About Grocery Gal

In 2015, I’m making a conscious effort to stay away from processed foods. Once I started eating gluten-free in June, I began to feel better, but then found myself falling down the slippery slope of relying too often on gluten-free convenience foods. I normally wouldn’t eat boxed mac and cheese, but since it was gluten-free, I felt it was ok to eat an entire box for dinner. I realized this type of nonsense had to stop.

I came across a wonderful book called the Autoimmune Paleo cookbook by Mickey Trescott, and felt that it was time to eat with a whole foods approach. That philosophy isn’t anything new to me, it’s the way I grew up as a first generation American. Everything was always homemade; nothing ever came from a box. Granted, it’s hard cooking so much meat in a house with a vegetarian, but I’m fortunate my husband understands the importance of this. I’m not going to go into what the Paleo lifestyle is, but for those unfamiliar, Sarah Ballantyne sums it up nicely on her blog.

I was about to start an intensive two week reset and needed to buy grass fed beef and pastured pork and chicken. I also needed some less than glamorous pieces of meat, which included bones for making broth and beef liver. While I love and support Amish Farmers, it was the weekend, and I needed to find something in the city. I recalled seeing an Amish storefront next to the Empty Bottle on Western, so I hopped into my grocery getter and drove to Ukrainian Village.

Amish & Healthy FoodsThe store was bright and clean. I’ve since visited twice and there’s a mix of people in the store – the Ukrainian mother who thanked me in her native tongue when I opened the door so she could bring the baby stroller in, the twenty something hipster stocking up on vitamin supplements, and the older woman in yoga attire selecting fermented vegetables out of the cold case.

Amish & Healthy Foods Produce

Amish & Healthy Foods VitaminsI knew I was going to stop at Stanley’s to see what organic produce they had, so my focus at Amish & Healthy was meat. I couldn’t believe their offering, and I loved that the meats were frozen in convenient one pound packages. They carried both grass fed and traditional beef, all different types of organ meats (I know, it sounds gross, but it’s really good for you), bison, pork, turkey and chicken.  I chose some beef and chicken livers, soup bones and “small” beef bones to make my broth. I’m a sucker for turkey jerky, so I picked up a pound of ground turkey to make my own at home. After stopping at Amish & Healthy, I compared prices at both Whole Foods and Paulina Market. On all accounts, the prices at Amish & Healthy were cheaper, and I felt good about supporting not only a local business, but an Amish community in Indiana, all while eating cuts of meat that were better for me.

Amish & Healthy Foods ButcherThey have a small deli counter with foods that seem to rotate based on availability. I bought a bottle of their delicious ginger apple kombucha for $5.99 and their yummy paleo munchkies. It was at this time that I met the owner, Lucy. She explained how popular the kombucha was, and if I returned my bottle, next time I could get $1 off.

Amish & Healthy Foods PaleoWhile I didn’t need any at this time, Amish & Healthy sells a lot of dried fruit with no sugar added. And they’re not just your standard dried fruit fare: they sell sun-dried organic wild goji berries, freeze-dried cherries, juniper berries, and organic dried pomegranate seeds.  Amish & Healthy Foods Dried FruitThey do sell eggs for $5 a dozen. To me, that seems a little pricey, but I’m spoiled with Amish Farmers. Amish & Healthy also sell duck eggs with single or double yolks, for 50¢ and 75¢. The next time you plan to head out for some high quality meat, be sure to stop in at Amish & Healthy; you won’t be disappointed by the variety and the prices of their meat selection. And grab some paleo munchkins to go, too.

Amish & Healthy Foods StoreAmish Healthy Foods. 1025 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622, 773-278-1717. Open 7 days.


Where to begin? I am pretty sure I first tried Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa in 1997. I was vacationing in Albuquerque and took a walk to the neighborhood grocery store, because I knew there had to be something local and delicious that I’d never find in Chicago. At this time, my palate for heat was pretty minimal, so I kept it simple and looked for salsas. While I liked the new flavors of traditional New Mexican red or green chile, I couldn’t handle the heat without adding loads of sour cream (side note: fortunately, my tolerance for heat expanded, and my need for sour cream diminished.). A green jar with a dancing cartoon red chile on front caught my eye. It proudly announced that it was a blue medal winner at the New Mexico State Fair, so I knew it would be my purchase: Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa.

Grocery Gal Merlie's Salsa Mail Order New Mexico Label

Original and New Labels

Fast forward almost 17, yes, 17 years later, and Merlie’s is still the only salsa I’ll buy. Granted, my salsa needs have diminished over the past few years, but I’m still a very faithful customer. Why? Well, once you’ve had green chiles from Hatch, New Mexico, you realize nothing else compares. Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa is just filled with green chilies — so many that it’s the first item on the ingredients list.

Grocery Gal Blog Merlie's Blue Ribbon Hatch Green Chile salsaSpeaking of ingredients, it’s Merlie’s homemade recipe that makes her salsa just the best: Green chilies from Hatch New Mexico, jalapeños, tomatoes, onion, garlic, salt and spices. Everyone who has tried her salsa (and I ration it out pretty sparingly to my guests) always raves about the fresh taste, and how it tastes like no other salsa they’ve tried before. That’s exactly why I send Merlie an email approximately every 9 months to order my case of hot salsa for $77 over so many years. That’s a little over $6 for a jar of insanely delicious salsa. An important note: this salsa is ONLY for eating. This is not something you’d put in a layered dip, add to a dish, or season meat or tofu in. It’s so good it should only be eaten straight out of the jar with chips, in a taco, or even a spoon!

Grocery Gal Merlie's Salsa Mail Order New Mexico DeliveryI’ve always wanted to find a boutique grocery store to carry Merlie’s salsa in Chicago. It’s just that good. Maybe a grocer like Gene’s Sausage Shop, Paulina Market or even Harvestime Foods come across this write up and give Merlie’s a try. I’d love to see more people in Chicago get introduced to this amazing salsa.

I wish I could make it out to Albuquerque to meet Merlie in person. However, I feel like her and I are old pals though my regular orders. Once, she suggested I add a jar or two of her Blue Ribbon Green Chile to my order and it was just delicious. More often than not, red and green chile is enjoyed fresh in people’s homes and isn’t available canned. Merlie’s Green Chile helps bring that taste of New Mexico to anyone in the US. I think the green chile probably goes best with chicken, but since my husband is a vegetarian, I’ve held off on buying some in my last order. But wait… I could put it in some cheese enchiladas — what was I thinking?

Merlie’s products are very well packaged. Over all the years I’ve ordered from her, I’ve never had a jar break on me. She jars are well packed, along with a second layer of packing peanuts to make it safely to Chicago.

If you’re not ready to commit to buying an entire case of Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa, don’t fret – she also offers starter packs that include 2 jars of salsa and 2 jars of canned green chile for only $35 which includes shipping. You can also just split a case with a friend or two. Your choices come in Medium or Hot, because there’s no such thing as mild in New Mexican cooking.

Grocery Gal Merlie's Salsa Mail Order New Mexico Green ChileMerlie’s Blue Ribbon Chile and Salsa. 888-873-3966.

 

 


Of all the grocery stores I have written about, I probably have been enjoying food from Bende the longest; at least 20+ years. I don’t know who found the place first: my mom or my dad. When I would be in town during college break, I’d drive with my mom to Vernon Hills on a Saturday morning to visit the this sparkling clean and almost sterile Hungarian gem hidden in an industrial park. We’d go inside, pick up smoked Hungarian sausages, smoked tenderloin, paprika, sauerkraut and a case of Croatian Karlovacko beer, then head home. More recently, when I see my dad, there’s often a vacuum sealed package of Bende’s smoked pork tenderloin waiting for me.

As a city dweller for almost as long as I’ve know of Bende’s existence, it has become more difficult to make it to Vernon Hills without investing an entire day which includes mandatory stops at both Par-King in Lincolnshire and Bill’s Pizza in Mundelein. I went online to check Bende’s hours and found they had a storefront in Glen Ellyn. Hmm, I hadn’t written about Bende yet, have never been to Glen Ellyn, and it’s open on a Sunday? It sounded like a perfect Grocery Gal adventure to have with my stepson!

Grocery Gal Bende Speciality Direct Hungarian FoodsI’m notorious for getting lost anywhere South and West of Chicago, but we easily found Bende’s large sign along Roosevelt Road to guide us in to European goodness. It was early on a Sunday and we were ready to shop.

The store was bright and inviting. First thing I saw was a collection of European bath products that made me swoon. The prices were definitely cheaper than the wonderful Merz Apothecary in Lincoln Square, but my bath oil quota had recently been filled during a trip to Europe.

Bende’s in Glen Ellyn is a proper European style deli. Living on the northwest side of Chicago, I have plenty of Polish delis which cater to that clientele. I get frustrated when I can’t understand the language on all the labels, so I try to guess my way through the products. Bende’s carries childhood essentials that pulled at my heart strings; all in German, which I could understand. They carried items I meant to bring back from Germany this past summer, but forgot, like the tasty Löwensenf Extra, from Düsseldorf.

Grocery Gal Bende German mustardGermans have a love for condiments to spread on meats and breads, and make some pretty tasty ones. Bende carries spicy red pepper spreads, similar to Croatian Ajvar, along with creamy garlic spreads, and my favorite full fat mayonnaise in toothpaste tubes with fluted ends to make fancy sandwiches with.

Grocery Gal Bende German mustardMany stores I’ve shopped at carry the delicious European “Giant Beans,” which aren’t quite lima or butter beans, but some mysterious hybrid that cannot be found in the US. What makes Bende even more special is that they carry the very hard to find Purple Bean Salad, which is native to Sytria in Austria. I first ate purple beans on a hiking trip through Austrian wine country with my Aunt in 2007, and whenever I see them, I think fondly of her and that time we spent together.

grocerygal-bende-purplebeansBut, wait, there’s more Austrian memories! Bende carries a nice variety of hard to find European beers, but as a gluten free person, I’m more interested in their, um, wheat-free beverages. I was delighted to find that Bende carries Austrian schnapps, and at a much lower price point that Gene’s Sausage Shop. Now, I’m not going to drive 30 minutes to save $7, but I will check my current inventory to see if I need to stock up the next time I drive out to Glen Ellyn. The Croatian side of me was happy to see they offered a huge selection of plum brandies, but I haven’t ventured into the world of those spirits just yet. However, if you have a toothache, nothing helps more (according to my dad), than a little slivovitz.Grocery Gal Bende schnappsAfter navigating the aisles, my stepson and I came across what makes Bende a destination for food lovers: their deli. Before I even came across their own products, I saw they offered products from wonderful and well-known Chicago brands Koenemann and Stiglmeier. That’s what makes Bende great. Instead of trying to create a wide variety of products, they focus on what they do best, and bring in the best of the best as their supporting cast. I’m not a fan of headcheese, but based on their breadth of their offering, this place seems like a good bet.

Grocery Gal find Koenemann Sausage at BendeGrocery Gal Bende Deli Head CheeseGrocery Gal shops at BendeAs much as I wanted to get a few slices of Tyrolska lunchmeat, I focused my purchase on Bende products to make my bean soup for the Chicago Food Swap. While there are a few places in Chicago that offer smoked ribs, I have yet to find anyone better than Bende’s smoked ribs. How good are they? I’ve gotten a slab as a Christmas gift more than once from my dad. My sister drives in from Michigian to stock up on it, too. ‘Nuff said.Grocery Gal Bende Smoked RibsGrocery Gal Bende Smoked Deli MeatsI knew I was going to cook the soup the later that day, so I opted to select the exact slab of smoked ribs behind the counter, and had them wrapped in signature white deli paper. However, Bende offers options vacuum packed so you can stock up for the future while you’re there. I’m a sucker for the smoked tenderloin sliced thinly, and any of their Hungarian style dried sausages are also delicious. I don’t know what the difference is, perhaps the spices or that it’s drier, but the flavor is different than Polish and Italian dried sausages. Just try it, you’ll like it.

Grocery Gal Bende smoked meatEven though there were expressways and tolls involved, Bende is a great resource for many German items that I have yet to find in the Chicagoland area. It was a great adventure for me to share part of my heritage with my stepson. If you don’t have a way to get out to Glen Ellyn or Vernon Hills, Bende products can be found at a variety of stores in the Chicagoland area including A&G Market and Fresh Farms, so you can work on making your own little Euro-plate at home.

Grocery Gal Bende Smoked TenderloinBende’s Specialty Foods Direct.  444 Roosevelt Rd, Glen Ellyn, IL 60137. 630-469-6525.

Hours: Tuesday – Friday 9:30AM – 7:00PM, Saturday 9:30AM – 6:30PM, Sunday 10:00AM – 3:00PM. Monday closed.


Bende’s Corporate Headquarters

925 Corporate Woods Pkwy. Vernon Hills, IL 60061. 847-913-0306
Hours:    Monday – Friday 7:00AM – 3:30PM, Saturday 9:00AM – 3:30PM, Sunday closed.


Grocery Gal Hagen's Fish MarketAlmost every morning around 6:50am, I’m driving past Hagen’s Fish Market on the 5600 block of west Montrose, saying “oh, I need to stop in.” The problem is, I drive home along a different route.  When I moved into the neighborhood over 3 years ago, I was sure I’d be stopping in at Hagen’s regularly. In reality, I was a bad Grocery Gal and never made it back until recently. As I opened the screen door to enter this 68 year old Northwest side landmark, I was kicking myself for waiting this long.

Grocery Gal Hagen's Fish Market Montrose ChicagoHagen’s is such a treat to have in Jefferson Park. According to their website, they have remained family owned and in the same location for three generations. My first visit after my 3 year hiatus was a little after 5pm. It was just me and one other customer (which upon other visits, I learned was a rare instance). I picked up their smoked fish dip (best thing ever) and Charlene’s Crab Dip for my yearly “Romance Weekend” camping trip with my husband. I knew they smoked fish, but I didn’t know customers could also bring in their own catch, including fowl, to be smoked at Hagen’s for under $2 a pound. My plans are to cook my Christmas turkey (which I’ll be ordering from Amish Farmers) on my Weber grill, but this opens a whole new world of cooking opportunities! I love smoked meats and it would save me a ton of time! Hmmm, what would you do?

Grocery Gal Hagen's Fish Market MenuHagen’s Fish Market offers the smoked fish staples of mackerel, trout and salmon, but also sell smoked chubs, whitefish, ciscoes (which I had never heard of), and my favorite: smoked salmon candy. The points of origin, along if they were wild caught or farm raised, are listed on the label.

Grocery Gal Hagen's Smoked FishNot into smoked fish? That’s ok. Hagen’s also has a nice selection of fresh filets including Pacific Halibut and Cod, Lake Erie Walleye Pike (for your very own Friday Fish Fry), Lake Superior Whitefish, Lake Erie Perch, Atlantic Cod. Their preference is wild caught over farmed, and they notate it anything has been previously frozen.

While I didn’t buy any fresh fish filets this time around, I know I’ll be back soon. The struggle I often have with fresh fish is how to cook it. Again, Hagen’s comes to the rescue! They have a wall of recipe cards that give you many options on how to cook the fish they sell.

Hagen's Fresh Catch Grocery GalMy only gripe (coming as a design snob) is that they use Comic Sans for the font on these cards! Hagen’s – if you’re reading this – please update the font style on those cards! They’re such helpful recipes, don’t dumb them down with that terrible font! Tell me your font options, and I’ll give you recommendations! Ok, rant over!

Grocery Gal hates comic sansThere’s a generous selection of East Coast canned chowders and bisques, Bayou fish spices, and European sauces and mixes along a wall.

Grocery Gal Hagen's Fish Soups

Grocery Gal Hagen's SpicesA refrigerated section offers multiple sizes of homemade specialties including pickled herring, mustard dill sauce, Charlene’s Crab Dip, and the amazing smoked fish dip.

A few frozen cases house frozen options perfect for parties including stuffed clams, jumbo shrimp, escargot, and some Scandinavian specialties including lingonberries and potato lefse.

Grocery Gal Hagan's FishAbout two weeks later I altered my route home from work to stop in and get some scallops for dinner. The place was hopping – some were picking up their made to order fried fish dinners, while others picked up their smoked fish orders, most likely from a weekend fishing trip. I made the mistake of not grabbing a number as soon as I got in, so I perused the shelves while waiting for my turn.

Grocery Gal Hagen's Fish Market MontroseWhen it was finally my turn, I grabbed my six scallops, but also included a piece of smoked trout, one homemade crab cake and a half dozen blue points. The blue points are a steal at $9.60 for a dozen. Sure, I can get them for five cents cheaper at Fresh Farms, but it’s only five cents (!) and I can walk to Hagen’s from my home. The oyster selection, along with their mussel selection, is based on availability. The man behind the counter told me I could always call in an order in the morning, and they would be happy to hold them for me. My most recent visits had Bluepoint and Montauk oysters, black and P.E.I. mussels and Cherrystone clams for sale by the dozen.

Grocery Gal DinnerIf you like any type of fish: fresh, smoked or freshly fried fish (I didn’t even go into their extensive fried-to-order fish menu), head on in to Hagen’s now. They’re open seven days a week and they really have something for everyone. With the holidays comes entertaining friends and family. Hagen’s offers a lot of low effort and delicious options that can take your entertaining to the next level. Now, who wants some oysters?

Hagen’s Fish Market. 5635 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60634. 773-283-1944


When the days shorten and the temperatures begin to drop, I think about a few things: wearing tights, turning on the seat warmers in my grocery getter, and making soup. My only problem with making soups, as previously written, is I can’t make a small batch. The monthly Chicago Food Swap has helped me distribute some of that extra soup, but how do I handle a last minute soup craving during the workweek?  That’s when Frontier Soups come to the rescue!

Frontier Soups are a family based business located in Waukegan and offer a variety of soups with state and regional themes. They also offer heartier meals, dips and other items, all for sale on their website, online retailers and locally at Sunset Foods, Jewel and Whole Foods. They were introducing their new gluten-free West Coast Kale & Quinoa Vegetable Soup, and asked that I give it a try.  I loved seeing all the ingredients of the soup in a clear pouch – filled with good-for-you stuff. I needed to add a can of tomatoes (which I bought on sale at HarvesTime Foods), a butternut squash (picked up an organic one for $1.50 at Amish Farmers) and some vegetable broth.

Grocery Gal Frontier Soup Kale & Quinoa SoupThey suggested cooking the butternut squash first in a microwave. I live in a microwave-free home, so I cooked it the old fashioned way – I just simmered the squash in the broth first for 10 minutes and then added the rest of the ingredients.

Grocery Gal Frontier Soup West Coast Kale SoupIn about 30 minutes I had a great tasting, super healthy soup for dinner! One package serves 4-6 people, so I had some leftovers which I froze in jars for lunch, and I was going to bring one jar to a friend who was a little under the weather.

Why do I freeze my soups if it takes a day to defrost? Probably because I can’t can them. Canning is something I want to try, but I’m totally intimidated by it. I pour my hot soup into glass jars and the heat does a good job of almost sealing it, but I know it needs to be frozen to stay fresh. I’d love to show up to the Chicago Food Swap with a variety of soups I made and canned, but as close as I can get to that (right now) is filling my soups in a Ball mason jar and telling people to freeze or eat it within 2 days.

Since the soup was a for a friend and not for my lunch, I felt sheepish pouring it into an old salsa jar. I felt I had to class it up a notch with by putting it in a beautiful Ball Heritage Collection jar.

Grocery Gal Ball Hertiage JarWhat is the Ball Heritage Collection, you ask? They’re limited edition jars from Ball which celebrate 100 years of mason jar designs by the Ball brothers. They’re the same quality you know and love from Ball, but in a vintage style and wonderful colors. They first were launched in 2013 with the blue “Perfect Mason” jar, which I need to order for when my kitchen is redone one day. I’d love to have quart size jars on display filled with my different gluten-free flours, but I didn’t find out about them until the larger jars were sold out. I guess I’ll have to search eBay for those. 2014’s spring green jar is called “Perfection” which goes well with Grocery Gal’s current website colors, I might add! I loved the raised letters and the period-correct reproduction of “PERFECTION” on the front of the jar.  I can’t wait to see what they launch for 2015 – I’m wondering if it will be yellow/amber/red colored glass?

Grocery Gal Ball Perfection American Heritage Mason JarIn the end, I brought my friend a delicious, hearty soup that took little effort to make in a beautiful vessel. She loved it, so I hope she’ll return the favor by trying a different Frontier Soup (I’m hoping Illinois Prairie Corn Chowder or New Mexico Mesa Spicy Fiesta Soup Mix) and bringing me a batch in the same jar!

Frontier Soups. Locally made in Waukegan, Illinois.

Ball Heritage Collection.


If you live in Chicago there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen Co-op Sauce – a locally made hot sauce that benefits Chicago youth – offered at many different restaurants. They offer a number of varieties including The Barrel, Green Mash-ine, Too Hot, and my favorite, probably the mildest in their bunch, Poblano. While you can buy their sauces at stores such as Gene’s Sausage Shop, Paulina Market and Whole Foods, I like to stop at Sauce and Bread Kitchen in Rogers Park to buy directly from the source.

SBK is a collaboration of Co-op Sauce and Crumb Chicago, and is located on Clark at Devon. They have a wonderful bakery and cafe, where each table features at least 6 varieties of Co-op’s hot sauces to try.

Grocery Gal Co-Op Hot Sauce SBKThis is the place to find all of Co-op’s sauce varieties, along with some locally sourced foods.

grocerygal-coop-miscWhen I go, I always pick up 2-3 bottles of the poblano sauce. They often have limited edition sauces that I think are only available at SBK.  Their hot sauces use real ingredients you can understand on the label – and they’re full of flavor, not just heat. These are also great gifts – I brought a bottle of their Rum Barrel Hot Sauce to a rum fanatic friend when I went to visit. It’s a nice, unique souvenir from Chicago.

Grocery Gal Co-Op Hot Sauce SBKGrocery Gal Co-Op Hot Sauce SBKI bet the Peppers in a Bottle sauce would go great with a Jibarito! That and the Poblano Mustard will be on my next to-buy list!

Grocery Gal Co-Op Hot Sauce SBKSBK partners with local farms to bring interesting flavors to their cafe menu, and also for sale such as Morel & Leek Jack cheese. So, if you’re in the Rogers Park neighborhood, stop in a SBK, grab a bite to eat, perhaps locally made pickled vegetables or whatever else they’re featuring in their market, along with a few bottles of Co-op’s Hot Sauce for you and a friend.

Sauce & Bread Kitchen. 6338 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60660. 773-942-6384


I first heard about the Chicago Food Swap through Chicago Food Bloggers. The concept on their website was just too perfect: The Chicago Food Swap is an organization dedicated to bringing together cooks, bakers, canners, gardeners and foragers to trade homemade and homegrown foods. This was something right up my alley. I had written in an earlier post how I’m physically unable to make a small amount of soup, so I’d pawn it all off on friends who affectionately named me the Soup Fairy™. Now, I could still make that entire vat of soup, but just package it a little nicer and actually get food made by other people in return! Brilliant! Sorry, friends!

I thought I had my concept in the bag – design some labels, cut them with pinking shears and hand tie them around some Ball mason jars. I’d cook something featuring a local store I’d feature on Grocery Gal. For My First Food Swap™, I chose my famous bean soup using smoked ribs from Bende (GG post comin’ soon!).

Grocery Gal Ball mason jar  Chicago Food SwapThe swap is usually held on the 3rd Sunday of the month at the Fearless Food Kitchen, part of the Peterson Garden Project, in the Broadway Armory from 2-4 pm. I was a few minutes late, because I had to grab some Co-op Poblano Hot Sauce, and the place was packed!

Grocery Gal at the Chicago Food SwapWhile I thought I had an edge making my own label and using pinking sheers, the more experienced swappers schooled me with their promotional styles. Samples! Detailed descriptions! Beautiful displays! Multiple food choices! Customized swap lists!

Grocery Gal at the Chicago Food SwapGrocery Gal at the Chicago Food SwapGrocery Gal at the Chicago Food SwapEmily, the founder of the Food Swap, was very helpful and took me, as a newbie, under her wing. She helped explain how I should look and see what everyone was offering, and then write down my offers. Actually, everyone there was friendly and helpful, and handful of experienced swappers showed me the ropes. I felt sheepish offering just soup when others had fancy stuff like honey and preserved lemons, but then I saw people coming over to sign up to hopefully swap for my soup and I felt relieved! It was almost as if I’d taken my soup-making skills for granted. While I’m not the best baker, I do a nice job with savory foods… and yeah, did anyone else there know where to buy Hungarian-style smoked ribs to put in soups like Grocery Gal did? Maybe not! Hooray – confidence returned!

Grocery Gal at the Chicago Food SwapThere was a small $5 registration fee that offsets any costs and then proceeds go the Peterson Garden Project. Everyone also received a sample bottle of incredible vanilla from Nielsen-Massey. We spent the first 45 minutes walking around, chatting and deciding what we were hoping to trade for. When the official “swap” began, there was a frenzy of trading the foods before the favorites on your list sold out. We were done in 15 minutes. There was something gratifying hearing people say “Yes, I’d love to have your soup!” as you traded it for pecan caramel corn, gluten-free pumpkin bites, preserved lemons (yep, got ’em) and Indian Dal mixes. I did come home with a bounty, in less than an hour!

Grocery Gal at the Chicago Food Swap

My bounty after an afternoon of swapping

For my next Food Swap, I’ll probably make something vegan to hopefully score some of the delicious homemade kimchee I was unable to get this last time.

Unfortunately, I will be out of town for the October Food swap on Sunday October 19th. However, don’t let that keep you away – sign up now on Eventbrite.  I will be at the November 16th one, using a few of the marketing tips I learned at the past one, and probably with my stepson who will help guide me on what we should bring home. Hope to see you there!

Chicago Food Swap. Also find them on Facebook.


Someone recently asked me, “Who has the best produce?”  The answer I gave was simple: it all depends on where you live. I was trying to think of landmark neighborhoods to answer her with and realized I hadn’t written about a great grocery store for people living near Lincoln Square and Albany Park: HarvesTime Foods. Located on Lawrence, between Western and California, you’ll notice HarvesTime as the building covered in solar panels alongside their large parking lot, and the delicious tamales for sale outside the entrance.

Grocery Gal visits HarvestTime FoodsHarvesTime is a nice mashup of a store who can cater to the variety of people living in Lincoln Square and Albany Park. HarvesTime is your standard Produce Stand meets Middle Eastern/Balkan Deli meets Latin Grocery Store meets Organic Foods meets Locally Sourced Products at reasonable prices and all under one roof. What else could anyone need? Well, booze, I guess…

Grocery Gal HarvestTime Homeade Guacamole

I was first introduced to HarvesTime at a party years ago, where their in-house salsas and guacamole were being gobbled up by everyone. I was familiar with the store and stopped in, happy to see many Balkan favorites of mine, including Vegata Natur, a nice deli selection and thorough meat selection. With such a heavy Eastern Euro/Balkan influence, I’m still surprised they don’t carry lamb. Years later, the store continues to expand to the needs of their clients, with a big push of organic and locally produced items (but I still need to buy lamb somewhere else). Grocery Gal HarvestTime DeliTwo local brands HarvesTime carries are Big Pork and Chef Martin’s Alpine Brand Sausages. I have yet to try Big Pork’s brand, but I am very familiar with the Chef Martin brand, and every type I’ve tried is outstanding. If you have your heart on sausages from Paulina Market and they’re closed, stop in at HarvesTime and try a few varieties from these two local Chicago sausage makers.

Chef Martin and Big Pork Sausage at Harvesttime FoodsAnother favorite that HarvesTime carries is Breadsmith breads. My husband (and I, before I went gluten free) go CRAZY over their French Peasant bread. As I stopped in late on a Saturday, I had to settle for their Rustic Italian bread. Their breads are absolutely amazing, and if you’re ever on the fence whether or not you should buy it, read their ingredient label and compare it to your other option. They use no additives or preservatives which is exactly why it tastes incredible. They also offer fresh Vie De France options along with a bunch of other very good local bakery breads, but my family’s choice for sandwich bread is always Breadsmith.

Grocery Gal buys Breadsmith bread at Harvesttime FoodsWhen you leave HarvesTime, make sure you have a few dollars cash on hand for the tamales for sale outside. The family selling them have been there for years, and I believe it’s 6 tamales for $5. I grabbed six cheese ones to share with my husband and they were still warm even after my bike ride back home.

HarvesTime Foods. 2632 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625.  (773) 989-4400


If you grew up in Illinois anywhere near the Wisconsin, there’s a good chance you heard of Mars’ Cheese Castle. It meant you were on I-94, had just passed through Kenosha, and were en route to Milwaukee. However, tucked next to the huge CHEESE CASTLE sign (and newly constructed castle), is a true gem worthy of a visit: Bobby Nelson’s Cheese Shop.

Grocery Gal Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop

Pass the castle and come to Bobby Nelson’s

While I didn’t have a chance to learn more about Bobby Nelson’s history, it was still love at first sight. I felt like I was visiting the original Meyer Delicatessen in Lincoln Square (before it became Gene’s Sausage Shop) or a brighter Erickson’s Deli in Andersonville. There was a definite Scandinavian-meets-German feel to the place.

Grocery Gal Bobby Nelson Wisonsin CheeseInside was just heaven for me. While there’s a huge cheese selection at Woodman’s (and I’m sure Mars’ Cheese Castle), Bobby Nelson’s had more specialty cheeses, making it worth the trip for true Cheese foodies. With only $20 in my pocket, I had to ration my choices. I narrowed my cheese selection to a Roth Käse Horseradish-Chive Havarti that was out of this world! They had the staples of cheese curds and summer sausages, just not in touristy packaging. The hand-lettered signage on the wall announcing their 100% pure home made sausages made me cave in and buy a summer sausage. The woman working at the counter said the garlic sausage was the way to go; I eagerly nodded and asked for one. Those two items, along with a landjäger for the ride home put me back a little under $20. It was all worth every penny.

grocerygal-bobbynelson-cheeseIn addition to a nice variety of cheese, smoked sausages and brats, they offered a lot of local jellies, sauces and pickled products. While I don’t think I’d be picking up any turkey gizzards or pork hocks anytime soon, I wondered how a pickled egg would taste in a bloody mary. Grocery Gal Bobby Nelson Wisconsin Cheese PickledNext time you see the sign, be sure to get off the highway and stop in to select what you deem the perfect Wisconsin experience (minus the beer!).

Grocery Gal Bobby Nelson Wisconsin cheese

Wisconsin knows how to do Neon right

How good was it? Well, I had to try a bite of that delicious horseradish-chive havarti before I could even take the photo!  And the summer sausage? Probably the best and only summer sausage I’ll ever have again. I’m normally not a fan of summer sausage (not dry enough), but this was just perfect. It’s worth the road trip. Just let me know when you’re going, so I can tag along.

Bobby Nelson Grocery Gal Summer Sausage

Bobby Nelson’s Garlic Summer Sausage – yum

Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop. 2924 120th Ave. Kenosha, WI 53144. 262-859-2232


I’ve found I have more grocery stores and food related things to write about than I have time for. That’s the basis for GGBite: bite sized reviews of places that I stopped in at, but might not have the time to do a full-on Grocery Gal posting on. Today’s first GGBite I came across on my bicycle one Saturday afternoon while running errands: Ameera Food, located next to Chicago Live Poultry on Western Avenue at Devon.

Grocery  Gal GG Bite Ameera Chicago Live Poultry

My Two Wheeled Austrian Grocery Getter – KTM City Bike

I was on my way to an appointment at Santhigram Wellness Kerala Ayurveda (you must try an Ayurvedic treatment  – it will change your life!) and was running a little early. As I was on Devon at Western, I looked north and saw Chicago Live Poultry. I was always a little scared of the store – but now as Grocery Gal, I knew I just had to go in.

Sorry, there aren’t any photos. As you can tell by the name, here’s where you can buy live chickens, along with other types of fowl: turkeys, pheasant, duck, goose. There was a hand-written sign on the wall listing what was available and at what price. I didn’t take a photo, as it was just such an uncomfortable place to be in; I had to go. The gist is you can choose your animal and it will be slaughtered and cleaned there for you. You can’t get any fresher than that, but it’s not for those with a weak stomach.

Next to Chicago Live Poultry was the the bright, clean Ameera Food. There were no windows to look in, but fresh posters touting “Fresh Fish” and “Meat.” Inside, it looked as if they’d be open only a few weeks – the place was well stocked with African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and South Asian foods.

Can't get any fresherThey had a pretty large fresh fish selection with many of the staples: tilapia, catfish, but a few other fish I had never heard of. All were tucked in with lots of ice to keep them fresh. What was most interesting was the aquarium where you could purchase live tilapia.

They also offered the services of Chicago Live Poultry without the full experience. You could tell the butcher counter you’d like a chicken, and they would take care of the rest. They had a small, but fresh butcher case with Zabiha Halal meats as well.

Grocery Gal Ameera Food Western ChicagoThey carried a lot of African products including Red African Beans, Oporo and dried Crawfish. There was a good selection of grains that I haven’t cooked with before: Elubo/Amala and Yellow Gari. As I’m currently eating gluten free, I bought some Fufu flour which is used to make a West African style dumpling. Yellow Gari Ameera Nigerian Grain Chicago Grocery GalFufu flour African Ameera Chicago Grocery GalThere was a small produce section. I think there are other options on Devon, like Fresh Farms, that are better options to by produce from. However, specialized ones like Ghana Yams are worth a purchase at Ameera.

Ghana Yams African Produce Chicago Grocery Gal AmeeraA frozen selection focused more on Asian specialties including Durian, which I have never seen outside of Thailand, and Cassava and Jute leaves from the Philippines.Durian Fruit Chicago Ameera Grocery Gal

Cassava Leaves Jute Leaves Chicago Ameera Grocery GalEntering Ameera was an adventure for me. While I didn’t exactly know how to cook much of the food they sold, I knew it’s a great resource to share on Grocery Gal. And next time I cook a whole chicken, I might stop in to get a freshly slaughtered on from Ameera. I’ll admit, it’s a little easier to digest when you don’t have to see the what happens behind the curtain.

Grocery Gal Ameera Food

Ameera Food. 6410 N. Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60645. 773-338-8400.  Chicago Live Poultry. 6421 N. Western Ave. Chicago, IL 60645. 773-381-1000.