All posts by Lee Theodoros

Meat Pies and a Flat White?

Where do local Aussies want to hang out when they want to be around other Aussies, or at least drink a Coopers beer, nosh on a sausage roll or watch a footy game? Here are a few places in New York that I go if I want a slice of home.

For a decent meal, some kangaroo or barramundi perhaps, there’s the perennial favorite Eight Mile Creek in Soho. We’ve spent many an evening in the upstairs dining room or the heated outdoor area, enjoying top-notch Australian wines and slightly more elegant food than befits the misguided Crocodile Dundee stereotype that America has too long embraced. It’s one of the few places I’ve been able to find good pavlova too.

Tuck Shop in the East Village is the place for a quick cup of coffee – that’s a flat white where I come from – and a meat pie or sausage roll. And the lamingtons and vanilla slices are about as good as you can find in NY. I was here for Australia Day, the Aussie version of St. Patrick’s Day celebrated January 26, and the staff was great. The server treated us to lamingtons and threw in an extra one for me to bring home to the kids. A lamington for the uninitiated is an Australian childhood favorite; a slab of white sponge cake, filled with strawberry jam, dipped in chocolate syrup and dredged in shredded coconut.

There’s a second location too, at St Marks Place, and hot off the presses, they just got a license to sell beer and wine. As part of the long-awaited coup, Tuck Shop is introducing New York to the Esky. For $30, you can get six beers at the table in a mini Esky to keep it extra cold. The St Marks Place location also has Billy Tea, Tim Tams, beloved Vegemite and other Aussie treats for sale.

And while you’re downtown, the Sunburnt Cow and Bondi Road Fish + Chips are great spots for drinks and eats. Yep, you’ll get meat pies, burgers, lamb chops, fish+ chips – all the usual drinking food with a fun, laid-back vibe. I hear there is a The Sunburnt Calf now on the Upper West Side too, but I’ve yet to check it out.

The Australian is where you go for very large glasses of red wine (and very large headaches the next morning!) and non-stop sports action. Sports junkies are glued to the TV screens for cricket matches and rugby league, and the proprietor, a former rugby league player himself, will happily shoot the breeze about the game. Great place to take visiting sports writers or wannabe sportsmen.

If you’re in Brooklyn, the coffee and meat pies at The Pie Shop in Prospect Park come straight from the ovens of DUB Pies  (Down Under Bakery), which started out with its prime storefront on Columbia Street. The coffee is good, the pies and sausage rolls are pretty decent, there’s catering and delivery to boot, and chances are you’ll hear an Australian or New Zealand accent working the counter.

Then there’s Sheep Station on Fourth Avenue, Park Slope, where the shearer’s burger (a burger topped with beets, pineapple and a fried egg), lamb chops and fish + chips are worth the trip to the otherwise pretty barren block. There is a fireplace too.

If you just want to read about Australian food, hit the newsstand at Barnes & Noble for the occasional good, out-of-season and pricey Australian food mag. Donna Hay’s breezy, beautifully styled magazines channel Martha Stewart but with that laid back Aussie feel. And there’s usually a Vogue Entertaining + Travel lurking on the shelves.

No Soup For Me?

The Soup in Question

I was skeptical to say the least, but oddly fascinated by the concept of cooking tuna in a soup. Applying heat to a fresh, ruby-red chunk of tuna is sacrilege in my book. So what was my dear friend thinking, urging me to come over for a bowl of her latest creation; an Ecuadoran style tuna soup. I’ve not been to Ecuador, and being born and bred in Australia, have little knowledge of the style of cooking.  But for me, tuna is all about sashimi, keeping it raw or just seared, at most. I did grow up with fish soups, mind you, but the ones my maternal grandmother made were a hearty mix of sturdy white fish, perhaps some fat prawns for good measure, but never tuna.

Yuca, another dominant ingredient in this soup, was also foreign to me.  I’ve since learned that it also goes by the names cassava or manioc, and is a long, slim tuber (like a long potato) with bark-like skin. It’s often sold in bins outside NY bodegas, or cut and peeled in the frozen section of most supermarkets. All that said, there are  few things I won’t at least try. so I agreed to go and just look at the soup, and see if perhaps I dared a taste.

Well, I had it all wrong. The soup was utterly delicious. The chunks of tuna were poached in a fish stock and doused in lime juice, a smattering or red onions and fresh chopped tomato, then all kind of bound together with nuggets of sweet, starchy yuca.  Even my kids lined up for bowls; thinking they were eating potato cooked in broth.

I haven’t made it myself yet, but I am already thinking to replace the tricky-to-prep yuca with some potato and/or a handful of rice to make it a more substantial meal. And I will definitely toss in some fresh red chilli to balance the lime and give more bite. My experimental friend was inspired to make the soup after tasting a version at the Red Hook ball fields where for some 30 years cooks from all over Latin America have gathered at weekends to sell foods from their homelands. I guess that’s where I’ll be going come spring, once the food sellers set up shop again.

Meantime, here is a  recipe for the tuna soup or Encebollado De Atun that won me over.

Ingredients:

1 lb yuca, peeled, cored and cut into 1-1/2″ pieces
3 tbsp olive oil
1 white onion diced
4 plum tomatoes diced
6 cloves garlic finely-chopped
1 gallon fish stock
1 1/2 lb tuna cut in 2″ pieces
parsley chopped
1 bunch cilantro leaves chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 red onion, thinly sliced
6 limes quartered
corn nuts

Preparation:

Place the yuca in a large stockpot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil,
then lower the heat and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Remove from
the heat and let cool in the water.

Heat the oil in a separate stockpot over high heat. Add the onion and half
of the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes. Add the garlic and stock, and
bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Add
the tuna and yuca and cook for 5 minutes.

Stir in parsley and cilantro and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Immediately ladle the soup into bowls. Float some of the red onion slices
on the surface of each serving, and top with the remaining diced tomatoes.
Squeeze lime juice over the onions and sprinkle the corn nuts over the
onions and tomatoes. Serve with the remaining lime wedges on the side.

Serves 6

Free The Whale!

I agree it’s terribly sad that yet another person was killed by the killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando but it’s a KILLER WHALE for goodness sake. People pay good money to go gawk at this amazing creature, SeaWorld no doubt paid very good money to keep it captive and have it jump through proverbial hoops to entertain the masses. But it’s a wild animal and frankly, it is unlikely it would have killed anyone had it been allowed to remain in the wild where wild animals belong. 

I just don’t get it. You pull a wild creature from its environment, basically exploit it for money and entertainment value, and then wonder why the animal acts “wild.” Whales generally don’t encounter humans, let alone attack them, in the wild because unlike other sea animals, sharks for instance, whales don’t come close to shore where humans swim. 

The SeaWorld orca (from Orcinus orca) drowned its experienced female trainer Wednesday in front of horrified onlookers. Details of the accident are still sketchy but there are news reports that the trainer was dragged under the water and thrashed about. 

It’s the second time in just two months that an orca trainer has died on the job. In December, a trainer fell from a whale at a marine park on the Spanish Island of Tenerife and crushed his ribcage as the pair practiced a trick. And the SeaWorld whale, the oldest and largest killer whale in captivity, was responsible for two previous deaths. In 1999, there was the bizarre case of a man sneaking into the whale’s pool at SeaWorld and his naked body being found splayed on the whale’s back; and in 1991, a marine biology student and part-time trainer fell into the whale’s tank in Canada and was dragged under to eventual death.

What’s not clear in the latest case is whether it was an act of aggression by the whale, or if the animal was just bored and trying to play. Whales are typically intelligent and playful creatures, and with potential to reach some 32 feet and weigh up to 18,000 pounds, they are not meant to be penned in. So no matter the motivation for the whale’s attack, the sheer strength of the animal was no match for a human.

There’s no word yet on the fate of the killer whale. SeaWorld has suspended its orca show for the time being. And just maybe someone will show some sense and consider setting the orca free now.

South Korea Robbed?

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about Winter sports, let alone the 3,000 meter women’s short track speedskating  final at the Olympics. But seriously, South Korea was robbed. The women’s relay team from South Korea, the four-time defending champion, crossed the finish line well ahead of China and Canada and left the US for dead. The four-strong team kicked straight into celebration mode, making an ecstatic victory lap wielding their flag proudly overhead, only to have the gold ripped from them minutes later after a referee review decided that a South Korean racer had impeded during the exchange push with a few laps to go.

From what I could tell, watching replays and slow-mos, one of the racers swung her arm back at the Chinese racer on the turn, and frankly if someone were coming that close behind me, I would probably do much more. That probably explains why competitive sports aren’t really my thing. Even so, all the replays made it look like a genuine arm swing, and in my untrained opinion, not worthy of disqualification. Nonetheless, the leading referee, some Aussie bloke according to the commentators, though that’s not the label they used,  made the call, which gave China the gold, Canada silver and brought the US into third place with a bronze medal.

 I don’t know how I feel about everyone scooting around the ice celebrating by default. If you win a medal, be it gold or bronze,  because the team that was faster and better on the day was disqualified, is the victory as sweet? Not to put a damper on things, but I think not.

Move Over Skinnies

Who knew a new pair of jeans could prompt so many questions. At 40-plus, I’ve been sliding into skinny jeans day-in, day-out for at least the past four years. But today I put on a pair of boyfriend jeans, the baggy, just rolled out of bed slouchy denim look of the moment. What are these jeans? Turn around. How did you choose your size? What are you meant to wear with them? The questions came thick and fast from skinny and boot-cut wearing mamas in my midst.

I believe it was Katie Holmes who rejuvenated the “boyfriend” label after she was spotted running around New York way back in 2008 in oversized, scruffy jeans that may well have been borrowed from husband Tom Cruise. All the usual celebs from Jennifer Aniston to Lindsay Lohan have been seen wearing them since, and with spring lines hitting the stores, so-called boyfriend jeans look to have nudged skinny jeans to the side, at least temporarily. I dismissed the new trend a few months back when I tried the Gap version. I looked about four-foot-nothing, with tree stumps for legs. They were the most unflattering jeans I had worn in ages. But some of the more recent version are cut slimmer and definitely work better, even for the height challenged. And never mind the look for now; it’s all about the comfort. A day in my newest jeans was something of a denim renaissance. After the shackles of skinny jeans, at last I could move freely; my ankles weren’t in a vice, there were no seam imprints running down my calves, and the proportion works really well with skinny tees and long, boyish cardigans.

Right now I’m coveting a pair of Current Elliott cropped boyfriend jeans but balk at paying $200 plus for daily denim. Instead, I went for Zara’s $59 version in a worn blue wash. Urban Outfitters has some too around $58, and also offers a slim boyfriend cut, which is basically less baggy but still straight from hip to ankle. It’s been awhile since I was anywhere near a boyfriend’s jeans but I guess they must always have jeans with holes, or at least fraying, because that’s the most typical finish I’ve seen so far. As for how to wear them; there are a couple of things to remember; firstly, they must be turned up at the cuff to convey the look and avoid just looking shapeless. And secondly, with all that androgyny below the waist, something fitted and feminine works best on top. With shoes, anything goes. I like a heel with the cropped jeans, and for the ankle-grazing cuts, something girly like a ballet flat, beachcomber-esque like Keds, or even ankle-high boots work.

Far be it from me to dismiss skinny jeans altogether; there is a place for them, tucked into boots, under a swingy jacket or with tunics and sneakers. Leggings, too, fall into the skinny class. But I realized I may have gone too far into the skinny thing when my four year old daughter proclaimed that she will only ever wear skinnies. “I don’t like jeans that open at the bottom, like daddy’s,” she announced while dressing for school one morning. She hasn’t voiced and opinion on the new boyfriend jeans yet.

Ribs For Heart Day

Jake's BBQ Ribs or what's left of them
The Remains of a Good Rib Dinner

A table for two, tonight? Oh gosh no, replied the addled maitre d’ at Po when my husband tried for a last-minute dinner reservation, since the kids were nestled at grandma’s for the night. We had kind of forgotten about the whole Valentine’s Day, romantic couples on date -night thing and just wanted something good to eat.

It just wasn’t meant to be. All our favorite, walkable haunts were booked to the brim. Apparently we were the only Brooklyn couple who hadn’t booked weeks ahead for the chance to share the love with a roomful of strangers, who knew?  What to do, what to do. Order BBQ of course.

We’d had a menu for Jake’s BBQ in the drawer for months and finally got to try it. And glad we were; a pile of juicy, beef short ribs, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and individual, small cornbread loaves — teamed with a good bottle of red — we couldn’t have been more sated. We ate well, didn’t have to trudge through the slush AND in these tough times, we figure we saved about $100 on what we would have spent going out. All that food was just short of $30. Oh, and the neighbors’ dog gets the bones!

Next time, we’re thinking of riding the BBQ shuttle over to Jake’s for a nosh. No kidding, Jake’s will send a car to take you to the restaurant and home again, for free. What’s not to like? Jake’s BBQ is at 189 Columbia Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Bleeding Heart

With Valentine’s Day putting red hearts front and center, I figure it’s as good a time as any to share my own story of an ailing heart. Back in 2006, I made a routine doctor’s appointment to check out a lingering cold. I just couldn’t shake a cough and sore throat and expected the doctor to send me packing with antibiotics, as he typically did. Instead, he listened to my heart and determined that I had a slight murmur. It was probably nothing, he said, and went on to do an Echocardiogram, finding that I had a leaky valve somewhere in there. This was Sept. 11, 2006, a date I considered ominous enough without the added burden of some brewing heart issue.

Being one to brush off ailments and generally be mistrustful of doctors, I thought nothing of all the fuss over a heart murmur. I mentioned, in passing, to my husband that the doc wanted me to go in for a CT scan, basically a fancy, detailed x-ray where they feed dye into the body to get a cross sectional image. The doctor just wanted to be sure the leaking valve was something minor and manageable. A lot of young, slim women apparently suffer from something called mitral valve prolapse, where one of the heart’s valves doesn’t close properly, without it ever causing any problem. That was the diagnosis he foresaw for me.

Worst Case Scenario

Instead, there were hushed conversations and panicked phone calls hours after I had the CT scan. The doctor had me booked for stress tests and a cardiac catheterization in the weeks ahead; there was a risk that not only did I have a leaking valve but it appeared I may have an aortic dissection that if aggravated could rupture to cause internal bleeding and at worst, death. The way he put it: “If it’s what it looks like, you should be dead. Lifting your children or carrying the stroller upstairs, you could just bleed out.”

My husband was livid. Frustrated and dissatisfied that I was booked to see specialists in a matter of weeks, he made a bunch of calls and came up with the name of a cardiologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital who dealt with cases such as mine. I rang her immediately and was told she was traveling; minutes later, apparently unnerved by the details I had left with her assistant, the cardiologist rang me from the airport. She pulled no punches. If what I told her was accurate, I needed to go straight to the emergency room where she would have a cardio team waiting.

Running Scared

You have to understand, I was at my son’s preschool to pick him up at the time. My son was three and my daughter just 16 months old and still breastfeeding. I had none of my family close-by or even aware of what was going on, and my in-laws, who came from Long Island to help, had never even spent the night with our children, let alone looked after them daily and in a time of crisis. I don’t remember much of what happened next, except that a neighborhood mommy and now very good friend stepped in and took the children home, while I collected myself, rang my husband in tears and literally ran from Cobble Hill to downtown Brooklyn to collect x-rays to take with me to the hospital.

That evening, my husband drove me to the ER, where I presumed I would wait for hours amid true emergencies for someone to see me. Instead, a posse of men and women in white coats sprang into action, studying me and my story over and over and over again. Indeed, I had a thoracic aortic aneurysm; and yes, I should have been dead like so many other young people I have since heard of who just keeled over with the same condition. There were no symptoms, no family history, and no explanations for why I had this or for how long I had it. It was decided that — at just 37 years of age and with no noteworthy medical history — I would have open heart surgery the next day to patch the aneurysm and replace my leaking valve with an artificial one. At this stage, I still hadn’t told my family anything was wrong, leaving that horrible task to my already stricken husband.

My only real recollection through any of it was being wheeled into the operating theater in tears after having to remove my wedding and engagement rings, which I never take off. That’s when I asked the surgeon if I would see my kids again, a notion that until then I hadn’t contemplated. It had all happened so quickly and so extremely,  it was almost an out-of-body experience.

Freak Case

I woke in the intensive care unit with my husband nearby and tubes coming out of my arms and mouth and nose. I was medicated to the eyeballs, so it wasn’t until a day or two later that I even realized how sore I was. The surgery had been a success and besides a whopping great scar down my front and taking blood thinners for the rest of my life, all seems to be well now. There’s still no explanation for how this happened; no family history; no warning signs — I am something of a freak case and as such, am now part of a research study into unexplained thoracic aortic aneurysms.

When I bare my scar, as is inevitable in just about anything I wear, I get plenty of double-takes from people wondering what happened, especially my children’s friends, who ask why that mommy has a big boo-boo. One very hot day last summer, I had beige-colored surgical tape over the scar to avoid it burning; an old woman on a lawn chair outside her Brooklyn home stopped me to ask if it was “the patch.” I never figured out if she meant a birth-control patch or one to quit smoking, either way it amused me. I could cover-up the scar I guess, but why?

Interestingly, as the American Heart Association promotes the Go Red for Women campaign and even Project Runway gets in on it, charging designers with the task of making runway worthy red dresses for women who have been affected by heart disease, I forget that I am one of those women. It was just 15 days between that first doctor visit and the surgery September 26, 2006. The entire process seems surreal, a bit like childbirth I guess, where you forget the agony just enough to contemplate doing it over again.

I rarely wear color but maybe this Valentine’s Day I’ll slip something red over the black New Yorker uniform, and celebrate that my ticker is fit and well.

Comfort Food

Al di La’s addictive polenta ai funghi

Two consecutive, cold Fridays, while the children were in school, I found myself luring willing diners to Al di La Trattoria in Park Slope just to eat the same dish. For some, comfort food is a bowl of mashed potatoes, a hamburger or ice cream maybe; for me, this restaurant’s version of polenta ai funghi hits the spot. The warm, gooey, not-too-cheesy polenta is draped with vibrant kale and a tumble of braised wild mushrooms. It is deliciously unctuous – filling but not overly so. It’s the kind of comfort food you really want your lunch partner to taste, but not really! With snow falling and Friday just around the corner, I may make it a polenta ai funghi trifecta.

The Chook

Fowl sighting in Carroll Gardens

Wandering down our street one chilly afternoon, we heard what sounded like  bock-bocking in the bushes next to our building. Lo and behold it was a big, seemingly lost chook, looking for someplace to park itself.  A call to 311 proved useless because animal control apparently deems it completely fine to keep chickens in Brooklyn backyards, or to have them wander the streets until a cat or car gets the better of them. My feisty four-year-old, a budding locavore, suggested we eat said bird, while animal-loving husband and son set up a cardboard box as a temporary home and surfed the web for other solutions. They came across the eglu, a brightly-colored, modernist chicken house sold by the aptly named Omlet, and aimed at urbanites keen to keep a chicken or two for a supply of backyard-fresh eggs. Just as I was warming to the idea of one of these aesthetically-pleasing coops in hot pink or lime green perhaps, our adopted pet was gone, hopefully back to wherever it came from. Only in New York, I guess …

Smokin’ Hot

So I finally checked out the much-hyped new smoked meat joint named Mile End for the historically Jewish Montreal neighborhood where it gets its inspiration. The place was packed with a refreshingly mixed crowd, not just hip, singletons but parents with babies and older couples, no doubt in search of a taste of the Old Country. Everyone seemed happy with what they got; which was primarily smoked brisket on bread with a scrape of mustard, bagels with house cured salmon or turkey sandwiches and the ubiquitous Stumptown coffee.

The very sweet waitress, who was literally run off her feet, said they had cooked twice as much as they thought they would need and still ran out twice  that day. They would have to close for dinner just to get ahead of themselves. The scene hadn’t calmed any a few days later when friends reported lines snaking down the block, even in these chilling temperatures. I had the smoked meat sandwich and it was hearty and tasty, though that deep smoke stayed with me for the rest of the day. My son LOVED the bagels I brought home; I’m told they are flown in daily from Montreal, and their sweet crust comes from a dip in a honey-water bath before baking. The guys sharing our table had Poutine, a Montreal standard of fries, doused in brown gravy and cheese curds, which also looked good, in a rib-sticking, not-eating-again-for-a-month kind of way.

I’ll return to Mile End but perhaps to try something less manly than the smoked meat next time,  if I can ever get a seat at one of the few communal tables.  Mile End is at 97A Hoyt Street,  near Atlantic Ave. in Boerum Hill.