All photos by Liz Barclay

When I first encountered Corey Cova’s cooking, he was working in the food-nerd equivalent of Siberia, secreted away in a pint-size bar called Earl’s Beer and Cheese on the far reach of the Upper East Side, helming a kitchen that most NBA players wouldn’t even be able to stand inside. But word quickly got out about Cova’s knack for unlocking bar-food fantasies you never even knew you had, and soon gastronauts who would normally never dream of going anywhere above 14th Street were heading uptown to 97th and Park for grilled cheese stuffed with pork belly and kimchi, and an Eggo waffle topped with seared foie gras, aged cheddar, and house-cured coffee bacon.

As Cova tells it, a lot of that early menu—which still survives, to a large extent, in its original form—was a product of circumstance. The name dictated a focus on cheese, while kitchen and budget constraints required him to come up with dishes that would be easy to make and keep costs down. The tactic persisted when he and his partners opened ABV on the other end of the block, featuring high-low mashups like octopus and spam, and an epic foie-gras fluffernutter. Often, that meant grabbing ingredients from around the restaurant—not foraging a la René Redzepi, but urban foraging in convenience stores and bodega freezers. Those Eggos came from from the CVS on the corner of 97th and Lex, frozen hash browns were stuffed into breakfast sandwiches, and the egg foo young used in a BLT hyrbid at ABV originated inside the takeout Chinese joint across the street.

Brunch should basically be McDonald’s with drinks.

While some preparations have evolved over time, it’s not necessarily because Cova didn’t love the cheap version. Having spent time cooking on a U.S. Navy submarine (“everyone’s favorite was frozen shrimp”), he has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach to food. For example, he recently told me, “Brunch should basically be McDonald’s with drinks.” Brilliant.

I think it’s that perspective that makes Cova’s food so appealing to me. While creations like an English muffin stuffed with Calabro mozzarella, potato chips, and miso fit the stoner zeitgeist that’s all the rage these days, his oddball mashups never seemed ironic or kitschy or trendy. He just seemed like a dude who could walk into a bodega, grab a bunch of non-perishables off the shelf, and make something delicious.

So that’s exactly what we asked him to do. The challenge: Head to the nearest bodega, buy $15 of food, then take it back to the ABV kitchen to cook a three-course meal.

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It was kind of like a cut-rate Quickfire Challenge; there was no car sponsor to ferry Cova halfway up the block to the store, and instead of a busty Padma, he got me not even looking my best (it’s just so dry in December, you know?). But that didn’t stop him from taking on the task with gusto.

The bodega we hit reflects its proximity to Spanish Harlem, so Cova was quick to stock up on some Latin flavor: a container of pimento peppers, a pack of chicharrónes, and a can of Kola Champagne, which seemed appropriate for a balling-on-a-budget feast. From there he scanned the shelves for awhile, Beautiful Mind-style, then grabbed a tallboy of Four Loko and declared that he was ready to roll. We decided he could use basic pantry staples—salt, pepper, breadcrumbs, and the like—from the restaurant, but no other ingredients would be allowed besides the ones he bought. Here’s what he came up with…

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Read on to see the three dishes Cova created with his bodega haul.

Appetizer: “Spherified” Ravioli Balls

The concept: A bargain-bin red sauce night.

Ingredients used: Chef Boyardee Mini Beef Ravioli, pimiento peppers, creamed corn, Lay’s Cheesy Garlic Bread potato chips. From the pantry: egg, breadcrumbs, garlic powder, flour.

Making the balls

Use an immersion blender (or a fork) to mash up one can of Chef Boyardee Mini Beef Ravioli.

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Crack an egg into the mixture, and combine with flour and breadcrumbs to bind.

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Roll mixture into golf ball-size meatballs and place in fridge to set.

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Breading

Set up your breading station: Two eggs, beaten; flour with salt and garlic powder; and crushed up Lay’s Cheesy Garlic Bread Flavored Potato Chips. Cova crushes chips with the bottom of a Sriracha bottle.

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Coat each each ravioli ball with flour, then egg yolk, then finally crushed potato chips.

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Deep-frying the balls

Boom.

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Pimento sauce

Cook pimento peppers over medium heat on stove. Add creamed corn to thicken.

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Use a food processor to blend the mixture to a smooth consistency.

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Plating

Create circles on plate with pimento pepper mixture. Place balls on top, and garnish with chicharrones and more crushed potato chips.

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The finished dish:
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Verdict: Pretty tasty! The garlic-bread potato chip exterior and ravioli interior of the balls created a sort of red-sauce tag team that evoked Arthur Avenue on a Skid Row budget. Cova notes that if he did it again, he would make the balls smaller to increase the crunch-to-ravioli ratio, and also swap the pimento-cream corn mixture for a more straightforward tomato-based sauce.

Main Course: Bodega Ramen

The concept: Transform instant ramen into richer, tastier tonkotsu.

Ingredients used: Two packs Maruchan Ramen Soup (“Oriental” flavor), Libby’s Vienna sausages, Del Monte canned spinach, creamed corn, chicharrónes. From the pantry: bacon, eggs, chives.

Broth

Chop up Vienna sausages into small discs. Cook bacon in oven until crispy. Combine Vienna sausages, bacon (including the grease), and ramen flavor packets with water and set on a low boil. Add salt to taste. Cook down for about 15 minutes.

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Strain broth.

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Toppings

Slice remaining Vienna sausages lengthwise and fry in butter.

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Score sausages for a fancy factor.

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Chop up bacon into bits and add to creamed corn.

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Poach egg in ramen broth. Add white vinegar to help egg white coagulate.

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Drain spinach.

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Cook noodles in boiling water.

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Final prep

Add noodles and poached egg to bowl.

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Pour broth through a strainer into bowl.

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Arrange accoutrement on top of noodles.

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Garnish with finely chopped chives.

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The verdict: The amped-up ramen broth was the biggest success of the afternoon—salty, smoky, and addictive in that processed-food sort of way—the poor-man’s umami! And while the Vienna sausages, canned spinach, and bacon-laced creamed corn weren’t as tasty as traditional ramen toppings like chashu pork and bamboo shoots, the whole thing did add up to a satisfying, hearty package. And a crazy-cheap one, at that.

Dessert: Sex on the Urinal

The concept: A turnt-up dessert cocktail.

Ingredients used: Four Loko Lemonade, raspberry-cream frozen popsicle, and Good O Kola Champagne. From the pantry: Angostura bitters, sugar, and heavy cream.

Drink prep

Combine four ounces of Four Loko lemonade with six dashes Angostura bitters and two ounces of Good O Kola Champagne. Strain into cold glass.

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Combine heavy cream and sugar to make whipped cream.

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Top drink with dollop of whipped cream.

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Shave popsicle over the top of the drink.

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The verdict: Sickly sweet , fragrant with Angostura, notes of bubblegum—yeah, this certainly lives up to its name. The only thing you won’t regret is all the money you still have in your bank account for skipping out on $14 Manhattans and $12 panna cotta.

Mission: COMPLETE.

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