This past weekend was my birthday, and I wonder if you can guess how much of it was cooking-related.
To begin with, my mother treated me to a shopping trip at Wegmans, a NY-based supermarket chain that recently opened a location in Northborough, Massachusetts - not exactly close, but not too far away to make the trip, either. Wegmans is sort of midway between your regular neighborhood supermarket - or anyway my neighborhood supermarket - and a Whole Foods type place.
Wegmans has a sort of food court. You pay by the pound from an assortment of steamer trays - dim sum, curry, fried appetizer type things, a large salad bar and large hot vegetable bar, plus pizza and a few other things sold separately. Using the same by-the-pound price for all the food means you overpay for some things - fresh-cut fruit - but get a bargain on, say, lamb curry. The dumplings were all surprisingly good, and I was quite happy with the sausage and hot pepper pizza. Here's a photo of Caitlin's plate sampling a little of various things:
They also had a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine! These are the suckers they've been rolling out to airports, Five Guys, and various other restaurants, offering half a dozen flavors of Coke, Sprite, Fanta, etc., including flavors not otherwise available: I got a Raspberry Coke, and though it's not as good as mashing up red raspberries in a coke, it was pretty damn good.
Caitlin's iPhone photos of some of the food court area.
Onward to shopping!
It was interesting, actually, seeing what they did and didn't have. The fish selection was amazing - they're one of the best chains in the country for the sustainability of their seafood department, and these days that tends to correlate to freshness and quality as well. I picked up opah, grouper, halibut, soft-shell crabs, and catfish, the first three of which I'd never cooked. The soft-shells were killed and cleaned right in front of my eyes. They also had wild Alaskan king salmon, lake trout, and monkfish, all of which I was tempted by, and everything looked very fresh.
Caitlin had never had soft-shell crab before, and I hadn't found it fresh since moving out of New Orleans almost ten years ago. I deep-fried them (dipping them in buttermilk and a mixture of flour, cornmeal, and Old Bay) for two minutes on each side, and we had them with pan-seared halibut, pea shoots, and onions cooked alongside the halibut with chickpea miso and sriracha.
Soft shell crab is eaten shell and all (unlike soft-shell lobster), and the body has a firm crabmeat texture. It's hard to describe the texture of the shell, which is noticeably present, but not crispy or crunchy per se - it doesn't shatter when you bite it, it doesn't come loose from the meat. Perhaps like the relationship between a grape skin and the grape.
So the seafood selection was great. But they didn't have, for instance, pork belly, or skirt steak, or marrow bones - cuts of meat which, while not as mainstream as the chicken breast or pork chop, are still something I'd expect to find in a place that has soft-shells and (as I'll get to in a minute) some of the more unusual fruit in the produce department. I mean, the produce department had black truffles (in a locked case, surrounded with salt, for $1000 a pound) - which I've never seen in a supermarket as opposed to a small gourmet shop. So I was surprised they didn't have some of the "foodie" cuts of meat. (I didn't notice air-chilled chicken, either. They did have dry-aged beef, behind a counter.)
But then again, that's something I've noticed about Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, too. The emphasis there tends to be on steaks, on trustworthy ground beef and chicken. It's just, well, a steak is a pretty boring thing to cook, even when it's a delightful thing to eat.
Anyway, this isn't exactly a complaint, it's just interesting the way Wegmans didn't quit fit into my previous experience of supermarkets. It was like XYZ in some respects and PDQ in others.
The produce section was a little small (relative to the size of the store) but included a lot of things you don't expect to find in a supermarket, like golden raspberries (not pictured, but purchased), as well as fresh mangosteens, feijoa, and passionfruits (increasingly hard to find, though I used to buy them as a teenager):
Mangosteens first. The shell is hard and woody, and inside the fruit are white, soft, and sweet. All tropical fruit seems to draw from a similar palette - a little like lychee, a little like papaya, with some definite butter and grass notes (it shares chemical components with both). I love, love, love fresh mangosteens and in the past I've seen them once in a blue moon in an Asian grocery and otherwise had to order them direct online, at a considerable price.
If you can't find mangosteens fresh, Trader Joe's may still sell freeze-dried mangosteens, which were quite good when I had them.
Feijoa, what a find! No etymological relationship to feijoada, Caitlin looked it up - they are instead named for a Portugese botanist, Jose Feijo. You slice them open and scoop the pulp out, and wow. The best summary I can give is that it's like a cross between kiwi and very floral pineapple, but there's an aftertaste - and a noticeable smell, especially in the flesh closest to the skin - of wintergreen, though without any menthol effects. It's crazy. I wish I could get these all the time, they're so good.
Passionfruit. You slice them open and scoop out the pulp and seeds. I've had them a million times, but haven't found them fresh in a few years - maybe the economy dried up the demand for them, I don't know.
Tart and sweet and intensely flavored. We had some passion fruit with golden raspberries on top of Greek yogurt for breakfast.
The vegetable selection was interesting too. In some cases they had the interesting item in lieu of the more common one: I bought golden beets and lacinato kale, but didn't see red beets or regular kale. In other cases they simply had a wide variety of items, as with their potatoes, or the mushrooms sold both loose and in clamshells. While you expect everyone now to have oyster mushrooms and shiitakes, Wegmans also had bluefoots ($30/lb) and maitake or hen of the woods ($13/lb). I got the latter but will have a separate entry about them since I haven't finished playing with them.
Dinner on the night of my birthday was Pat LaFrieda burgers (which use dry-aged beef in the mix) on kimmelweck rolls from Wegmans, which took a little work to find - the place is organized a little weirdly and rolls are sold in several different places, but these were sold loose at the bakery. Kimmelweck rolls are basically Kaiser rolls topped with pretzel salt and carraway seeds - a little too salty for Caitlin, but just right for me since it was still much less salty than a salt bagel.
The burger is topped with casatica di bufala, a Brie-like buffalo cheese, while the potatoes are topped with boschetto al tartufo, a black truffle cheese - which brings me to the cheese department.
The cheese department was terrific. In some cases things were overpriced, but I mainly noticed this with New England cheeses that I am already used to buying - like Grafton, or the Bijou from Vermont Cheese & Butter ($5 each here, $2 each at Central Bottle in Boston) - where it may simply be that I'm used to paying a lower price for what is nearly a local cheese. There may be an extra middleman involved with the supply chain in Wegmans' case, if they're buying from a distributor while my local store buys straight from the cheesemaker, you know? Anyway, I didn't buy the overpriced ones, since I can get those here anyway.
I did get Humboldt Fog, my favorite goat cheese, which I'll probably add to grits today or tomorrow. And two non-mozzarella buffalo cheeses I'd never heard of before - the aforementioned casatica, and quadrello di bufala. Water buffalo milk is higher in fat than either cow's or sheep's milk, so the cheeses are very creamy.
We had a sort of cheese salad, with a hunk of burrata (a thin pouch of mozzarella filled with mozzarella shreds moistened with cream) drizzled with poppyseed oil and tarragon, over cucumber and radish slices and pea shoots, and surrounded by all the cheeses.
Let's see if I can identify all of these. Clockwise from eleven o'clock:
Fol Epi, a pressed French cheese that reminded me of both Swiss and American muenster;
casatica di bufala (the cubes);
quadrello di bufala;
Tarentaise, a Vermont cheese with a sort of nuttiness to it;
more Fol Epi;
boschetto di tartufo;
and crumbled over the cucumber and radish slices is Humboldt Fog.
But it doesn't end with Wegmans!
Caitlin ordered ice cream for me from Jeni's ice cream, which I've blogged about before. Two of the ice creams were very good: roasted strawberry buttermilk, which tasted like the best homemade strawberry ice cream; and pink grapefruit yogurt, which wasn't as intensely flavored as most of their ice creams (or suffered in comparison to Toscaninis' grapefruit ice cream?), but was still very good. The other two were among the best ice creams I've had from them, rivaling the sweet corn black raspberry: Wheatgrass/Pear/Vinho Verde sorbet, and Juniper Lemon Curd.
The Juniper Lemon Curd is one we were both curious about, and saved for last. Juniper is the predominant, defining botanical in gin, and I assumed this was going to be a lemon curd ice cream infused with juniper. No. It's a juniper ice cream with swirls of intense lemon curd - and I mean intense, there is a lot of lemon zest or oil in there. The combination is amazing. Jeni's strength is really in the combination of two or more flavors - as good as a mango frozen yogurt would be, she turns out something incredible by combining mango lassi frozen yogurt with kiwi sorbet and pieces of cake. And that sweet corn black raspberry is so summery and perfect.
The Wheatgrass/Pear/Vinho Verde is another good example. Somehow wheatgrass - of all things! - combines with pear puree and barely noticeable "green" (fresh) Portuguese wine, and makes something better than pears, something sort of like the Harry Potter grass jellybeans, sort of like the smell of the lawn being mowed, but crisp and fruity at the same time. The pear puree is really noticeable in the mouthfeel.
We combined scoops of this with birch beer to make floats:
And it doesn't end there either!
We stopped at Colonial Candies so my mother could pick up some chocolates for my grandfather, and they had the molasses chips candies I used to buy as a kid - molasses sponge candy coated in dark chocolate. We also got ice cream at Haywards, one of the best traditional New England ice cream stands (and therefore one where I almost always get an old-school traditional flavor - butter crunch in this case, but often black raspberry).
And! The next night, dinner at The Lobster Boat. Excellent fried lobster and shrimp, and crab cakes - and they did the whole singing "Happy Birthday" thing when bringing me out a piece of chocolate cake I really didn't need after all this.