Friday, September 26, 2008

The Little Pupusa that Could

Earlier this week I went to the Union Square Whole Foods, which is one of my go-to-places when I have evening city plans and heading back to Brooklyn is simply not worth it. I love the dinner potential of this location. I also love sitting upstairs and anonymously watching the hubbub inside and out of Whole Foods. 

I tend to like to each sushi, but I am also a huge fan of their salad bar and the warm food too. I even like the soup and really can't think of anything I haven't liked there. On this particular day I was craving protein and greens because I had carbed out all day. 

I walked from work to my happily anticipated meal of veggies and grilled meats. I am usually a denouncer of the let's-serve-everything-and-get-it-all-wrong mentality upon which most salad bar/sandwich establishments operate in Midtown. At Whole Foods, however, at least the Union Square location, the salad is always fresh, crisp and interesting.

I pilled spinach and grilled beats into my green bowl. I also added artichoke hearts and fresh peas and much more. When I had nearly more than I thought I could eat I navigated the busy space until I made my way toward the drinks. Having a bottle of water in hand I then went to the line formed to get on to the express line. This put me right around the prepared foods that are not in the food bars, to the right of the soups. 

I looked down blankly at a burrito and my eyes kept moving. I saw a disk-like thing and I remember thinking, "Oh those look like..." and then I looked again. I had to edge closer. In a small package I saw two corn disks with a small container of a red sauce on top of it. I read the label, "Pupusas!" They were pork. I was shocked. I looked at my salad and debated abandoning it. I decided against it, since it would undo the purpose of being eco-friendly by using a reusable bowl. I examined the permitter around the pupusas. They were surrounded by burritos on the right and quesadillas on the left. I supposed they had been categorized correctly. They are, after all, often made with cheese. 

At this precise moment I felt profound pride. I know you may think that this is a silly way to react to some corn packed with pork, but for me it was so much more than that. Salvadoreans refer to themselves as, 'la pulga'--the flea--of the Americas. I've heard family make jokes about how if the surrounding countries don't continue to take our borders, the Pacific will do it for them. 

My whole life I have only heard of El Salvador on the international stage for two reasons, both negative. The first is the horrific civil war of the late 70s and 80s. Today the international community knows El Salvador for the extreme measures and organization of rouge gangs. These are hardly reasons for me to be proud of my mother's mother country, but I am. We are an agricultural people, small but strong, industrious and proud.

When my mother came back from her vacation in El Salvador her aunt gave her beans she had grown on her land. I had the luck of visiting my parents recently and ended up staying for dinner. My mom heated some beans which I took without much interest. Yet, when I put them in my mouth I felt the difference. They were clearly Tia Sarah's beans. In El Salvador we call the variety that she grows, frigoles de seda--literally, silk beans. They are called that because they don't take as long to cook as lower quality beans and when they are done the texture is extremely refined, like silk, without any grittiness at all.

Seeing one of our more popular meals among the sushi and thai salad, biryani, lasagna, and dumplings of the international foods that are so readily available and visible in New York was a feat! Of course there are pupuserias in New York, especially on Long Island and to some degree in Queens and Brooklyn, but they are mainly patronized by Salvadoreans, largely escaping the consciousness of non-latinos who enjoy international cuisine.

Inspired by my finding at Whole Foods I ate my food and shuffled over to Barnes and Noble. I went to the international cook books. I saw many options, ones that even surprised me. Yet, there was no cook book on El Salvador; there wasn't even one on Central America. I did, however, find a cook book on Latin cooking and when I flipped to the back and looked up 'El Salvador' I found a recipe for  Salvadorean stuffed tortillas. This is the equivalent of calling burritos Mexican stuffed tortillas: wrong and barely informative. I was annoyed that the cook book failed to correctly name the dish, but at least there was a flea's size tidbit of knowledge on Salvadorean cooking. 

Hopefully, these small steps for Salvadorean cuisine will take on momentum. In that spirit, I highly encourage you to check out Whole Foods' pupusas. I will follow up in a few weeks with more authentic places for you to visit. I have to trek out to Jamaica to get exact addresses.

Whole Foods Market Union Square
40 E 14th Street btwn Broadway and University Place

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Transition of the Seasons

I hear that kids have been back in school for two weeks now. This is just one indicator that an end of a season is nearing its final end. If there is any way in which I will truly feel the loss of the summer, it will be through the lack of some of my favorite fruits and vegetables until next year. I will miss summer's berries, tomatoes, squashes and much more. The consolation, however, is that there is new tantalizing bounty to replace it. After all folks, Thanks Giving is in November. While we say good bye to the airy and tart offerings of the summer, please remember all that the fall offers: cobblers, soups, roasts, casseroles--all filled with bright healthy fruits and vegetables that are packed with nutrients and dense, rich consistencies. This season is all about yams, parsnips, potatoes, and other tubers.

As of late I've been obsessed with a Chinese pumpkin soup with seaweed. It comes in little green packets and is the kind of thing you pour water into and stir. Nonetheless, when I stir it up and put it in my mouth its like magic, hearty, yummy, probably laced with MSG, which yes I least the taste of. This soup inspired me to consider investing in a slow cooker. I imagine if instant pumpkin soup is so rad, then homemade with fresh seasonings and vegetables and maybe a splash of juice--sans the MSG--would be stellar!

What follows is an ideas of what I'd throw in my, as of yet, still un-purchased pressure cooker:

Petu's Pumpkin Delight

Pumpkin, gutted, outer part removed, cut into makeshift portions of about two inches each.
One shallot slivered
Ground toasted cumin seeds, a teaspoon
Cup of water
1/2 cup of OJ

Okay, here's my disclaimer....I just made that up. The proportions may not even work. My intuition says it's going to be rad, real rad, especially if you finish it with a dollop of a high quality tangy yogurt and some chopped cilantro.  I'll write a follow up after trying this out, I promise!

Happy experimenting and buen provecho.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Recession by the Slice

When I went to high school what kids would do after school was get greasy food because we were hungry and greasy food is cheap. There was a pizza parlor that had a special that basically allowed you to share a large pie and a two liter soda for ten bucks. My friends, those days are over.

If you are hungry and you get two slices and a soda you are at least going to spend seven dollars and if you get toppings, don't expect any change back from the ten dollar bill you gave the pizza dude. Heck, you probably still owe him fifteen cents.

Ah pizza, the proletarian meal is no longer a standard, but a luxury. I am mournful of this happening, more so than the rising price of my groceries. For me, the sad state of the economy has mainly been an abstraction since I never had any assets to lose in the first place. The rise in the price of the slice, however, well that hurts--bad.

In these trying times it is best to concentrate consumption to those venues that produce a quality slice.  There are many arguments about where the best slice is in the city. I've been to Franny's, with the upscale personal pizzas with the blistered crust, good indeed. I've also been to Grimaldi's and waited for forty minutes to try the pizza. I believe it was good, but I'm not sure it justified the line and they don't even sell it by the slice. Joe's on 7th in the Slope isn't bad; it's also much closer to what I think of when I think of NYC pizza. X-tra Cheese off of Northern boulevard in Flushing is pretty sweet, although if you do find yourself in the neighborhood, skip the pizza and get the chicken roll.

People often  say Ray's is really where it's at for a quintessential NY slice and I think I have to agree. Of course even if people agree on that, there is the completely different question about which Ray's you are alluding to. Personally my heart belongs to the Ray's on Houston. You just need one slice post drinks, or two if you have a friend not getting a slice with you, soda is optional. May I suggest you violently dust it with garlic powder, followed by a sweep or two of pepper flakes. Enjoy it while you can. Soon we'll all be pouring spaghetti sauce on Lender's bagels and zapping them in the microwave with store brand shredded cheese and calling it a night with some Netflix dvds, which isn't the worst fate that can befall one...if you think about it.

Famous Original Ray's Pizza
195 E. Houston, btwn Ludlow & Orchard Street

295 Flatbush Avenue, btwn Prospect Place & St Marks Avenue

Grimaldi's Pizzeria
19 Old Fulton Street, under Brooklyn Bridge

Joe's Pizza
137 7th Avenue, btwn Carroll Street & Garfield Place

X-tra Cheese
147-20 Northern Boulevard, at 147th Street