Saturday, December 3, 2011

Spices on the Cheap, and Edible Christmas Gifts

The Parthenon Supermarket on West Broadway is the cheapest place in Kits to buy spices, particularly those from the Mediterranean region. It's also a great place to go for unique foods to make up a Christmas hamper or box of edible goodies for foodies!

Unfortunately, the Parthenon was closed for quite some time due a second suspicious fire (never a dull moment in what I like to call "Greeksilano" - I could relate stories from my year or two there that would perhaps come as a surprise to non-Greek Canadians everywhere! Whole lamb roasts right in the middle of our back alley, fights between Athenian Greeks and the others, etc.). I for one like the ethnic excitement and intrigue. I also like Olympia Pizza and the many delicious Greek bakeries there. And of course my landlady, who used to stuff us full of Greek sweets (including a very weird unripe tiny eggplant in sugar syrup delicacy, I think it was called glyko melitzanaki. . . I definitely prefer kourabiedes!). If you're not familiar with Greek culture and cuisine, an excellent educational (and culinary) experience is "Greek Day" in the summertime (June 24, 2012 is the next one!). And that goes double if you like to eat lamb! I personally stick to the sweets, partly because of vegetarianistic tendencies, but mostly because of the garlic and red onion. It's a tragic food intolerance - pity me!

Israeli couscous is yummy!

This time, I came across a spice called "Mahlepi". So I bought it! Yes, I may have hoarding tendencies when in comes to spices - I like to have absolutely everything at hand so I can try new recipes! There's nothing more frustrating than going with a list of ingredients to a grocery store, only to be unable to find that one crucial spice. This has happened to me so many times that I've developed some sort of psychological issue, and so I hoard spices as a result! And when I saw "Mahlepi", I knew it would fill a chink in the armour of my flavouring arsenal!

Mahlepi, according to the internet, is also called "Mahlab" in Arabic. Here's the blurb from
Mahlepi (Mahleb in Arabic) is an unusual Greek spice with a distinctive, fruity taste. The finely ground mahlepi powder is made from the inner kernels of fruit pits of a native Persian cherry tree. For many Greeks, the sweet smell of mahlepi always suggests the aroma of freshly-baked tsoureki, a traditional sweet bread with mahlepi baked for Greek Easter. Mahlepi is also used in holiday cakes and cookies.
So perhaps it won't be quite as versatile as Sumac (also spelled "Sumaq"). Sumac is one of my all-time favourite spices - give it a try! (If you've used Za'atar seasoning, you've had sumac before). The description from Silk Road Spice Merchant:
Sumac is the berry of a shrub that grows in the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. It is little known in Western cuisine, but it is an essential ingredient in Arab and especially Lebanese cooking. It has a tart, fruity flavour, and is used to add acidity to food in the same way that lemon is used in Canada and tamarind is used in Asian countries. Fresh sumac is occasionally called for in recipes, but outside of the regions where it is grown, sumac is generally only available dried and ground.
One of the green and affordable gift options I like to suggest is a box or hamper of non-perishable specialty food items that suits the tastes of the intended recipient. The possibilities are truly endless - you can put in all the non-perishable ingredients for a certain recipe (or recipes for a multi-course meal). You could also just do a "theme".

If you have deep pockets, buy a cookbook (I can recommend a few! The ReBar and Moosewood cookbooks are some of my favourites. And that Canadian Living Vegetarian (see 'recommend' link) one turned out to be awesome, by the way!), and then flip through to find out what spices you need (get them all!) and non-perishable but atypical pantry items. Wouldn't that make a perfect gift? Buy a few vegetables / meat for a recipe and know that you have everything else you need at home!

For example:

A hodge-podge of the recipient's favourite foods. I went for the unusual, hard-to-find or expensive versions of their usual fare. I can't say much more, 'cause this is meant to be a surprise!

Indian foods - spices (O, the Spices!), dried lentils, rice, chai tea mixes - maybe throw in some incense or an Indian music CD). Recommended shops: Sabzi Mandi, any grocer in "Little India" (Main and 49th), even the ethnic section of Superstore will leave you in fairly good stead.

Japanese - this one is easy! Sushi rice, rice vinegar, low-sodium soya sauce, bamboo sushi rolling mat and bamboo rice paddle, nori (seaweed), and if you want to get away from this sushi-theme, just shop around at any Fujiya location, or on Robson drop by Konbiniya (our favourite - better value than Fujiya).

Thai - cans of coconut milk, red curry paste, yellow and green curry pastes, sambal oelek, laos (galangal powder), rice vermicelli noodles, kaffir lime leaves, sweet chili sauce, or go very simple and get a ready-made Pad Thai sauce. Don't forget some peanuts, too!

A star-themed basket?! Know an astronomer?

I could go on and on - more ideas:
  • African foods
  • Mediterranean foods
  • European (in general) or by country (France and Italy probably should involve a bottle of wine!)
  • Middle Eastern foods
  • Scandinavian fare (hit up Ikea for this one!)
  • Former USSR fare (this could be such a cool mix!)
  • Regions of China (Szechuan, Hunan, Hong Kong, even Taiwanese)
  • Around the World (a little bit of everything!)
  • Buddhist cuisine staples / Vegetarianism / Vegan
  • Star-themed (see image above) for the astronomer or thespian - stelline pasta, tre stelle parmigiano-reggiano (it doesn't need refrigeration), a can of Rockstar mixer, a wine a star on the label, a star-shaped ice cube tray, candy star sprinkles, and a star-shaped cookie cutter!
  • Kosher only (you can buy adorable dreidels at Solly's for $0.95!)
95 cents for a dreidel at Solly's on W. Broadway

Remember, though, that some of the spices, oils and hard-to-find imported items can really add up! Keep it affordable by including the staple carbohydrate sources (pasta, rice, lentils, pulses, beans, noodles, etc.). And  do shop around to price out your items - places like The Gourmet Warehouse have fabulous selection, but their prices can be steep (though in other cases, they can have some great deals). Be sure to do your homework! And do consider The Parthenon Supermarket if you're looking for Greek, Mediterranean or European items!

If you want to really go the extra mile, fill a pot, pan, or serving platter (Ming Wo is the cheapest place I know of next to Ikea!) with your items. Ming Wo and Ikea both have great deals on scrubbies, dishcloths and tea towels to round out your foodie gift, to act as wadding, or to line the bottom of your platter, dish or pan to prevent a heavy item from scratching it during transport and delivery!

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