This time of year, food shopping can be like a full-on military campaign. A well-prepared holiday shopper has lists, store maps and extra troops with cellphones and synchronized watches. Night goggles couldn't hurt. One team member may be grabbing the last can of condensed milk, while another is weighing chestnuts, thumping melons or staring in misery at the empty space where the heavy whipping cream used to be. If you make it out alive, with everyone intact, it's a victory.
It's like "The Great Escape," but with a can of pumpkin instead of a baseball; with a grocery cart instead of a motorcycle. And, like "The Great Escape," sometimes you have to leave something or someone behind for the greater good. Like the whipped cream. Or your spouse.
The Eastern European Store and Deli, tucked into an unassuming strip mall on 36th Avenue, is the antithesis of the big-box store experience. It's a fraction of the size, for starters. But somehow I can spend twice as long in its aisles. It's a store that needs to be savored. With patient service, difficult-to-find imports and house-made specialties, this shop is the anti-Wal-Mart.
Of course, if you're of Eastern European origin, or are well-versed in its cuisine, this store may simply be well-stocked and convenient and not the mysterious wonderland that it is to me. When I was there last, there were plenty of shoppers who seemed to know exactly what they were looking for and were communicating complicated requests to the clerks in a shared language. By contrast, I was moonily lurking around the pickle aisle having the following inner monologue: Pickled sorrel? What's this? Do I need this? Yes, I do. Of course, I do.
Similarly fascinating to me were the stacks of smoked herring, the packages of braided smoked cheese, the giant container of fat, jewel-like salmon roe, the clear bags of groats and millet, the variety of German egg-noodles from tiny little pasta blankets with curly edges to delicate little nests of wispy noodles.
The deli counter and espresso bar at the front of the shop serves a limited lunch menu of deli sandwiches, soup, pierogies and pelmeni. I decided to buy the store's frozen pierogies and pelmeni and prepare them at home so I could try a wider variety. A "dumpling buffet" is how I described it and my family was on board.
All three varieties cook in under seven minutes and I used a colander insert to cook them individually in one pot. I served them as simply as possible with a bit of melted butter, a sprinkle of parsley and a dollop of sour cream on the side.
The potato dumplings were pillowy and pleasantly light, but my preference was the pierogies stuffed with farmers' cheese. These offered a tangy, salty, piquancy in each creamy bite.
The pierogies were a hit but the pelmeni were even better. Stuffed with a homey filling of chicken and pork, these perfect little pasta pockets were juicy, savory and redolent with delicately seasoned meat and sweet onion flavor. A complete dish on their own, I started thinking of ways to get creative with these versatile little bites. Next time, I'm going to float them — tortellini en brodo-style — in a clear broth with a few aromatics. Doesn't everyone have a freezer full of turkey stock right now?
I also purchased two beef and cheese piroshki from the deli counter, which I reheated for lunch the next day. The ground beef was nicely seasoned and the cheese added a creamy element, but I was particularly in love with the texture of the pastry wrapped around the filling. It looks like the love child of a bagel and a croissant but has a hint of the eggy fluffiness of a popover or a gougere. The dough was mildly sweet and is a nice contrast to the meaty filling. My daughter requested more of them for her brown-bag lunches. Apparently she is tired of peanut butter.
I returned the following week in hopes of trying their borscht, but sadly, they were sold out for the day. This did not mean that I left empty-handed. Once again I was seduced by the exciting and, to me, mysterious culinary possibilities.
Randomly, I picked up a jar of caviar spread, which used to be featured on an meze platter at a favorite neighborhood Greek restaurant when I lived in New York. I took it to a friend's house with some warm pita triangles and got to relive a culinary memory. Nostalgia made me buy it. Creamy, salty, decadent deliciousness will make me buy it again.
Regular readers know that my tastes lean toward the salty and savory — the cured, the pickled, the spicy and the fishy. But here, the sweets are irresistible — even to me. Presentation is everything: the store abounds with baskets of loose, wrapped candies that look like jewels, glistening honey cakes, decorative cookies and boxes of chocolates that look like oil paintings.
To my children's great delight, I went home with a giant chocolate roulette, a freshly baked poppy seed roll and a box of cookies for no other reason than that they were adorable.
The roulette looked, according to my husband, like a giant Ho Ho, and it rather tasted like one too (not necessarily a complaint). Mild and creamy, this was an unchallenging desert designed to please a young palate (and we all have one of those from time to time). The cookies were pleasantly bland and comforting tea-biscuits. Not memorable, perhaps, but I would like to, somehow, tile a room with them. They're that cute.
The poppy seed roll was somehow nostalgic despite the fact that I had never tried this elegant loaf before. It's beautiful to look at, with its subtle sheen and deep-brown crust. And it's a lovely thing to cut into, revealing a perfect swirl of sweetened ground poppies. The bread was moist and its gentle sweetness is offset by the nutty earthiness of the seeds. It's a perfect breakfast loaf and would make a welcome host offering.
So, if you're shopping for paper towels, potatoes and a bag of all-purpose flour, gather your shopping SWAT team, hit the closest super store, and try to break your personal speed-shopping record. But then treat yourself to a wander through Eastern European Store and Deli. Sip a coffee. Nibble a pastry. Grab a bag of pelmeni for an easy, crowd-pleasing dinner. Buy something you've never tried. Buy something you've never heard of. Buy a gift for an adventurous foodie. But leave your list and your watch in the car. This is your time.
Eastern European Store & Deli
Location in Anchorage: 601 W. 36th Ave.
Hours in Anchorage: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday
Location in Mat-Su: 447 W. Parks Highway, Wasilla
Hours in Mat-Su: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday