I love, love, LOVE to discover new foods. I buy spices I have never heard of and then find recipes in which to use them. (This year I learned about berbere and za’atar, among others.) If an Azerbaijani or Zimbabwean deli opened across town, I would be first in line to try a dish I might not get anywhere else. At restaurants, especially lately, I will very often order a dish with an ingredient I’ve never had: since October, I tried rabbit and fresh sardines for the first time. So, at the grocery store, there is often a conversation between me and my husband that goes a little something like this:
R: What is this? Did you put it in the cart?
Me: Yes. (in a quiet voice, looking away, fidgeting)
R: Do you know what it is?
Me: Of course! I am going to put it in Thai curry next time I make it. Or eat it for breakfast. Yeah, yeah, that’s the breakfast one. It goes on toast, I think. (giggles a little)
R: How much is it?
Me: (a touch defensively) Less than the chocolate stout you just picked up in its hand-numbered limited edition bottle?
R: (sighs, shakes head, waves hand toward the cart)
Fast forward two months to when I open the spice drawer and find this “must-have” item for the first time since I bought it, or dig it out from behind the canned tomatoes in the pantry. My least favorite game requires me to try to remember what the heck that particular bean/grain/rice is in the bulk food bag in the back of the cupboard.
But this time is different. This weekend, I can cross three Grocery Quest items off my list: one that’s a beloved favorite, nearly impossible to find; one that was recently added to the Quest list, courtesy of another food blog; and a third that shows up as an ingredient in some recipes I keep meaning to try, and now I will try. What am I blabbering on about, you wonder? This weekend, on the same day, within a two-hour time frame, I procured salmiakki, Biscoff spread and pomegranate molasses. Maybe not the rarest of ingredients, I concede, but each exciting to me in its own way.
Salmiakki is salted licorice candy, which I learned about and grew to love in my Finnish class; it is common to Scandinavia, especially, and some other open-minded, food-brave European countries. The bag I bought is from Denmark, but it tastes as though it had been handmade in Helsinki (which means that I love it the same as I loved the bits I had in class). Salmiakki is so good. I have no idea how to explain what it tastes like, because it doesn’t taste salty to me, and it doesn’t exactly taste like anise– it just is what it is. I almost jumped up and down when I found it. And, since I live so close to Ballard, it has been right down the street all this time! Crazy that I never thought about that. But also probably good; it is the kind of thing that would be dangerous for me to have around all the time. I will savor the salmiakki I have now and build up that crazy craving I get for it for a while before going back for more.
Biscoff spread is evidently the same as Speculoos. I still hesitate to discuss the stuff because I am not entirely sure what it is. Here’s what I do know: it looks similar to almond butter or creamy peanut butter and smells vaguely of cookie dough. (My sister is going to go crazy when I give her some next week.) According to the miniscule amount of information on the side of the jar, it is a “delicious European alternative to peanut butter” which can be enjoyed on toast or even apples. Huh. It is related to the much-lauded Speculoos biscuit, a Belgian cookie people used to get on planes (or something– really, I am fuzzy on this) and, according to a tourism website I stumbled across, can be enjoyed with coffee, chocolate or foie gras. Wait… what? This may be the most mysterious foodstuff I have ever encountered! So I will stick to what I know from personal experience: Biscoff spread is delicious. It tastes like brown sugar shortbread with the tiniest hint of spice, but it is creamy and spreadable. I am not ready to put it on toast because I generally don’t eat my toast topped with cookies, but I am definitely going to try the on-apples thing.
Okay, last but not least is pomegranate molasses. I have a very fond place in my heart for Middle Eastern cuisine– all the dates and lamb and pistachios, oh my!– and I particularly enjoy Lebanese and Turkish food. We went to dinner at The Golden Beetle several months ago and I discovered muhammara spread. I had no idea what I was eating at the time, but it was so good, I raced home and threw open my copy of Arabesque to find the recipe. I hoped to make my own version as soon as possible, but realized I was missing a crucial ingredient. Muhammara is, roughly, a mixture of ground walnuts, olive oil and pomegranate molasses; it’s one of the those alchemical recipes where the end result is entirely different from what you suppose the sum of the individual ingredients will be. Now that I have my own pomegranate molasses, I can make that and other recipes in Arabesque and they will taste similar to my favorites from Golden Beetle. This is a very exciting development. Pomegranate molasses is not molasses at all: it is a thick, concentrated syrup made from pomegranate juice. It’s the deep red color you would expect (it reminds me of the strange concentrate I remember from childhood, the stuff that made 600 gallons of punch from a single 12 oz bottle– remember?) and it is at once sour and very palatable. I am really excited to play around with it and see what it does to cocktails, desserts, maybe some sauces. I plan to make muhammara, as well as roasted eggplant with pomegranate molasses, sometime soon.
So, make a Quest list of your own! If you are tired of the same all-too-familiar flavors, or want to experiment with a new-to-you cuisine, a new ingredient could be just what you need to add some excitement to your kitchen. I wonder which of my Quest items will be next to find its way into the grocery cart…