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Food-Focused Shopping on the Lower East Side

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Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

I’ve heard complaints that our neighborhood isn’t so good when it comes to shopping. I may not buy much “stuff,” but I spend a sizable chunk of change on food, wine and other kitchen-related items. I think our neighborhood rules for this kind of shopping — maybe not so much if your ideal is Martha Stewart or the Williams-Sonoma catalog. But those with a more eclectic style can do very well scavenging for bargain cooking utensils, serving vessels and hard to find ingredients. Allow me to share some of my favorite places to shop with you.

A number of my favorite kitchen items come from Chinese restaurant supply stores on Grand Street, Canal Street and the Bowery. Like my go to knife, a Chinese cleaver, available in many of these shops for well under $20. I like the #1 and #4 sizes. They may look scary, but in over two decades, I’ve never hurt myself with one. I have nicked myself with my much more expensive chef’s knife, so it stays in the drawer until I absolutely need it for tricky knife work.

I’m also a huge fan of my pressure cooker. A little intimidated, I put off getting one for years. Then one day, wandering into a restaurant supply shop, I noticed one the size of a pasta pot for under $60 (about half what you’d pay in a department store). I figured you can always make a little food in a big pot, but you can’t make a lot in a little pot. I took the plunge.  These things are not for everyone, but I like being able to efficiently whip up meals on a weeknight that would otherwise take hours of simmering. Lamb shank, beef stew, goat meat and pork shoulder are quick work with a pressure cooker. I can even turn out a respectable goulash or pot-au-feu in half an hour!

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

When my wife committed to making mini-cupcakes for a friend’s birthday, she wandered into T.C. Kitchen Supplies on Grand Street. After a couple minutes of pantomime, she walked out with mini-cupcake trays at a mini-price. Who knew? They also have useful odds and ends — like kitchen tongs, strainers, cutting boards and the like. If you’ve decided this is the winter you’re going to try clay pot rice casseroles at home, they’ve got the clay pots as well.

JP with his bowls of choice at Sang-Kung. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

We‘re also fans of the vintage restaurant china that was the standard for diners and Cantonese restaurants of the past. This stuff often turns up second hand on the Bowery when a restaurant goes out of business. There always seems to be a selection in front of Sang Kung (110 Bowery). It’s inexpensive,  looks good and is hard to break, making it a winner in my book. I’m a sucker for the red rimmed plates and bowls.

New Kam Man has a large selection of dishware.

The rest of the dishes and bowls in my kitchen come from Chinese retail shops, such as New Kam Man (200 Canal Street). Kam Man is a grocery on the ground floor, with a basement devoted to dishes, pots and pans, rice cookers, tea and the like. The plates and bowls range from classic to kitsch, both in Chinese and Japanese styles – similar to the selection at Pearl River Department Store, but a little cheaper. It’s easy to put together a mishmash of dishes that will make everything you serve a little more visually interesting. And you can get a rice cooker for just over $20, useful if you, like me, make white rice often. If you cook at all, there’s something you can use here.

Between Chinatown, the Essex Street Market and Little Italy, I can get most of what I need without leaving the neighborhood. I used to head elsewhere for Japanese specialty products, and for some things it’s still worth a visit to Sunrise Mart (29 3rd Ave). Their selection of Japanese grocery items is something to behold, especially if you do any Japanese cooking at home. But since Ni, the Japanese “deli” opened in the Essex Street Market a couple of weeks ago,  I can get mirin, kombu and bonito flakes locally. This means I have no excuse for not making my dashi (soup base) from scratch. They also have health-conscious Japanese prepared drinks and snacks.

I still travel for spices, and fortunately I only have to go a few blocks above Houston Street to hit the mother lode. Dual Specialty Store (91 1st Ave, formerly Dowel Quality Products) has a fantastic selection of spices and dry goods (basmati rice, couscous, pulses, tea) at good to great prices. No reason to ever buy overpriced, stale spices at the supermarket. They’re the local source for fresh turmeric, and many other hard to find spices. Allegedly they sell 400 kinds of beer as well. Some very worthy shopping that’s more or less in the neighborhood.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

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With cool weather fast approaching I find powerful reds go back into regular rotation at my place. Dao wines from Portugal rarely stint on power, and Cabriz Colheita Seleccionada 2008 is no exception. Dark fruit nose with plum and raspberry in the mouth. French oak provides enough tannin to balance the fruit, and some minerality rounds out the finish. The result is a big, yet balanced wine. (Most fruit-driven wines at this price are nowhere near this balanced). Quite the value at Seward Park Liquors for $10. Might not be a bad idea to give it a few minutes in the glass to open up.

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