New York, New York - and where's the domestic olive oil?

My great plans for attacking the NYC food scene haven't gone that well, due to work and family commitments. I didn't make it to the Fancy Food Show after all (today is the last day but I had meetings...) So far my exploring has been limited to evening forays to local eateries, but since this is, after all, New York, that's no hardship at all.

I've lived in the New York City area off and on for 10+ years, but being here less frequently have made me look at the city from a different perspective. This time I'm staying downtown, near the World Financial Center in Battery Park City. When I lived in New York, my neighborhoods were first Flushing, Queens, a great enclave of Asian food; then the Murray Hill area (that's the East 30s), then the Upper East and West Sides, not to mention Midtown East where I worked. So to me, this downtown area is like a totally foreign city.

It's true when they say that New Yorkers stick to their own neighborhoods - you have to consume the city in small chunks or it can overwhelm you. I've found myself taking the subway uptown to go to the bank branch I was familiar with, even though my bank has at least 3 branches right in this area. I just feel more at home at the other location! I know exactly where everything is at the Duane Reade there (Duane Reade, a drugstore and more, is a NYC institution), which building lobbies I can take air-conditioned shortcuts through, and where to go for bagels. It was like coming home in a way that the downtown area just isn't.

Still, it's been fun exploring this "new" city too. I have to say that I do salute everyone who lives in a typical tiny New York apartment, with the typical tiny, unventilated kitchen, who bravely attempts to cook at home. The place we are staying in now is very nice and spacious, but the kitchen is windowless, weeny and lacks an exhaust fan. (My last NYC apartment on the UES did at least have an exhaust fan.) The guy who rented this place to us while he's away on vacation himself doesn't seem to do any cooking - I can only find one sort of working pan of any sort, and no spatulas or anything - so any sort of serious cooking is rather out of the question. Besides, with so many great takeout places all around, not to mention the world of restaurants in all price ranges, you really need to be determined to actually cook something. I'm already addicted to the multigrain crust pizza from the small pizza place right in the building, and the ramen place around the corner isn't too bad either.

Another reason why it's hard to be a home cook in New York City is the price of the raw materials. I wanted to get some salt and pepper, so I went to the nearest supermarket (not a Gourmet Market) - where I was confronted with an array of Special Salts: French sea salt (at 3 times what it costs in France), coarse sea salt with a special grinder, and on and on. Hidden in this array was good old basic Morton's Salt at 80 cents per carton - which is all I wanted, since I don't think Special Salt should be wasted on something like pasta cooking water...even though I am a bit of a salt freak, with at last count 6 different kinds of it in my pantry! Still, I really felt a intimidated by that array of salts that seemed to be saying to me, If You Call Yourself A Gourmet You Must Buy Me.

The most puzzling thing to me that I somehow failed to notice when I lived here, is the price of olive oil and the total lack of any domestic varieties of this essential ingredient at the stores. Every cooking show and magazine on earth seems to take the use for Extra Virgin Olive Oil (ye old EVOO, a la Rachael Ray) for granted. Now...I do not believe that EVOO needs to be used for every single frying task, but I do use it quite a lot. But the price of even the most mundane EVOO - that brand that begins with a B that you see everywhere - is really expensive, even, dare I say, overpriced. And every brand that I've seen so far at the non-gourmet supermarkets as well as the Gourmet Markets (well, so far I have only stepped briefly into Whole Foods and Amish Market) are imported. What gives? A quick Google search shows that there are indeed California olive oil growers (maybe I would have seen them at the Fancy Food Show, baah) but at least in NYC so far they are nowhere to be found.

Someone should do what Migros (the biggest supermarket chain in Switzerland) has done: they have installed a house brand of EVOO, imported from Spain, (but remember, Spain is much closer to Switzerland than California is to New York!) sold in a plain, olive-colored opaque plastic bottle. It's 9 Swiss Francs for a litre (about $7), is peppery and flavorful, and very acceptable for most cooking. I reserve the better class of cold-pressed EVOO for dressings and things and use Migros EVOO for everything else. Mind you, this is in a country that everyone says is so expensive! Isn't it time to strip all the chi-chi from EVOO and make it affordable for everyone?

Or..maybe it has been done here in the U.S. already too? I'm going to Trader Joe's at Union Square tomorrow...maybe they have something like that. We'll see!

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New York, New York - and where's the domestic olive oil?

Hi Maki. I'll be going to NYC in early August. I have never found a reasonably priced place to have steak. All the steakhouses are super expensive (Peter Luger's is the best (sigh)). Do you know of a "local joint" that serves up a decent cut of beef without the whole steakhouse "sides", "extras", etc?
I agree with you on the shopping front. Whole Foods is pretty upscale but the assortment is bizarre. And, yes, Migros olive oil is the best.

roanne | 12 July, 2006 - 10:25

New York, New York - and where's the domestic olive oil?

As a former New York City dweller, I easily relate to your comments in this entry. Your mention of the cost of raw ingredients in New York City is one that I often relate as a reason for not cooking in as much as dining out. I remember a time that I hosted a dinner for my then fiance, the meal was incredibly expensive. We could have dined at a top restaurant, with a bottle of wine for the cost of this food. While I am a gourmand... a 4 star chef I am not. The meal was a pleasure, though paying less to have a professional chef prepare the meal may have been even more pleasurable! Too bad you missed the Food Show... I was there and it is always something I look forward to. Sunday was especially thrilling since the excitement of the world cup was felt throughout the center... with every cheer from the France and Italy pavilions.

Kristen Nweeia | 12 July, 2006 - 18:53

New York, New York - and where's the domestic olive oil?

Kristen, I'm sorry I missed the food show too, but I did get to spend the day with my sister, who I only get to see once or twice a week...so that was worth it i think!

Roanne, I don't really know of an inexpensive steak house I'm afraid. The main issue with a really "good" steak, like really "good" sushi, is that the key raw ingredient, good aged beef, is not cheap. So a really good steak house like Peter Luger is not overcharging their customers. If you are going to be able to cook your own, I'd get a good steak (following the recommendations of the excellent counter butchers) at Citarella. A real splurge in the cook-it-yourself category which is just about worth it is to get the steaks at Lobel's...though you do end up paying like $50-60 and MORE for a one steak there!

Other than that though, for me if I'm going to really have a good steak in NY I just bite the bullet and go to Peter Lugers, or Sparks (my two preferred beefy places)...I figure if I'm going to have such a huge calorie and cholesterol hit I might as well go for the best!

maki | 13 July, 2006 - 16:12

New York, New York - and where's the domestic olive oil?

As a former New York City dweller, I easily relate to your comments in this entry. Your mention of the cost of raw ingredients in New York City is one that I often relate as a reason for not cooking in as much as dining out. I remember a time that I hosted a dinner for my then fiance, the meal was incredibly expensive. We could have dined at a top restaurant, with a bottle of wine for the cost of this food. While I am a gourmand... a 4 star chef I am not. The meal was a pleasure, though paying less to have a professional chef prepare the meal may have been even more pleasurable! Too bad you missed the Food Show... I was there and it is always something I look forward to. Sunday was especially thrilling since the excitement of the world cup was felt throughout the center... with every cheer from the France and Italy pavilions.

Kristen Nweeia | 13 July, 2006 - 16:13

I’ve been enjoying wading

I’ve been enjoying wading through your archives, following a link from biggie at lunch in a box. recently read that in terms of carbon foot print, in NY it is “better” to drink French wine that CA wine. True in the US east of DC or so. So, I imagine the same goes for olive oil. Though, I’m guessing that is not why you could not find domestic olive oil in those stores.

delilah | 18 January, 2008 - 02:23

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