[Correct Dining by Wilfrid: May 4, 2009]
So here's something you can do as an alternative to spending ninety bucks and up for dinner for two. Because the truth is, if the entrée is twenty dollars, and you order a three course meal, pay tax and tip, that's the price bracket you're in right away.
The guidelines are: a budget of up to fifty dollars for two people, no exceptionally challenging cooking techniques or unusually fancy equipment, and also not too much time in the kitchen. And because I find it important in terms of time-saving, the closest I can come to one-stop shopping. I mean, if you have nothing else to do, you can create an amazing meal with a whole day (and a Metrocard) visiting vendors from Arthur Avenue to Chinatown. These meals require some effort, but none will be marathons.
This week's stop, Essex Street Market - and all the information is at that site, follow the links to the vendors' own web-spaces. "A historic culinary destination on NYC's Lower East Side," as it says, although the truth is that it has been dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty first century by some excellent new market-holders who insisted on extending the opening hours and - farsightedly - establishing it as a destination for serious food shoppers rather than just an early-closing inexpensive grocery for the local community. The beauty is that it remains the latter too, with great value vegetable and fruit stands, endless aisles of jars and cans, and a lot of specialty Latino, especially Mexican, ingredients. Come here for cactus, tomatillos and annatto paste. And stacks of tortillas so cheap they're almost free.
My best way to shop within a budget is to start by picking the main ingredients of the main dishes. This time, as so often, that means fish and meat. Unless you are speculating on dry-aged steak, a whole lobe of foie, or a rib roast, it's the supplementary courses which pile on the cost.
New Star fish market has yet to sell me anything disappointing, and I picked up butterflied red snapper - $6.99 per pound, which comes to about $1.50 for a gutted fish.
The New York restaurant dish of the last three years has been pork belly. Can you make pork belly at home? Easiest thing in the world; and without being unduly cynical, the reason the city's chefs have embraced this cut is not just an enchantment with pork fat, but the fact you can buy a heavy piece like this...
Formaggio Essex didn't have quite the cold cuts selection I recall from previous visits, but I did find samples from first-rate Californian salume producers in the fridge at the rear. I picked up Fra' Mani's Nostrano, coarse-ground and mellow salami, and some sweet coppa produced from Molinari & Sons. A nice pairing: Fra' Mani was founded in 2006, Molinari some hundred and ten years earlier; either way, the salume coming out of San Francisco strikes me as easily comparable with Italian imports. (Shoot me, we'll visit Di Palo in Little Italy later in this series, and see what they have to say).
Formaggio offers European cheeses too, but I was already set on buying local cheese from Anne Saxelby. I spent fourteen dollars on the two meats, but they'll last beyond this one dinner. As New York cheese-fanciers know, Anne is quite special. A Murray's alumnus (you can still see one of her paintings - of cheese - hanging in Murray's seminar room), she has established her tiny market stall as the prime source of domestic "artisanal" cheeses, and it's easy to recognize an increasing number of restaurant cheese-plates around town as being Saxelby-sourced.
As I arrived, she was trying to stuff more cheeses into the packed cold cupboard. Too much cheese, apparently. A bit like The Strand and books. My strategy here is to look for cheeses I haven't tried before, and I tasted and bought some new creations. Battenkill Blue has the musty, wrinkled crust of a Stilton, but Three Corner Hill Farm on the border of Vermont and New York has been making it for less than a year. It's sweeter than Stilton, with a mild, pale, fruity paste. Willoughby, from Ploughgate Creamery in Vermont, is another newcomer, a soft cheese with a Vacherin-like minerality, its pale orange rind washed with local mead. I added half a wheel of Olga, a very firm cow/goat milk cheese from Maine.
My plating style tends to be austere, but here's the finished boot-filler. A slab of tender, winey belly, a scoop of smashed-up yam, and a couple of crunchy bits of skin.
Counting the cost
Way under budget with this dinner. As I said, barely six or seven dollars for the pork and snapper together (and I have pork left over). Fourteen dollars on cold cuts, but it took only half what I bought to fill the plate. Say eight dollars. I have cheese for the week: ten dollars would have been plenty for this meal. With the vegetables and bread, a little over thirty dollars then. Fifteen or sixteen dollars a head for four courses. It's not difficult.
The meal can be reproduced, in structure at least, with a visit to a Whole Foods or a similar "gourmet" market, but I strongly recommend looking in local, less fancy supermarkets or neighborhood butchers for cuts like pork belly. If you can't find it, it's because the top chefs have bought it all. Or more seriously, substitute pork ribs.
Over the next five weeks, more shopping stops around town, and different types of meals. I may even make dessert at some point if you're lucky.