Food Column: Food shopping in an exotic Jungle

Just what my cooking needed: a little road trip.

I've never been much of an impulse shopper. I'm the kind of person who sits down with my recipe box, plans out the menu for the week, and then trundles off to the grocery store with nary a diversion from my precious list. I don't browse; I don't check the latest seasonal flavors of Oreos; I just get in and get out as efficiently as possible.

But when a friend and I both discovered neither of us had ever visited Jungle Jim's, a big international market in Cincinnati, we decided the renowned store was worth a look-see. We took along my friend's sister-in-law, an experienced Jungle Jim's shopper, as our guide.

The store has two Cincinnati-area locations, in the suburbs of Fairfield and Eastgate. But it's no chain; the stores are the only ones.

Jungle Jim's is sort of like Whole-Foods-meets-Sam's-Club-meets-Cabela's, with a lot more international flavor. Whole Foods because there are a lot of unusual fruits and vegetables and higher-end food choices, Sam's Club because there are concrete floors and a warehouse feel, and Cabela's because of the life-size-model giraffes and elephants clustered around a pool outside, plus some animated jungle animals inside.

And then there are the "award-winning restrooms." I'm not kidding: A big sign proclaims their fame near the front of the store. They look like port-a-potties from the outside, but when you open the plastic doors, there are full restrooms inside.

The Asian-grocery section alone practically bowled me over. Six or seven different kinds of miso, scads of varieties of noodles with cooking directions only in Chinese, sauces and spices I had never seen in my life. And there's a whole aisle devoted solely to Hawaii.

The cheese section... well, let's just say I never even knew they made cheese in South Africa.

By far the most entertaining section was the meats and seafood. Ostrich, eel, duck feet, calf's brains. Frozen cubes of the tiniest little whole fishies you have ever seen. Octopus, venison, turtle, snouts (pig faces, in case you didn't know).

And the crowning glory: an entire frozen lamb's head. Really. In transparent plastic.

My favorite section was the produce. I'm a sucker for interesting fruits and vegetables, so I could easily have emptied my wallet if I hadn't known that my sense of adventure wouldn't really please the rest of my family. I ended up with broccoli rabe, shiitake mushrooms and fresh bean sprouts -- items that are rarely found in my usual grocery store, although they are not terribly unusual -- as well as my first asparagus and rhubarb of the season. But I could have bought lotus root (a crunchy staple of Japanese and Chinese cuisine), rambutan (a hairy little Southeast Asian fruit), cactus leaves, purple carrots, daikon (long, white radishes) or various types of gnarly-looking citrus. The weirdest item in the produce section was a bin of durian fruit, which looks and feels on the outside like a spike-covered ball of hard wood. Inside, it is said to have a custardy but intensely foul-smelling flesh. It's supposedly a delicacy in Thailand if you can get over the smell. But according to my friend who traveled there, durian fruit's spiky exterior can also make it an effective weapon. The hotels she stayed in were peppered with signs: "No durian fruit allowed."

It turned out that our little road trip was just the shot in the arm that my cooking needed. My family had been on the spaghetti-every-other-night rotation for far too long. It took a little courage for me to buy ingredients without a list -- what if I got home and had nothing with which to pair the broccoli rabe (recipe follows) or the tomato couscous. But it was fun, it all fell together somehow, and I tried some new dishes in the process.

You don't have to travel to Cincinnati to duplicate my experience for yourself. Here in Pittsburgh, there are just as many opportunities for a little food foray. If you don't frequent Whole Foods, check it out someday for the weird produce. Hit the Strip District on a Saturday morning if that's not in your usual rotation, and you'll get all the international flavor you could want. Or perhaps even just drop into your little, local Asian or Indian market and wander around. You might not be able to read any of the instructions on the noodle packets, but that's what Google is for, right?

A tasting, a screening, and a tasting-screening

Sewickley Soup Crawl: Sample dozens of soups prepared by neighborhood restaurants and served at Sewickley retailers; also meet the Soup Nazi of "Seinfeld" fame. Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 15, in the village of Sewickley. Tickets are $10 at Proceeds benefit the Sewickley Community Food Center Pantry and Quaker Valley Middle School's Studio Life after-school program.

"GMO OMG": An anti-GMO documentary. 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 14, at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. or 877-4-FLY-TIX.

"The Sturgeon Queens": True story of an immigrant family's four-generation business selling herring and lox in New York City. Screening is followed by "A Taste of Jewish Pittsburgh," featuring samples from Murray Avenue food vendors. 11:30 a.m. March 30 at the Manor, Squirrel Hill. $20.

Pasta handkerchiefs with broccoli rabe & ricotta

8 ounces fresh lasagna sheets, halved widthwise

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

4 sliced garlic cloves

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 bunches broccoli rabe, halved widthwise

1 cup ricotta

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook lasagna sheets according to package directions. Remove cooked pasta with tongs to a colander and drain, leaving water in pot. Return pasta water to a boil. Drizzle pasta with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until garlic is lightly toasted, 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, add 2 bunches broccoli rabe to the boiling pasta water and cook until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Remove broccoli rabe from water with tongs and transfer it directly to the skillet. Cook, stirring until broccoli rabe is tender and any pasta water clinging to it has evaporated, about 3 minutes.

Divide pasta among four plates, layering it with ricotta and broccoli rabe. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil before serving.

-- "Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals" by Caroline Wright (Workman, 2013)

Rebecca Sodergren: or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.


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