New Yorker in Adelaide

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Little Italy in my Little Kitchen
Last week, for several seminal (or semolinal) hours, my kitchen and living room became a pasta factory. Our resident Mamacita had been busy whipping up a vat of homemade tomato sauce dense with fist-sized meatballs. We (three expats with culinary school educations and myself, an amateur in the kitchen but highly qualified at the table) couldn't bear to bespoil such artisanal work with the dry stuff from the box. This seemed like a fitting time to break in the pasta maker that had been sitting in its box on top of the refrigerator for the past month. Down it came, bright and shiny, and was promptly clamped to the edge of our kitchen counter.

I wasn't given a choice about getting my hands dirty. After watching the first batch transform from a volcano of semolina flour erupting lava of golden egg yolk to a supple yellow dough, I found myself standing at the pasta station. I surveyed my mise-en-place: a bag of semolina, a carton of eggs, a bottle of olive oil and a small dish of salt. With my hands, I shaped a mound of the grainy flour, then formed a crater in its center. Into the indentation went an egg, a drizzle of oil and a dash of salt. I whipped out my most effective kitchen tool - my fingers - and started swirling, pointer and index fingers touching the countertop. The semolina flour around the edges slowly caught and joined the egg, and before long the mixture achieved a cake batter-like consistency. Another egg, more finger dancing, and voila! Pasta dough. I formed the dough into a sticky ball and got to kneading, adding flour until the dough was moderately firm and no longer sticky.

After letting the dough set, we got ready to test drive our new contraption. I took a wedge of dough and flattened it with my fingers. Then into the roller on the largest setting for a few rounds, to develop the gluten and stretch the dough. With each step I decreased the setting until I had a slightly translucent dough. It was almost pasta, just a run through the fettucine cutting setting, with my team members there to catch the long strands and hang them on our clothes drying rack in the dining room.

After drying for an hour or so, we piled the golden delight on a teatowel and waited, hungrily, until dinner time. Then our Italian Mama worked her magic: out of vat of boiling water emerged the most flavorful, most texturally interesting, most perfect pasta that I had ever tasted (and I've been to Italy, three times). I gobbled up a few strands then and there, plain, with audible cries of pleasure issuing from my delighted mouth. But why eat this delight plain when you have a vat of homemade sauce, meatballs, and parmesan?

By the by, everyone took seconds even though we were stuffed after firsts. Both America and Australia have some amazing neighborhood Italian restaurants, but they have nothing on the masters who create in my kitchen. My number one tip on how to eat well: make friends with brilliant chefs!

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Reuben

The craving came out of nowhere. It was a completely average day; I was sitting in the library working on an assignment when my friend Mo and I got to talking about food, as usual. Feeling a bit homesick, we reminisced about the wonders of the New York Jewish deli. We waxed nostalgic on pickles (half sour, so that when you bite into it both the texture and taste remind you that it was once a humble cucumber) and sighed over delicate matzo balls so big that they nearly displace all that nutritious chicken broth in which they bathe. But by the time we got to deli sandwiches, or to more accurately describe them, piles of meat with a bit of bread on each end trying in vain to contain their charge, we were salivating.

We settled on the Reuben as the best of the best. As any New Yorker worth her stripes can tell you, the Reuben is a complex wonder of a sandwich. It consists of rye bread (preferably marble, but dark will do) embracing a stack of corned beef, draped in sauerkraut, swiss cheese and russian dressing. It should be accompanied by a small bowl of dressing for dipping, as well as a good pickle or two and some potato salad or coleslaw.

Now that our bellies were rumbling for one thing only, there was nothing to do but eat Reubens. Sadly, there's no such thing as a Jewish deli in Adelaide. But we weren't about to let that stop our gustatory fixation. We had to have Ruebens, if that meant we had to make them ourselves. A quick trip to David Jones proved fruitful. We had them cut the delectable corned beef as thin as the slicer could go, and we snatched up the last six slices of jarlsberg cheese. A fresh loaf of dark rye, a tub each of potato salad and coleslaw, and we were well on our way. Swinging by Woolworth's, we picked up sauerkraut, pickles, and bottle of Kraft Thousand Island dressing. By now we were getting some strange looks because of the audible rumbling of our stomachs (or was it the drool dripping down our faces?) so we sauntered home with our goodies and got to work.

My boyfriend Jayson, being the commendably adventuresome eater that he is (and I love him for it), was game to try his first Reuben. That raised the stakes a bit, because not only did we need to satisfy our own cravings, but we needed to initiate our Aussie into the world of the deli sandwich. We spread the bread thinly with butter and started toasting it in a pan, while slowly heating both the meat and kraut separately. The broiler was on, waiting for its task. When the bread was toasty, each slice was topped with either meat and kraut or cheese. Then into the broiler for a last bit of warming and cheese melting. Finally, a schmear of dressing, and we were ready to eat. It was a glorious moment.

I stacked my plate with sandwich, salads, and a pickle. I started with the pickle, and while there's no such thing as a bad pickle (unless it's sweet, which is a crime where I come from) this was no half sour, no kosher dill. It wasn't even a Vlassic, but it wasn't bad either. It was satisfying enough that I went for a couple more over the course of the meal.

The salads, also, weren't up to par. The coleslaw was too sweet for my taste, and the potato salad was too bland. But the sandwich, oh, the sandwich! Woody Allen would have been moved to tears (yes, I too die a little inside when I see mayo on white bread). It wasn't quite deli-style, because I could pick it up without losing half of it, and I could actually fit my mouth around it to take a bite. But I'll make a confession: when I go to delis, I end up taking out half the meat before I even try to eat my sandwich, so this version satisfied me just fine. As I dipped and nibbled, I glanced toward my Aussie to see his reaction. His plate was empty. When the cry went up for seconds, he didn't hesitate. I'll make a New Yorker out of him yet! Content with our success, I smiled and patted my purring belly. Another meal well done.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ah, lovely South Australia. Home of fine Barossa wines, spicy smoked sausages, golden free-range eggs, and abundant produce. Home of the eponymous Cooper's, quenching my thirst with cloudy pale ale or biting lager. Home of the glittering Central Markets, of seafood galore, of more varieties of Asian noodle soup that you can fathom. But most of all, this is the place that invented the pie floater.

What is the pie floater, you may ask. Why, it's only the best drunk-at-1am food ever to graze across my lips. Imagine, if you will, a classic Aussie meat pie: flaky pastry dough cradling chunks of beef bathed in gravy. Now take a big ladle of pea soup and cover said pie with the warm, viscous green goop. Then take your spoon in hand and dig in. If you want to be really Aussie about it, squirt on some tomato sauce (because as all good Aussies know, one can't have a pie without sauce – see photo of Jayson’s pie). Must be enjoyed leaning over the counter of the pie truck late on a Saturday night, particularly after enjoying some beers, music, and the company of good friends at a nearby pub.

It’s not gourmet, but it hits the spot in the same way as a classic New York slice, preferably from Ben’s on the corner of 3rd and MacDougal at 3am. We’re talking foods that are best enjoyed inebriated and in good company. And all of you who have feasted on a late night Rundle Street yiros would be advised to stumble a few blocks down King William instead. Flash a smile at the nice lady, order your pie floater, prop your elbows on the counter to keep your balance, and chow down. It’s heaps good.