Thursday, March 4, 2010

LOFT LIFE: You (food) are always on my mind

OK, enough about lungs. One can only be passionate about a lung if one is in danger of losing one. Now that living is back on the front burner, so is food, my true passion, aside from Jay and my kids, and grandkids, of course. (Good thing no one can see inside my brain for the truth.) You may want to read my second hotel story (March 09) for my detailed perspective on packaged food and the American dilemma on finding fresh food.
It occurs to me how moving to a new locale really affects what and how we eat and what we buy.
In my neighborhood walkabout, (scroll back somewhere around November 09 of my blog stories), I talked about bread from Diana’s Italian bakery, and imported ham, turkey and cheese from Helen’s Polish deli, and then there’s Silvia’s, which is a one-of-a-kind experience each time we go there.
We did have Valentine’s brunch at Silvia’s with Thomas and Andi, and they enjoy the drama of the place as much as we do. We keep trying to figure out why there are usually so few cars in a place with such amazing food. Some of this may be due to Silvia herself, who seems a bit intimidating to some. We watched as one couple arrived for brunch, sat down, and then decided to leave. Silvia caught them just in time, and with her invisible shepherd’s crook, guided them back to their table, with them looking sheepish, and a bit disgruntled at the coercion. We had a hard time not gaping at the scene, but then, as I have said before, Silvia doesn’t behave how we would think of as professionally. She is a business woman as well as a hostess in her homey place, though hospitality may not be her gift. It feels like she just can’t stand to lose even one patron. I don’t think it’s about money. I think she truly believes that if she can get you to stay, and eat, you will come back. It ends up feeling less like an invitation than an order from a mom-like control freak. But, the food is great.
It turns out not all of Diana’s goods are raving successes with us, but we did love her fruit cake over the holiday (still some in the freezer), and we enjoy her multigrain bread, which is seldom available, and her multigrain ciabatta. That said, I still confess to sorely missing my Great Harvest Bread bakery, and even though there is one near Boston, and nearer, in Manchester, that surface street drive is more daunting than Holyoke (scroll back again), so I won’t be going there by myself. Multiple hints to hubby haven’t resulted in trips to Manchester. 
Helen’s deli is great, and obviously, from the clientele, a neighborhood pillar. Her imported deli meats, kilbasi, cheeses, and other Polish treats like chocolate and pirogues are special. But, one can only eat so much of lunchmeat and pirogues.
My big find has been the Turkish-owned discount produce store on Rte. 5 in Enfield. The small parking lot is always burgeoning with double-parked cars of shoppers who know they must get to this produce.
I took my daughter there. She was jealous and knows no place like this in the Chicago suburbs. It’s really like an enclosed European outdoor market, but no flies (so far). 
On my first few visits, I spent around $75, mindlessly throwing everything, which had been growing under the sun quite recently, into my smallish cart. I think it reminded me so much of Italy, I just couldn’t help myself. It was euphoric.
I started budgeting.  Though I could seldom stick to my list once I saw pineapples for $2.49, and clementines’s from Spain for $3.99 a box, and avocados, and ripe, but firm cucumbers and zucchinis, and so much more, I just had to get it to my fridge.
After four months, and the experience of some produce rotting in my fridge because we two couldn’t eat it fast enough, I have begun to shop with more discernment.
I now realize that I have to go there more often, buy only what I will prepare in a day or two, and really start thinking of this as a market, not a supermarket. I mean, what is the point of shopping here, if I still treat it like the place that delivers food already two or three weeks old to the chains?
And, I don’t need every jar of olives, or the big $16 aged cheese, or the exotic things I can’t even identify yet, or halvah, or the Turkish delight candies on every visit.
This week, I spent about $29 and got my pineapple, juices, fresh cream cheese, an amazing yogurt drink, some feta-like cheese (which the owner told me how to cook for breakfast. YUM!!), and the makings of tabouli. No more packaged tabouli in the box. I bought a 2lb. bag of bulgur wheat for the price of one (supermarket) box, and it will make portions equal to five or six boxes of inferior stuff at the supermarket. Then the grape tomatoes, cucumber, parsley (sooo fresh), and lemons were a steal as as well. I decided instead of using plain boiling water to inflate my tabouli wheat, I made mint tea and poured it over the grain. Wow. It popped. Then when I added the olive oil, lemon, and the produce, I had the freshest, most delicious tabouli I have ever tasted. It's robust grain morsels are chewy, flavorful even without that ridiculous little spice-packet, and it's healthful! 
This may not be what you eat, or want, but it is what I eat and want, and I am delighted that now I feel like I am eating similar food to my European friends, I am lowering my cholesterol, blood sugar and weight, and best of all, I am enjoying the freshness and quality of this incredibly cheap food. The Mediterranean diet has always made the most sense to me. Now with this store at hand, I don’t have to wait until I find produce that isn’t wilted or soft or spoiled. 
I still have to find a meat store. So far I’ve had the best luck buying online--steaks, chicken and salmon. Costco isn’t terrible, but I don’t always want the quantities. 
For now I have the market cornered for bread, deli goods, produce, dairy, grains and oils. I am eating like a princess, and soon, hopefully, will shed the hotel pounds that made me feel more like a sumo wrestler without the muscle tone. :(  Who knows, I may even start thinking about clothes, not just food.