New Yorker in Adelaide

Friday, March 07, 2008

So Good, It Should Be Illegal (and it is)

Remember the days when the milkman would deliver icy glass bottles of farm-fresh milk? Remember how pure that unprocessed liquid tasted, and how naturally nourishing it felt?

Me neither. I was born long after the milkman finished his last route around my hometown. For as long as I can remember, I've been drinking pasteurized, homogenized milk in cardboard or plastic containers purchased from the supermarket.

Or, rather, not drinking it. I was never a fan of the milk I grew up on, and could barely tolerate it over cereal or poured into my coffee, nevermind actually drinking a glass of the stuff. I cringed at commericals where cute little kids dunked Oreos into a white glass, and not because of the unimaginable ingredients that go into an Oreo or because of the pure kitsch broadcasting from my television. I wrote off the entire beverage, and simply assumed that I didn't like milk.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Now I'm not talking about one of those foods you taste again after years and years and suddenly you realize your tastes and have changed and, miraculously, you now love eggs/blue cheese/sushi. No, I still hate that horribly adulterated junk I grew up on, and rightly so. Despite popular opinion, it doesn't do a body good. What does, however, is the raw milk I found at an anonymous organic shop.

Raw milk! That's right, here in Australia, where the unpasteurized, unhomogenized, straight-from-the-cow creamy white liquid that should properly be called milk is actually illegal. Government health bodies are concerned about possible pathogens in raw dairy products, so all raw milk and cheeses are outlawed from shops here, aside for two roquefort cheeses. There are some lovely organic, bio-dynamic, and unhomogenized dairy products available, but they have all been heated to at least 71.7 degrees C. This process destroys not only bacteria, but also living enzymes that nourish the body and integrate the milk into our systems. By the way, in 2002 there were only 200 reported cases of people becoming ill in any way in connection with consuming raw dairy products, while undercooked fish and shellfish caused more than 8,000 such illnesses.

And the taste, well, let's just say I'm a convert. If only I still ate Oreos, I would dunk one into my big glass of creamy raw milk right now. I also love how I have to shake the bottle first so that the cream will mix back in with the rest of the liquid. This is how milk has been consumed and enjoyed for as long as people have kept domesticated cows.

Of course, because this stuff is illegal down under (and in many parts of the United States and Canada), what I'm drinking is not actually sold as milk. It is labeled as a bath milk, a cosmetic product that is not intended for human consumption. Um, yeah. Because I just love bathing in raw milk at $5.99 a jug (though I'm sure it would do wonders for the skin). This stuff is definitely for drinking. How clever of their marketing team! Let's hope it fools the fuzz. To that end, I will not reveal the name of the product nor where I purchased it, in the hopes that it will remain anonymous enough to stay on the shelves.

The one drawback is that it doesn't have a very long shelf life. But at the rate I'm drinking it, I don't think that will be a problem.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Festival Food

Camping, music, dancing, meeting people, shopping, queuing for toilets, trying to sleep with earplugs doing nothing to diminish the pounding bass, reveling in the way you're actually dirtier after bathing in the muddy river. These are all celebrated aspects of the Summer Music Festival, and all with one aim: to become so far removed from daily life that you can slip into a state of pure being, of total awareness and joy of the moment. As posh comforts, cleanliness, care about your appearance, silence, regular mealtimes, and all responsibilities fade into dim memories, you come closer to losing yourself in a revelous dance, swim, or lazy haze.

This is the reason I attended Earthcore, an enormous 3-day outdoor music festival in country Victoria where a good number of energetic Melbournians, as well as folks from farther afield such as Sydney, Adelaide, Israel and Japan, descend on the placid countryside to blast wild and crazy music and enjoy a spiritually-liberating dance. There are so many little aspects of a festival that come together to make it perfect: for example, the spray-bottle that we purchased for $5 that helped to hold dehydration at bay when we just couldn't possibly fit any more water in our stomachs, or the cloth headbands-cum-face masks that limited our inhalation of dust while stomping on the sandy dancefloor.

But one of these aspects, necessary but often an afterthought, is physical nourishment, and by that I of course mean food. Yes, festival food is also a break from the mundane, even in the uncomplicated manner presented here. Largely vegetarian, quite diverse, and prepared with a simple pride in quality and taste, Earthcore's selection of festival nosh was superb.

The first excellent and delicious treat I enjoyed was a vegetable samosa from a bright purple tent adorned with rugs, cushions and knee-height tables. This stand also made strong, spicy chai that tasted perfect with a spoonful of honey on Sunday morning after a sleepless night of festivities. After the samosa I went to the Hare Krishna tent and ate what looked like little fried meatballs but were actually made entirely of vegetables, with a piquant tomato sauce. Those Hare Krishnas worked vegan miracles in their modest tent! It all tasted beautiful and felt satisfying, with a cold Cooper's secretly stored in the bottom of the esky.

For breakfast I ate a banana from the esky (expensive, yes, but necessary to keep my calves strong for dancing) and an absolutely perfect, strong and nourishing latte made by a friendly barista who calls his operation Combi Coffee (due to his mode of transport). This was the best cup of coffee I have had in Australia. A yoga session, a good swim, and several hours of lazing later, I had a fresh corn tortilla piled with black beans, fresh salsa, salad and cheese from Trippy Taco (I don't know what made the taco trippy, but it tasted fresh and yummy). We decided to forgo the stalls for dinner in order to fortify our bodies for dancing with heartier fare - we heated some channa masala and enjoyed it with pita and dips. But one of the best treats was to come: fantastically fresh-squeezed fruit juice to keep us going on the dance floor. This beautiful concoction of fruits (I could taste apple, banana and lime, but I'm sure there were a few more in there) cured dehydration better than any other beverage.

I had pizza for breakfast on Sunday morning, and not just any greasy slice. There, in a clearing in the middle of the woods, was a wood-fired pizza oven, where hard-working pizza mavens overcame the stifling heat in order to bring me a perfect round of chewy crust topped with tomato, mozzarella, spinach and feta. I had wanted to try the veggie burgers as well after seeing my friends' reactions while eating theirs, but by Sunday lunchtime I was buggered (which apparently means the same thing as knackered, or really really tired for the American folks) and we left the festival in order to search for a bed and have a big sleep.

The only problem with festival food is its elusiveness. Who knows if I'll ever find the Combi Coffee man and his cup of creamy bitter perfection again? Or taste the vegan wonders of the Earthcore Hare Krishnas? I'm still looking for the ethereal Thai green curry that I consumed with pleasure at Womadelaide last summer. But perhaps its great, simple joy lies in that very mystery. This is special food, it belongs in the realm of eternal summer that is the Music Festival, and would never taste as good at a restaurant in the city. It needs to be eaten outdoors, sitting under a tree, away from the everyday, by a dirty, exhausted, and totally blissful reveler - which I will continue to be as often as I can.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Rosh Hashanah
Jewish festival food is stodgy. I'm talking about the Eastern European preparations that I first delighted in as a small child at my great-grandmother's groaning table: noodle kugel as dense as cheesecake, a casserole of rice and potatoes bathed in chicken fat with the nondescriptive name "baked dish," massive matzo balls floating in chicken soup glistening with globs of golden fat. You can Atkins or South Beach all you want the rest of the year, but when those high holiday meals roll around, it's a safe bet that you'll be rolling too. There's nothing delicate about our delicacies, but there's plenty of flavor, texture, and gustatory satisfaction to celebrate.

In my previous life as a New Yorker, I was blessed with an abundance of perfectly prepared Jewish foods. If I didn't have a friend whipping up one of her grandmother's recipes and didn't feel like taking a crack at traditional cooking myself, I could simply jet over to Zabar's or Fairway for countless varieties of kugels, challahs, rugalach, bagels, knishes, or just about anything else I could want to satisfy the carb cravings instilled in my genes by generations of shtetl life. To eat those comforting Rosh Hashanah favorites in Adelaide, however, I was going to have to be a bit more resourceful. I felt up to the task, so I tackled it full on by inviting a handful of international friends to join me for the meal and offering up a quick prayer to the god-of-ingredient-bounty before heading off to the markets.

I designed my menu to reflect the intersection of Eastern European tradition with Middle Eastern influences that defines contemporary Jewish cooking. Since Adelaide possesses both a climate conveniently similar to that of the Mediterranean and a sizable population of German heritage in the nearby Barossa Valley, it was relatively easy to find most of the ingredients. Eggplants, beets, carrots, tahini, honey, dried fruits and spices, even artisanal egg noodles and sweet dates were easily procured at the Central Markets. I was disappointed, however, that I simply could not get a pomegranate in September in the Southern Hemisphere, so I had to settle for a syrupy derivative.

Like balabustas of yore, the kitchen was my domain for days before the event. I baked my honeycake, redolent of spices and speckled with bits of ginger, orange zest and sugar crystals, and let it mature wrapped in aluminum foil on my kitchen counter. Challah dough was kneaded, left to rise, kneaded, and left to rise again, beets and eggplants were roasted, and kugel was assembled and chilled overnight before baking. On the day of the meal, I finished up the final baking and assembling touches and traded my apron for a new top before my guests arrived.

It was definitely the first Rosh Hashanah meal for many of my guests, hailing from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Ireland, Japan, Australia, Canada and the American midwest. They seemed to delight in the different tastes of the foods, though certainly not as much as I delighted in their delight. Eating Jewish food may require much more creativity here in Adelaide, but the gift of being able to share the traditional dishes that I love with people to whom the food is totally unfamiliar outweights the extra effort.
Just for fun...the Menu:

Apples and honey
Roasted beets with tahini
Apple and endive salad with honey mustard dressing
Carrot tzimmes
Roasted eggplant salad with pomegranate syrup
Whole roasted snapper
Beef roast with dried fruit
Grilled asparagus
Sweet noodle kugel

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.

Monday, July 17, 2006

First things first: bagels. I love them fresh; I love them toasted. I love them with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, raisins, onions, wholemeal, egg, herbs, and even plain. I love them smeared with cream cheese, dressed simply with butter, topped with egg and cheese, stuffed with whitefish or tuna salad, layered with lox, spread with peanut butter, or sandwiched with meat and vegetables.

Now while I’m not particular about what you do with my bagel, I am incredibly sensitive about the bagel itself. In New York it’s gotta be H&H, preferably a bag of them at breakfast fresh and soft, accompanied by a tub of cream cheese and a side of Zabar’s buttery lox. But I’ll still eat them two days later, toasted, and spread with peanut butter or squashing together the heavenly combination of drippy-yolked egg and melting cheese. Most other bagels aren’t worth their weight in carbs, so I’ll skip them and order a muffin instead.

Sadly there’s no H&H in Adelaide, so my quest was to find a bagel that lives up to my standards. I taste tested a fair few, managing to convert my Aussie boyfriend to the bagel-loving cult along the way – next thing I know he’ll be eating them with vegemite for brekkie. I found that Australians do, indeed, make some good bagels, and some mediocre ones too (then again, the same can be said for Americans). A good bagel, according to my exacting New Yorker standards, should have some substance but shouldn’t feel dense or heavy. It mustn’t be dry, and it must give way to the teeth a bit yet still maintain its structure. Its flavor should be mildly yeasty, its aroma doughy and slighty sweet.

The bagel that met these qualifications best was from Kate’s Patisserie, at Stall 50 in the Central Market. I bought some of these, as well as some from Dough (too dry), with a slab of cream cheese and a side of Danish smoked salmon, and feasted on them for breakfast the next morning. From the moment the bagel halves popped out of the toaster and their distinct smell hit my nose I was transported to New York, but I was brought back to Adelaide by the much larger size of my kitchen. Here was the moment of truth: it looked like a bagel, it smelled like a bagel, but did it taste like a bagel? Oh yes. Kate’s delicate bagel cushioned my teeth and provided a perfect platform for the gently melting cream cheese and salmon. I will definitely be buying more of these.

Another successful bagel adventure was to Bagelicious on O’Connell Street in North Adelaide. It’s a bright little shop with friendly staff who whip up both classic and creative combinations between bagel halves. The bagels, which come in a dozen or so varieties, are fresh and soft without toasting, and the topping ingredients of similar quality. You can go vegan with hummus and veggies or top your bagel with assorted deli meats and cheeses, but the real sign that this bagel purveyor can be trusted is the presence of the classic lox and cream cheese bagel on the menu. I’m going back to try some more of their tasty sandwiches and indulge my carbohydrate craving in the only way proper for a New Yorker – with a disc of boiled and baked dough. Now if I could only find some greasy, cheesy, thin-crusted pizza…