Saturday, March 3, 2007

99 Ranch Market: Thrilling to Asian Foods

It’s the Chinese New Year and I thought it would be a perfect time to tool around 99 Ranch Market on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. for the makings of a robust stir fry and pick up some of my favorite treats. Okay, I’m not especially fond of larger supermarkets—and 99 Ranch Market is certainly that—but it offers an entirely different selection of products than you’d find at your local Ralphs or Vons. In fact, it’s one of the largest Asian-American supermarket chains in the U.S., catering primarily to Chinese Americans, but you’ll find products exported from the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Thailand. (Surprisingly, I also found cases of Manischewitz “kosher for Passover” concord grape wine—so they must have figured out that they have some Jewish customers. I picked up a bottle for my annual harosets seder contribution.) And, with its live fish counter, a meat/poultry counter filled with such delicacies as duck and chicken feet, goat legs and pork snouts, along with more traditional fare, it’s actually a fun place to bring young kids and introduce them to new flavors. Their reward? A stop at the bakery counter for a sweet or their choice of an unusual package of candy from Japan.

On this trip, I met my parents for a leisurely lunch at 168, the little restaurant that fronts the market. Then we found a green cart and headed for the produce department. My mother has initiated a new game there. She stands in front of a bin of fruit or veggies unfamiliar to her and then engages a fellow shopper to explain what it is and how to prepare it.

Yesterday, her first stop was in front of delicately wrapped pale yellow yali pears. Unsure of the rules of engagement with this fruit, she discovered a willing translator, a middle-aged woman who explained that while they need to ripen, yali pears should be eaten when they get just a little yellow. My mom excitedly passed on the fact that when ripe they have the texture of juicy watermelon.

Taking her cue, I headed over to the bamboo shoots. To be honest, I had a slight advantage over my mom because I’ve taken a fabulous class through Great News. Allison Sherwood, Great News' Cooking School Director, leads a Saturday morning tour of 99 Ranch Market, followed by dim sum at Jasmine over on Convoy near Balboa. Allison is wonderfully knowledgeable and with the help of a handout she’s prepared, you can go fearlessly into 99 Ranch and conquer the produce and condiments without too much trouble. Since my tour, I have never again touched a canned bamboo shoot or water chestnut.

Luckily, water chestnuts were in season when I was there yesterday, so I bagged a batch of them before heading over to the bamboo shoots. All you need to do with water chestnuts is select those that are firm, and then use a sharp peeler to take off the gorgeous mahogany colored skin before popping them in your mouth or slicing them for a stir fry. If you need to store them for a day or two, fill a bowl with water, place the peeled water chestnuts in the water and then refrigerate. The bamboo shoots, as Alison explained and the young man shopping for them yesterday offered as well, need to have the outer bark peeled off (just grab each layer and yank) and the base and remaining tip cut off. After that, preparation depends on the dish you’re making. I’ve been told to boil the peeled shoot for about half an hour until it’s soft, then slice to add to a stir fry. My handsome new friend said that really wasn’t necessary, but I still plan to boil the one I bought yesterday.

Meanwhile, my mother was over at the Chinese broccoli, looking a bit confused. An older man bounded over and asked if she wanted to know how to prepare them the way you get them in restaurants. Mom was giddy. First trim the bottom and peel some of the tough stalk away on thicker pieces. Boil them briefly in water—say, for two minutes or so—and then drain and arrange on a platter. Heat some oyster sauce with oil and drizzle over the broccoli. That’s it. We’ll see. Tonight, my plan is to do a stir fry with chicken, Chinese broccoli (trimmed and briefly blanched) and sliced shitaki mushrooms flavored with garlic, baby ginger and a little sesame oil. At the end of the cooking process I’ll take the wok off the heat and add the bamboo shoots, sliced water chestnuts, sliced green onions and pea shoots, stirring them together. Then a couple of dashes of oyster sauce. This will be great with rice, of course, but an unusual rice combo I found at 99 Ranch Market—8-Blend Whole Grain Rice, produced by Mogami. It comes in a five-pound bag and is embarrassingly expensive. But it’s utterly delicious and filled with nutritious fiber from short and long grain brown rice, black rice, maple rice, red rice, red wheat and barley.

Fresh produce is by no means the only attraction at 99 Ranch Market. Fresh (and by fresh I mean live) fish and seafood is available and can be cleaned on the spot for you.

Prepared fish salads, like salted herring roe and cuttle fish, seasoned webfoot octopus and seasoned chukka salad are packaged nearby.

Packaged fish heads for stews are available and some sashimi grade fish. Snacks are abundant and my new favorite is garlic flavor peanuts both in the shell (Farmer Brand) and in a shelled store-packaged version that you can find on the top of the prepared food counter (in fact, they may go in my stir fry tonight, too). I discovered the in-shell packages a few weeks ago as I was walking by on my way to the fish counter. A woman rolled up her cart behind me and started filling it with bags of the legumes. I turned and gave her a curious look and she exclaimed that they were completely addictive and her husband and sons live on these while watching TV. Good enough for me. I bought a bag, found she was right and returned for more. But, of course, you have to love garlic.

Peanuts not your thing? How about those amazing custard tarts you can get at dim sum? 99 Ranch Market’s bakery sells them—and they’re larger by a third than what you get at Jasmine or Emerald. And really delicious. You can also get birthday cakes, marble cake, elephant ear puff pastry cookies and sesame balls. Next to the bakery is the takeaway food counter, filled with dim sum delights and other tempting dishes.

I haven’t covered the half of it. There’s plenty to discover and I highly recommend touring the market with Allison Sherwood to reduce the intimidation factor. Or, do what my mom does, and chat up a willing shopper. Maybe you’ll even get invited to dinner.

99 Ranch Market is located at 7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., just east of the 805 freeway.

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