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This is part of an ongoing series to celebrate bodegas (and their owners) in New York City. Each week, we're highlighting recipes from food writers and chefs made entirely from ingredients purchased in bodegas. Today: Food writer Emily Farris on the now-shuttered bodega that helped initiate her into New Yorker-dom in the early aughts—and the casserole it inspired, all these years later.
When I moved to Brooklyn at 18, I was full of ambition and very, very short on cash. I quickly discovered my friendly neighborhood bodega—unlike anything that existed in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO, where I grew up. It’s where I learned that in New York, “coffee, regular” meant cream and two sugars, and it’s where I figured out that cream cheese and tomato on a toasted everything bagel is the best breakfast in the world.
Always in search of the perfect roommate situation, I moved frequently, but I’ll never forget Ibrahim at the bodega near Sixth Avenue and West 4th Street, near my first Manhattan apartment. That bodega is long gone, but it’s impossible to think of my time in the West Village without remembering Ibrahim smiling at me every day from behind that counter. He’d always put extra turkey on my sandwich, and would even let me run a tab to hold me over until my next shift at the Village Underground.
In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when I didn’t really want to leave my block, that bodega is where I bought everything—toiletries, cleaning supplies, and all of my groceries.
This cheesy casserole with tomatoes is inspired by my bodega days—every ingredient can be purchased at a bodega*—and except for the baking dish, it can all be prepared in one pot. For this recipe, you’ll shop the bodega’s dry and canned goods, grab a head of garlic if you can (and if not, garlic powder is fine), then head to the deli counter for some sliced onion and cheese (Boar’s Head Vermont Cheddar melts beautifully into a sauce).
NOTE: If your bodega doesn’t have breadcrumbs, try day-old bread or a day-old roll from the deli counter and pulse it in a food processor. And if you can’t find diced tomatoes, try stewed tomatoes, or even a tomato sauce (it will just add a little extra flavor). If your bodega doesn’t have a deli counter, but you can find a block of cheddar cheese, you can use 3/4-pound to a pound in this casserole.
*While I no longer live in New York, I FaceTimed with a friend to confirm that all of these ingredients were available at his Hell’s Kitchen bodega.
For the Casserole
- 1 pound box penne or similar pasta
- 2 tablespoons butter (or oil)
- 6 slices fresh onion from the deli counter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
- 8 cloves garlic, minced (or 1 teaspoon garlic powder)
- 1/2 cup milk
- 10 thick slices cheddar cheese from the deli counter, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 2 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
- Cayenne pepper
- Crushed red pepper
- Salt and pepper
For the topping
- 1 tablespoon melted butter or oil
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper
Do you have fond memories of bodegas? Let us know in the comments!