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Dec 18, 2011 06:10 PM

Is finding quality ingredients a struggle where you live?

I read a suggestion about making great lasagna that said "don't get grocery store ricotta. Get ricotta imported from Italy."

That kind of thing is getting harder and harder to do where I live. Our Schnuck's stores here in the Memphis area got bought out by Kroger so now Kroger is pretty much the only grocery store in town.

Since the economic downturn, we've lost a lot of specialty stores like cheese shops and bakeries. No Trader Joe's here. There's a small chain of produce stores but the quality there is pretty spotty. We do have Whole Foods and Costco, at least.

Obviously, in this day and age, if you're willing to pay, you can have pretty much anything delivered so I guess it's really a combination of low availability and high cost in many cases.

So whether the issue lack of availability or lack of funds, how do you cope with not having the quality ingredients you'd like to have?

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  1. In this respect -- and maybe this respect only! -- I am fortunate to live in LA, but when I visit my parents in southern New Jersey I come up against this a lot. If you don't have the budget to special-order things, what can you do except make do? I will say, however, that often the "get ricotta from Italy" mindset is just snobbery or salesmanship. I am struck by how often Cooks Illustrated does taste tests that show readily available ingredients can outshine more exotic ones.

    1 Reply
    1. re: katydid13

      You know with the popularity of the food network and the internet and all, it seems like people are becoming more educated about food.

      Yet, the quality of what's available at Kroger seems to be going down, not up.

      But yeah, you are definitely fortunate to live in LA. Although there are probably those in NYC who would see LA as "roughing it."

    2. Sometimes you just have to deal with what's available. But usually I go to the farmers' market first (when in season) to look for ingredients, nothing beats local farm fresh eggs and a nice slab of grass fed beef. You can also try making/growing things at home if you have time. Herbs are easy to keep and some cheeses are quite easy to make at home (like indian paneer).

      1. Several times I have read something on Chowhound that seems too exotic to obtain in my little rural burg in central Florida. I try to do my specialty shopping homework before going out of town to Tampa or Orlando or Jacksonville, and pack a cooler in the car if it looks like I can find my
        ingredient(s) in "the big city." To me, Memphis sounds like "the big city!" I did just order some seasonal Philadelphia spice wafers on-line because our local Publix can no longer special-order them. I was willing to pay a little extra for them, and I think this is what we are up against. I have asked a friend from the Northeast for a few years to bring down bottles of a particular cream soda, on one of his periodic trips to Florida. He finally did so about a month ago. Prevention Magazine had a granola recipe a few years ago with very hard to find ingredients, and no natural foods store I could contact anywhere had all or even most of the ingredients. When I priced the special items on-line, I quickly decided I really didn't need to try that kind of granola, and I couldn't imagine any reader of a mass publication doing so. I found a recipe on Chowhound many years ago that called for a cheese called Gorganzola Dolce. Available in fewer and fewer places, but I can find it in Tampa, FL, even if the hunt is getting harder. My local Italian specialty shop in my small town, however, convinced me to try Cambozola (he declined to order any Gorgonzola Dolce for me- said he wouldn't sell enough to keep it fresh or make it worth his while.) The Cambozola is a wonderful substitute, says my taste buds. So, another coping strategy might be creative substitutes.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Florida Hound

          Thanks for sharing your trials and tribulations. One challenge is figuring out what ingredients REALLY make a difference and which are not worth the extra $$$$ and hassle.

          I made the lasagna last night and the grocery store ricotta was a gelatinous blob when I took it out of the carton. In the finished product, the texture of it was just not right. I did use imported San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce this time and the sauce was really good. So I think that was a worthwhile upgrade. (And one that is available in my grocery store.) Next time, I will at least go to Whole Foods and get better ricotta, even if it's not imported. Because I know rictotta is not supposed to look like fricking jello!

          1. re: Bliss149

            Your post is so funny, as I was just thinking that grocery ricotta is like jello.
            I have the same problem here, and since our decent local supermarket has been bought out by a chain the quality and variety has plummeted. I can't help you on many ingredients, but you should know that good ricotta is very easy to make at home:
            Slowly heat 4 cups whole milk and one cup buttermilk to 165 degrees (you will see that it has curdled on top, with whey below), remove from heat, scoop out the curd, and drain it in a cheesecloth-lined sieve. You can use it as soon as an hour or so of draining. It's creamy and delicious. Very non-jello.

          2. re: Florida Hound

            A quick "P.S." to this post... 3 weeks ago, I posted how hard it is to find Gorgonzola Dolce cheese in my little burg. Then, how the local Italian specialty deli got me connected with Cambozola cheese. The Italian place just re-opened after a 10 day holiday vacation, and I couldn't wait to get some Cambozola and whip up some of that special recipe grilled cheese. Oh no! They would not get any until next week! Then, amazingly, about 20 minutes later, I found both Gorgonzola Dolce AND Cambozola in the Winn Dixie, of all places. So, you just never know. Keeping with the theme of this thread, I advise all of us to be persistant and keep on the hunt for those special foods and ingredients. I am still blown away at my "find" today. Winn Dixie??? Winn Dixie???

          3. Do you mean quality ingredients, or obscure ingredients?

            Sounds like the latter. If it is, then blame it on where you live and the demographics of your hometown. Supply meets demand generally.

            1 Reply
            1. re: ipsedixit

              "Supply meets demand generally"

              Sure it does. But letting Kroger have basically a monopoly in this city and then the squeeze on small businesses from the poor economy means fewer options.

              EXAMPLES. I was thinking about making the shredded brussels sprouts with bacon. But I don't know where I can get GOOD bacon other than ordering on the internet. And even the brussells I don't have that much confidence in. The last ones I got even after I roasted them were still sort of bitter. The sweet potatoes in the stores here all taste like mud, while the ones in the restaurants taste clean and sweet. The bread I buy here usually disappoints.

              We do have an international market so obscure ingredients are pretty available especially if they're Asian or Latin American.

              It's more a lack of European things - Italian, French, etc.

            2. I live in London, so I can conceivably get my hands on any foodstuff that can travel. Can I always afford the quality I'd like? No. Would I spring for specially imported ricotta for a lasagne? Probably not. In the same way I don't try and make eye fillet into stew, I (rightly or wrongly) make my lasagne the same way my mother does - tasty, filling and cheap.

              2 Replies
              1. re: ultimatepotato

                Well, I don't want to spend tons on it either but this ricotta is seriously like JELLO. Honestly, it shouldn't even be called cheese.

                1. re: Bliss149

                  What brand I'm wondering? I'm on Long Island so it's pretty easy to get all types of ricotta, from house brand to old fashioned in a metal cup. Planning to search at an Italian store about 20 minutes away when I go to the fish store for Christmas Eve, but also may just buy the Sorrento that is on sale for my manicotti this weekend. Used to get the real good stuff from Brooklyn where I worked, but that's over. I do crave it though.