You say to-may-to, I say to-ma-to, but we both know that no two tomatoes are alike.
Good produce -- or at least the best they can afford to sell -- is the key for a supermarket. Packaged goods don't change store to store, but I'll drive right past a place that tried to foist limp or dried out vegetables on me. Hard tomatoes? You can keep them.
Giant and Safeway have improved, but you can find better vegetables if you'll invest time, money or flexibility --
- If you can drive a little farther, you are not going to beat the Korean markets -- namely the H Mart in Catonsville. Spectacular variety. Spectacular prices. Spectacular quality. H Mart sells American, Asian and Latin American vegetables. They last forever in the fridge, and they're generally delicious and cheap enough to buy more or to experiment with something new. The bonus at either the H Mart or the new Super Grand market in Laurel is that the vegetables come with great fish, Asian groceries and Latin American ones as well.
In contrast, I can't recommend Lotte in Ellicott City. Bottom line: Lotte's vegetables aren't as fresh or good-looking. Slightly limp. Slightly dried. I'd hate for someone to shop there and give up on Korean markets. H Mart -- cleaner, bigger and better -- is just down Rte 40. I'd also hate for someone's first interaction to be with Lotte's employees, who unfailingly are fine for a couple visits and then do something aloof or rude. I catch myself and think, "Maybe that was just a cultural ." But I stopped going to Lotte when I realized that no one acts that way to the H Mart. (I still go to Lotte for packaged goods and especially for takeout meats, soups and panchan.)
- If you can spend a little more for organic, your best bet is Roots, David's Natural Market or MOM's Organic Market (formerly My Organic Market). My real experience is with Roots in Clarksville and MOM's in Jessup. They're both small enough that sometimes they don't have everything on my list. (No red peppers today?) They're both pricey. (Thank heavens, I couldn't afford $5.99 for a pound of red peppers anyway.) But your money buys beautiful produce, and I often see items -- like gorgeous chard -- that I pick up on impulse just because I know it'll be delicious. It's also organic if that matters to you.
- If you can satisfy yourself with what's in season, you should try out the farmers markets. In 2008, they were Thursday in at the East Columbia library, Saturday at Glenwood Library and Sunday at Oakland Mills. The produce varies, but it runs in seasons from greens in May through apples in October and November. Nothing is cheap, but everything has been great fun. Homestead Farm sells at the Sunday market, and I experimented with its seaweed and greens and lived large on old standards like tomatoes and eggplants. More than any store, the markets can be fun just to wander. The Sunday market has Bonaparte breads and pastries. The Saturday one has milk and more from the South Mountain Creamery.
On top of these options, the regular supermarkets have really improved, and the new Harris Teeter in Columbia puts out a nice display -- including some organics. You can also buy produce at some ethnic grocery stores, although the only ones where I regularly shop are Food Cravings, which vegetables for Indian food, and Lily's Mexican Market, which has basics like hot peppers and onions but also some exotics like fresh cactus.
This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about shopping in Howard County. Or click to switch to the posts about different cuisines or posts about areas and ideas.
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