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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…

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