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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.

              2. My irritation in S Florida where Publix has a close on monopoly is the lack of interesting fruit. Of course you can get apples, oranges, melons, pears etc but it's the more exotic fruit that does not make it here. I am used to London where you can get anything any time of the year. I have yet to see passion fruit, gooseberries, red or black currants, and rhubarb is a rarity. Cheeses can be hit or miss sometimes I search for a certain French cheese but they don't have it that week.

                You often can't plan a menu with less well known ingredients because they won't have it in stock.

                4 Replies
                1. re: smartie

                  Yeah, I never see those "exotics" here except for the occasional rhubarb.

                  1. re: smartie

                    that is your only irritation with the publix monopoly here in S fl? lol

                    the publix by my house is awful. i cant even purchase a tomato paste that is not store-brand in a can there. i actually will stock up better brands of tomato paste in a tube when in other stores.
                    this is nothing compared to my complaint about their seafood and meat quality and selection though. and this complaint stretches to all publix ive ever been in.

                    1. re: mattstolz

                      nope matt I dislike Publix but there's not much choice around here, Walmart and Aldi and Target whoop di do.

                      1. re: smartie

                        Those are my alternatives too. Bleh.

                  2. I find that almost anything I make, even with "supermarket" items invariably tastes better than whatever I can buy pre-made or frozen. That being said, sometimes it pays to splurge on higher priced ingredients to further elevate the finished product I'm making!

                    Here's a link to homemade ricotta, which I haven't made yet, but people have raved about. Both the ease of making, and the final flavor.


                    1 Reply
                    1. I have a similar issue, for different reasons. I live in East Asia, so some ingredients that are common in Western cooking are very hard to find or very expensive. And mail order becomes impractical when you factor in trans-continental shipping costs and customs issues.

                      There are some things I simply don't cook here, either because I can't get a suitable ingredient, or because the local equivalent is not high enough quality, or because of price. Rhubarb is one, for example.

                      Some things I save for a special splurge because the ingredients are so expensive, like mesclun lettuce.

                      Some things I learn to make myself - I make my own yoghurt and paneer, I have a bread maker and a pasta maker, I can make things like hot sauce or pate, and I'd make my own beer if it were legal here. In the winter I grow fresh herbs on the balcony to provide things like parsley.

                      Other things I've learned to improvise with local ingredients - the local type of beans or squash rather than the specific type called for, using a mix of whipping cream and milk rather than half and half.

                      Take lasagna, for example - I use a mix of ground pork and ground beef rather than lamb and beef (local pork is better quality and cheaper than beef, which is always imported, and lamb is expensive and hard to find), bacon instead of panacetta, and instead of ricotta, it would be home-made, unpressed paneer, and I make the pasta myself, and use imported parmesan.

                      I do find that instructions like 'get ricotta imported from Italy' frequently say more about the point of view of the recipe writer than the food itself. Implicit in a statement like that is the assumption that the cook has access to a wide variety of authentic imported foods (which often means a large cosmopolitan city), and is willing and able to pay the price differential between the local or basic version of an ingredient and the premium one.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                        Great post. Your lasagna sounds amazing. I am definitely going to make the ricotta next time.

                        One thing for me is hearing From others - even though I know it's true obviously - that I'm not alone in having to "make do" or find substitutes. I see a lot of posts saying things like "I would never use anything but _____" and it's something I can't get or would have a hard time justifying the cost.

                        More DIY!

                      2. I adapt recipes to what is available within my budget. I'm all about being creative and working with what I have, learning to cook with less expensive or lower quality ingredients.

                        In your case, I would consider making lasagna with some sort of substitution for ricotta. I wouldn't feel a desire to replicate exactly the texture of some ideal Platonic form of lasagna.

                        1. In this respect, I'm fortunate to live in an urban area. Supermarkets carry almost everything I need. And there are specialist shops and farmers markets, as well. I do buy most of my meat online from a farm in the next county and, also, alcohol-free wine from an online supplier.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Harters

                            Alcohol-free wine - that's interesting. I don't drink alcohol (x24 years) and do use wine in things with a long cook time. Do you buy alcohol-free to use in desserts and things that don't cook a long time?

                            I remember early in recovery ordering Bananas Foster and the alcohol had in fact NOT cooked off so I couldn't eat it. Similar experience with a bourbon ball.

                            1. re: Bliss149

                              I find I'm OK to use alcohol in cooking, even in desserts where it doesnt cook out.

                              At first, I was wary of drinking the alcohol-free wine as I thought it possible that it might re-ignite the old tastes but I've found it fine and am now happy to drink it with special occasion home cooked meals.

                          2. Regarding more offbeat ingredients that Mrs. W. sometimes encounters in various cookbooks, here in Northern Virginia, due to the diverse population, we have numerous ethnic supermarkets that carry an incredible array of produce and other key ingredients. I have not been thwarted yet! And, the prices at these markets are excellent. When I have a shopping list with a large produce component, it's worth going to the asian supermarket just for those items because the savings will be significant and the quality often better. One example: scrawny green onions are usually 69-79 cents at my regular Harris-Teeter, but are usually 25 cents and much bigger, at Lotte (the asian market).

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Bob W

                              25 cents!? I haven't seen them that cheap here in 10 years.

                              We have a big international market but their produce prices are at or even above grocery store. I need to hit the smaller ones again though.

                              *jealous of your Harris Teeter though*

                              1. re: Bliss149

                                Sometimes the Asian market (Lotte Plaza) runs specials on the green onions -- ten for $1!! Their produce prices border on the absurd, and they have items I've never even heard of but apparently are quite popular, so the place is always a madhouse

                                As for Harris-Teeter, it's a very nice chain. As soon as they opened one three miles away, I dumped Giant, where I had been shopping since I was a freshman at college in Baltimore 30+ years ago. Now we have one just one mile away. Still, it's not perfect. This past week my list included cardamom and I was somewhat surprised that H-T didn't have it. Fortunately, the nearby Bloom (decent at best) came through and I didn't have to go the extra half-mile to Giant.

                            2. Availability is a big problem when we travel.  I was so unable to cook good food when we were traveling, visiting with family, or out in the wilderness that I've started studying food science in depth, as well as how to make artisanal foods from scratch, so I can be more self-reliant.

                              So, if I want chestnut pasta for some Italian regional speciality dish, I can make my own, starting with the whole chestnuts, without spending time and money searching for chestnut pasta or chestnut flour in Italian gourmet shops.

                              It's not hard to make ricotta, for example.  You can not only make your own Italian style ricotta, but you can make it from organic goat milk or organic grass fed cow's milk, for what might be an even better quality product than you could get from an Italian gourmet shop.

                              Fresh ricotta in 5 minutes:  http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/02/ho...

                              The American ricotta you got may have turned gummy because it probably actually contains xanthan gum, locust bean gum and/or guar gum.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: AsperGirl

                                Just a quick word of admiration to you, AsperGirl. I am afraid I am more along the lines of a pop-open-the-can, or thaw-out-the-frozen-dinner kind of person. I might think, "I like to cook," but really taking the time to study food science is not something a lot of us do, and consistently creating from absolute scratch is so often out of my reach, too. But I can look over the fence and envy your approach to food and life.

                                1. re: Florida Hound

                                  Thank you. I like taking things apart and figuring out how they work. It just never occurred to me to do this with food before, until recently. It's been really interesting, and I'm becoming a better cook. But I really am learning just as much from the real chefs and passionate foodies on this forum.

                              2. I've taken to supplementing produce offerings at Whole Foods, which has better quality produce than my regular market. I sense that the produce quality at my regular market has diminished in the last 10 years or so.

                                I can usually find the stuff I need otherwise, but I admit I don't often go looking for exotic specialty foods. If a recipe recommended Italian ricotta, I'd just ignore it. WF makes a very good ricotta.

                                1. I don't think you need imported ricotta — fresh, domestic ricotta should be fine for lasagne. There must be some available close enough to ship to Memphis. Or you could try this:


                                  1. Amazon.com's Grocery department has a huge selection of foods at great prices. You usually have to buy a 4-pack or more. They give a deeper discount if you subscribe to a product. If you have Amazon Prime "free" shipping, you can save alot of $$.
                                    I regularly order my favorite brands of whole grains, sardines, agave syrup, pasta, rice, energy bars.