Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nieve Making at Viva Puebla!

I don't think that I can write often enough about how obsessed I am with the nieves at Viva Puebla, which I wrote about here (as well as their chicharron preparado, which I wrote about here).

So far I've tried the guava (my favorite)

then watermelon and lime together -

And today, I got the melon (canteloupe)....

and a chance to watch the nieve being made!

A very slow process in which the sweetened fruit base is placed in a barrel full of ice, and spun round and round, with periodical scraping, until the liquid becomes a smooth, sometimes creamy, sometimes icy, snow.
Once the summer ends there will be no more homemade nieve. A relief for this man, perhaps, but a sad day for me.

Viva Puebla
89-16 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mais con Hielo, Halo-Halo, Tito Rad's

I love when corn is used in dessert. I've been dying to try mais con hielo (a Filipino drink/dessert which is exactly what it sounds like: corn with ice) for a while, but when I went to Ihawan and Krystal's a few months ago to search for it for my Corn Around the World post, it wasn't available. I knew that Tito Rad's in Woodside had it, but I haven't been for a while. Until yesterday. After a huge meal at Pio Pio Riko in Sunnyside with Shannon yesterday afternoon, we still wanted a little something sweet. She really wanted an icy Asian drink and I thought we were in the wrong neighborhood until I realized - Tito Rad's! Just a few blocks away, she could get halo-halo and I could finally try...mais con hielo.

Tito Rad's version tastes just like creamed corn. I think it is creamed corn. With ice, evaporated milk, a little sugar, and some whipped cream. The corn was warm, the ice was cold, it was more salty than sweet, and there was a little bit of crunch from the flaky garnish. It was interesting, and I expected it to be sweeter, but I liked it. $3.75.

Nothing not to like about halo-halo. I was more focused on the corn, but I did enjoy all of the delicious bits of jackfruit, red and white beans, young coconut and palm fruit, mixed in with every bite, of ice, milk, and ice cream - the scoop of bright purple ube ice cream that was beneath the surface was my favorite part. Really tasted like sweet, starchy yams. $5.50.

It's always nice when a wish is fulfilled. I dreamed of eating iced sweet corn. I can check that off my list now.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kabab King Ambassador Dinner

If the Ambassador Dinners are supposed to open our eyes to cuisines that some of us might have limited familiarity with, with the ambassador of the night ordering the food and treating the diner to a bit of cultural and culinary history , than Joseph Aranha of the Asian Arts and Cultural Council, and the Pakistani Ambassador Dinner, succeeded beyond my expectations. Before we sat down at one of the many tables in the private room upstairs at Kabab King for our dinner last Saturday, August 14th, Jeff Orlick, organizer extraordinaire, handed each of us a program, and we were off.

Menu for the Evening

Rose Milk with Spices
Paratha with Lentils and Salad
Liver Fry
Mutton Biryani
Brain Fry
Gulab Jamun
Spiced Tea

Just seeing the words "brain" and "fry" together on a page as something we were about to eat provoked at the very least a few giggles, but mostly curiosity and excitement for those of us who have never had a dish with brain as the main ingredient. As people walked in and took their seats, the waiters came around and placed plastic glasses full of the pink-tinged drink that would begin our night, the rose milk. It was sweet, but not overly so, with a subtle rose flavor. Then plates of salad appeared.

Once we were all in place, Joseph introduced himself and began to explain how we should approach the meal. We must taste the food, no gulping allowed. It would be family style, one bowl of each item per table of four, so as not to get too full, and if anyone were still hungry after the many courses he would take it upon himself to buy them dinner downstairs. There was a brief lesson on bodily functions and natural cleansing. The meal would start, as many meals do, with bread and lentils. Waiters appeared with bowls of lentils and platters of parathas, sliced in four pieces.

The paratha was stuffed with a spiced potato mixture, and I could've eaten the whole thing myself, but I resigned myself to one slice and shared the rest with my table mates, scooping up the lentils with tiny bites of bread. The lentils were soft and mild, but bits of the sliced raw ginger garnish added crunch and spice to the dish.

Joseph then asked us to open the large map of the Indian Subcontinent that he had placed on each table, so as to get a better idea of Pakistan's location.

It was a very large map.

Next, and one of our table's favorite dishes - the quail, along with some chicken kababs.

A closer look at the quail, with crisp, charred wings, and tender, smoky meat.
There were two per table, and the four of us wished we had more. The two types of chicken kababs that accompanied the quail on the sizzling plate were red, spiced chunks of chicken breast, also moist and flavorful, and a ground chicken mixture, also red, spicy, and very good. While we were enjoying our kababs, Joseph made sure that everyone listened to a small lesson on the history of Ramadan and its traditions, told by a very friendly man from Joseph's group, who went from table to table. It was somewhat difficult to concentrate on the concept of fasting while biting into a tiny quail leg, but I appreciated the learning experience.

Next came the liver fry, and haleem.

Large chunks of beef liver, again topped with freshly sliced ginger and cilantro. Some of the chunks some were a bit dense and tough, but the pieces that were at the bottom, absorbing the oil and liquid in the bowl, were softer. They had a nice flavor, milder than what I was expecting.

Haleem, a Pakistani specialty that I have never tried before, was very interesting. The mixture had a glutinous, paste-like consistency, with pieces of beef throughout. I don't know how to describe it or make it sound appetizing, but it was like a spiced porridge with bits of meat tossed in. To quote Elyaqim Mosheh Adam, table companion and map holder, the haleem at Kabab King "has the mouth-feel of shredded beef in split pea soup". It went over big at our table, particularly when we discovered that dipping the liver into the haleem somehow made both of them taste even better.

And there was more.

The mutton biryani did not have much mutton at all, but that was acceptable since the rice was tasty, and it was accompanying the brain fry.

Or brain masala, as the waiters called it when they placed the bowl on the table. The sauce was thick, rich, and highly spiced, perfect for spooning onto the rice. The brains themselves, goat brains, were yellow and creamy, similar in texture to scrambled eggs. Not an everyday dish, by any means, but I am happy to have tried brain fry once in my life.

After the main dishes, we were served dessert and tea. Gulab Jamun and masala chai.

Although we were full at that point, I definitely could have eaten more than one of these syrup-soaked sweets. The round ball of dough was fresh-tasting, still warm, and sweet enough to cleanse the palate.

The sweet, milky, spiced tea was the perfect end to the meal.
A little more history, a lesson in the main spices and ingredients of curries, and then we got to meet chef Wazir Ali. A group picture wrapped up the dinner and it was over.
I've had a few days to digest the experience now, and was wondering how to sum up the unique experience. Jeff Orlick explains the goal of the ambassador program on his website as this:

...a guide will order for the table and discuss what we are eating and why we are eating it. Not a classroom experience, but more of a familial gathering centered around the food. This allows us diners to let go, eat well, and expand our boundaries for the city, the world and our palates

The night, for me, reached every one of these goals. We were expertly guided by a man who obviously loves his culture, its food, and his surrounding cultures. Joseph is Indian, not Pakistani, but he is so proud of the fact that, in his experience, the boundaries between countries and religious groups that restrict lives on the subcontinent are basically nonexistent here in America. Everyone eats together. We absorbed his passion through the food that he carefully chose, with the chef, to showcase the cuisine. Our table certainly felt like a family gathering; passing around plates, divvying up the food, eating from the same dishes, laughing. My palate was expanded, I let go, and I ate well.

Kabab King Diner
73-01 37th Rd
Jackson Heights

For more information on future ambassador dinners, here is Jeff Orlick's website:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Chicharrón Preparado

Another post for Serious Eats NY that is perfect for Under the 7, while I play catch-up and get some more Roosevelt Ave eating in. I love chicharrón preparado. Here's a small explanation -

Chicharrón preparado is a unique street snack from Mexico that is often hard to find, but pops up every so often during the summertime here in Queens. One of the stands I wrote about last week, which sells homemade nieves, also offers chicharrón preparado as a summer special.

Generally, chicharrón means fried pork skin. In some Spanish-speaking countries it isn't just pork skin, but pork belly; in other countries it refers to any sort of meat, fried and crisp. In Mexico, there is real chicharrón, deep fried pork rinds, and then there is chicharrón de harina—deep fried snacks that are made from flour, not pork skin. They have a similar crunchy, bubbly texture, and are found in many shapes and sizes; pinwheels, small squiggly lines, small rectangles, and large rectangles.

Chicharrón preparado, or prepared chicharrónes, are made with the large rectangular fried chicharrón de harina, which is then topped with chopped cabbage, diced tomatoes, sour cream, cotija cheese, sliced avocados, cueritos (pickled pork rind slices), and hot sauce, usually Salsa Valentina.

Okay, so it sounds weird, especially if you've never heard of half of the ingredients—but trust me, it's delicious. So many amazing textures: the light crisp of the chicharrón, the fresh, crunchy cabbage. Then there's the softness and acidity from the tomatoes, smooth chunks of avocado, salt from the powdered cheese, chewy bits of pickled pork, vinegar and heat from the hot sauce, and then the cooling and tangy sour cream finish. It gives you much more than your average snack. This week I found four places that prepare chicharrón con todo, and they won't be around for long—so I tried them all.

Fruta Picada Cart


Underneath the 7 train at Junction Boulevard, there is a woman with an unamed cart who sells fresh chopped fruit (fruit picada) that she tops with chile, lime and salt. There is also a small sign on the side advertising chicharrón preparado. The first time I saw the sign, on a weekday afternoon, I orderd one, but she didn't have the ingredients yet. A few days later I went back, and she did, so I happily ate my chicharrón while waiting for the train.

It had its good and bad points. The chicharrón was freshly fried and crisp; the tomato slices were perfect—a really ripe, red, fresh summer tomato. The cueritos were soft and gelatinous, but there weren't many of them. The avocado was soft and smooth. But instead of cabbage was iceberg lettuce, which is crisp and fresh-tasting, but lacks that bite and crunch. The cheese sprinkled on top was Kraft parmesan from the green can. It had all the right textures, but everything was just slightly off.

Price: $4.00

Metal cart directly in front of 96-07 Roosevelt Avenue, Corona (map)

La Choza Dominican and Mexican Restaurant


As I was driving down 104th Street I thought I spied the words chicharrón preparado in front of the restaurant—and so my very helpful husband ran out and ordered one, brought it back to the car, and snapped a phone picture of it all in the space of five minutes. A few moments later I got to taste it. Unfortunately, it was the least well-prepared of them all, mostly due to lack of toppings.

The chicharrón was fresh and crisp, I'll give them that. But again, they used lettuce instead of cabbage, barely any avocado, and not many cueritos at all. If I hadn't had any great ones, I might not know any better, and it would be a good snack—but I was spoiled for lackluster topping techniques by the next two places.

Price: $4.00

38-12 104th Street, Corona (map)
(718) 507-8152

Viva Puebla


Viva Puebla's summer outdoor cart has much to offer, and the woman behind it is incredibly friendly. It took some time for my chicharrón to be prepared, since she threw old ones out and fried a new one just for my order. Soggy, chewy, stale chicharrónes are not appetizing, so I appreciated that—it was worth the long wait.

The chicharrón was piled high with freshly chopped ingredients, and I know because I watched her chop it all. Lots of cabbage, tomatoes, a half of an avocado; cheese, cream, a good amount of chewy cueritos, and hot sauce. My only complaint is that the tomato was white and mealy, which, in the middle of August, is a shame. Otherwise, close to perfectly prepared.

Price: $5.00

89-16 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights (map)

Tortas Neza


In front of this small restaurant, where I found the best gordita, is a stand that sells snacks, including chicharrón preparado. When I did the gordita search back in March, I noticed people eating chicharrónes, so they may be one of the few places that sells them year-round.

So much care put into the preparation of the chicharrón—and they really went crazy with the toppings. The crisp bottom layer was piled high with handfuls of cabbage, three heaping spoonfuls of pickled cueritos; some of the jalapeños and carrots from the pickling mixture got tossed in there as well, an added plus. Lots of cheese, lots of cream, beautifully ripe tomatoes, creamy avocados, and a liberal amount of hot sauce on top of the already full plate: I had more of a meal than a snack on my hands. There was so much stuff on the crispy chicharron that if I hadn't shared it, it would've gotten too soggy halfway through. Luckily I had help, so that wasn't a problem. It was great.

Price: $5.00

111-03 Roosevelt Avenue, Corona (map)

It's also something that you can make yourself, and I have. The hardest part is frying the chicharones, as they tend to curl up in the oil. Here is a great picture of some chicharron that my family and I put together at the park last year: from my old blog, and my brother David's version.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Raspados, Diablitos, Nieves y Más

I haven't been around much for the past few weeks, for sad reasons which I will get into in another post, which is why I haven't written in quite a while. But my post on shaved ice and other cold things, published on Serious Eats NY yesterday, works perfectly for the blog, since I found everything along the route. The link to the slideshow is here. This is a slightly different version.

Along Roosevelt Avenue in the summertime, raspado (hand-shaved ice) carts pop up everywhere—in front of delis and restaurants, on street corners below the 7 train, traveling vendors with grocery carts full of blocks of ice and syrup magically materialize in the afternoons. Aside from raspados, paletas, and ice cream, if you're lucky, you might stumble upon a place that make Mexican nieves (ices or sorbets) the old-fashioned way, which is really something special. Here's what I found.

The Raspado Lady: The raspado lady on the corner of Roosevelt and 80th Street has her ice shaving down to a science. She shaves the ice and creates a pyramid with a funnel so quickly, it's amazing. And she doesn't skimp on the syrup, either. A small raspado is $1.00.

Raspado Lady: 80-02 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights (map)

I got a mango and orange raspado from the lady.

Maracuya Raspado from El Bohio Grocery: There is always a line down the block at this grocery with a raspado window. This was a passionfruit syrup ice topped with condensed milk. I never understood the line, but now I do. Sometimes raspados quickly become a block of ice floating in syrup, and difficult to eat. The ice here was expertly shaved and remained flaky and crunchy, absorbing the flavor of the syrup. Small raspado, $1.00. El Bohio Grocery: Roosevelt and 99th Street (map)

Diablito, Cart under the 7 train, 90th Street and Roosevelt Avenue: Not your typical raspado, diablitos are doused with tamarind syrup and a spicy liquid chile mixture, then topped with a squirt of chamoy—a sour, salty, spicy and sweet fruit-based salsa. Small raspado, $1.00.

Raspado Cart: Corner of Roosevelt and Elmurst Avenues (map)

Nieve Mexicana at Viva Puebla: In front of the restaurant Viva Puebla is an outdoor counter where they sell snacks such as chopped fruit, elotes, chicharron preparado, and homemade nieves. These Mexican ices are somewhere between Italian ice and sorbet— creamier and smoother than the former, but icier than the latter. The process is long, and done by hand: paddling a metal bucket full of the liquid fruit base within a larger bucket filled with ice and salt until it reaches the perfect consistency. At Viva Puebla they only have one bucket, so they make the flavors one at a time.

Viva Puebla: 89-16 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights (map); 718-947-2302

Guava, watermelon, coconut, lime, and melon. I tried three of the five. I will definitely go back for the other two.
Nieves de Sandia y Limon. The sandia was like taking a sweet icy bite out of a watermelon, and the limon, with flecks of lime zest, was perfect slushy limeade. Cold, tart, and refreshing.

Nieve de Guayaba from Viva Puebla: Sweet but not too sweet, with a fresh guava flavor. Creamy and smooth, except for the occasional mouthful of seeds. I appreciated the seeds, though—it proved that the nieve was homemade using the whole fruit. Small cup, $2.00.

Nance Paleta from Paleteria Fernandez, Cholula Bakery: Paleteria Fernandez is located in Port Chester, New York; I found the pops at Cholula Bakery on Roosevelt Avenue. Nance is a small yellow fruit, sometimes called a yellow cherry, which grows in Central Mexico and continues southward. It's an acquired taste, strong and musky. The paleta was full of chunks of the fruit, as well as a few inedible stems. Although the actual fruit is sour, the paleta was sweet and creamy with a strong aftertaste. Arroz Con Leche Paleta from Paleteria Fernandez found at Cholula Bakery: I love rice pudding, I love arroz con leche, so what could be bad about a frozen version? Well, the creamy, milky, Mexican cinnamon-tinged ice pop is good, but if you don't like chewy pieces of cooked rice in frozen form, it might not be the pop for you. Flavor wise, it's delicious, but the texture might be a turn-off for some. Paletas are $2/each
Cholula Bakery: 88-06 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights (map); (718) 533-1171

It is really exciting to have all of these icy, refreshing, and sweet snacks so close to home, but as quickly as they appear in the hot weather, the carts, stands and wandering vendors disappear just as fast, so I plan on eating as much ice as possible while I still can.