The Bodega Challenge

As I’ve probably admitted more than once on this blog, in times of need, I turn the corner of my block and walk into “my” neighborhood bodega. Here I can score milk, limes, boxes of pasta, snacks, and more often than I’d like, pints of ice cream. Plus, the friendly Korean couple who own it treat me like a neighbor, and will let me get away with a few bucks if I’m short, since they know I’ll be back.

Have I ever put together an entire meal with ingredients solely from a bodega? Probably. But the Brooklyn Kitchen recently challenged any contestants to do so with flying colors for their first-ever Bodega Challenge. The theme: a Thanksgiving side dish. The occasion? The contest was held as part of the kick-ass kitchen store’s one-year anniversary party. Whoo! I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I attended their first event last November.

the proud proprietors, Harry and Taylor

The festivities took place in a private party room at the eponymous Williamsburg bar, Union Pool. I’ve witnessed several cooking contests in the past few years. But at this one, the competition was unexpectedly steep. And the judges? None other than chef/owner of Paloma in Brooklyn and Top Chef‘s resident looker, Camille Becerra; mastermind blogger of Midtown Lunch (my possible blogging antithesis), Zach Brooks; and the Brooklyn Kitchen’s own Harry Rosenblum.

the colorful bodega-inspired creations pre-judging

this curried pumpkin & carrot soup, made by Ruthie, took second place

cooks and guests alike all watched as the judges tasted and commented on each entry

musical guest Greta Gertler alights the stage

For my part, I concocted a casserole I call Potato Chips Au Gratin (recipe below). The judges (and myself) found it “very salty,” but aside from that, my feelings were publicly spared. Incredibly, most of the creations that they tasted were met with fairly favorable remarks. The winning dish ultimately came down to Sarah’s Pumpkin Gobble Gobble, for which a recipe can now be found at the Brooklyn Kitchen’s blog.

the winner, with trophy casserole dish

And to top it off, my dish took home a very special honorable mention that night, though I can’t remember exactly the reasoning for it. But I won a free class at The Brooklyn Kitchen — presumably to, you know, get my game a little better for the next time. Watch out.

Potato Chips au Gratin

So if you’re dying to know how that very salty recipe went, here is my dish. The use of beer in the base of the cheese sauce was a must for me, since beer is the most quintessential purchase at any bodega. This is completely optional, but I decided to push things a bit over the kitsch edge by using a bit of Spam. In afterthought, I realize that I could have just purchased some regular Boar’s Head ham from the deli, but somehow Spam spoke bodega to me all the louder as I crashed through the place the night of the contest to buy ingredients. Perhaps the most major misstep was the use of Pringles potato chips. I’d chosen them for their identifiable, uncanny shape and because I thought their crispiness would stand up well when baked. But after tasting the dish, I’ve decided that, despite their crispiness, Pringles have a gross flavor of dehydrated, reconstituted potato flakes that they are, so using a less processed chip would be best. You might be saying, but the flavor of processed canned Spam pervades it anyway. But for some reason, Spam’s flavor seems to improve with cooking, where Pringles definitely do not. Bon appetit.

Potato Chips au Gratin
(makes about 6 servings)

1 bag thick-cut potato chips (preferably low-sodium)
1 jar alfredo sauce
1 can Spam
1 1/2 cups lager beer
4-5 tablespoons grated processed parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Chop Spam into a very small dice. Heat a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high. Add the Spam and let brown on one side for about a minute. Stir, scraping up any bits from the bottom and let cook another 3-5 minutes, stirring, until evenly browned. Pour in the beer. Turn heat to high to bring beer to a boil. Let cook, boiling, for 1-2 minutes. Stir in the alfredo sauce and let cook until it’s completely warmed through and just begins to bubble. Turn off heat.

Spread a ladleful of the sauce along the bottom of a 9×11 pan. Arrange the potato chips in even, vertical formation on top. Arrange another layer of potato chips on top of this but in horizontal formation (so they don’t stack together). Top with about a third of the remaining sauce. Make another formation of two layers – or three if you’re tired of this already, and top with more of the sauce. Create another layer of potato chips, top with the rest of the sauce, and call it a day. Almost. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese on top. Bake for 30 minutes, until stuff is bubbling and the top is lightly browned. Let sit a few minutes before serving.

Spam, a lot

the tender finishing splashes

I try to consume every recipe’s leftover ingredients

Cost Calculator
(for about 6 servings)

1 canister Pringles: $1.99
1 jar Alfredo sauce: $4.99
1 can Spam: $2.49
1 small canister grated Parmesan cheese: $2.99
1 tall-boy Heineken: $2.99

Total: $15.46

Health Calculator

Enough said?

12 Responses

  1. mark

    boozing it up around the kitchen, eh? The bottle looks huge, is that one of those 44oz’ers?

  2. Deborah Dowd

    This is so funny! Some local chefs here did a similar challenge making a meal from the local gas and go! I don’t know- Pringles are a weakness for me so I might have to try it out!

  3. Erin

    This is hilarious! Although I’m not sure if even all of that alfredo and the promise of potato chips could bring me to eat spam.

  4. OhioMom

    So funny ! Thanks for my morning smile. I remember my mother using Spam a lot when we were young, she used a lot of processed foods. I was grown before I knew that a cake was more than ‘betty in a box’ 🙂

  5. cathy

    Mark, it’s actually a 32 oz, or pint bottle, aka ‘tallboy’, but a 44 oz one would have been nice, too!
    It was just brought to my attention that I failed to define what exactly a bodega is. Sorry, I get stuck in the New York terms-only mindset a lot! It’s a Latin American term for a small grocery store, or convenience store, that has taken root in NYC to describe pretty much any convenience store.

  6. sarah

    this is the funniest and also best idea ever!

  7. lovemyphilly

    What an awesome idea. I’ve never heard of it before but I think more places should definitely do this.

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    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so! Good post.

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