food store

Foraging for Olives and Feta in Astoria—and Coming Home with Way More

I went on a field trip to explore Greek Astoria this week. I’d been hearing for ages about Titan Foods—“America’s Largest Greek Specialty Food Store.” I’d even taken a virtual tour of its olive and cheese counters with Michael Psilakis, founding chef at haute Greek pioneer restaurant Anthos (and chef/owner of Kefi, Gus & Gabriel Gastropub—will Williamsburg be next?)
 
You can take the tour, too:

 
Now that I get that it’s tee-TAN foods—to rhyme with Han, as in Han Dynasty—and not tī-tn, as in “tighten,” I think I’m ready. More to the point, I have a queue of Med recipes waiting for olives and/or feta before they can be made.
 
With all the talk of how huge Titan was, I guess I’d imagined a Walmart-size Greek grocery store. Well it’s not—and that’s good thing. But with a Greek flag flying from the roof of the white stucco building and a mural of Greek monuments (think Parthenon) overlooking the small parking lot, it certainly has a presence.
 
Inside, the grocery store aisles transport you straight to the Mediterranean: rows of different olive oils in tins, grains, beans, packages of cereal with Greek labels, dried fruits, nuts, a cooler full of, well, yes, Greek yogurt. Almost none of the products here can be found at my regular NY supermarket. Even the pasta is different. The olive section doesn’t disappoint. I select some dark ones from Cyprus and Morocco—just because I haven’t tried them before.
 
 
At the cheese counter (above), which in Greece, as Psilakis points out, is really all about feta, I decide on the Arahova, a sheep’s milk feta. The EC, after some dispute, gave the Greek brine-cured cheese a P.D.O. (protected designation of origin), which means all feta must come from Greece. I learn later that Greeks apparently eat more cheese per capita than any other nation (yes, even France)—75% of it feta.
 
Also in my basket: dried apricots, orange blossom water (from Lebanon), gigante dried beans, orzo and olive oil soap. The staff I talk to are all very helpful: One man valiantly tries to explain what mastiha is—and I get that it is sweet—but I still had to look it up when I got home. I discover that the Chios Mastiha Growers Association has a whole store of mastiha products, including a cookbook, in the East Village. Clearly I’m behind the curve here; I’ll have to drop by next time I’m in the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll even be a brave taster, as my sons’ nursery school teacher used to say, and bring home a jar from Titan next time I go. Maybe.
 
Titan Foods doesn’t sell fresh produce. For that, I walk along 30th Avenue. The stretch between 31st Street and Steinway reminds me of the Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods in Toronto where the produce stands of small green grocers spill right out onto the sidewalk.
 
 
 
At United Brothers Fruit Market, I find red swiss chard—crisp and beautiful—for $1/pound; at Elliniki Agora a couple of doors down, fresh fava beans. Tinned sardines from Croatia at Cyprus Deli and I’m done. A small but satisfying haul, with a shopping list already started for my next visit.
 
Getting there: N train to Astoria Blvd or 30 Av
 
Titan Foods
25-56 31st Street
718-626-7771
www.titanfood.com
 
United Brothers Fruit Market
3224 30th Ave.
718-728-7011
 
Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable
32-12 30th Ave. 

718-728-0751
 
Cyprus Deli
3410 30th Ave.
718-278-4679

Farro, Farro, Where Art Thou?

I’m hunting for farro—once I find out what it is. It’s the first item in a recipe for Panzanella di Farro, or Tuscan tomato salad with farro, in Olives and Oranges, by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox.
 
 
All I know is that it’s a grain—and not one found on my local grocers’ shelves. When I Google it, I find lots of contradictory information. It’s spelt, it’s not spelt. It takes an hour to cook, it takes 20 minutes. I go on with my research and when I’m deep in the weeds of scientific discussions about tetraploid wheats and taxonomy disputes I decide I’ve learned enough.
 
Farro scholars (I’m sure they’re out there) may split hairs but here’s what I, er, boil it down to: Farro (triticum dicoccum or emmer wheat) is an ancient grain, an unhybridized wheat with an intact husk that is the ancestor of modern durum wheat. (Spelt is triticum spelt, a close relative, but not exactly the same in taste and texture. Still, confusion reigns, because Triticum dicoccum, farro, is often translated into English by its Italian producers as “spelt.”)
 
I learn that farro was one of the earliest domesticated crops in the Fertile Crescent, known to archaeologists who explore ancient tombs and excavations. It was eaten by the Roman legions (it seems they were sometimes paid with a daily ration of farro). Farro’s backstory begins to read like a novel. In 1906 agronomist and botanist Aaron Aaronsohn found wild emmer growing in Rosh Pinah (Israel), and his discovery of the “mother” of wheat was said to have caused a sensation in the botanical world. Something about all this thrills me—call me a romantic, but part of the pleasure of Mediterranean eating, I am discovering, is this connection to peoples long gone and life in places far away.
 
Emmer survives in mountainous regions as what’s called a relict crop, one left over from the days when it was widely cultivated. Today it is mostly cultivated in Italy, in Umbria, and Tuscany, most famously in the region of Garfagnana, where it has the equivalent of an appellation controlée.
 
The farro I’ve located in New York is from Umbria and it’s semipearled, meaning the husk has been cracked and it takes only 20 minutes to cook. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and is full of nutrients, too—high in protein, vitamins B and E, and fiber. 
• Bartolini Emilio brand (500 g/$8) at Zabar’s, back behind the coffee to the left of the jams
• Roland brand (500 g/$5) at Fairway, on the shelf with rices. (The words Triticum dicoccum don’t appear on the Roland package but farro does and I’m going with it for now.)
• Rusticella d’Abruzzo brand at Market Hall Foods online (the bricks-and-mortar store is in Oakland, CA)
 
Zabar’s
2245 Broadway (at 80th Street)
New York, NY 10024
212-787-2000
 
Fairway
2312 12th Avenue (at 130th Street)
Manhattan
212-234-3883
 
2127 Broadway (at 74th Street)
Manhattan 
212-595-1888
 
480-500 Van Brunt Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn
718-694-6868
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