In the five and a half years I’ve lived in Connecticut and New York, I’ve been fortunate to be within easy walking distance to gourmet shops that stocked most of the basics we might need for a weeknight meal–in New Haven, it was Romeo and Cesare’s, and in New York I didn’t even have to leave my own building as our apartment was literally above a bodega. I’m going to miss being able to take the elevator down there and swan around in flip flops and tank tops ind the dead of winter while the bundled-up folk give me the side-eye, but now I miss it as an easy resource to pick up a block of cheese, some lemons and limes or a can of chiles in adobo whenever I needed it without adding any significant time to my otherwise epic commute, because it allowed us the freedom to be spontaneous.
Now that we’re in Stamford, things have changed drastically. The closest convenience store to our building advertises their stock of sodas and body oils, which doesn’t inspire the most confidence in the quality of any food they might carry, so if either random inspiration strikes us or we realize that we forgot to get something at Fairway, the closest store we have to walk to is…Target.
[Ed.–I swear I can spell! Thanks to @bhk for the heads-up.]
Like I said, it’s a big transition. Fairway is fine for a weekend jaunt to stock up, or even a place to go on a Friday to get takeout or meal fixings, but between weekday rush-hour traffic and a potentially dangerous walk to get there (Connecticut drivers terrify me far more than their New York counterparts ever did because I’m not entirely sure they understand the concept of “pedestrian”) it’s not really a good place to rely on for those weekday emergencies. Believe me when I say we’ve tested that concept already and the results were very conclusive on that front.
While we certainly make our lists and pantry-load and do all of those responsible things, sometimes it’s simply not enough–I’ll open the pantry and there are no onions, or the olive oil is low, or the garlic is bad. Or maybe I’ll see a recipe that instantly appeals to me and I have some free time and–Veruca Salt connotations aside–I want it now. And with no Appletree, Westside Market or Romeo’s to aid me, a little research and creativity is required in order to pull it off.
So we have to work with what we have available to us. When I read this op-ed by Mark Bittman a day or two ago it helped to crystallize my thoughts around cooking when one doesn’t have easy access to the ideal market and having to make do with what one can find nearby. Yes, his thesis about cooking at home being simply better than getting takeout or going to a restaurant is correct, but I get troubled when he glosses over the issues of resources, time, access and procurement at the end of the piece–he basically tells those who can cook to continue doing so and makes some wistful remarks about it being accessible to all someday. This is not a satisfactory conclusion for me because access and procurement are particularly pressing issues for many areas in this country; even places where you’d expect to find things like small markets nearby fall short. To wit: I live in downtown Stamford, and it’s quicker and more convenient for me to buy a $500 jar of La Mer facial moisturizer at Saks Fifth Avenue than it is to buy an onion, and I pass several restaurants on Broad Street alone when I walk to Target. A less-determined person could easily get distracted on a quest to gather things to make something like homemade hummus, like passing a restaurant boasting a customized hummus bar. And here comes the challenge: in order to get people to solider on and not pay attention you have to show that the effort is worth any initial trouble (because extra trips are trouble) and the results far superior than anything you could get from the other side of a glass partition.
Why hummus was on my mind on Friday was because I wanted a healthy snack for the holiday weekend we could nibble on when we were feeling peckish. Having in mind a caramelized onion variety from Fairway that I wanted to try my hand at, it became clear that in order to get what I needed, to Target I was to go. To be fair, Target has beefed up their grocery department in the last few years, going so far as to roll out their pFresh initiative that brings fresh produce and meats into their traditional stores. The researcher in me was curious to see what I could pull off given what they had in stock, as I love a good excuse to nerd out over food retailer-related things.
Hummus is primarily a pantry-centric thing to make and could be seen as an easy choice to get the components at a place like Target, but I wanted to stay authentic and use tahini, and I wanted decent onions to cook down, and celery to dip into the final product, so it wasn’t a foregone conclusion I’d be able to get everything I needed. And at first I despaired: despite having a pretty decent selection of ethnic foods, tahini was not on the shelf…but then I noticed the sesame seeds. Figuring I could crush them with some sesame oil at home (and a big jar was under three dollars) I put one into my cart and got the garbanzos, celery and a bag of yellow onions (not my first pick, but beggars can’t be choosers) and walked out twenty minutes later.
The sesame seeds ended up not being necessary, as we went to Fairway that evening to do a little food shopping in anticipation of spending the next day in New York, so I could get my tahini there. But honestly, I could have made those sesame seeds work if I had to, and maybe one day I’ll give them a whirl just to say that I did.
As for the hummus, well, we easily ate through half of the blender carafe over the three-day weekend. Eating any more would have felt a little too indulgent. In any case, our spirit of spontaneity hasn’t been snuffed out; rather, it’s just been adjusted a little bit. I’m OK with this.
Caramelized Onion Hummus
- 2 14oz cans garbanzo beans, one drained and one with liquid
- 3-4 medium onions, sliced into rings
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2-3 tablespoons tahini
- Olive oil
- Kosher salt