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Archive for the ‘cheap’ Category

Last night my mom came over for  dinner. She’s here in India for some time, and it’s really great to have her around, especially after not seeing her for five months. Hrishikesh was out at a golf event so it was just my mom, me, and a big bowl of coleslaw on the table. I never made a coleslaw before I moved to Bombay, but since it’s a lot easier to get cabbage here than it is to get lettuce, I now make it instead of salad whenever I want to eat something raw and fresh.

I’m a bit afraid of mayonnaise, at least the store bought kind, and I haven’t yet tried making my own. Something about the glossy off-white substance is…unsettling. So I make my coleslaw dressing with strained yogurt, which I find far more reassuring, generally and also, nutritionally. Tied up yogurt, slowly drip-dripping water for a couple hours, is preferable over the jar of Kraft’s mayonnaise in our fridge. You can add the water from the yogurt in soups- it has a nice sour edge, and it’s full of protein. And using strained yogurt, which is wonderfully creamy and thick, makes the coleslaw a fantastically healthy dinner.

In my coleslaws I like to add a handful of dried cranberries or cherries for a bite of tangy sweetness amidst the creamy, salty dressing, and sometimes I sprinkle ground almonds on top of a dressed bowl, to give the salad a little more body. The yogurt dressing is mustardy with nice floral notes from the celery seeds, and just the slightest bit sweet, but definitely not sweet and gross the way I imagine pre-packaged coleslaws to be.

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Sangam is the no-longer-recently-opened-and-therefore-not-really-hot-news biryani joint in Greenwich Village. Of course I meant to write about it months ago….

The samosa is average, oily, but the vegetable biryani, flecked with long green beans, carrots, and cubes of potato, tastes surprisingly light although it is wholesome, flavorful food. The plump grains of rice are robustly spiced and topped with browned, tempting slivers of fried onion; a cooling yogurt raita is a refreshing condiment.

Sangam’s biryani is nothing like the decadent biryanis I sampled in Bombay last month, stuffed with nuts, mushrooms and cream, but I think it works well here in New York. The eatery provides a fairly light, tasty meal that is an addition to the cheap-eats scene but an alternative to the falafel, dumpling, and noodle joints everywhere in the city. One could eat a Sangam biryani and be happily full but still escape the hard-hitting waves of somnolence guaranteed to come after a few bites of richer biryanis…or falafels.

Sangam’s co-owner, Aslam Parviz, introduced me to Rafat Ansari, the wife of his partner Ishrat Ansari, and the cook responsible for the home-ground spice mixture (masala) that so fragrantly seasons Sangam’s biryani. Rafat’s masala, says Aslam, is what distinguishes Sangam’s biryani from that which you find at other restaurants; most places use a prepackaged biryani mix called Shaan, which he says, wrinkling his nose, “I can smell from a mile away.”

Despite the restaurant’s bare-bones setting (just a few tables and chairs, really) Rafat and Aslam’s faith in their home-ground masala and their belief in food prepared with care sets Sangam apart from the other cheap-eats ethnic places in the city. After the biryani, I tried Sangam’s version of the trendy Kati Roll and loved what an unfashionably straightforward package it was: flaky, freshly grilled paratha wrapped around a tomato-potato-carrot based vegetable dish accented with tiny black mustard seeds. This was not a glitzy roll, decked out in extra oil or garlic or hot green peppers and chaat masala like Roomali’s delicious wraps. Nor was it a party roll to satiate late-night revelry-induced hunger. It’s a seedha-saadha, freshly prepared Indian wrap, tasty and satisfying, sensible and wholesome, in the way that home-cooked food tends to be. I loved it.

I read somewhere that Sangam’s prices have increased since I took a photograph of this menu. I think the vegetable biryani, which was $6, is now $7.50?

Sangam is on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal at 190 Bleecker Street. (212) 228-4648. They deliver, oh and their website provides the menu along with the new prices.

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Pompei\'s slice

[Pompei’s slice]

I don’t crave pizza often, but within the past few months I’ve eaten couple slices worth writing about. I suppose I’ve been generally disappointed by New York pizza because the random pieces I’ll eat on occasion never live up to the hype. Also, for me, the power of pizza is far less than the power of Mexican food or ice cream. Thus, while I’ll drive 45 minutes for a lick of Christina’s, I’m far too unmotivated to trek to DiFara to try its acclaimed pie.

But! When good pizza comes my way, I do not object. In Massachusetts, my favorite pizza is from Papa Gino’s, an east coast chain with two locations five minutes away from my home. It’s my go-to place for an everyday slice. My brother, cousin and I agree that Papa Gino’s has perfected the ratio of cheese to sauce to thin but not glaringly crispy crust. It’s dependably satisfying, which is usually what I desire when it comes to pizza.

Back in the New York area, the first satisfying slice I had was when Waq took me to his hometown favorite, Pompei Pizza in Bayonne, NJ. For the past couple years, I had been listening to him praise Pompei. Of course I trusted his sense of taste- we had eaten many a meal together- but I was never in Bayonne long enough to try Pompeii for myself until one overcast Saturday this past February, when that Pompei slice, thin, cheesy, and fresh, brightened my day with its pleasing proportionality. Below, Waqas’s description of the pizza:

Waqas: “Well, the thinness is perfect; it’s thin enough to be crispy but the pizza never falls or droops, which thin pizzas often do. And the crust is light and fluffy without being doughy or overly chewy. They put a generous amount of cheese on it and the sauce is just slightly sweet/tart and has a great herby spiciness to it. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this pizza, plus, the smell of the place billows out onto Broadway.”

The second noteworthy slice I had was with work folks on a balmy evening a couple weeks back at a Ray’s on Prince Street- yes, Ray’s, that pizza store that sits on the corner of every block in Manhattan. Although Kim said that it was the first Ray’s in the city* and swore that the pizza was beyond average, I still had my doubts. We ordered a pie, half vegetarian and half pepperoni. I usually prefer thin crust pizza but Ray’s thicker crust was pillowy and aromatic and topped with soft ricotta, thin rounds of tomato, sliced garlic and basil. The superior quality of fresh ingredients used in the pizza made it memory worthy- I’ve been yearning for that slice of summer ever since.

*According to Wikipedia, the Ray’s on Prince is the first Ray’s in the city and all the Ray’s pizza places are not connected as one big chain but, for the most part, are independent restaurants that share the same name.

Pompei Pizza, 480 Broadway, Bayonne, NJ. (201) 437-5408
Ray’s Pizza, 27 Prince Street, New York, NY. (212) 966-1960

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I heard about the breakfast potatoes at Cousin John’s Bakery months ago, but I tend to get distracted- or should I say dazzled- by pretty things- namely, the gorgeous array of baked goods displayed in their window. I have a weakness for Cousin John’s brioches and their ethereal almond croissants in which soft almond paste is folded between twists of flaky pastry. Definitely better than Balthazar’s.

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I visited Balt’amour last weekend to spend time with three close friends from college. Lisa, Malka, and Elana picked me up from the always cheerful Baltimore Travel Plaza.

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We drove directly to Nacho Mama’s in Canton where we started sipping on these not-so-lethal hubcap margaritas. I’ve had many a discussion with friends about how the drinks in Baltimore are, for some reason, delightfully less deleterious than the ones in New York. I can drink without the fear of a terrible hangover the next day. Of course, Baltimore’s prices are kinder, too- these hubcap margaritas were $10 each, and we split that four ways.

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Nacho Mama’s menu is expansive but I prefer to stick with the nachos- tried and true, with proper cheese to beans to veggies proportions. The jalapeños were actually fiery. My friends ordered quesidillas that were overstuffed, with the tortillas baked to a dry crisp. Not exactly appetizing but with such a large plate of nachos, who needed more food?

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The next day we headed to Hampden’s roomy but odd Dogwood Cafe for lunch. We walked down a ramp to enter the large underground dining room and I felt as though I were entering a dungeon. The tables, lighting, and artwork were pretty fancy, yet, something seemed off. We sat next door to the kitchen and while the main dining room is perfectly presentable, I stared at the stretch of uncarpeted, shabby floor leading into the kitchen. I know it was a weird fixation, but that patch of floor was starkly different from the methodically decorated dining room and I started wondering why they hadn’t taken care of the floor everywhere and what this stretch of floor could portend about the kitchen beyond.

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Pie on toast is a strange concept but it’s what I ate at Saint’s Alp Teahouse. The peculiar combination was only $1.90 so I had a hard time resisting it, especially with just $3 in my wallet. On the menu, it’s called a “Supreme Toast” with various “fillings”: apple, almond butter, garlic butter, coconut butter, and my choice, blueberry. Hmmm. Basically, bizarre junk food.

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As you can see, the toast was cut thick, “Texas-style,” according a friend. And on top? A thin layer of butter and blueberry pie filling. I love pie filling because it’s gooey and, when good, a little tart. With each inflated triangle of toast, I soaked up some blueberry pie and popped it into my mouth. Again, “junk food” passed through my mind, probably because the bread tasted like a blown-up slice of Wonder Bread.

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Also on offer: a long list of teas and bubble teas for which Saint’s Alp is known, milkshakes made with powdered milk, and deep-fried Asian finger foods like samosas, radish fritters, dumplings, and other non-veg options. Much of the menu was under $5, but most of the food looked as though it had been overfried….kind of like when someone spends too long at a tanning booth and doesn’t realize that she has turned orange and unattractive. Then again, I didn’t actually EAT any of the fried selections but my friend Carey did, and reviewed her experience on her blog, Chew and Swallow.

Saint’s Alp Teahouse is at 39 Third Avenue, close to Union Square. (212) 598-1890.

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Around 5:30, when I entered Chinatown, the streets were already dark but shops beckoned me in with their lights shining on outdoor displays of silvery, scaly fish and boxes of dried, gnarled mushrooms. I was going to make dumplings, and I thought a Chinatown grocery expedition would be an appropriately fun adventure. I had discovered a dumpling recipe on NPR, which meant that my dumpling consumption was no longer limited to hunting out a vegetarian dim sum restaurant. The recipe broke down a novel treat into such easy steps that I couldn’t believe I had never thought to make homemade dumplings. So after work, I headed to Chinatown, in search of dried shitake mushrooms, round wonton wrappers, two heads of bok choy, and a bottle of sesame oil.

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I visited four different stores, each time asking for help in distinguishing the dried shitake mushrooms from the other varieties of mushrooms. Most people told me “No English” forcing me to continue exploring until I finally came across a man who not only spoke English but told me where I could find everything I needed (his store is on the corner of Grand and Bowery). I bought my five shitake mushrooms and sesame oil from him, but when I asked for the wonton wrappers, cellophane noodles, and bok choy, he told me to go to the grocery store around the corner.

I like Chinatown’s sense of place, the immediacy of its streets, so I don’t really mind wandering around searching for items I might not find. On certain blocks, the metallic, salty smell of drying fish hovers in the air. I don’t like the smell, but I like SMELLS, street smells, smells that assault or entice. Perpetually packed sidewalks with people outfitted in puffy jackets and vendors selling oranges and knots of ginger force me to dodge children, to weave in and out of the crowds. I like this street activity, the families shopping for dinner or a hat. I like the sense of community, of activity larger than my lonesome shopping expedition. Life is moving in these streets. Like reading a good book, when I walk through Chinatown, I feel as though I’ve entered a new world.

The Chinese grocery store the man recommended was large, well lit, and bustling with customers. All the signs were in Chinese, and instead of carrying sweet potatoes and heads of cauliflower, it sold piles of green beans, many different types of wonton wrappers and noodles, and bok choy ranging in color from lily-pad green to ivory-white. Walking through the aisles was like being in a warped wonderland: I couldn’t read any of the handwritten Chinese signs identifying various foods, but it was exhilarating to be surrounded by hundreds of new products. The possibilities! Again, a man who spoke English helped me identify which variety of bok choy, wonton wrappers, and noodles to buy.

I spent a total of $8 on the mushrooms, sesame oil, two heads of bok choy, and wonton wrappers. I didn’t buy the tofu from the store because the recipe called for extra-firm, and I could only find firm and regular.

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At home, we soaked the mushrooms in hot water, squeezed the water out of the chopped bok choy, boiled the glassy cellophane noodles for under two minutes, chopped up our tofu into fine blocks, and mixed everything together with the sesame oil and grated ginger. The intoxicating aroma of Asian sesame oil, by the way, comes from toasted sesame seeds…

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We assembled a line of dumpling-makers in our kitchen. While one of us spooned the dumpling mixture into the middle of a round wonton wrapper, another one wet the edges of the wrapper with a finger dipped in water and pressed the ends together until they stuck and formed perfect, half-moon purses. I experimented and pressed the ends together at one point until the dumplings looked like miniature mountain peaks. Then we dropped them, 5-6 at a time, into boiling water. They boiled for about 3-4 minutes; when they floated to the top of the water, we removed them. Anthony made a dipping sauce by combining soy sauce with sriracha, sesame oil, and sugar. Our darling dumplings were delicious.

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VEGETARIAN DUMPLINGS
Excerpt: ‘From Lokshen to Lo Mein’
The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food
by Donald Siegel

Enough filling for ~40 dumplings

Filling:

1/2 pound bok choy, chopped medium fine
5 Dried shitake mushrooms
1 ounce dried cellophane noodles
1/4 pound of extra firm tofu or dried tofu
1 Tablespoon Asian sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of grated fresh ginger
1 Package of round wonton or pot sticker skins

1. Sprinkle a bit of salt on the chopped bok choy and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then take your hands and squeeze out the rendered water.

2. Add mushrooms to boiling water in a small bowl, turn off the heat, and cover until they soften (~ 30 minutes), drain, remove stems, finely dice, and then squeeze out the water with your hands.

3. In another pot, put noodles in hot boiled water, turn off heat, and let sit a few minutes to soften. Drain, chop, and add to the mushrooms and greens.

4. Finely dice the tofu and add with sesame oil, salt and ginger to vegetable mixture as filling.

5. Put a teaspoon of filling in the middle of the wonton skin. Moisten the edges of the skin with water and then fold over. You can crimp the dumpling in pleats if you like to get a more authentic look.

6. Bring a 2-quart pot of water to a boil and drop in dumplings. Cook for 5 minutes and then remove with slotted spoon. Serve with soy sauce or a favorite dipping sauce.

Chef’s Hint: Use dried shitaki mushrooms, not fresh. They are the secret “meaty” ingredients that make these dumplings so delicious. Squeezing out the water prevents the dumplings from getting soggy inside.

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