The Washington Times - June 17, 2009, 09:33AM

Dining in the Vestibule by Reed Hellman, Special to Donne Tempo Magazine

New York…Brooklyn, New York has been one of America’s vestibules.  Immigrants from scores of nations entered our country’s outer doors and settled right there, in New York City’s southernmost borough.  Those first generations clung to their native languages, traditions, and foods, formed into cloistered neighborhoods, and raised their children on a blend of old country and new.

It was the second generation and their children who opened the vestibule’s inner doors and entered America’s interior.

Brooklyn today is still the vestibule, but parts of it have also been gentrified by young professionals working in Manhattan and looking to escape the Big Apple’s towering housing costs.  That combination of polyglot newcomers and brownstone renovators has sparked a culinary Renaissance of amazing breadth.

In the daylight hours of one summer’s day, I had authentic Oriental cuisine, a Turkish lunch, Arab flat bread, magnificent Italian pasta, garlicky Eastern European sausage, and exquisite pizza all topped off by a superb Kosher-style hot dog with sweet kraut, Linzer tortes, and the best bagels to ever to get shmeared with lox and cream cheese.

A Real Asian Chinatown

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Oriental SupermarketA foodie tour of Brooklyn can start at 8th Avenue and 60th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Chinatown.  Don’t expect an Americanized Oriental experience; this place is for real.  From the crowded Hong Kong Supermarket to the storefront herbalists and produce vendors lining 8th Avenue, English is the foreign tongue.  Signs in the shop windows, music blaring from storefront speakers, and the conversations of the crowded shoppers pour out in a dozen Far Eastern languages.

Eighth Avenue is not a tourist stop, it’s the place that Brooklyn’s swelling Asian populations go to buy their fresh ginger, salt fish, herbs, medicinal teas, live frogs, dried eels, tofu, and a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits, some completely unknown to Western palates.

From Chinatown, follow the Brooklyn Queens Expressway uptown to Atlantic Avenue and Sahadis, where they “…cater to the fine tastes and discriminating needs of those seeking unique products from the Far & Middle East.” Sahadis is “…open sacks and barrels of grains and spices, bulk containers of olives, nuts, and dried fruits, its mixed fragrance of cumin and coffee beans, and the beat-up dispenser from which customers must take a number during crowded times..”,

Sahadis carries 150 varieties of cheese, Afghan breads as big as pillow cases, Turkish delight studded with pistachios, Jordan almonds, exotic herbs like sumac and maheb, and a prepared foods section featuring hummus, baba ghannouj, tabbouleh, and kibbeh, ground lamb with pine nuts and spices.  The market anchors a Middle Eastern commercial district along Atlantic Avenue between Court and Hicks Streets, complete with restaurants, food and music stores, and the Damascus Bakery, a haven for bread and pastry lovers of all ethnic persuasions.

Bakeries by the Dozen

Take a left out of Sahadi’s and stroll along Court Street into Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens for an array of neighborhood cafes, restaurants, and markets.  Drop into Caputo’s Bakery or the Court Bakery for cookies and bagels.  Try the prime cuts at Esposito’s Meat Market or the Italian specialties at Caputo’s Fine Foods.

From Court Street, head east through neighborhoods rich with ethnic eateries and markets, until you hit Flatbush Avenue, the quintessential Brooklyn shopping street.  For much of its length, “Flap-bush Av-nuh” is literally wall-to-wall with three, four, and five story, vintage apartment buildings, each offering a street-level storefront ranging from Burger King to classic mom-and-pop corner grocery stores.

At the Grand Army Plaza, Flatbush sprawls out into a huge roundabout, circling a majestic statue-bedecked arch celebrating “The Defenders of the Union 1861- 1865”.  The plaza is the northern tip of Prospect Park, a 600-acre greenspace designed in the 1860s by renown landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and site for a Saturday farmers market . Under a banner of “Healthy, Fresh, Local,” the market offers a sophisticated array of produce and specialty farm products including artisan cheeses, flowering plants, fresh juices, and free range meats and poultry. 

Flatbush slices along through Prospect Park’s eastern border, past the Brooklyn Museum, Botanic Garden, and Prospect Park Zoo.  South of the park, the scene returns to low rise apartments above street-level commerce.  This is the physical heart of the borough, stretching seemingly endless to all points of the compass.

Learning Cyrillic in Brighton Beach

But Brooklyn does end, and one of those ends is Brighton Beach.  Once an oceanfront retreat for Jewish retirees, Brighton was transformed in the 1970s and 80s into “Little Odessa” when over 100,000 Russian and Eastern European immigrants settled, almost overnight, in the apartment blocks and sagging rowhouses.  Though the population changed, Brighton Beach Avenue, shaded by an elevated subway line straight out of The French Connection’s chase scene, retained is role as the mercantile center.

Like the Hong Kong Supermarket or Sahadi’s, M&I International, on Brighton Beach Avenue, is gastronomically overwhelming, a three-level emporium presenting a vast selection of Eastern European imports and fresh Slavic delicacies.  Piles of sausages, smoked fish, pickled vegetables, and Russian packaged goods share display space with pastries, chocolates, borscht, pirogis, stuffed cabbage, and other prepared foods.  Most of the signs and labels are in Cyrillic only, and the waitstaff assumes that everyone speaks Russian.

Nathans Hot DogsIf you follow the seaside boardwalk west from Brighton, you’ll wind up in Coney Island, home of the original Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters, one of America’s most renowned hot dog stands, and site of the Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest.  There are always lines waiting at Nathans, even though it covers a full city block.  Outside tables invite al fresco dining, but most diners are too impatient to go that distance and seem content to eat their dogs while standing right on the sidewalk.

Nathan’s has been serving hot dogs since 1916.  The crinkle-cut French fries are also classics, and Nathan’s is the only place I know that serves chicken chow mein on a bun, complete with crispy noodles.

The Secret is in the Water

No story about Brooklyn culinary delights can be complete without mentioning the pizza.  Like other baked goods, Brooklyn pizza counter intuitively benefits from the city’s mediocre municipal water.  (In contrast, Baltimore’s excellent city water does not promote the superior taste and texture of dough made in New York.)

You can find a pizza place—literally little holes-in-the-wall just big enough to fit an oven, refrigerator, and cash register—on almost any commercial block.  The pizza crust is wafer thin with huge bubbles around the edges.  The sauce is redolent with garlic and oregano, slick with olive oil, and truly good pizza burns the roof of your mouth on those first few greedy bites. 

Brooklyn is a dining experience of unparalleled dimension.  Visiting the city reminded me of how acutely we can remember tastes, even after so many years.  My first home was a fourth floor front apartment looking out onto Prospect Park.  I’ve been told that tastes and odors make powerful memories, and that seems to be true.  Though I moved away as an infant, I never really left Brooklyn.

This month’s recipes are tastes from that time.

Chopped Liver

Chicken liver
2 to 3 onions per pound of liver
4 eggs per pound of liver
1/2 to 1 cup plus solid vegetable shortening (chicken fat or schmaltz is traditional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Hard-boil the eggs; peel and set aside.  In a large skillet, fry the onions in shortening until lightly browned, and set aside.  If needed, add more shortening to the skillet and sauté liver until just done, then remove from skillet.  Use a meat grinder to coarsely grind the ingredients separately. You can use a food processor, but the  results will be pastier.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Mix in a large bowl, and refrigerate until ready to serve with rye bread or crackers.

Knishes (potato dumplings)
(Inspired by Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes, formerly of  Brighton Beach Avenue)

Dough:

2 cups flour
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons water

Filling:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil or chicken fat
2 cups plain mashed potatoes
2 cups finely chopped onions
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the dough, combine flour, baking powder, and salt in large bowl.  Mix well and add a tablespoon of oil, eggs, and 2 tablespoons of water.  Gradually mix wet ingredients to flour. Knead dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl.  Let stand covered for an hour. 
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Put 2 tablespoons of oil in skillet and cook onions until tender, add salt and pepper to taste.  Mix filling ingredients in bowl.  Roll out the dough to form a thin sheet.  Use pieces of the dough to wrap balls of the filling mixture.  Bake knishes for 40 minutes, until golden brown.

Gefilte Fish
Makes about 12 balls.

Fish Balls:


1 pound fresh or frozen (thawed) haddock, cod, or similar firm white fillets
1 medium onion
1 carrot
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons matzo meal


Broth:

1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 vegetable bouillon cubes

For the fish balls, coarsely cut fish, onion, and carrot into chunks.  Put in food processor fitted with steel blade and process until smooth.  Add the egg, salt, pepper, and matzo meal, and process until smooth.  Set fish mixture aside while preparing the broth.  Place all broth ingredients into a deep pot or Dutch oven.  Bring to boil over a high heat; then lower heat and simmer until bouillon cubes dissolve.

With wet hands, shape fish mixture into 1 1/2 inch diameter balls.  Gently drop the balls into the simmering broth.  Cover and simmer for about 1 hour, occasionally turning balls with a spoon.  Remove the pot from the heat and let the balls cool in the broth.  Use a slotted spoon to remove the balls.  Strain broth through cheesecloth and pour over fish.

Noodle Kugel
Serves 6 to 8

1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sour cream
2 cups butter
6 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 pints half-and-half
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 pound cooked wide egg noodles

Crumb Topping:

4 cups cornflakes
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 9x12x4-inch-deep pan. Combine the cream cheese, sour cream, butter, eggs, and sugar.  Add the half-and-half and vanilla extract, mix well, and then mix in the egg noodles.  Pour the ingredients in a baking dish.  In a separate bowl, combine the cornflakes, sugar, and butter.  Mix and spread the topping onto the kugel.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until it is golden on top.

Reed Hellman is a freelance writer living in Alberton, Maryland.  Visit his Website at www.reedhellmanwordsmith.com, or e-mail your questions and comments to [email protected] All photos are Copywritten Reed Hellman.