Friday, December 25, 2009

A Bronx feast fit for a Baron

A short while ago, the intrepid members of the MTA Dining Car eating club convened once again. This time our mission--to enjoy cheap, bountiful and authentic eats--would not be so easily attained. That's because we decided to venture far, far into the Bronx, taking to our beloved IRT in somewhat diminished numbers and riding almost to the very end of the 6 line. Why suffer through such a long commute? you might ask. The answer is simple: we had been inspired.

You see, for several weeks, my cohort Kiera and I had been eagerly following the hilarious, creative and informative antics of filmmaker Justin Fornal, aka the Baron Ambrosia. A self-described "quaffer of culinary consciousness" whose theme song queries, "he doesn't rest, he only feasts, how will he soothe the savage beast?" the Baron is a veritable ambassador for the culinary riches of the borough of the Bronx that he calls home. In his expertly written, colorful short videos that often include elaborate plots, songs, and dance numbers, the Baron visits restaurants, cafes and takeout spots all over the Bronx that are turning out reasonably priced and reliably delicious food. Just don't look to the Baron to provide any recommendations for white tablecloth fare: the man is all about bringing our attention to inexpensive, come-as-you-are neighborhood spots; the kinds of places that locals revere but outsiders might never otherwise notice.

Watching the Baron's videos, we knew instantly that we had found a culinary compatriot who was championing our same cause. We trusted the Baron implicitly, and for our next eating club outing we wanted to take the Baron up on one of his suggestions. After we viewed the marvelous "Roti Express" episode (hint: it involves a Bollywood-style dance number. Need I say more?), we knew we had our place: the Coconut Palm Bar and Grill, a lively spot that serves up a large variety of Guyanese dishes.

Now hold up a second!--you might be thinking--what exactly is Guyanese food?! Prior to my dining experience at the Coconut Palm, I couldn't have answered you. For most Americans, myself included, any mention of the country calls up a sole image, that of the Jonestown massacre that occurred there in 1978; I had little idea of what present-day Guyana is like, and even less of what it eats. Now I know that Guyana is a melting pot in the truest sense of the word. It has a unique history: located on the northern coast of South America, Guyana has been colonized, over the ages, by no less than 4 superpowers: the French, the Spanish, the Dutch and the British. And if there's anything that colonizers like to do, it's bring slaves and indentured servants--loads and loads of 'em--with them to their new home country, so that they, you know, don't really have to worry about things like raising food, cooking, and cleaning. And bring help they did: from India, Africa and China, in particular. As a result, most of the country's modern-day population is comprised of the descendants of that multinational work force. A sizable segment of the population consists, too, of Aboriginal indigenous groups (see Wikipedia).

So what does all this demographic data mean in terms of the food? It means that the mark of all these disparate cultures is left on the cuisine in recognizable ways. Guyanese food is most strikingly similar to Caribbean cuisines; that's because Guyana lies directly south of the Caribbean island chain. Fans of Caribbean food will notice the prevalence of items like rice and beans, jerk chicken, stew chicken, oxtail and goat that the native populations of Guyana have been cooking up for centuries. More recent influences show up as well: those Indian immigrants brought over flatbreads like dhal poori and roti; the Africans carried over traditional ingredients such as sweet potatoes and peanuts; and the Chinese cooked up a variety of Guyanese-inflected Asian dishes such as fried rice, lo mein and chow mein.

All this and more is yours for the sampling at the Coconut Palm. The restaurant offers a vast array of traditional Guyanese dishes, and because the cuisine is so incredibly diverse you will get to experience an incredible variety of tastes and textures. When the Dining Car stopped in a short while ago, the friendly staff at the restaurant truly treated us to some bang for our (twenty) buck(s), starting us off with numerous plates of appetizers and, later on in the evening, setting up our very own personal buffet that positively brimmed with fluffy rices, tender stewed meats and aromatic breads. Oh--and how could I forget?--we had a very special guest in our ranks that evening. Can you guess who it was?

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the Baron Ambrosia himself showed up, bringing not only his lovely self but also an (intimidating) flask of scorpion wine (yes, with a real scorpion in it) procured in Vietnam:

The Baron also (!!!) provided parting gifts for everyone: DVD copies of last years' holiday special, one for everyone, that he brought in a huge, orange, Santa-style sack. Look for the Baron's 2009 holiday special, airing on Bronxnet and online on New Year's Eve this year:

The Baron was truly a generous, gracious guest and, of course, we have him to thank for discovering the Coconut Palm in the first place. We look forward to many a savory Bronx dining experience based on his recommendations and we want to offer him one final, warm thank you for his attendance! OK, now on to the (delicious, copious) food, starting with the appetizers:

Polourie: small, deep-fried balls of light chickpea batter, these taste like savory doughnut holes. What's not to like?

Potato balls: like balls of soft mashed potatoes, fried. Again--nothin' wrong with that

Fried fish: I don't recall what type of fish these were, but they were tasty

Fried shark. A suggestion of the Baron's, the chunks of fish were soft and flakey with a crisp greaseless exterior. Perfect

Blood sausage, aka blood pudding. Yum. There's that colonial European influence showing up

And now on to the buffet of main dishes. Here you can see Don helping himself to, from left to right, rice and beans; fried rice; curry goat; curry oxtail; and stew chicken:

And, finally, here's a closeup on my (first) plate: starting with the fried rice at 12 o'clock and going clockwise you'll see a piece of dhal poori; stew chicken; curry oxtail; curry goat; and rice and beans:

A huge thanks to the interborough trekkers that make up our membership and to the helpful staff of the Coconut Palm, who provided us with heaps of fragrant, filling food! Interested in attending our next event? Join our mailing list by shooting an email to

Monday, December 7, 2009

Embracing a trend, a little late

When it comes to food, I'm pretty much immune to trends. What I like to eat, and what I will always like to eat, is simple, straightforward, honestly delicious food, and that won't change, no matter how many types of goopy sugary cupcakes flood the market, or how many ways chefs find to make liquids, foams and gels out of what should be nice, fresh and unadulterated ingredients.

For the past few years, there's been one trendy ingredient on the American food scene, and its name is chipotle. No, I'm not talking about the restaurant, although that chain did indeed rise to prominence during the unstoppable reign of its eponymous ingredient. What I'm talking about are chipotle peppers, or jalapeƱo peppers that have been allowed to ripen past their usual green color to a deep red, then harvested and smoke-dried. In Mexico, chipotles find their way into many traditional dishes and accompaniments, most notably being incorporated into a variety of salsas, but here in the U.S., we usually see chipotles in one particular form: chipotles en adobo. Adobo, as that helpful Wikipedia link explains, can refer to a range of seasonings and marinades, but in this instance corresponds to a particular preparation of thick, rich and spicy tomato-based sauce. Chipotles en adobo are whole chipotles that are canned in adobo sauce; the chipotles absorb the liquid from the adobo and become soft and pliable, while the adobo, in turn, takes on the smoky quality of the chipotles.

Sounds pretty delicious, doesn't it? Well, lots of American restaurants and cafes would agree. Because over the past few years, many of them have snuck chipotles onto their menu, and you can usually find them in one place: on the sandwiches. Blended into the mayonnaise. Chipotle mayonnaise, or chipotle mayo, as it's more commonly (and lovingly) referred to, is everywhere. Do a Google search for the term and you'll get 559,000 results. To give you a small Brooklyn-based sampling, both the cafe I worked at as a cook for about a year and the restaurant where my roommate Anne waitresses feature the mayonnaise on their menus: at the former, we spread it thickly on a grilled vegetable-and-cheese sandwich, and at the latter, they serve it as a dipping sauce for their (highly addictive) homemade grilled flatbreads. And I have to admit that the stuff is pretty tasty. I'm not really a mayonnaise fan: for me, at least the commercial stuff just seems greasy and not very flavorful. But the heat and smokiness of the chipotles really does cut through that greasiness and adds a nice bite to plain ol' mayo.

Still, I wasn't really sold on the idea. From time to time I'd get a taste of chipotle mayonnaise and I'd think it was ok. But for the most part, I tended to avoid menu items that advertised the peppers: they just seemed gimmicky, overly ubiquitous, so I passed on them. Until, that is, I cooked with them. About a week ago, I went over to my friend Malcolm's house for dinner, and together we followed a recipe for chilaquiles that came from a Martha Stewart cookbook. The recipe was dead simple: basically, you saute garlic and oil in a pan and add crushed canned tomatoes and a little bit of chipotles en adobo. You then mix in shredded cooked chicken and simmer the sauce for about 5 minutes. That's it. When it's done, you serve it over crushed tortilla chips and top it with all the fixins, like cheese, avocado and sour cream. Yum. Am I right? Well, I tasted it and I am right. And I was amazed. The chipotles added so much flavor to the sauce: slight, pleasant heat; intense, smooth smokiness; and a little sweetness, too. I was sold. Several days later, when I set out to make a dish I often eat for dinner, Mexican-style beans, I made sure to buy a little can of chipotles en adobo and add them to my dish. Same effect: they added so much flavor, and made my beans taste that much more authentic.

So is there a moral to this story? I hope not, because if there was one, it would have to be something like this: don't be afraid to be a sheep. Don't resist. If something's trendy, it's damn well trendy for a reason, and you should just go along with it. And that's not my message at all, folks. But I will say this: sometimes, when an ingredient or food preparation really catches on, it truly is because it's tasty. Just think of McDonald's...wait, that wasn't what I meant to say. Listen, just try these Mexican beans. Maybe someday soon they, too, will be over 99 billion served.

Mexican-Style Beans

Serves 4 - 6

1. Heat a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over a medium flame. Add about 2 tbsp. of olive oil and about 3 minced garlic cloves. Cook, stirring, for about 1 minute.
2. As the garlic cooks, add dried spices to the pan: about 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin; 1/2 tsp. ground coriander; 1/2 tsp. oregano; 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes and 1/4 tsp. chili powder. Stir to combine.
3. Just as the garlic begins to turn golden brown, add about 1/2 cup canned tomatoes, either crushed or whole in liquid. If using whole tomatoes, crush them as you add them to the pan. Add 2 or 3 minced chipotles (from a small can of chipotles en adobo) and about 2 tbsp. of their liquid to the pan. Stir to combine and season with salt.
4. Drain and rinse 2 small (15.5 oz) cans of beans. You can use any beans you like; I always use black beans and sometimes, as in this instance, mix in pinto beans as well. Add the beans to the pan, along with about 1 cup of water and stir gently. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 12 - 15 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and its flavors have come together.
5. Taste for seasoning and serve. I eat my beans over rice and top them with things like fresh salsa, lime juice, sliced avocados, a cheese like queso fresco, etc., and I usually heat up some corn tortillas to go with, too.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

From Europe to the Caribbean

As should be evident from my post below, I'm back from my time spent farming in Europe. It was great fun and I ate a lot of great food and hopefully, someday soon when I'm more organized, I'll share some photos and descriptions of a few of the things I ate abroad. For now, though, let's focus on the more recent past. Though I did indeed dine well during my stays in Spain and France, there were a few flavors that I started to miss, like all kinds of Asian food, and, especially, spicy food. So just a few days after my return, I met my friend Malcolm at one of my very favorite takeout joints, Errol's Caribbean Bakery.

Located on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Hawthorne Street in the area of Brooklyn traditionally known as Flatbush but newly minted by real estate agents as Lefferts Gardens, Errol's is a true neighborhood spot. The first time I visited, it was late one summer night, close to midnight, and Errol's was one of the few spots on Flatbush Avenue that was open. A few friends and I walked in, expecting to find the place mostly empty. Yet while we waited for our food, a steady stream of people came and left, chatting familiarly with the amiable folks behind the counter. Before I even tasted a morsel, I had a good feeling about Errol's: it was warm, friendly, and homey. And, possibly more importantly, it was bursting with many kinds of delicious-looking baked goods:

That's because in addition to offering a wide array of hot, savory dishes, Errol's stays true to its name by serving up a variety of freshly made breads, rolls, cakes and other kinds of sweets. Every one I've tried has been great: from soft, sliced whole wheat loaves to more Caribbean-specific delicacies like currant rolls, soft yeasted rolls studded with currants, and both regular and whole wheat versions of bread pudding, which are huge, thick squares of dense, not-too-sweet custard. I can't remember the exact prices of these items, but I do know that they are very cheap, somewhere in the neighborhood of a dollar for individual servings, and are served in generous portions. But let's get to the hot part of the menu, shall we? You can choose from the following options:

There's a lot of good stuff there, to be sure, but if you're anything like me, you'll go for an order of the stew chicken: for a small ($5), you'll get two large pieces of tender, juicy bone-in chicken cooked down in a dark, rich sauce, served with rice and peas, cabbage and two soft, sweet plantains. Now that's a recession special I can really get behind. I can personally attest, also, to the outstanding quality of the curry goat, the curry chicken, and the jerk chicken--they're all fresh-tasting and delicious--but the star of the show, for me, is the stew chicken:

So if you find yourself in Brooklyn craving some cheap, flavorful and filling Caribbean delights, check out Errol's in Lefferts Gardens. I can assure you that you won't be disappointed.