Our apartment juts up against a part of Brooklyn that’s often referred to as “Little Pakistan.” There’s a nearby stretch of Coney Island Avenue that’s dotted with Halal butchers and take-out joints, fruit markets and ethnic grocers. The aroma of grilled meats and spice as I walk home from the subway each night is intoxicating.
I’ve only recently begun to scope these markets out in earnest, as I strategize how best to spend every cent of our weekly food budget. At one market, you can get a 10-pound bag of onions for $2.89, a fact I file away for the next time I need to know how to feed us on next to nothing. I think of soups and tarts, and that panade I made recently that was a massive pain in the ass to assemble, but seriously delicious, all worth it in the end. Stale bread and a pile of onions cooked down until tender, with greens and a little good cheese and a lot of rich broth, truly greater than the sum of its parts. I hoard the bones from every chicken we cook at home, stash them in the freezer to turn them into gold, bolstered with a package or two of cheap feet and neck bones. We’ll always have good stock around.
Just months ago I spent $8 on a dozen eggs from some handsome young farmers at Union Square, laid by pampered, pastured chickens. A lot of people would be scandalized at that price tag, but I have grown to appreciate really great eggs in recent years, and they’re still a cheap source of protein at nearly a buck apiece. These had taut, perky whites and saffron yolks, and they were worth every penny, but our reality doesn’t allow for such frivolity right now. I’ll still pay $4 or $5 for our eggs at the farmers’ market, though, for as long as our budget will allow. A really great egg is a treasure, a small luxury I’m not yet willing to deny us.
I’ve learned over the last few years how to carve a 49 cent head of cabbage into fluffy ribbons, and cook them down into silky submission. I toss them with long strands of pasta, a mountain of finely grated, sharp-salty cheese, and plenty of black pepper, a recreation of a long-ago restaurant meal shared with a visiting friend the first time we lived in New York. If we have bacon around, I’ll add that, too, crisp little batons studding the tangles of cabbage and spaghetti. A little goes a long way.
I am especially grateful, these days, for those little fruit markets and ethnic grocers along that stretch of Coney Island Avenue near our apartment, with their cheap sacks of onions and aromatic rice, their 4-pound bags of dried beans and legumes, their dense cabbages and bright bundles of hearty greens just waiting to be turned into a simple, but delicious meal. So long as we have our beans and greens, our broth and bread and a dozen great eggs, we have plenty, and we will eat well.