Written by Lyn Dobrin Saturday, 21 December 2013 00:00
At last, New Cassel has a supermarket and it’s a place where I intend to spend a lot of time shopping, not only because it is just a five minute walk from my house but because it gives me the opportunity to easily explore food products that I am unfamiliar with.
Located at 735 Prospect Ave., a few blocks from the intersection of Prospect, Brush Hollow Road and Union Avenue, Ideal Food Basket especially caters to the Hispanic and Haitian residents in the community, offering fresh vegetables and fruits, frozen and canned specialties and other prepared items from Mexico, Central America and Haiti, as well as typical supermarket items.
I recognized much of what I saw on the shelves but some products sent me scurrying to the internet, particularly the array of cremas (sour creams) from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. I found various opinions on which tasted better. Looking up chipilin, a bag of frozen herb-like leaves, I discovered it is called one of the most important edible leaves used by humans globally, with the flavor of watercress (a flavor that improves with cooking). Those golden little balls in the jar were nance, a fruit of prehispanic
Guatemala that figures in Mayan mythology.
I realized I had an expert right in my neighborhood in the person of Roberto Herrera, a native of El Salvador who is the chef/owner of La Casa Latina (and also the executive chef of Bryant and Cooper Steakhouse). La Casa Latina in Westbury serves excellent Latin cuisine and it is the place where I first tasted dishes containing Central American basics such as chayote, flor de izote, loroco, palmettos and pacaya.
Roberto and I went through the aisles, him dispensing advice, me taking notes furiously. Here’s some of what I learned which I will pass on to you (many of you might already know this but I know others will be like me):
-All the creamas are pretty much the same—some are light and some are thicker, or maybe saltier or sweeter. Break a tamale into pieces and dip into the cream.
-Most of the root vegetables can be cooked liked potatoes. You can roast yucca in the oven but it won’t be soft like a potato. A good way to cook it is to peel it, steam it and then sauté it.
You can do a lot with chayote because it won’t get mushy like squash. The pear-shaped fruit is bland and can be eaten raw, cooked, mashed, baked, boiled, fried, or even pickled. Roberto likes to use it like eggplant in eggplant parmesaen.
-About the packets of spices: Central American cuisines are not spicy—most of the spices in the little packets are used in teas.
Since visiting with Roberto, I’m rethinking Ideal’s baked goods, which had originally been unappealing because they looked so dry. They’re supposed to be, he told me. These are the cakes that people would typically have during coffee breaks, perhaps to even dip into their coffee. I’m also going to bake the nance as a dessert, melting brown sugar (which is sold in corn husks) with melted butter and cinnamon, mixing it with the fruit and baking it, covered, for 45 minutes. I’ll be adding izote to my scrambled eggs and sauted pacaya flowers to my salad. Wish me luck.