soy sauce. Umami-central.

Olives (Picholine)

Trader Joe's Picholine Olives

Trader Joe’s Picholine Olives

Trader Joe’s has 3 different olives that I love. Picholine is one of them. Perfect acidity, soft but al dente, goes with ANYTHING. My other favs are their pitted Kalamata and the green Jaques Lucques olives–oh, yum.

Red Argentinian Shrimp

Trader Joe's Argentine Shrimp

Trader Joe’s Argentinian Shrimp

These are in the freezer section. Raw, shelled. And are not always available. They SELL OUT. Something unusual about this shrimp. They are pink while raw, and they are soft when cooked. It’s an odd, pleasant, and luxurious sensation to bite into one, like you’ve been invited to the high gourmand table.

Trader Joe’s Italian Shelled Fava Beans

Trader Joe's Frozen Fava Beans

Trader Joe’s Frozen Fava Beans

This product is a boon to mankind. How often do you run across fresh fava beans? I do, sometimes. Sometimes in the regular supermarket. More often in the Asian market. But not always. THESE are out of their pods, but still in their individual shells. I just discovered them in TJ’s freezer section last month. LOVE. I give them a quick blanche, then peel each shell away to reveal that startling green lovely, so lovely, fava bean. My fav recipe: Sauté some sliced onion and diced pancetta in some olive oil. Add beans, add a bit of wine. Cook for just 5 minutes or so (TJ’s are young beans, so don’t need to cook too long). Add some salt. LOVE this.

Walnuts, Halves & Pieces

Trader Joe's Walnuts Halves & Pieces

Trader Joe’s Walnuts Halves & Pieces

So when I usually buy walnuts they are whole. Supposedly, that’s preferred. If you’re snacking on them I’m sure that whole is more satisfying. But if you’re cooking, I end up breaking them between my fingers (since on a board with a knife they tend to have a flight life all their own). Trader Joe’s sells them broken. TJ’s nut department– no, not the employees — nor the shoppers — but the nuts as in walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, cashews, peanuts, almonds is EXTENSIVE. It’s a pleasure just to peruse the shelves and marvel at the variety. Yes, you can get whole walnuts, but I like these broken ones…ready to go. Same with pecans, whole or broken, candied or salted, raw or roasted. And the list goes on…leaving an irresistible trail for you to follow …nibbling all the way.

Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

Trader Joe's Cocoa Powder

Trader Joe’s Cocoa Powder

I love this package. And I love this cocoa. What more could you want?

Blood Oranges (when they have them)

Trader Joe's Blood Oranges

Trader Joe’s Blood Oranges

I almost fainted when I saw this bag of blood oranges at Trader Joe’s this past January. They’re a rare commodity. They aren’t there now. But you never know. And that’s the thing about Trader Joe’s. They come up with seasonal stuff. (Like a 2-foot branch of Brussels sprouts. And their burnt-around-the edges-but yummy matzoh crackers only in around Passover.) And then it’s gone. Grab it when you can. These blood oranges are so delicious, not as sweet as “orange” oranges, but the tartness elevates the flavor. They’re so pretty and remind me of my student days in Rome. My other fav TJ’s orange is the Cara Cara.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for Part 3. Because there’s always something cool to get at TJ’s. Don’t be shy about trying stuff. You will likely not go wrong. (They ain’t paying me for this.) (Maybe they should!) 🙂

TJ's Blood Oranges

TJ’s Blood Oranges

What I Buy at Costco – Part One

Campo dei Fiori, Rome, Italy

Campo dei Fiori, Rome, Italy

Costco ain’t Campo dei Fiori. But…

I resisted for a long time. The idea of paying a yearly fee to shop didn’t sit right with me. But my mom (my voice of reason and still my advisor) encouraged we join. So we did. Little by little we discovered and tried and explored and now have a list of regular stuff we buy and rely on.

Costco’s brand is Kirkland. It’s not the only brand they sell, but when you see the Kirkland label you know it’s reliable and (so far that we’ve tried) really good quality.

Everything is extensive at Costco. Huge produce department, cheese department, meat and fish, big frozen food department, aisles and aisles of jarred, canned, packaged foods. I push around the SUV-sized shopping cart thru aisles stacked, stocked & full…agape at this Museum of Giant Food.

Here’s what helps: my mom and I often share stuff, which means we can get the multi-can package of baked beans, or the large bag of mini-cucumbers, or the 8-to-a-pack artisan romaine lettuce, or the 4-lb package of unsalted butter sticks. And because of my classes I often pick up the “large” size; my menus absorb quantity. STILL a single shopper can do great (helps to have a freezer).

I’ve got a long list of favorites but here’s a partial roundup. It would be fun to take people with me when I shop so I can show them where I get my ingredients. People in my classes often ask. In lieu of that, here’s a Costco shopping tour on a page!

Large Bag ‘O Lemons/5 lbs.

Costco Lemons

Costco Lemons

I LOVE lemons. Not only do they sneak into many of my recipes but I’m in the habit of making Duane and I a lemon elixir every morning. We split a squeezed lemon and a squeezed orange with a little water. It’s a shot of toxic-clearing liver-cleansing goodness. (This morning drink was recommended by Mom, but, added to that, I remember long ago when I was doing a residency at the MacDowell Colony, a long-time-resident writer there would drink a cup of hot water with lemon every morning. She was about 95 years old.) Costco lemons are beautiful and sometimes as large as the ones I found in Amalfi! Here’s something fun to do with lemons inspired by the Amalfi Coast: Click Here for TV Demo SegmentClick Here for Recipe

Columbian Coffee… 3 lbs

Costco Columbian Coffee

Costco Columbian Coffee

Okay. My mom’s advice again. She insists Columbian coffee tastes the best and loves this coffee. I don’t drink coffee (except espresso), but Duane drinks coffee every morning. He’s not fussy about what kind but likes this one just fine (it certainly smells heavenly). The price for the quality is excellent.

Citterio Italian Rosemary Ham… 2 – 1/2 lb. packs

Citterio Rosemary Ham

Citterio Rosemary Ham

Imported from Italy. This ham has a slight hint of rosemary giving it an exotic irresistible spin. Comes in a 2-pack. I cut them apart and freeze one for later.

Already Peeled (except for tail) Raw Shrimp…2 lbs.

Kirkland Shrimp

Kirkland Shrimp

Kirkland brand, 31-40 to a pound. So easy to defrost in 1/2 hour (put in a bowl and run cold water on top, then let sit in cold water until soft). I love shrimp (okay, who doesn’t?). Here’s a fav shrimp recipe: Spaghetti w Shrimp

Grated Parmesan Cheese…3 lbs.

Cello Grated Cheese

Cello Grated Cheese

Yes, I know. Grating your own parmigiano or grana padana is IDEAL. But I go through a lot of cheese in my classes. Not only is grating yourself time-consuming, parmigiano is EXPENSIVE. I found this Cello brand grated domestic parmesan to be a superior quality and it complements so many of my recipes. It’s reliable and affordable. (Put some in a container in your refrigerator, freeze the rest until you need more.)

Campari Tomatoes…2 lbs.

Campari Tomatoes

Campari Tomatoes

The size of these tomatoes is seductively charming. I can’t resist. They have a lovely taste and adapt to cooking or salads or pairing with mozzarella. And their name is Campari (my favorite drink). I love these for making Fish in Crazy Water (Acqua Pazza), which is a tasty, easy way to make fish: Acqua Pazza Recipe

Kirkland Unsalted Butter…4  1 lb. boxes

Kirkland Unsalted Butter

Kirkland Unsalted Butter

Butter? Oh, yes. I often have pastry-based desserts on my class menus: tarts, pies, galettes, and savory pies, too. I use a lot of butter. 1 lb. goes in the fridge, the rest in the freezer until needed. This brand has a great taste and works well in recipes.

Eggland’s Eggs…18 eggs

Eggland's Eggs

Eggland’s Eggs

You can certainly get Eggland’s eggs in any supermarket but this dozen and a half pack is a good price. I like these eggs. They make me happy. Got eggs? Why not make a frittata? Frittata Recipe

Stay tuned for What I Buy at Costco Part Two. In the meantime let me know if you try any of these products and how they turn out. I’m not sponsored by them or anything. Just a shopper, eater, teacher, appreciator!

Christmas Eve

My mom. "Auntie," & Aunt Nettie

My mom. “Auntie,” & Aunt Nettie

Since forever and forever (my forever ago) Christmas Eve has been the most standout holiday of the year. It sparkled brighter than Christmas. It had more traditions and excitement. And the best food all year was Christmas Eve dinner.

Seafood. Fish. As many as you could fit in the kitchen. My mom held reins on Christmas Eve dinner for years. Everyone came to our house. No one would have it any other way. Because it was the best. I remember spaghetti with spicy tomato scungilli sauce. Or calamari sauce. Seafood salad with lobster, crab, squid, and shrimp. Huge Shrimp Scampi (that came in 5-lb boxes from the fish store at the dock in Bay Shore, LI). Sometimes we’d get fried calamari as take-out from our favorite restaurant to add to the fun.

My mom’s gonna sit back on this one this year. I’m making the attempt. It’ll be clams oreganata, steamed mussels with cannellini beans and bacon. Crabmeat cannelloni. Cod with parmigiano crumbs. Shrimp Scampi. Okay it’s not 7 of the traditional Seven Fishes, but…enough. Yet bigger than the menu: this dinner is intricately entwined with love. Somehow, this meal, captures who we all are.

My mom in center, with her parents, my aunt lily at left, and we can't remember who the baby is

My mom in center, with her parents, my aunt lily at left, and we can’t remember who the baby is

I can feel it, you know. I can feel the history in my genes. In my blood. In my heart and soul. I “get it.” I get where I came from. Brooklyn. New York. And Italy. I look at photos from the days even before I was born. At my family. At my parents. At my relatives. All contributed to who I am.

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

They are all in there. Making me familiar to myself because I know them.

This holiday reconnects me every time. As the days and hours get closer to 12/24 I can feel the air, the world, the atmosphere get fuller. Start to envelope me in all that I came from, all of these people who made me. Their love, warmth, spirit, and lasting charm are with me the strongest now.

At "Auntie's" with the family. Me & cousin Steven in foreground raising hell

At “Auntie’s” with the family. Me & cousin Steven in foreground raising hell

What I Buy at Trader Joe’s – Part 1

You knew there would have to be parts to this story. No way you can list all that you get at Trader Joe’s in one sitting. Not only is the list long, but you’re bound to forget something.

Trader Joe’s is not my only go-to shopping food store. Publix is, really. But there are things at Trader Joe’s that you can’t get anywhere else. Well, you can (say, olive oil), but it’s not the same (olive oil).

When I picture myself shopping there I see a fast-moving bee-like dance bouncing from this shelf and that aisle like a fast-moving pinball game. If you see me there you might hear the pings and bells in my wake (watch out– full tilt is possible).

I anticipate my entrance. I know what I’m gonna see first. Bouquets and bouquets of flowers. From $3.99 or $5.99 or somewhere in that price vicinity you can go home with an armful of flowers and beam every time you pass the dining table or the kitchen counter or the bedroom dresser for the rest of the week.

My gotta-go-to areas: produce, cheese, frozen foods, aisle of olives-spices-beans-pasta-rice-oil, nuts & dried fruit (including popcorn, but more on that next time…I’m in a spell of not eating popcorn because so many people I know are breaking teeth on crunchy things and having high dental bills. I’ll wait till the scare passes to buy again Trader Joe’s (popped in) Olive Oil Popcorn…picture to follow eventually).

But here’s a typical $3.99 Trader Joe’s bouquet.

Trader Joe Flowers

Trader Joe Flowers

Why these flowers are in a boot is a long story. Maybe another time…

Here’s a fav frozen food section item: artichoke hearts:

Trader Joe Artichoke Hearts

Trader Joe Artichoke Hearts

These FAR surpass anything you’ll get in a jar or a can. (Except the whole, chargrilled kind you find at counters in Italian supermarkets (in Italy) or sometimes here, too, but usually imported.) These are unflavored (not even that weird acidic taste that canned ones have). So you can do what you will with them. I usually…

RECIPE: Defrost and dry them with paper towels. Dredge them in seasoned flour. Shake off excess. Dip in beaten eggs and fry in a little oil until golden on each side. Try that. You will be FLOORED.

Also in the frozen food aisle: Shrimp Gyoza (Pot Stickers)

Shrimp Pot Stickers

Shrimp Pot Stickers

For the longest time I refused to use the name “pot stickers”…I mean who made that up? Somebody having trouble making dumplings and they stuck to the pot? No reason for these to stick to a pot. Dumplings is a much friendlier (and appetizing) word. (Likewise, if I may mention one of my HUGE pet peeves when it comes to talking about food: “wash it down with____soda, wine, beer” WASH it down? I cannot hear that phrase without imaging the taste of soap. WHO “washes down” their food with a beverage? Extremely ICK.)

If you follow the directions on this package of Trader Joe’s Thai Shrimp Gyoza you will get perfect dumplings and no sticking. I make a dipping sauce of soy sauce and sweet chili sauce mixed together (maybe with a squirt of sriracha). It’s meal in a minute with transport-you-far-away exotic flavor.

These little guys hang on posts here and there throughout the store: sun-dried tomatoes:

Trader Joe's Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Trader Joe’s Sun-Dried Tomatoes

I like these because they are NOT sott’olio which gives them a nice clean taste ready for anything you WANT to add. (You never know what a manufacturer’s oil is gonna taste like, and then they add other flavors you may not want plus some ingredients you can’t pronounce because they have to preserve what they put in the jar.) Ever have sun-dried tomato pesto?

RECIPE: In the bowl of a food processor add a package of sun-dried tomatoes, a garlic clove (peeled & coarsely chopped), a handful of favorite fresh herbs like basil, mint, oregano, and/or sage. Pulse till minced. Add some olive oil (1/4 cup?), salt & pepper. Pulse to smooth. Boil your pasta (capellini, spaghetti, or fettuccine might be nice). Place your pesto in the serving bowl and add a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta water (has pasta starch and salt and is a great “ingredient”) to loosen the pesto and make it more “sauce-y” then add your cooked pasta. Toss to coat. Sprinkle with grated parmigiano. Oh. So. Good.

And when I say olive oil, I mean this: I’ve used Trader Joe’s President’s Reserve Extra Virgin Olive oil for years. I use it for everything: frying, sautéing, salads, even a little deep frying (a little…an inch or two in a small pot to just fry up small things like little arancini, small chocolate mini-pies, sage leaves, impromptu tiny zeppoles…nothing large or long-frying with olive oil). I love this oil. I’ve tried others and come back. And for $6.99 a liter it’s a great buy (plus it’s a product of Italy).

Trader Joe's President's Reserve Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Trader Joe’s President’s Reserve Extra Virgin Olive Oil

That’s just the beginning. There’s oh-so-much more. Stay tuned to future notices about my Trader Joe’s favs.

And in the meantime — let me know YOURS!


Looking for a little heat?

aleppo pepper

aleppo pepper

Pepperoncino, crushed red pepper flakes, used to be my go-to heat for cooking. I never used a lot of it. I’m not a big heat fan. But I look for heat-spices to lift a dish — give it a boost — not really wanting to burn the tongue in any way, but have an echo of flavor ringing.

Then I discovered aleppo pepper. I feel like aleppo pepper was made just for me! Not as hot as red pepper flakes, nor cayenne. If you sprinkle enough of it it’ll fire up your mouth, but a moderate or small amount gives the spark, hit, umph, that I’m often looking for in a dish. Tomato sauce, ravioli fillings (ricotta calls out for a lift), meat braises.

From what I understand it’s a Syrian (you’ve heard of the terrible destruction going on in the city of Aleppo, Syria) or Turkish spice. I can only find it at Penzeys Spices. They have an online catalogue (and print catalogue) of any spice, extract, dried herb you can imagine. And their aleppo pepper is perfect!

Here’s Penzeys website: Penzeys Spices  …get their print catalogue, too, it makes for delightful slow reading about spices. They source from all over the world.

Once you have this spice on your shelf you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it!

Penzeys aleppo pepper

Penzeys aleppo pepper

Punt e Mes: A Sip Transports You to Italy

Punt e Mes

Punt e Mes

When I first discovered Punt e Mes I felt like I’d been initiated into a secret club. It was in the 80’s. I was taking an Italian language class (one of the many I’ve taken over the course of too-many-to-mention years).  There were just 5 of us around our teacher’s dining room table delving into Italian in a conversational, relaxed and fun way.

Bretta Bracali was our teacher. She was a stunningly beautiful woman with a sharp Italian-Roman style. She taught with enthusiasm and class. And we all loved her, which helped us learn. I was living in NYC at the time and Bretta’s apartment was in the world-class Ansonia “Hotel” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The building is impressively ornate and huge. It always felt like a privilege just to have someone to visit there (later my tax accountant had offices there, too).

About The Ansonia

Bretta was on one of the highest floors. She had porthole-sized windows that were near the floor. If you leaned down and peeked out you’d see Broadway stretching out with its army of taxis.

One night she brought out a few small glasses and a bottle of Punt e Mes. No one had ever heard of it and I believe she had just brought it back from Italy. She didn’t describe it or say much about it, just gave us all some to taste as we struggled through speaking and understanding Italian.

I understood the Italian of Punt e Mes right away. The drink, on some rocks and maybe with a lemon twist, tastes like Italy. It’s a fortified wine, a vermouth, but it’s filled with subtle essences that are a little bitter and little floral and a little tart. If I want to feel like I’m in the atmosphere of a Roman street or an Umbrian hilltown or any number of quintessential Italian locations, I drink a little Punt e Mes.

I always remember one of Bretta’s language teaching points. To demonstrate how to pronounce a double consonant in Italian, she took your hand and pulled as you hung on. She’d say: “spaghet-ti.” And let your hand go between the two “t’s” (like pulling taffy together that just suddenly broke) …you got the idea of pronouncing both “t’s.”

Writing about her made me look her up on Google. She’s still teaching Italian. Here’s her website:

Bretta Bracali’s Italian Lessons

Punt e Mes

Punt e Mes