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Scrambling for hard-to-find ingredients

I have been guilty of this myself. You see a recipe and it sounds so good you have to make it. The only drawback is that it contains an ingredient that you have no idea where to find, short of mail ordering it and that takes the spontaneity out of making the dish that day. Or you substitute some mundane item for the more exotic item and the recipe is a failure or just not very interesting.

These boards are filled with "where can I find...food-grade lavender, pea shoots, zucchini flowers, Armenian cucumbers, etc. in XYZ city, state?"

Shouldn't it be the other way around? You see some interesting food item at the market and then you go home and scour your cookbooks or the Internet for a recipe?

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  1. That is what the Whole foods, Epicurious (and many other) apps are for- you type in an ingredient(s) and get some recipes. If you like to cook that way, go for it. I have had both good and bad luck but what easy is that I am already at the store and can pick up anything else I need at the same time. Spontaneity intact!

    The risk of buying said ingredient and then going home and scouring the 'net or your cookbooks is there is a chance you may not have the other items needed for the dish/menu you found. There goes your spontaneity.

    However I for one am inspired by reading cookbooks and am lucky to live in an area where there are very few items I couldn't find locally. And if I can't? Well, that makes me want to make it even more so don't mind having to wait.

    1 Reply
    1. re: foodieX2

      "The risk of buying said ingredient and then going home and scouring the 'net or your cookbooks is there is a chance you may not have the other items needed for the dish/menu you found."

      Good point.

    2. I do both. I like to think I'm experienced enough to substitute when necessary and when it doesn't pull the dish too far away from what was intended (but then I tend to use recipes as suggestions, which is why nothing comes out the same way twice).

      If I find something I haven't seen before, I'll check my cookbooks or do a search for suggestions.

      11 Replies
      1. re: tardigrade

        I'm talking more about specific recipes and the people who adhere to them, tardigrade. You are obviously and experienced cook. ex. Someone comes on this site desperately trying to find food-grade lavender in NYC because they have to make lavender gelato by the next night for a dinner party. Why even decide to make lavender gelato if you had no idea where to find it to begin with?

        1. re: ttoommyy

          Because I promised my sister-in-law that I could make lavender gelato, which will be soooo much better than hers, and I just have to show her up. You know? LOL...

          1. re: iluvcookies

            You know, I did make lavender gelato for a dinner party earlier this year after having it at a restaurant. It took me forever to find the lavender and now I have a tub of it sitting in my cupboard. LOL

            1. re: ttoommyy

              When I had that leftover lavender dilemma everyone rec'd lavender jelly and sachets for Christmas.

              1. re: HillJ

                I don't think I have one friend or relative (that I exchange gifts with) that would want a lavender sachet. lol I will check out recipes for lavender jelly though. That sounds tasty. Thanks!

                1. re: ttoommyy

                  lol. Had to ask to know :)
                  As for the jelly. You'll have no trouble finding a bunch of recipes. I recently enjoyed lavender jelly and lemon curd on a slice of pound cake. Very nice.

              2. re: ttoommyy

                A local chef had a special dessert one week. It was poached figs with lavender cream. I still think of that dessert 4 years later.

                IIRC I think they were poached in syrup with maybe some armagnac or cognac? It certainly wasn't port.

                1. re: cosmogrrl

                  I had a dessert last year with lavender cream and I still think about it today, but for me that's because it tasted like soap.

                2. re: ttoommyy

                  Make lemonade with it - steep the buds in the simple syrup. I went thru a lb of lavender this summer just making lemonade.

                  1. re: jeanmarieok


                    Got myself to the market for the ingredients out of total curiosity and was wowed by the flavor combination. I made a 2 cup batch but I'll be making more for friends very soon.

          2. I totally agree with your premise that it is better to be inspired by a food/ingredient and then search out what to do with it. However, I live in an area where there are NO exceptional grocery stores for such ingredients. When wanting to purchase whole ducks, duck breast, great cheeses,hard to find spices, etc., I've had to resort mostly to purchasing via mailorder. I actually bought 2 kaffir lime trees just to have my own supply of kaffir lime leaves as I frequently cook Thai food. It sucks living in an isolated/remote area. Planning a great meal has to be done in advance. Thank goodness for D'Artagnan's and Igourmet.

            1. I disagree. I need to see the recipe first to see if I want to make the dish. If I can't find the ingredient, I don't make the dish (or I substitute, if it is a not essential ingredient).

              3 Replies
              1. re: gfr1111

                Try cooking without a recipe sometimes.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    Hi, Ipsedixit,

                    I agree that cooking without a recipe sometimes is a good idea. It is fun and it is challenging. But the poster, ttoommyy, was talking about using an unfamiliar ingredient for the first time. Under those circumstances, I think that I would want to have the recipe before I got the ingredient. Otherwise, I might not find a recipe that I would want to make and winging it with an unfamiliar ingredient is a recipe for disaster.

                    Of course, if the ingredient is only subtly different from what one is used to, that could be okay. But a wildly different ingredient, in my opinion, needs a "dry run" in a recipe before I branch out on my own.

                1. There's no "should" about it. You start where you are - with a recipe or an ingredient or whatever - and proceed from there as you choose. Personally, I always start with the recipe, unless I have something in the fridge that is going to go bad if I don't use it up quickly.

                  By the way, I object to the notion that there's something wrong or stupid about cooking from recipes. If Julia Child or Jacques Pepin has gone to the trouble of developing and testing a recipe and getting it published, even demonstrating it on television, why ignore all that and trust to one's own powers of improvisation, for what they may be worth? If that's what turns you on, by all means do it, but no value judgments please on what others prefer to do.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: John Francis

                    I agree to both of your points. You can either start with a recipe or an ingredient- and they are both fine! I often cook without a recipe but I learn new techniques and flavor combos when cooking from cookbooks - that's what helps me cook better when I'm not using a recipe. I also rely on them when I'm cooking an ingredient for the first time. I have never cooked domestic duck (lots of wild - never domestic) and will use a recipe the first time I do.

                    Also - many home cooks are uncomfortable relying on their own instincts when cooking and feel they *need* recipes. There's nothing wrong with that either- we all have different talents.

                  2. Apart from fresh produce, Amazon.com can be your friend.

                    Although we have a few Asian markets in the area, they're at least an hour's drive & I frankly don't have the time. Thus I order my Asian sauces & other dry goods through Amazon. Great prices, frequently free shipping, fast shipping.

                    Just recently replenished my dry wood ear mushrooms & preserved black beans stash via Amazon.

                    1. I do that quite frequently. I think half the fun of food shopping is finding an unfamiliar ingredient and then trying to figure out what goes well with it.

                      My family used to be in the restaurant business, so I'm familiar with a number of cooking techniques. Over the years, I've done a lot of recipe-free cooking over the years, so using an unfamiliar ingredient doesn't faze me.

                      1. I know that growing up in the US, we primarily went shopping in grocery stores where there was no strong connection with seasonality of products and availability in the store. Items like asparagus were clearly seasonal, but my mom would mostly serve asparagus or seasonal fruits just on their own. Personally I don't strongly remember growing up and my mother saying "we get this exciting dish because x is in season/available". So when I learned how to cook myself it was always a case of recipe first, ingredients second.

                        It wasn't until moving overseas when I started shopping in markets that were far more influenced by seasons that I started meal planning based around what items were in season/available.

                        No comments on what should or shouldn't be done - but I know that explains why I used to meal plan in that fashion.

                        1. I lived in Sri Lanka for nine years. The post is unreliable, so ordering from out of country is, well, just not sensible. So if you can't find it locally, you're out of luck.

                          Not a lot of canned goods, dried goods, or processed foods there, either, and when there was, you might not see it again for two months or three years, so if you really want it, you better buy it when you see it.

                          As well, how good the produce was varied widely from day to day or week to week.

                          So the idea of planning in advance? Nope. Never happened. What I cooked or baked depended *entirely* on what was available that looked good.

                          Now, living in Singapore, there's a lot more flexibility. More variety in general, better quality meat and produce, and still a lot of mystery foods that I like experimenting with. Planning in advance is a lot easier again.