Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cheap Eats Hall of Fame: Punjabi

It isn't all that easy to find truly cheap eats in New York. Sure, you might be able to grab a quick snack for a few bucks, but it's rare to happen upon a place where you can get an entire meal for that price. And in this economy? Well, as we New Yorkers (supposedly) like to say, Fuhgeddaboutit! I mean, even the famously dirt-cheap square meal at Gray's Papaya, the Recession Special--currently priced at $3.50--is about to jump in cost for the second time since 2006.

So imagine my delight when my friend Willy recently introduced me to one of his favorite bargain dining spots, Punjabi. Punjabi is an unassuming--even scruffy--little storefront located right off of East Houston Street in the East Village. It's an Indian/Pakistani takeout joint that NYC cabbies frequent: when I was there last week the line of taxis out front extended down the block. Well, take it from the cabbies, because not only is the food here crazy inexpensive, but it's delicious and satisfying, too. Here it is, Punjabi in all its dingy glory:

And there's not much more to the inside, either: just a narrow counter running alongside the right side of the restaurant, where, if you're lucky, there might be a few stools for you to sit on, and, on the left, the glass case that displays the day's offerings. Punjabi has a rotating menu of six vegetarian dishes labeled only with a number; to order you say, for example, "A small with rice and #3 and #6." A generous portion of rice then gets scooped into a small styrofoam bowl, topped with your selections, and nuked in one of the four microwaves that perch atop the display case. How much? $3 for a small--which, for me, is plenty of food, and I have a big appetite--or you could cough up two more dollars for a large, which allows you three vegetable offerings. Here's what I got when I was in recently: a small with spinach and a stew of peas, carrots and cauliflower:

I probably should have thought, before selecting that spinach, that it would photograph like something that comes out of a baby's diaper. But you know what? There was really no other choice. I've gotten that dish each time I've been to Punjabi, and it's excellent: meltingly creamy, with soft, sweet onions cooked into the mix, and a bracing seasoning of turmeric, fresh garlic, and lots of fresh ginger. Yum. My other selection tasted great, too. I can never resist anything with cauliflower in it, and Indian food makes particularly tasty use of it. The vegetables in the stew were well-cooked but still had some bite to them, and came bathed in a fragrant sauce that complemented the perfumed basmati rice. So the next time you find yourself with an empty stomach and $3 burning a hole in your pocket, I suggest you follow the taxicabs and head on over to Punjabi.

114 East 1st Street (between 1st Ave. and Ave. A)
(212) 533-9048

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Who called it?!

I have to gloat a little bit. Back in early June I devoted my first "cheap eats" post to Szechuan Gourmet, one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in the city. It's a nondescript little place on West 39th Street that you'd easily pass right by if you were ignorant to the culinary delights served up within. So imagine my surprise when, opening up the Dining section of the New York Times earlier today (my favorite Wednesday morning ritual), I discovered that eminent Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni not only reviewed the restaurant but awarded it two stars! I was surprised, as Bruni usually reviews much more expensive--for me, less accessible--spots. Had I not already known about Szechuan Gourmet, this would have been the first Bruni critique that I could actually follow up on by eating at the restaurant.

But what's important here is that Mr. Bruni's well-educated, no doubt highly sensitive palate registered many of the same pleasures that my perhaps greener, less professional palate did. Though some people find the numbing effects of Szechuan peppercorns off-putting, Bruni--like me--revels in their heat. He names the crispy lamb fillets with cumin as his favorite dish on the menu; it's mine, too. He also recommends the pork dumplings with roasted chili soy, which, for me, are certainly among the must-order items. Now I'm eager to go back to Szechuan Gourmet and try some of the dishes I had previously ignored, like the fish fillets with Napa cabbage, or the curiously intriguing stir-fried shredded potatoes.

The only problem? The restaurant will now be so overrun by loyal Times readers seeking a bargain that I'll never be able to get in again.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The old standby

Every artist has something in his repertoire that he executes particularly well, even with a minimum of thought: maybe, for a painter, it's a particular type of landscape; for a musician, a certain movement of a composition; for a dancer, a specific progression of steps: something that has been practiced so many times that doing it is natural, even inherent. And for us chefs (or cooks) out there, there's the old standby: a dish that we've been making for as long as we have been cooking, and that has been so finely tuned over time that we could make it in our sleep.

The beauty of a dish like this is that it encourages improvisation. Sure, I may think that the cinnamon-raisin bread I make is perfect the way it is, but when preparing it for the umpteenth time I'll probably get sick of the raisins and decide to throw in some chopped dates instead; I might feel uninspired by cinnamon and decide that allspice will do the trick. Knowing a recipe like the back of your hand frees you up to riff a little bit: keeping (and accentuating) what you know by experience are the best elements of the dish, and modifying (or doing away with) the parts of it that could benefit from some changes.

One of my go-to recipes is this very simple salad of black beans, corn, red bell pepper and onions. Spiced with cumin and brightened with lime juice, it's light, crunchy, creamy, colorful and satisfying, all at once. Most everyone likes it, and it makes perfect barbecue or picnic fare because it doesn't need to be refrigerated--in fact, the longer it sits at room temperature the better the flavors meld together and complement each other. Where did I get the recipe? Who knows. I think I first made it back in high school, and I've been making it at least 3 or 4 times a year since then.

The basic elements of this recipe are quite interchangeable. Don't have access to any good, fresh corn? Use frozen instead. Forgot to pick up red onions or scallions (like I did earlier tonight)? Use a white or yellow onion. Your friends don't like cilantro? Use some chopped fresh parsley. You could have sworn that you had some limes at home, but they're nowhere to be found? Squeeze in a mix of orange and lemon juices instead--or some rice wine vinegar--or some apple cider vinegar. You get the point. I've made every single one of the above substitutions before, and I always like the way the salad comes out--even if it tastes different each time I prepare it. I guess that's why I never tire of the recipe, and probably never will--I'll always be able to tweak it a bit to suit the occasion (or my whims).

Corn, Black Bean and Red Pepper Salad
Serves 6-8

1. Rinse and drain two 15.5-oz. cans of black beans and place them in a large bowl. Add a thawed 10-oz. package of frozen corn kernels and one large red bell pepper, finely diced. Add a small red onion, finely diced, or a large bunch of scallions (including the green tops), chopped.
2. Season the salad heavily with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin, the juice of 1-2 limes, and 1/4 cup of olive oil.
3. Add 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro to the salad and toss, taking care not to crush the beans. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve at room temperature.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Spain in a blender

Dedicated readers out there might remember one of my inaugural posts on this blog entitled Spain in a jar, written back in the day (read: a few months ago) when I hadn't really figured out how to take good photos of food yet (I'm still learning). In that post, I described my nearly lifelong love of Spanish food, and I don't think there's any time better than the summer to enjoy Iberian delicacies. It's true that a lot of Spanish food can be heavy, warming, rib-coating stuff that will keep you full and toasty during the winter. But all three trips that I took to Spain with my family were during the summer, and as a result when I think about Spanish food I think about the simpler, lighter dishes like croquetas, tortilla Espanola, and plates of ham, cheese and bread that you can just sort of nibble at--along with some nice olives and a glass of red wine--when it's hot outside and you don't want to feel too full. And when it's really hot outside and you don't even want to think about cooking? Well, you just whip up some gazpacho in your blender.

I love--love--gazpacho. It's ridiculously easy to make; sometimes translated as "liquid salad," all it is is a bunch of vegetables thrown into a blender and whirred up with some olive oil and vinegar. It's done in about 5 minutes, and then just has to chill for a little while in the fridge before being slurped down, preferably with some bread alongside to wipe up any remains in the bowl. And it's the perfect summer dinner: refreshing and light, it's more like a filling beverage than anything else--hence, liquid salad.

Gazpacho can be served in a number ways, with the main variable being its texture. I like my gazpacho very smooth--I strain some of it after blending--and then garnished with chunky diced toppings like cucumber, tomato, red pepper, and hard-boiled eggs. You can choose to just pulse your gazpacho, though, or forego straining it, if you like a thicker texture. Either way, you can't really go wrong. Don't forget to drizzle a bit of fresh olive oil on top before serving, though!

Serves 4

1. Prepare the vegetables, cutting each into large chunks: 1 peeled and seeded cucumber; 1 red or green bell pepper, seeded; 5-6 medium, ripe tomatoes, seeded; and half a white or yellow onion (optional). Peel and crack 2 cloves of garlic. Place the garlic and half of the vegetables in the blender.
2. Add about 2 tbsp. each olive oil and sherry or red wine vinegar to the blender, along with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Add, also, half a slice of bread; blend on high until the mixture is smooth. Strain the soup through a sieve into a large bowl.
3. Repeat process with other half of vegetables, again adding the oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and bread. Do not strain this portion; add it to the soup in the bowl, stir well and adjust for seasonings.
4. Chill the gazpacho in the fridge until very cold, about 2 hours (the longer it sits, the better it tastes). Alternatively, you can place a large ziploc bag full of ice in the soup to chill it rapidly.
5. Serve the gazpacho in bowls, garnished with small-diced cucumber, bell pepper, tomato and hard-boiled eggs, if desired. Drizzle some olive oil over each portion.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Cheap eats restaurant index

Errol's Caribbean Bakery (Jamaican/West Indian)
Lucky Eight Restaurant (Chinese)
Pedro's Spanish American Restaurant (Mexican/South American)
Peppa's Jerk Chicken (Jamaican)
Red Hook Ballfields Vendors (Mexican/South American)

Café con Leche (Puerto Rican)
Jaya (Malaysian)
Nha Trang (Vietnamese)
Punjabi (Indian/Pakistani)
Szechuan Gourmet (Chinese)
Village Yokocho (Japanese)

Dinner al fresco

It's the 4th of July, and my plans to swim and cavort on the beach all day have been foiled by the tempermental weather, which has been threatening to thunderstorm all day. Being stuck in my house, I thought I'd revisit two recent outdoor dinners--my favorite kind of dinners, really. The first was procured from Pedro's Spanish American Restaurant in DUMBO a couple of weeks ago when my friend Gideon and I were waiting for a production of Macbeth to start. With only about an hour to spare but empty stomachs that demanded nourishment, we happened upon Pedro's, which I had passed many times and had been meaning to try. Pedro's is an absolute dive, with little in the way of ambience but much in the way of charm, with its brightly colored murals and little tables and chairs spilling out onto the street corner it's located on. In my book, a dive is usually a very good thing, so I was glad I finally got to sample some of Pedro's fare. I didn't really see anything Spanish at Pedro's--it's mostly vaguely Mexican or South American food sitting in glass cases--you point to the meat you want (most likely some sort of roast or stew) and then specify what kind of rice (white or yellow) and beans (black or red) you'd like, and then sit down at one of the restaurant's indoor picnic tables, or, better yet, get your food to go and take it to one of DUMBO's many lovely outdoor spots.

The food at Pedro's is cheap and filling, and you get a huge portion, but it's really nothing special. The beef dish that I got was well-seasoned and tender, and the rice and beans were satisfying, but there wasn't anything particularly outstanding about it. But that's OK: Pedro's isn't a destination restaurant but rather a dependable, and economical, neighborhood place. And I like those sorts of places. Here's the beef that I got (some sort of flank steak, I believe), along with some yellow rice and black beans, of course:

I got two dinners out of that plate of food, and it cost me $8. Not bad, right? The best thing about this meal, though, was undoubtedly the setting under the Manhattan Bridge where we ate it:

And onto the next. Another highly enjoyable, and more notably delicious, outdoor meal that I had recently was a heaping takeout container full of Peppa's Jerk Chicken that my friends and I took to Prospect Park to eat. My friend Malcolm recently moved to Leffert's Gardens in Brooklyn, a primarily West Indian and Caribbean neighborhood located along the southeast side of the park. Its main drag, Flatbush Avenue, is heavily dotted with tiny jerk chicken restaurants. So how to choose one, particuarly if you're new to the area? Your best bet is to look for the most crowded spot: locals always know what's up. So as we strolled to the park last Thursday evening, Malcolm, Becca, Sarah, Shannon and I kept our eyes peeled for such a place. And we found it at Peppa's, which at around 7 PM was already forming a line out the door. We each got the $8 medium plate, consisting of a mountain of moist rice and peas flavored with coconut milk, some fried sweet plantains, a little bit of salad tossed with sesame oil, and a heap of tender, spicy but not too hot jerk chicken that tasted of allspice and scotch bonnet peppers (incidentally, the New York Times recently ran a great article on jerk chicken featuring a recipe that I'm dying to try). Because the chicken's not too spicy, you'll want to be sure to add some of the vinegary hot sauce that Peppa's offers. Here's my plate:

Eaten in yet another unbeatable Brooklyn setting:

Ah, summer.

Pedro's Spanish American Restaurant
73 Jay Street (between Front St and Water St)
(718) 625-0031

Peppa's Jerk Chicken
738 Flatbush Avenue (between Parkside Ave and Woodruff Ave)
(347) 406-2515