Sunday, March 28, 2010

Coffee, cheese and the dangers of grocery shopping without a list

About a week ago, I received a small cash bonus at work.  Not enough to radically change my life, send me on vacation or buy a new car, but enough to make me want to do something specific with it rather than simply tossing it into the bank account with the rest.  I debated responsible versus frivolous and consumable versus collectible.

In the end, it came down to a wish to experiment with coffee and ended up with breaking the rules of pragmatic grocery shopping and a rather expensive piece of cheese.

First the coffee.

I have never been much of a coffee drinker.  My caffeine fix has always come from Coca Cola (affectionately known as the Red Can of Death in my world).  Somewhat amazingly, I gave it up about three weeks ago.  It might even be three weeks ago today now that I think about it.

I have known for quite a while that this particular bad habit had to go, especially since I now sit for a living and three hundred or so extra empty calories just can't be good for a person, no matter how good they taste or what sort of energy boost they offer.  Even though I strongly suspected that I was at least as addicted to the sugar as the caffeine, if not more so, I have read enough about the horrible things that caffeine can do to a person's bones to realize that it had to go as well.

The key was always going to be finding a reasonable alternative, and no, caffeine free diet Coke is not a reasonable alternative.  It's just trading one set of bad chemicals for another, and I can't stand the taste of artificial sweeteners.  Plain water was also not a reasonable alternative.  It might be good for me, but it's just not satisfying.

When someone introduced me to sparkling water with fruit essence, I was suspicious at first, but it has turned out to be a fairly convincing decoy.  Water, CO2 and fruit essence.  No calories and no artificial sweeteners.  When chilled, it almost tastes like soda, and if it goes flat, it's just slightly flavored water, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Other caffeinated and sugar-laden vices lurk in the shadows, however.  The grande mocha frappuccino with whipped cream is a not uncommon indulgence, and I have developed something of a taste for hazelnut coffee with a dash of Jameson's and a swirl of whipped cream.  Between those two items and driving past what looks to be a lovely new little coffee house in town yesterday morning I got to thinking about the possibilities of decaffeinated coffee.  After doing some research into taste and method, I decided that part of my small financial windfall would fund an experiment in decaffeinated hazelnut coffee (giving me the opportunity to use the long neglected French press coffee pot in my possession).

Off I went to the grocery store with thoughts of coming home with coffee and a gallon of milk (and possibly a dvd or two from the rental shop next to the grocery store).

At this point, the trouble started.  I was hungry, and I had no shopping list to stick to.  I definitely came home with coffee (three different kinds even though only two were decaffeinated) and a gallon of milk, but it seemed that everywhere I looked, there were tempting things which made my stomach grumble, so I soon had a shopping basket laden with two everything bagels, crusty Italian bread, a medley of olives (why just Kalamata, I thought, when I could try all of these others), a few mozzarella balls, a bag of Sun chips, raw almonds, frozen chicken strips and crinkly fries, toasted ravioli (which turned out to be quite tasty despite coming from the freezer section, a small jar of black olive tapenade (which I have wanted to try but never got around to), and a rather expensive wedge of cheese.

This wedge of cheese can be blamed for the purchase of the olive medley and the tapenade because the sign claimed that the cheese flavor would be complemented with olives.  (The sign turned out to be quite right.  A bit of cheese on a dab of tapenade on a hunk of crusty Italian bread is a grand and glorious thing indeed.)

I'm usually a mild or medium cheddar sort of a girl, with mozzarella (especially if fresh), occasionally Swiss, muenster, Havarti and Brie, and a nice blend of the harder cheeses like Parmesan, Asiago and Romano thrown in for good measure.  (Please excuse the seemingly random capitalization if it is incorrect.  I decided to trust this program's spell checker.)  Lately, however, what with the more cooking and reading about food -- especially food in France where they make all sorts of wonderful cheese and even have shops devoted entirely to the sale of cheese, which I imagine to be expanded versions of the cheese counter at the small Italian I remember frequently as a child with my mother -- I have felt the inclination to broaden my horizons, and decided that this was the opportunity to do so.  As a result, I decided to try Manchego, a Spanish cheese which is somewhat crumbly and has a tang similar to Asiago, though perhaps a bit sharper.  Delicious!

Meanwhile, I am so taken with the black olive tapenade that I am inclined to try to make my own.  But not today.  Today I am making creamy leek potato soup with crispy leek rings to ward off the spring chill.

As a somewhat related aside, while I do love to cook, one distinct challenge I have found is dealing with the cravings.  I don't just get hungry; I crave.  Sometimes it is a particular taste -- salty, sweet, chocolatey -- and sometimes it is a particular food or dish -- lasagna, hummus, potato chips, fried rice, potato leek soup.  When a craving for ravioli kicks in, I certainly could make them myself, but it is so tantalizingly easy to just pick up a package at the grocery store which is two minutes away from the house, especially now that more gourmet fresh varieties are as easy to come by as frozen standards and taste so much better.

Since I know that what I make usually tastes better than what I buy in the store (and I am a lot more aware of what is in it), the trick becomes finding those extra hours in the day for cooking and sensible grocery shopping.

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