by Alicia Lieu
Be sure to check out the recipes at the end of this post and check back every month as Alicia shares her adventures of How I Met My Dinner!
With the holidays coming, I became increasingly nostalgic for Thanksgiving with my family. It is just not feasible to fly cross country for a few days, even if I can get the days off of work. Because I happen to be holding down a retail job, holidays are the busiest time of year and difficult to request off. Not to mention that airfare the week of Thanksgiving is noticeably higher than the rest of the year. At least in New York, however, I’m still in my home country.
While I was living abroad in Shanghai, China, getting your hands on a turkey was quite a challenge because there really isn’t much demand for it there. Not to mention the fact that there are very few homes with ovens. In Shanghai, I had managed to buy a turkey, but my little convection oven was not large enough to cook the whole bird, so we had to roast the turkey in parts. The challenges of being an ex-pat make you appreciate holidays in the States, even if I am 3,000 miles away from my family. So for November, I decided to interview my colleague, Peter James Blondi, who is American but grew up in Australia. He is an extremely talented chef and a kind, generous and all around nice guy.
Hi Peter. With your family being American but growing up in Australia, what parts of you identify as Aussie? Is there a culture difference between the US and Australia?
Peter: This is a tough question to answer: when folks ask me what I consider myself, I always say American-Australian-American. Despite being born on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, we shipped off to Oz when I was just three months old and we stayed there until I was 14 and starting high school. I’m currently 26, and it will still take another two years before the length of my residency in New York equals the duration of my stay in Australia. In terms of simple mathematics, that’s a long time!
I suppose what sums this dichotomy up, is that I taught myself to speak with fully fledged American and Australian accents. As a kid I was made fun of for being taught American pronunciations by my parents with their heavy New York accents. On the other hand, starting at an all boys Catholic high school only a few weeks after returning to New York, caused a nearly inverse reaction. I was asked to repeat lines from Paul Hogan movies, do Steve Irwin impressions and offer my take on Men at Work songs. I’ve recently learned that bidialectalism–or being able to switch between two very different accents seamlessly–is becoming an increasingly commonplace practice the world over. I venture to think it’s a “defence” mechanism designed to appear ‘normal’.
We lived in the major cities of Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. These being cities, they were fairly cosmopolitan and international, so the cultural transition between NYC and Oz wasn’t as drastic as if we’d been out in the bush or a rural American town.
You mean, Long Island isn’t rural? Just kidding.
Peter: To this day though, I still maintain my Australian spellings: favourite just looks naked without a ‘u’, and ‘centre’ spelt ‘center’ looks like ‘centre’ had a few too many drinks at the pub the night before.
Yeah. My spell check is going to go crazy with all the extra u’s. And I noticed that you have the weather on your phone set to Celsius, too. Let’s get down to food business, shall we? When I was growing up we celebrated Thanksgiving with a Chinese feast. Our family switched over to traditional Turkey sometime in my high school years, I think. Tell me about how your family celebrates Thanksgiving.
Peter: Thanksgiving was always interesting for us; some years in Perth it was very low-key and other years we would fly back to New York to be with family. My grandparents were still alive at the time, so it was an opportunity to reconnect with them as well my cousins and family. I remember one year we had a really fun time. We invited all the neighbours over for an American-style celebration. One of the neighbours, who was from Greece, owned a restaurant and brought over his giant deep fat fryer and it was the first time I ever tasted deep-fried turkey. It has been a staple at the Blondi Thanksgiving table since then! Another neighbour brought over her famous Anzac cake, which is a variation on the biscuits that were given to Australian/New Zealand soldiers, and have come to be a nostalgic symbol of Down Under.
Today, Thanksgiving is my holiday. Deep-fried turkey remains, but I’ve also incorporated other recipes as well. Some of the other staples include an empanada recipe taught to me by my Argentinean best friend during university, and sausage rolls. Sausage rolls are an Anglo-Australian delicacy made from seasoned sausage meat wrapped in pastry and baked. I liken it to a more respectable pig in a blanket, with a combination of pork belly, pork shoulder smoked streaky bacon and spices.
That sounds absolutely delicious. How did you learn to cook and what are your favorite dishes for Thanksgiving? Will you give us some recipes?
Peter: I most certainly can.
I learned to cook mostly from extrapolated recipes passed down from my large, Catholic extended family (Irish and English on my mum’s side and Scottish and Sicilian on my dad’s side). Even in Australia, my parents would always be cooking their humble, but beautiful recipes. My dad was home more than mum, so we definitely had our fair share of simmered Sicilian-style tomato sauces with pork neck bones and the rind of some Parmesan cheese for extra flavour.
Mum’s specialty was always her cauliflower cheese. It was very rich and very much like macaroni and cheese with boiled cauliflower. She’d make this wonderful melted cheese sauce with English mustard powder, Worcestershire sauce and Cheddar and then put into the oven to bake and get golden and crispy and crunch.
You’re making me hungry now. I’ve tried your cooking at our work potlucks. Everything was so amazing! I look forward to giving some of your recipes a go. I’ve heard tales of this thing called Vegemite. Is it a legend or is it real?
Peter: Vegemite is a rough one. Originally during World War I, it was used as a nutritional supplement using leftover brewers’ yeast whilst other food products were being sent overseas to the troops. Imagine a very dark, very smooth and very dense peanut butter with a very intense salty and malty flavour. If it’s your first go, I advise eating just a bit on buttered toast.
I worked with a conductor who lives in London but is from ‘Straya. She was the one who first told me about Vegemite. She also told me about Australian Hamburgers, piled high with everything including the kitchen sink. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Peter: Burgers with the lot are in one word, amazing! They’re usually piled with a fried over-easy egg, bacon, grilled pineapple, grilled beetroot and the usual lettuce and tomato. They’re also always topped with Aussie-style tomato sauce, which is like a spicier, more flavourful tomato ketchup. I make about five kilos every six months because the Heinz stuff just doesn’t cut it.
Well, I love Heinz ketchup but I haven’t tried the Aussie style sauce yet. Maybe Heinz could produce an Aussie variety. Ok, let’s talk Tuck Shop. Are they authentic Aussie and what do you think of their meat pies?
Peter: Tuck Shop is on the whole very authentic. The way the pies smell in the pie warmer (which I believe they shipped in from Australia) and how they make flat-whites and such there. I believe they suffered a bit when they expanded, and didn’t hire all Aussies or Kiwis. I don’t want a Bushwick hipster rolling his eyes at me when I ask if they have any mince and cheese pies left. Eating one is a cathartic experience for me. I just want to enjoy it and my beer. On the whole though, they’re very, very good and very, very authentic.
I see. Well, Bushwick hipsters are in a lot of places these days. I don’t think we can avoid them. They are bolstering the rental market in Brooklyn. Where in New York is a good place to go for Aussie food and culture?
Peter: This is very hard and very sad for me to say, but I don’t know. Tuck Shop has closed its St Mark’s location and The Sunburnt Cow and Calf are gone. The only places that I know are The Australian on 38th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and Nelson Blue (a Kiwi place) on Front Street by South Street Seaport.
Well, I’m going to take you to The Australian because I now owe you a beer. Thank you so much for your time, stories, and recipes!
Recipes by Peter James Blondi:
Serves approximately 10
2/3 cup golden syrup
1 cup self-raising flour
1 1/3 cups (125g) rolled oats
1 2/3 cups (150g) desiccated coconut
60g brown sugar
Preheat oven to 170C/338F degrees and grease and line an average round cake tin. Melt the butter and golden syrup in a medium pot then remove from the heat. Mix together the flour, rolled oats, coconut and sugar. When the butter/golden syrup mix has cooled beat in the eggs. Then mix this all in together with the dry ingredients.
Pour it into the cake tin and cook in the preheated oven for 35 minutes – but check at 30 with a skewer to see if it’s done. Drizzle with a simple vanilla icing if desired.
Australian Style Tomato Sauce (Ketchup)
2.5kg ripe tomatoes
400g onions (peeled)
10g cloves (whole)
10g allspice berries (whole)
10g sweet paprika
1 clove of garlic smashed
Half a cinnamon stick
2 cups of clear malt vinegar (I use Sarson’s English malt vinegar)
1 1/2 cups sugar
Roughly chop onions and tomatoes. Save the seeds and juice to use in the sauce. Put all the tomatoes and onions in jam-making copper (or a wide-mouthed heavy-bottomed saucepan) with all the other ingredients (except the sugar and vinegar). Simmer gently for an hour until the tomatoes are nice and soft.
Add the sugar and vinegar and cook until it tastes suitably saucy and thickens up. To test this you can always put a dollop on a plate and see how much liquid seeps out of the cooked tomato mush. If it’s only a little then the sauce is done. Taste and adjust the seasoning if required.
Pass through a coarse sieve so that you remove the bigger bits of skin and whole spices. Collect the sauce in a clean, bowl. To help work the sauce through the sieve roll, use the round bottom of a ladle over the sauce in the sieve.
Transfer into several sterilised old beer stubbies (a squat 375ml beer bottle) and top with a cork.