Updating: December 2023
When I started this blog in the mid-2000’s, you really still had to hunt down specialty foods and good ingredients in most places across the country. Even living on the coasts in Boston and San Francisco, there were plenty of regional foods you could not have access to.
Now you can get reliably interesting flavors from around the world at Target and Walmart. Small producers around the country are selling their food on the internet. You can find subscription boxes for anything! There are fancy services like Goldbelly, where you can get gumbo from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, a key lime pie shipped from Key West, or a cuban sandwich kit from Versailles! You can even get black market Trader Joe’s products from third-party sellers on Amazon (do not recommend).
Despite this abundance of access, I still find myself gravitating towards shopping at small local establishments. And while most of the ingredients I use in my daily cooking are basics, I’m always looking to find new and exciting foods to try, and shopping at a range of specialty retailers is still one of my greatest sources of daily novelty and joy.
I try to shop at my local Farmers Market during the summer (I live two blocks down from one!) I always love the Local Food Wheel to keep track of what is in season. In the decade since I originally wrote this post, they’ve expanded to many regions across the country!
I’ve been a long fan of CSAs (community supported agriculture). I used to be a member of Stearns Farm in Framingham MA, which I’d recommend if you are local to the area and have time to pick produce. For the past several years, I’ve been a member of Farmer’s to You which allows you to choose the produce you’d like, as well as source from a selection of Vermont small producers for things like pantry items and prepared foods like breads, pierogies, tofu, jams, etc. Many of my friends in the Greater Boston Area subscribe to Siena Farms, which I’d recommend as well.
These days, I still do most of my day-to-day shopping alternating between my beloved Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the Star Market over the Pike (for those of you MA locals) because of proximity. Every so often I opt for the contact sport of Market Basket during a high traffic time, just for the thrill of it.
While canned beans are easy, I’m of the firm belief that using dried beans provides a superior bean. I try to make cooking a “bean of the week” a personal habit. I boil a pound, and then use it throughout the week in other dishes. Rancho Gordo beans are pretty much the best you can get. Their beans are all heirloom varieties, and the farmer Steve Sando is passionate about beans. I’ve been a member of The Bean Club almost since launch, but am thrilled to note that you can pick up a pound of Rancho Gordo beans in so many places these days!
I’ve been a member of the Burlap and Barrel quarterly spice club for a few years now. Every quarter I get a box of standout spices that are truly spectacular and fresh. Some standouts over the years include the nigella seeds and the cardamom extract. They have quite nice gift kits.
Penzey’s is a great mail order spice company, with a few retail locations across the country. They have good kitchen spice starter kits, and in addition to basic spices, they have some very good mixed spice blends.
Specialty Food Shops
If you were to seek some of the rarest cheeses in the world, chances are they can be found in the case at Formaggio Kitchen, or at least in the back in the enormous cheese cave, with perfectly controlled temperature and humidity, created to resemble the alpine hillside historically used to age cheese. Every year, I try to make it in for a small piece of Big Sky Grana. Nearly 20 years ago, on a Wellesley museum intern trip in Western Mass, I went to a spectacular cheese tasting at Tanglewood hosted by Ishan Gurdal, the former owner of Formaggio. I’ve been a devout follower ever since. Over the years I became a regular for a cup of coffee and a cheese sample, at one point in the summer of 2016 used the front tables as my daily “office”, and have made many friends over the years just mingling through the aisles or in the barbecue line. Formaggio is now owned by one of the longtime employees, Julia Hallman, which might be one of my favorite cases of a business transferring into wildly capable and kind hands.
For Middle Eastern groceries in the Boston area, there is no better location than Mt. Auburn street. My favorite of the markets is Sevan, which carries a huge variety of Armenian and Turkish foods, freshly made in their bakery and kitchen. Some of my favorites include: frozen Lahmacun (think a very thin meat pizza), Manti (a type of ravioli), Choreg (a sweet round bread), and Kazandibi (a type of pudding). They also have a great selection of pantry goods, including olives, tea and coffee, spices, nuts, cheeses, cured meat such as soujouk and pasterma, and even middle eastern beer and wine. My family has been going to Sevan since I was a kid and Nuran and Murat Chavushian (the owners) were the young teen brothers helping out their parents that I looked up to.
Zabar’s is a specialty foods and kitchenware store in New York City that is the ultimate foodie heaven. They source specialty products from all over the world, and their cheese counter and fish counter are particular standouts. My childhood included regular visits in, my parents splitting up like pros: my dad pick us up sable, whitefish, and smoked salmon at the fish counter, my mom heading to get pounds of freshly ground coffee, while my brother and I wandered the aisles. We’d pick up kasha varnishkes, chestnut paste, Eli’s bread for my mom, salmon caviar and whitefish spread. Cheese samples. I visit Zabar’s every time I visit the city, usually with a list from family members, and have been known to leave with more bags than I can carry. (It also holds a special place in my heart because it is where I bought my first ceramic knife for myself as a teenager.) These days Zabar’s is usually my last stop before driving home. I typically grab a pre-made nova lox and cream cheese on poppyseed bagel which I partially unwrap and start eating on the drive out of the city on the Henry Hudson Parkway.
Wasik’s Cheese Shop
I was very fortunate to go to college within walking distance of Wasik’s Cheese Shop in Wellesley, Massachusetts. They have a wonderful selection of cheeses, and a very knowledgeable and kind staff, more than willing to offer as many samples as you would like. They also have delightful gift baskets. (hint..)
Kam Man Foods
Walking into Kam Man Foods in Quincy, Massachusetts is an incredible experience. A refitted big-box, the store is separated into three distinct parts, a large housewares store on the left, a supermarket on the right, and many small shops in the center surrounded in glass boxes. (When I originally wrote this page almost fifteen years ago, Kam Man used to be one of the largest general Asian groceries in the area, now we have a range of options including multiple extra large H-Marts. I still think it’s worth a trek!)
A few notable mentions:
- Noma Projects: I’ve been a member of the Taste Buds club, and a few of the standouts from 2023 were the pickled chanterelles, Corn Yuzu hot sauce, and the Dashi RDX.
- Omsom: I’ve loved seeing this Woman-owned business thrive over the past year! Their sauce packets are so tasty and easy to use as marinades or bases.
- Zingerman’s: a classic mail order (and now internet-order, but you can still request a catalog!) purveyor of fine things based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One time I traveled hundreds of miles out of the way to just stop into one of the several Zingerman’s outposts for a sandwich. Their website itself is phenomenal to peruse when you are in need of a pep. (I like their retirement page.)
- RIP Russo’s. (IYKYK).