Sandwich Wednesday: The Pambazo at Tortas Neza

The following Sunday I returned, excited to lose my pambazo virginity. Galdino was excited too, his favorite team, Los Pumas de La UNAM had just scored a goal. I ordered a pambazo ($6), not quite sure what to expect. The first step in making the pambazo is dunking the bread briefly in a guajillo chili sauce, dying it a reddish-orange and infusing it with a gentle heat. The bread, also known as pambazo, is then fried for a bit on the griddle and then filled with a mixture of potatoes and chorizo. It’s topped with crema, queso fresco, and , in my case, a lashing of fiery red salsa.

Unlike Galdino’s other sandwiches, which employ everything from head cheese to chorizo omelets and hot dogs, there is only one type of filling. “This is the original style, the way we do it in Mexico City,” he said as he handed it to me. It is dainty compared to some of his other creations, notably the football sized Torta Puma, but no less messy or delicious. The bread—crunchy and fried in parts, soft  in  others,but possessed of a nice heat throughout—just barely holds up to the hash-like filling of potatoes and crumbled sausage. I’m not sure whether they eat this bad boy for breakfast in Mexico City, but I like to think of it as the best, and messiest, Mexican breakfast sandwich I’ve ever eaten under the 7 train. The carb-on-carb combo gave me plenty of fuel for a long walk down La Roosie.

Tortas Neza, 111th St. and Roosevelt Ave., Corona

Teaching Kids the ABC’s (Apples, Beets and Carrots)

We all know that kids are quite often picky eaters. Their perfect world is a reverse food pyramid. Anyone who has argued in favor of veggies over gummy bears would gladly welcome a way to get kids excited about healthy eating. Lucky for city kids and parents, there’s Allergic to Salad, a series of kids’ cooking classes organized by Stacey Ornstein, a writer, and chef whose past collaborators include Mark Bittman and the Food Network.

Since 2006, Ornstein has been teaching cooking classes around the city. She first started working with Spoons Across America, a New York-based organization pioneering nutrition-based education for children. She currently develops curriculum, recipes, and teaches healthy, international cooking classes in NYC public school after-school programs, summer camps, gardens, adult ESOL classes, libraries, the Institute of Culinary Education, and at various “pop-up” locations. Ornstein also continues her partnership with Spoons Across America, now as Director of Programs.

With the positive feedback generated from her classes and with funds from various sources such as the Western Queens Greening Initiative and ioby.org, Ornstein has recently founded Allergic to Salad. Initially started as a blog chronicling her classes and cooking philosophy, this April sees the launch of Allergic to Salad classes. Currently, funds for another series of classes are being raised through the organization ioby.org. This month’s classes show kids ages 2-3 and 4-10 how to make their own pasta lunches from scratch, not with a box but by filling a bag with ingredients and using a fun shaken’ make a technique.

As the NYC borough with a vast wealth of culinary traditions, one might think that Queens kids have healthy home-cooked meals. But, many families can’t make the kind of schedule that involves cooking nutritious meals each night. The unfortunate consequences can lead to health problems including obesity and diabetes. Classic excuses for a neglected kitchen are lack of time, money, or skill. But, Allergic to Salad breaks down those barriers. Using global inspiration to make everything from chocolate beet cakes to Indian kachori celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi, Stacey proves that both kids and adults can get excited about vegetables if they only give them a chance.

Ornstein takes inspiration from her own childhood for her class philosophy. Growing up, she was always cooking up a storm with her family. Dinnertime was a chance to come together and take turns wowing the rest of the table with edible creations. Nothing had to be complex. Supper could be pasta and a colorfully arranged salad. Whether simple or a little more involved mealtime was a platform for creativity in the family.

Memories of gathering around the the table, ready to try whatever your brother, sister, or parents cooked up, turned Ornstein into an adventurer in food flavors. Her exploratory attitude is reflected in the only two rules of the Allergic to Salad kitchen : “try everything” and “you don’t have to like it.” This combination of curiosity and openness characterizes the tone of class. And it works. One minute kids look at beets with disgust, the next minute when the fiercely pink veggies are in chocolate cakes, they’re eating them up. And just like the bright fuchsia hue of those beets, enthusiasm is contagious. When children proudly bring home a recipe, they want the whole family to get involved and try it.

Collaboration is the key to fostering healthy eating habits in families. When parents see that their children want to eat spinach, half the battle is over. Using whole, unprocessed foods and taking part in mealtime, kids begin to understand the origins of the food they eat. Recipes in the Allergic to Salad kitchen use the most local and readily available ingredients possible. They’re geared to be accessible to all budgets and schedules. With many arguments in favor and excuses quashed, what are you waiting for?

Empire Market, a classic German butcher in College Point

Empire Market is a classic German butcher shop that has been in the College Point neighborhood of Queens for 91 years, owned and operated by the Lepine family, now in its fourth generation of business. The full array of classic German meats can be found here – sausages of every ilk, including frankfurters, bratwurst, cold cuts and kielbasa, as well as good ‘ole pork (ham, bacon, chops), beef and chicken. Empire’s frankfurters appear on “best hot dog in New York City” lists – it’s no surprise since their products are mostly made on-site and, where appropriate, with a smoker, which is rare anywhere these days. Empire is a lively, good-humored establishment with a loyal following of old-guard Germans looking for blood-and-tongue sausage, local home cooks seeking high quality meats, and kids picking up penny candy.

The butcher shop is a legitimate legacy of the neighborhood’s long German heritage. In 1853, with a license from Charles Goodyear, an industrious immigrant from Hamburg, Germany named Conrad Poppenhusen started a major rubber factory in College Point. He built railroads, established ferries, and for his employees, many of whom followed him from Hamburg, he made available educational opportunities and supported the country’s first free kindergarden. At one point, College Point had more bars and beer gardens per capita than anywhere in the country.

Empire Market is a grocery, not a deli, everything is wrapped up to go for preparation at home. The meats are all made without nitrates or other preservatives, and the bacon has been double-smoked, which means you can eat it as-is, if that’s your preference. The widely popular hot dogs and bacon come out of the smoker on Wednesdays, so the best supply is from then until the end of the week. Empire also stocks a selection of traditional German foods, such as sauerkraut, egg noodles, pickles, horseradish mustard and favorite cheeses – including tilsit, a classic that smells like dirty feet but tastes fantastic.

I picked up a container of sauerkraut along with bratwurst in order to make a long-enduring German recipe that’s easy and filling, Bratwurst with Sauerkraut, Apples, Onions and Carraway Seeds – here’s an excellent example of it at Epicurious. A tip from John Lepine: try rubbing the carraway seeds together firmly in your palm, it breaks them up gently through friction. This dish is delicious – especially with the Empire Market supplies – the sour flavor of the sauerkraut balances the sweetness of the apples, all settled in with the rich juices of the bratwurst.

It’s uncommon and inspiring to see a family that has stayed together, thriving, in business for so long. Mike and Pat Lepine, and their sons, John and Michael, continue to serve up hand-made, all-natural sausages using methods unchanged for decades. How lucky for us. Empire Market is worth a trip.

Recipe: Simply Cool Watermelon Agua Fresca

air fryer reviewOh, yes, it’s hot. Hot all over the country. There are so many culinary tricks for staying cool and comfortable that have made their way to our Borough from the tropical cultures of the world, some of which seem completely illogical. Consuming punishingly spicy dishes. Drinking tea as hot as you can stand it. Our neighbor Mexico gives us an effectively soothing treat we can quickly get behind, a cold, fruity, icy beverage that never fails to cool off the body, agua fresca.

Squeezing fruit into flat or carbonated water, especially citrus – lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit – is so refreshing. Why is that? Is it the hint of sour, the thought of those abundant juices? Agua fresca literally means “fresh water,” and it follows that same, basic principle, mixing fruit with water. I tend to use melons, either watermelon or canteloupe, but there are a million varieties out there. This is a recipe you can do after a long, warm day in the sun or after a long (unfair!) day at the desk.

Agua Fresca

Ingredients

4 cups watermelon, seeded and cubed

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup sugar (the traditional Mexican recipes ask for 1/2 cup of sugar; I don’t like any at all; use to taste)

mint

1 lime

ice

Serves 8 in highball size glasses with ice.

Purée the watermelon, water and sugar (if desired) in a blender.

Put lime slice and 3 leaves of mint in glass and muddle.

Add ice to the glass, pour in the agua fresca, and stir. Garnish with sprigs of mint and slices of lime.

Since we’re dealing with ice on hot days I like to prepare these one glass at a time, but you can also prepare the agua fresca all in one pitcher if you need to.

A Piece of Cake at Sunnyside’s Sugar Room

air fryer reviewPastry chef Juan Arache is here to say that you, baking novice, can make an absolutely beautiful cake.

That’s because everything you could possibly need – from the materials to the techniques to handy tips and advice – is available at Sugar Room, his cake making and decorating supply store and school located in Sunnyside, Queens.

Arache has been a pastry chef for 25 years and has lived in Sunnyside for 22. He opened Sugar Room in 2002 and does not regret not locating his shop in Manhattan one bit. Business has always been steady, attracting professionals and novices from all over the Tri-State area. Now, in the current economic downturn, customers are opting to give home-baking a try, as opposed to spending hundreds of dollars on custom fondant cakes. Some are even looking to earn a little extra income making cakes for others or to pursue a new career track.

Let’s say you walk into Sugar Room with vague notions of creating a festive and colorful dessert for a 4-year-old boy’s birthday party.

If proper and professional-looking fondant is what you prefer, Sugar Room stocks pre-prepared, ready-to-use fondants in an array of colors. Additionally, you can get silicon molds of flowers, boarders and lettering – simply press the fondant into the molds and out come perfectly carved decoration to apply right to the cake. The staff will suggest the right baking pans and cake recipes for working with fondant to help you towards success.

Perhaps your youngster favors a particular cartoon character or action hero. What about a large cake piled with fun and exciting figures? Sugar Room has the basics – Elmo and Spiderman for sure – but they also cater to more sophisticated interests such as Star Wars, (the scene where Luke duels Darth Vader!), fishing, car racing and volcanoes, to name just a few.

Any cake can be flavored, painted and accessorized with an impressive selection of specialty additions. You can find 300 different sprinkles and sparkles; cake flavorings including eggnog, mango and vanilla butternut; food coloring in pastels and neon; delicious fillings and all sorts of icings in tubes. There are hundreds of shaped cookie cutters and artfully themed cupcakes sets, and for these smaller projects, tons of tiny adornments.

For those with more advanced skills, Sugar Room has cake stands, colors to spray or dust on, edible gold gilding, and all shapes and sizes of frosting bags and tips.

Now you’ve got the bug and decide to build your skills with a course or a class. Sugar Room offers a full program of cake and pastry techniques, designed to give you a solid foundation, whether you’re a novice or developing professionally. You can take a 9- or 20-week course to become fully versed in cake production, or you can focus on particular pieces such as Fondant Tiered Cakes, Royal Icing and Cake Flow, Modeling Paste, String Work, and Piping and Spatula, most of which consist of 2 to 3 classes.

Whatever your aspirations or needs, Sugar Room is an excellent and inspiring resource for those looking to bake something delightful.

Sugar Room, 44-21 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, 46th St. stop on 7 Train, 718-707-2900