How do you decide where to do your grocery shopping? Do you shop at the same store every week, or do you find yourself stopping frequently at whatever store is in your path?
With so many stores in the suburbs it took me a while to answer those questions myself, and it wasn't easy as I found I don't have a shopping routine. Instead I tend to treat a visit to the grocery store like a museum tour stopping to read labels, talking to the "docent" or expert behind the fish counter, and sampling whatever and whenever I can. I enjoy exploring and learning about food, which makes a quick trip to the store difficult.
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Growing up I remember my mom looking at the weekly food ads in the newspaper specifically to determine which stores had the best sales. She would then load my sisters and me in the car and spend the morning visiting two or three stores in order to take advantage of weekly and seasonal specials. In between visits to the large chain stores my mom would frequent the neighborhood ethnic and specialty stores like Elliott's, a now-closed Harwood Heights deli known for it's lunch meat and fantastic corned beef, along with freshly baked rye bread and huge whole dill pickles.
In some ways I am like my mom, building meals around sale and seasonal items, but I do not share her determination to visit more than one store a day on a regular basis. I do, however, find myself purchasing items at different stores each week, largely due to the vast number of grocery stores and specialty shops now open in the suburbs.
We haven't always had that much choice.
Ethnic cuisine-focused stores like Krystyna's in Schaumburg and Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights and more general produce-focused shops like Caputo's and Valli offer shoppers a variety of international offerings in the fresh and prepared food aisles. And today's larger grocery stores offer more services than my mom could have ever imagined. Hand-rolled sushi at Jewel, olive bar at Dominick's, locally made and imported cheeses at Whole Foods Market, wine tasting at Trader Joe's and beer on tap at Heinen's in Barrington. Some of these spots also offer fish flown in daily, full bakeries, freshly made gelato and even flu shots to encourage one-stop shopping.
Add to this list convenience and prepared foods and some stores essentially double as high quality take out counters and cafes. Roasted lamb with grilled vegetables, freshly baked pizza, chicken tikka with grilled vegetables, freshly baked pizza, chicken tikka masala, from-scratch soups, baked pizza, chicken tikka masala, from-scratch soups, grilled salmon and gourmet burgers are just some of the items you can find hot and ready to go at many local stores. At some stores, if you purchase fish at the fish counter they'll grill it for you.
Mitsuwa, a Japanese market in Arlington Heights, devotes a section of the store to a full food court with each counter featuring a specialty like noodles or dim sum. And to think I used to think a salad bar or coffee counter was a luxury!
While I do appreciate the convenient and abundant choices offered by grocery stores today, I still enjoy cooking and am drawn to the grocery stores that also offer cooking classes. I have taken classes on fish preparation, appetizers, gluten-free cooking, healthy lunches and even attended a class led by chef Charlie Trotter. While not all locations offer cooking classes, most stores offer recipes and some have even published their own cookbooks.
I have had great success with many of these recipes with an example being a family favorite from Jewel for Apple Pecan Crisp. It is the quintessential fall dish featuring apples and cinnamon, along with raisins and pecans for a twist, and the crunchy topping we all look forward to. The addition of whole wheat flour also helps me to feel less guilty about topping my warm apple crisp with a scoop of vanilla, or even better, cinnamon ice cream.
I hope this article encourages you to explore and experience a food store outside of your usual routine. Search out a link of kabanos from your local Polish deli or try the marinated fish salad from a Mediterranean specialty store. Better yet, ask the "docent" at your neighborhood grocery store if they carry these tasty items. The answer may surprise you!
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.