Photography & Styling

The Weirdest Ingredients We Sourced for Photo Shoots This Year

December 29, 2015

As Food52’s photo producer, in addition to organizing and coordinating shot lists, assisting on set, and eating (so many) cookies, I’m also responsible for having certain ingredients sourced for the shoots.

These ingredients either A) are unavailable on FreshDirect to be ordered with the rest of our supplies, or B) need to land on set beautiful and ready for their close-up—and therefore can’t travel as well as other foods. For the latter, we depend on the Union Square Greenmarket for handsome produce or cute artisan pretzels. For the former, sometimes many, many phone calls are made. Luckily, our office is between a Whole Foods and a Fairway—and a stone’s throw from Eataly. I’ve come to know the hours of operation, credit card minimums, and familiar faces of these neighborhood digs where we find our obscure recipe components.

Now that the hunts are mostly over for the year, I think I'm ready to relive the tribulations. Here are some of the wacky adventures I went on this year:

It was the middle of a shoot on a hot August day and we needed prune plums. You may know these as Italian plums, French plums, or blue plums. They’re small and oval-shaped and occasionally tricky to find. For some reason, they were not at our own Chelsea Fairway. Not in Whole Foods, not in Eataly. No one had this elusive stone fruit. After roaming around New York for 3 hours, absent from set, one subway trip, and a cab call later, I found myself at Fairway on the Upper East Side. Finally, we were rewarded with the beautiful prune plums to be used in this recipe.

More often, our sourced ingredients are stranger than fruit that’s only in season for a couple weeks. Luckily, Kalustyan’s is within walking distance from the office. Recently, I’ve gone to retrieve fermented bean curd, palm sugar, and Thai sticky rice. We’ve also found canned huitlacoche for queso fundido, horn salt (a.k.a ammonium bicarbonate) for these Norwegian pancakes, and Chinese cinnamon for some Masala Chai with Madhur Jaffrey.

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More: Our search for fresh huitlacoche ended...badly.

Every so often, an ingredient is so rare that we have to order it online—take, for instance, sorghum syrup for this post about sorghum products. Ali looked high and low, and after being vanquished, we resorted to the internet. We also went straight to the world wide web for dinosaur-shaped sprinkles for dinosaur egg oatmeal.

Depending on the time of year, genre of product, or just the powers that be on any given day, a lot of things can be tricky to find and throw you for a loop. Other tricky ingredients I came up against this year include:

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Top Comment:
“Just try to find most of these ingredients in northern Minnesota - as in north of Duluth. Then you will understand the frustration of those of us that live in remote, rural areas trying to follow recipes online written by people in cities. My favorite comment that always makes me laugh is "it's easily found in the ethnic food aisle." There is no ethnic food aisle at the grocery store near me. So, shelf stable items I order online (I love vitacost!) but produce I simply dream about.”
— ktr
Comment

Delicata squash: On December 1st, 2015, there was a delicata squash shortage in New York City. We called 4 Whole Foods, 2 Fairways, Eataly, and others, but everyone was out. Finally, Le District came through with 3 for us. The saddest part of the whole story? Our CSA delivered delicate squash the next day.

Cardoons: You have to call Eataly every few hours for these impossible-to-find artichoke relatives we needed for our digital cookbook with Mario Batali.

Orgeat: We eventually found this almond syrup commonly used for cocktails at Whisk—after looking at liquor stores and grocery stores were unsuccessful.

More: Whisk is responsible for another very valuable player in our photo studio.

Ovaltine: Described by our editors as “Americana,” it became clear that I wouldn’t be locating this in our local Whole Foods but instead a Key Food in the East Village. (We needed it for some Filipino cookies.)

So when you notice recipes on our site with hard-to-find-ingredients and grimace at the thought of finding them, know that I’ve been there. And that it's never impossible if you look hard enough. And, if all else fails, you can find nearly everything on the internet.

What ingredients have stumped you this year? Tell us in the comments!

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10 Comments

Dauda L. January 5, 2016
As an ethnic Nigerian/West African food, Ovaltine can also be found in African food stores or the international aisles of some supermarkets
 
Author Comment
Carmen L. January 6, 2016
*The process that just passed through my brain*<br />"Say what now? Malt West African?<br />Ooooooooh, MALT! Eek..."<br />
 
Dauda L. January 7, 2016
Lol. I only meant that like "tea," or more accurately, as part of it, we inherited Ovaltine from the British and it became firmly integrated into our dietary landscape, along with many other non-indigenous foods like wheat (bread and "biscuits") and semolina (meal and pasta).
 
Author Comment
Carmen L. January 7, 2016
https://food52.com/blog/15464-what-exactly-is-malt?src=promo_bundle
 
Dauda L. January 7, 2016
Ah, yes. You will want to investigate "Horlicks." A malted milk drink powder (sans cocoa in the original form, but it looks like it now comes in different flavours). I suspect it will make for a very interesting baking ingredient.
 
rachiti January 5, 2016
pomegranate powder - It's used in some Indian recipes but my local Indian grocer doesn't carry it. I decided to buy a pomegranate, dry the seeds, and grind them myself. Sure, I could've gone online for the ingredient but this way I haven't spent as much money and I'm more vested in the final product.
 
Author Comment
Carmen L. January 5, 2016
Whoa, that's a new one to me! Very cool.
 
Hemz7781 December 30, 2015
ovaltine is often available in Indian grocery stores!
 
Author Comment
Carmen L. January 5, 2016
Good to know, thank you!
 
ktr December 29, 2015
Just try to find most of these ingredients in northern Minnesota - as in north of Duluth. Then you will understand the frustration of those of us that live in remote, rural areas trying to follow recipes online written by people in cities. My favorite comment that always makes me laugh is "it's easily found in the ethnic food aisle." There is no ethnic food aisle at the grocery store near me. So, shelf stable items I order online (I love vitacost!) but produce I simply dream about.