SMORGASBORD ON WHEELS
Last weekend, I had the brilliant idea of hosting a fancy dinner party at my home. I dialed up the six friends I had enough forks for, and set to polishing the silver. This took about two minutes, so, with all the preparations in place, I sat down, pleased with myself, and imagined what a perfect hostess I would be and how lovely I would look passing around trays of hors doeuvres while brandishing a sparkly martini. And then, panic set in. What was I going to cook for these people?
Yes, they are my friends, and they probably wouldnt complain to my face. But really, shouldnt I take more seriously my responsibility to present them with a special meal. Didnt they deserve to be knocked off their feet by my ingenious culinary expertise? I began to peruse my library of cookbooks and settled into devouring the entirety of Alma Lachs, The Hows and Whys of French Cooking, fully convinced that I would concoct a feast fit for royalty. Suddenly, my ego bursting, I slammed down the opus, and with my heart pounding, exclaimed Cookbooks are for wusses!
You know how Ming Sai or somebody on the Food Network is always going to the market and creating an unbelievable menu, just from the stuff they find that day? Well, watch out Ming, I was going to attain gastronomic perfection just as well as he could. I jumped in my car, drove right past Schnucks and headed out into the city, where an multitude of ethnic groceries and specialty food stores were just waiting for me to explore them.
Of course, you cant plan a meal without first considering what happens to be in season. In the summer, you just about cant beat the Midsouth for fresh produce, and the best place to find it is at the Agricenters Farmers Market. Offering fruits and vegetables brought in from local farmers and some that have just been picked that morning, the markets worth the drive, and although, most Memphis supermarkets do purchase their fruits and vegetables locally, the Farmers Market is much less expensive and theres not a single preservative in sight.
When I got there, I went straight for the herbs, and were not just talking your average oregano. You can find everything from chocolate mint and spearmint to four or five different types of basil and even lemon thyme. I picked out some of my favorites and headed toward the main pavilion, where there are several booths displaying rainbows of tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peas, green beans, corn, and the freshest picked blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries youve ever laid eyes on.
Reeling from the heady aroma of the peaches, I bought some fresh corn and a particularly plump watermelon.. On the way out, I even purchased some flowers from a man selling beautiful gerbera daisies, and gladiolas. Take that, Molto Mario!, I thought to myself as I proudly strode to my car. Ah, but man cannot live on vegetables alone. I must continue my journey to epicurean bliss.
Remembering, that I had seen some ethnic groceries there, I decided to head down Summer Avenue. There was no end to the possibilities my repast held. I headed straight for Charlies Meat Market. If you have the time, always opt for a local butcher for your meat. Not only is it less expensive, its comparatively fresher than the supermarkets. Who knows how long those gray pork chops have been sitting there. (Have you seen Dateline lately?)
As usual, Charlies was abuzz with would be barbequers, so I took the opportunity to look around at the scarlet tenderloins and the regal standing rib roasts. Charlies carries a great selection of pork roast and seafood boxed up for you and ready to go. And, if you need something they dont have, they will be happy to order it for you. Charlies is the epitome of what a neighborhood butcher should be, so much so, you half expect Sam from the Brady Bunch to come out and say What can I do you for? Knowing what was available, I decided to keep Charlies as my backup and explore some more exotic groceries in hopes of finding the perfect idea for my feast. I drove on.
La Guadalupana Grocery, also on Summer, is so small, its pretty easy to miss, but if you get a chance to visit, youll find one of the best Latin markets in the city. You can find every dried chile imaginable from ancho to pasilla and just as many fresh ones. The selection of dried spices and herbs is the best Ive ever encountered, featuring rare items like dried avocado and eucalyptus leaves to chamomile flowers, rosehip petals and even some things called lungwort and cancer herb. Im not quite sure what theyre for, but theyre here if you need them. The produce department offers the usual Latin fare, such as plaintains and tomatillos, but theyve also got some pretty nice edible cacti if youve a hankering.
You can find corn husks for tamales, flavored tortillas, and even the inexplicable mole, a savory Mexican chocolate sauce. The butcher counters not bad either, you can even find goat for cabrito and whole roasted chickens, crispy and caramelized. Eat your heart out Kroger! If youre in the mood for Mexican, but dont know how to make anything except out of that bright yellow box, La Guadalupana Grocery will inspire you. Youll be dancing the Cha Cha in no time! Still not convinced, I had found what I so truly desired, I marched on.
Next, I decided I would check out some Asian cuisine, and though I had never attempted to cook anything more Asian than some Ramen noodles, I was unshaken and aimed my Escort toward Midtown and the largely Vietnamese populated community located on Cleveland near Poplar Avenue. Here, Vietnamese groceries and restaurants abound, but by far, the best is Viet Hoa.
Market. You can browse for hours, never having a clue just what your looking at, be it produce or in a jar. Half the stuff doesnt even translate into English!
No matter, I didnt care if I could pronounce it as long as I could mold it into the most awe-inspiring repast ever created. I confidently strolled up and down the aisles, a serene yet determined look on my face as if I were fluent in Vietnamese and Korean, but nothing had quite tickled my fancy yet. I squeezed strange and slimy vegetables as if they were honeydews, until that is, something poked me and I threw it down, casually looking around to make sure my ruse had not been exposed.
There were dried mackerel, preserved duck eggs, chili sauces, and gigantic ginger roots, even a whole row of Asian cookies and candies, none of which sounded too sweet to me. Then, I reached the back of the store. Did I mention the live eels yet? Big vats of them, along with their neighbors, the mudfish swimming around, just as happy as you please. Do you need some help? a man asked.
No, I choked, Just Looking. And they were looking back. Gargantuan Dungeoness crabs perilously close to escaping and docile looking clams and mussels below them enjoying a fresh shower from a tiny water hose. The thought of presenting a writhing platter of eel, though appealing as it was to my ego, was far too much for me to bear, so I quickly turned toward the more peaceful fish selection,( those being dead), and attempted to retain my composure.
Beautiful whole fresh tilapia, striped bass, and sole lay on beds of crushed ice. Calamari as big as your head were a marvelous sight to behold and moving on to the butcher counter, whole ducks and pork roasts were as appealing as any Id ever seen. If you ever wanted to cook something exotic, you must visit Viet Hoa and if you dont, visit anyway, just for the cultural experience and the shock value.
Though tempting as those eels were, I had the rest of the day, so I made a mental note and moved on to a different part of town. Staying with the Asian theme, but not knowing it, I opted to check out a place on Highland I had never been, called The Food Hunter. Id passed by it several times, always curious about what lay behind the little googly eyes on the sign. Once inside, I discovered an exceptional selection of Asian specialties including hard to find items like Panko, (Japanese breadcrumbs), exquisite rice paper, and Noki, a Japanese seaweed used to make sushi. Frozen fish and shrimp balls, green tea ice cream, and twenty- pound bags of jasmine rice were among some of the goods, not to mention some dried jellyfish and whole quail eggs. T
he usual tofu and egg rolls aid in the comfort level of shopping, but if you need exotic, go no further, youll have no problem impressing your friends and family after a short visit here. Though, without a butcher counter or a produce department to speak of, you can still find plenty of easily prepared foods and youll be able to find things youve actually heard of, along with those you havent. Theres even a gift shop with gorgeous little silk handbags and beautifully embroidered clothing. You can even find specialty kitchen utensils like mortar and pestles, woks, Chinese spider strainers and if youre feeling festive, some Chinese candles and firecrackers.
My mind spinning with the possibilities, I decided I could only handle one more trip and then sure of my success, I would make a decision and then rush home to begin my coup de grace. I decided on the Mediterrean Market, not only because it was right down the street on Park, but because I had gotten wind of some supercheap olive oil that I felt sure must be a crucial component to my meal. Once again, I dont really speak Greek, or Russian, or Afgani? Nor can I read it, so like in the other groceries, youre on your own.
I did find some fantastic feta swimming in brine and a delightful selection of imported olives that were so inexpensive compared to other stores, I nearly swooned. Of course there are all sorts of grains and breads, fresh pita and naan to name a few. The meat counter didnt look like much until I realized all you have to do is ask. You can get legs of lamb, goat, and just about anything else you could imagine. You can buy freshly made falafel or premixed spices to make your own. They also have that yummy garlicky cucumber sauce for your gyro. If you just cant wait to get home, they even have a little café that serves Middle Eastern and Greek specialty sandwiches and desserts. There are Turkish coffee presses, a fine thing to own if youre into that sort of thing, and in case you ran out, you can buy traditional Middle Eastern head scarves.
I have to tell you, however, this place is a little sketchy, you sort of have to act like you know what your doing or it can be a little intimidating. Maybe its because you may be unfamiliar with the culture, or hey, maybe its because of all of the seemingly blank videotapes crammed in boxes and lining the walls. I wouldnt ask. Anyway, it is inexpensive and its a great place to find lamb if your grocer doesnt carry it.
Weary from my trek, I sat in my car, too exhausted to think about what I was going to make for dinner the next day, I decided to go home and take a little nap. I finally just went back to Charlies and got a huge beef tenderloin. OK, so maybe Im not as adventurous as I thought or maybe Im just still searching for a good recipe for live eel. Whatever the case, at least I tried, and you should too. There are too many good ethnic groceries in this town to mention so the next time you drive by one, you should stop in. You never know what could inspire you. Hey, all I can do is tell you that this stuff is out there. As far as what to do with it, well leave that up to Ming and Mario.