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 ¾-pound to a pound in this casserole.
*While I no longer live in New York, I did FaceTime with a friend to confirm that all of these ingredients were available at his Hell’s Kitchen bodega. —Emily Farris
For the Casserole
box penne or similar pasta
butter (or oil)
slices fresh onion from the deli counter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
thick slices cheddar cheese from the deli counter, cut into 1-inch pieces
grated parmesan cheese
14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
Crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper
For the topping
melted butter or oil
grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
In This Recipe
Preheat the oven to 350ºF and butter or grease a 9- x 13-inch baking dish.
In a medium or large pot of salted, boiling water, cook the pasta to just under al dente. Drain well and transfer it to the baking dish.
Melt the butter (or warm the oil) over low heat in the bottom of the same pot, then add the onions. When the onions become translucent, add the garlic and let it cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and cayenne pepper.
Add the milk, then slowly begin adding the cheddar cheese, stirring as you go. When all of the cheddar is melted, add the parmesan and stir (the sauce will get a little weird at this point, but don’t worry, it will all melt beautifully in the oven).
Add the tomatoes with their juices and mix well. Salt and pepper to taste, add more crushed red pepper and cayenne pepper if you’d like, then evenly pour the sauce over the pasta. Transfer to the oven and bake, uncovered for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the topping by mixing the melted butter (or oil) with the breadcrumbs, parmesan and a pinch of salt and pepper in a small bowl.
After the casserole has cooked for 25 minutes, take it out of the oven just long enough to sprinkle the seasoned bread crumbs over the top. Return it to the oven for another 15 minutes or until the breadcrumbs begin to brown. Remove the casserole from the oven and let it sit for at least 10 minutes before serving.