At Big Girls, Small Kitchen, we love to cook at home. To equip ourselves to cook any cuisine in the world in the confines of our small kitchens, we’re sending contributor Lauren Rothman off to visit the Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian, and Greek supermarkets of New York City. Her shopping expeditions will yield the specialty ingredients we need in order to delve deep into the kinds of cuisines we’re craving at home these days.
Up first: Titan Foods, the Greek Emporium of New York City, located in Astoria Queens. Here’s Lauren:
Queens is a food mecca. Though to most people, New York City’s largest borough simply holds the distinction of being one of the most diverse geographic areas on earth–nearly 50 percent of its occupants were born abroad–to me, that means you’ll find Chinese grocery stores hawking pristine bok choy just a stone’s throw from Pakistani shops filled with fragrant spices and, a couple of blocks away, Puerto Rican bodegas serving up soupy rice and beans and crisp-fried tostones. As a Brooklynite, I don’t get to spend much time in Queens, but when I do make it there, I’m taken aback by the abundance.
When I’m looking for Greek ingredients, I head to Astoria. This neighborhood, known for its handsome Tudor-style row houses, was the destination for immigrants arriving from Greece and Cyprus in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the Mediterranean population left its mark in the form of countless restaurants, casual tavernas and bakeries, and a number of well-stocked grocery stores that are a dream for the home cook. (See all of BGSK’s Greek recipes here.)
My Greek supermarket of choice is Titan Foods, a large but not overwhelming full-service grocery that stocks an amazing selection of all the Greek ingredients you’d ever need, from aromatic dried oregano to milky fetas to countless varieties of olives—and much more. Need phyllo for homemade baklava? It’s here, in about nine varieties. Prefer to pick up a prepared spinach pie? In the freezer section. Titan has three grinds of bulgur, from fine to coarse; dried fava beans, both split and whole; and a wealth of dried fruits and jams in flavors like sour cherry, fig and bitter orange.
On a recent visit, my shopping list included oregano, feta and olives, plus olive oil, pita, eggplant salad and yogurt—and I planned to stop by the store’s expansive bakery counter to end my visit on a sweet note. With ease, I found everything I was looking for, which didn’t surprise me, but what was unexpected was the level of service at Titan: workers here are courteous and solicitous in a way that feels rare these days.
Titan’s cheese section, for example, is a wonderland, offering nine types of fresh-cut feta as well as a host of packaged varieties, and a wide selection of less commonly known—to a non-Greek—cheeses including graviera, a firm, nutty sheep’s milk cheese made in Crete that’s akin to Spanish manchego, and kefalo, the hard, salty cheese that, when rolled in flour and fried, is known as saganaki. As an outsider, such a dizzying assortment isn’t necessarily easy to parse, but luckily the cheese guys at Titan are generous with the samples, slicing off bits of cheese until you’ve found one that satisfies.
The ladies behind Titan’s pastry counter are no less patient. The constellation of honey-soaked, multi-layered Greek desserts is a dense one, but the Titan gals have you covered, explaining baklava fillings and the various flavorings used to perfume an array of semolina cakes. For novelty’s sake, I decided to try one with mastika, a piney resin harvested from a Mediterranean evergreen tree that I had heard of but never tried. Curiosity met, but I can’t say I recommend it: the cake was somewhat dense and its resinous, super licorice-y flavor just wasn’t for me. More on the money was a sweet, moist slice of walnut cake that, nearly the size of a brick, was a steal at $3.50.
The prices at Titan are excellent—much less than you’d pay for like ingredients at, say, Whole Foods, but don’t expect a bargain-basement tab, either. For $45, I picked up the array you see here—500 mL of olive oil, half a pound of olives, half a pound of feta, one pound of yogurt, a bag of pita, eggplant salad, and a bunch of wild oregano, plus two slices of cake and a jar of dark Greek honey that I didn’t realize cost $10 until I paid for my haul.
Back at home, I prepared myself a dairy-heavy snack, cubing up the tangy feta and drizzling it with the peppery olive oil, then showering the cheese with minty crushed oregano and tossing in a few olives for good measure. For dessert, I took a spoonful of yogurt—that’s all you need, it’s so thick and rich—and drizzled it with amber-colored honey. One bite of perfection that I dare say was worth ten dollars.
25-56 31st Street, Astoria, Queens