I was in the scrum of Fairway's bountiful produce aisle when a woman standing near me began to lament that she didn't know how to buy an onion. She was holding a long shopping list and told me she was making a major meal that weekend and while she cooked often, she still got challenged by all the details that most cookbooks leave out. Like when they say "onions" -- which of the dozen or so that most markets offer was she supposed to choose? She was trying to take all the expertise that was available to her (cookbooks, TV chefs, food magazines, food blogs, the web) and make it work in her busy life. But she got stopped by a vegetable.
This is an event playing out every day in New York and in cities across the country. We are all extremely busy. We are ambitious to make good meals for ourselves and our friends and families. We crave some domesticity and domestic competence. And we want to know how to benefit from the remarkable choice of ingredients that our city food merchants offer us. Yet it is not easy.
The woman in Fairway became my inspiration for The City Cook. While I never saw her again, her frustration stayed with me, and as I thought about her more, I realized that urban home cooks are different than our suburban counterparts and that we have different needs.
To begin with, our kitchens are small. Maybe tiny. We don't have the space to buy in mass quantities, and even if we did, many of us don't have or access to places like Costco. When I buy two rolls of paper towels I consider it a bold move. Many of us have 30-inch stoves, not hulking Vikings. And we don't grill, or at least we're not supposed to according to apartment fire codes.
Next, it's common urban habit to grocery shop daily. We don't drive to a big supermarket to stock up once a week. Instead we stop at the market on the way home and buy what's for dinner. We might put in an online order for the big stuff that's harder to carry, but more often we buy what we need when we need it.
There's a profound ethnic influence on what and how we cook and the rich multi-cultural nature of our cities shows up in our kitchens. It's also evident in our markets with shelves stocked with Hispanic, Jewish, Italian, Moroccan, British, Thai, Chinese and many other nationalities' essential ingredients. These markets give us access to the best ingredients in the world. While there are great Italian grocers in Italy, the next best are here. In New York we have ethnic specialists, like Sahadi's in Brooklyn Heights, or DiPalo Dairy in Little Italy, or Despaña Foods in SoHo. We have markets that stock the best of everything, like Dean & Deluca or Citarella. And there are greenmarkets and food co-ops across the city that strive to bring local and organic produce to our tables. Lucky us.
The New York grocery experience is repeated in cities across the country. Dedicated food merchants, passionate purveyors, farmers and producers -- they all work hard to bring us the best ingredients for us to take home and cook.
No one has the time to figure it all out and keep track of where to find stuff while trying to eat well every day -- and also do everything else we want and have to do.
The answer is The City Cook.
Here you'll find the sources for the best ingredients. We'll always be adding to our database so check back often.
We will give you ideas for weekday cooking as well as for meals to make for yourselves or guests on the weekends and on holidays.
We will give you tips on how to have a kitchen that works for you, regardless of its size. We will help you know which tools you should have, where to buy them, how to use them.
Above all, we will encourage you to cook at home instead of picking up another soggy take-out burrito or an aluminum container of over-salted pot roast that may have been sitting in a deli's display case for 10 hours before you bought it. Or spending a half-day's wages on a mediocre restaurant meal.
So here's to cooking at home in the big city. You'll be healthier, thinner, richer, and hell, unless you're at a restaurant with someone named Batali or Keller in the kitchen, you'll probably eat better, too.