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Shopping like a Parisian in L.A.

In L.A., grocery shopping is an extreme sport. Weekly, I threaten my husband that I'm going to start keeping a log detailing how many miles and how much time I spend shopping. I can tell you right now the carbon footprint is not pretty.

When I was a kid, we shopped at the neighborhood supermarket once a week, where we bought bags and bags of groceries, always the same. When I was very young, a neighbor's husband was transferred to Paris for a year. When his wife came back she gathered all the women around to recount the horror — the horror! — of shopping in Paris. Refrigerators were the size of nightstands. And, worst of all, no supermarkets. You had to go to a different shop for cheese and dairy, for vegetables, for meat, for poultry, for pastries. Oh, the drudgery!

How times have changed. If you're willing to put in the effort, L.A. right now is a cook's paradise. For me, the farmers market is the highlight of the week. I love strolling in the open air, reveling in the fantastic produce the farmers have hauled down to the city in the early hours of the morning. Chatting with the same vendors week after week — See Canyon for dry-farmed fruit, Weiser Family Farm for potatoes and melons, Coleman Family Farms for unusual greens, and many more.

I love tasting before buying. And yes, touching. Unlike those grumpy stallholders at the open-air markets in France, you can feel up the goods and even bag your own produce. The excitement of the first Blenheims, the Braeburn apples, desert-grown melons, scarlet piquillo peppers and knobby potatoes with the dirt still clinging! I let the produce lead me in my cooking. What I find at the farmers market dictates the menu.

Then comes the harder part when I shop for everything else, like the French, at specialty stores — making stops for coffee beans (and a quick macchiato) at Intelligentsia or Handsome Coffee Roasters, cheeses from Andrew's Cheese or Cheese Store of Silverlake, fish from Seafood Paradise in Rosemead and meat (how great is it that we now have not only the butchers in the original Farmers Market and Harvey's Guss Meat, which sells wholesale, but also new-generation butchers such as McCall's Meat & Fish or Lindy & Grundy?)

My husband insists on baguettes from Cookbook in Echo Park or Bread Lounge downtown. I might pick up the country loaf from the original La Brea Bakery (recently moved into the former Rita Flora space) or bolillos for sandwiches at the Mexican supermarket Super-A in Highland Park.

Most weekends involve driving to the San Gabriel Valley, usually to 99 Ranch Market or San Gabriel Superstore, for Asian ingredients. Sometimes a shopper will follow us around, curious about what we intend to cook, or will stand next to us, silently pointing to the best brand of fresh noodles or chile paste. At the Armenian and Mexican market Super King, we might load up on cilantro and parsley (8 or 10 bunches to the dollar), limes (sometimes priced at 16 for a dollar) or Persian cucumbers (often as low as 39 cents a pound).

On Saturdays I've often started my shopping at the Santa Monica farmers market and then zigzagged my way east, making numerous stops along the way. How many miles? Ridiculous. Time spent? More than I could ever imagine when I started off.

But I've come to know different neighborhoods, discovered tiny ethnic markets tucked into strip malls and which place has the best feta or olives, where to find bottarga or mozzarella dripping with whey, the best-looking tripe, fresh fish heads for a stock, Spanish chorizo and La Bomba rice for a paella. And, most important, which deli slices prosciutto the way they do in Italy, so finely you could almost read the newspaper through it.

I've given up fretting over the time spent and consider it my weekly urban adventure in search of elusive ingredients, always different, always surprising. And always highly entertaining.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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