Jun 26 11

The Ultimate Steak Sandwich

by Emily Benjamin

Just like the ingredients in my potato bake, I am sure making of the ultimate steak sandwich is a contentious issue. Some of you might favour the gourmet steak sandwich, served with caramelised onions on a toasted ciabatta. Others might dig the Coffee Club special, served on thick toast with red lettuce. But for me, it’s a simple, soft and tender delight, with very little effort required.

Firstly, ditch the toast. I mean it – toasted bread for a steak sandwich, or any sandwich for that matter, and you’re doing it wrong. Toast is uncomfortable to hold, has poor absorption qualities for the condiments, and breaks into pieces when you bite into it. Instead choose soft thick bread slices, or if you’ll allow in this instance, a soft bread roll. Doesn’t matter the size, although we’ll come back to that when we get to the steak itself. Bread should be 70% soft at an absolute minimum. Any toasting, if required, should only be done to the inside of the bread. Soft on top with maybe a little toasting inside. Got that? Good. Let’s get some fillers.

Obviously, you need a steak! And this is probably the point that stops me from ordering steak sandwiches more often. You never really know what you’re going to get. Will it be a thick cut, still-bloody steak, that consumes all the other flavours of the burger? Or will it be a cheap, well-done, stringy, fatty mess that tears apart the whole sandwich as you try to bite through the grizzle. Neither! The steak should be thin, but not over cooked. It should still have a little pink in it, so if it’s a thin slice be careful not to cook it too long. It should be tender and stringy-fat free – the worst thing you want is to take a bite and have the whole steak slide out of the sandwich and drop onto your plate, because you couldn’t bite through the grizzle. Then you get all messy putting it back together – tsk tsk. So it’s simple – a thin, tender, medium size steak, preferably in a similar shape and size to your bread of choice. Maybe buy the steak first and find bread to match! Whatever you do, you want to avoid having a steak that is too small for the bread. Just think of how disappointed you’ll be when you get to the last bite of your awesome sandwich, only to discover the steak finished and only salad between the bread. What a let down.

Now we’ve got the bread and steak sorted, there are three more areas to consider. They are:

– salad/fillers

– condiments

– side dishes

Salad and fillers should include the following; cheese, lettuce, tomato. Although they’re not always necessary, and without careful inclusion they will overfill the sandwich, I will also allow onion, avocado, egg and bacon. But nothing else. No fancy sprouts or shoots, pickles, capsicum – none of that. Keep it simple – sliced cheese, ripe tomato and iceberg lettuce. But even these three can go all wrong if they’re not ordered correctly. Here is the only way to lay it all together;

Bread – condiment 1 – Steak – Cheese – Tomato – Lettuce – condiment 2 – Bread

Steak, then cheese, then tomato, then lettuce. Not the other way around, or in a different order. I’ll explain the reasons. Firstly, the cheese should be next to the meat. The warm steak will melt the cheese – heaven. But you don’t want the cheese flavour being next to a condiment so they stick to opposite sides of the steak. Then tomato, next to cheese and lettuce, but away from the bread. We’ve all opened our lunch boxes at school at some stage, to find soggy, wet bread because the tomato had juiced all over it. Thanks, Mum. Gross. Keep the tomato in the middle, and you’ll be ok. Lettuce is next to last because, well, it should be. Got it? Good.

Now condiments. Tomato sauce, mayonnaise, mustard and BBQ sauce are the options. If you’re thinking the word ‘chutney’ right now you can forget it – I said nothing fancy. I personally don’t like BBQ sauce, but I know some people that can’t live without it, so I won’t weigh in on that one. Tomato sauce and mayonnaise work well together, as do mustard and tomato sauce. You probably shouldn’t use all three because you’ll over saturate your soft bread and have a soggy sandwich. Not cool. Consider your ingredients as well – mustard tastes great, but not if you’ve put avocado on the sandwich. But avo and mayo go well, so maybe thats an option. Just pick two, and spread one to each piece of bread. Easy.

Finally, side dishes. Depending on the size of your sandwich, you may not need any. But if you do, hot chips can’t really be beaten. Maybe wedges, but you won’t eat very many and no one ever serves enough sour cream and sweet chilli sauce to go with them. Also, wedges are very filling, which might leave you with stomach aches after your epic steak sandwich as well. So either no side, or some chips. With sauce, of course.

There you have it – the recipe for a perfect steak sandwich. Inspired by a delicious steak sandwich I just had here in Rio de Janeiro, made almost exactly as I would make my own. Melted cheese, tender steak and soft bread that was mopping up all the juicy awesomeness. Mm mm, a proper steak sandwich can’t be beat!

Filed Under → Words
Mar 7 11

Birthday Blog!

by Emily Benjamin

I celebrated my first overseas, away from home birthday on Monday, and although I didn’t do ‘much’, I had a truly fantastic day. Here’s how I spent it.

Woken by Monkey, he greeted me with the expected HAPPY BIRTHDAY, THE BENJ!  but fortunately didn’t sing to me, which was a relief. Breakfast  was upstairs at 9am and what was on the buffet? PORK RIBS! This was going to be a good day 🙂

At 10.30am I was greeted by staff offering me flowers, a big bunch just for me. I’ll admit I specifically chose our accommodation because they mentioned special birthday treatment – and they stayed true to their online promise. As well as the flowers, they are getting me a cake for the afternoon! Huzzah!

Before 11am, we set off for a Wonderful Package at SF Spa – which included a sauna/steam room, thai massage, hot body wrap, facial and foot treatment. The expected time was 4 hours for all of this, so the wonderful staff said ‘because you are with us for so long, we will get you some lunch.’  Woohoo! It was at about lunch time that we realised this 4 hour treatment was already 3 hours of the way through, and we still had at least 2 hours of treatments to go. Granted, they’d up-sold us to include a salt scrub as well (which was a-maz-ing, by the way!) so we were ok about the extra time. A facial and foot treatment to come after lunch, and to be honest, I was exhausted. The overall treatment time, including a 15minute break for lunch, was over 6 hours. SIX. HOURS. And I love special treatment, but my attention span was truly tested there. Yes, my skin is as soft as I’ve ever felt it, my feet are as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and I feel many months younger.  But there is only so much pampering a girl can take, especially when she has family skype dates to attend!

We made it back to the hotel at about 5.30pm and I rushed upstairs to get online for Skype. Dad and Lauren greeted me with balloons and ice-cream which was awesome, and even Benny made an appearance, albeit a brief one. Then I spoke to Mum, and quickly to Mak, and when we wished them goodnight it was time for our dinner.

Dinner was just what I needed. A 350gm rib fillet steak, medium, with a side of mashed potato with truffle oil, and green beans. A number of times during dinner I just couldn’t help myself, and would roll into fits of giddy laughter, overstimulated by the yummy intake of iron and carbs again. Yes, I’m a massive carnivore. I know it, everyone I know knows it, and I have no shame in admitting it! So, so good to eat a tender piece of steak after 3 weeks of chicken and pork dishes where they would use only about 50gm of meat each time. The steak was amazing. The mashed potato, epic. So creamy and perfect with the steak and beans. Oh and I should mention the entrees as well – Chicken Bastille with roast chicken cooked in pastry with paprika, tomato and some other vegies, and divine slow roasted blackberry duck with pumpkin gnocchi. All served with a bottle of Oyster Bay Pinot Noir. An amazing food fest – Happy birthday to me!

This took us all the way to 11pm, and we were knackered. It’s not every day that you spend only eating and relaxing, and the combination of the two was exhausting. I know, I know – you’re probably reading this at work, and hating me more every minute. BUT I have birthday immunity so don’t be mad! It was a lovely first birthday away from home (my 26th, unless you remove the few months of wrinkles erased from my face during the spa treatment!) and I felt perfectly spoiled the whole day, as anyone should.

But I’ve forgotten – my presents! I got some money from home, to put towards the steak and wine dinner, and a nice hotel for the night. I didn’t think I needed it, but it was so nice to have a comfy home base for 3 days, with good hot water, a soft bed and a mini bar, hehe. I’ll also get to replace my lost phone and perhaps get an iPod Shuffle or Nano to last me through the next 6 months. And finally, Jamie has treated me to a luxurious 2 night, 3 days cruise on Halong Bay, aboard the Halong Phoenix Cruiser. Oh. La. La!

Enough birthday jibberish, but I thought I would let everyone know the ideal way to spend a birthday overseas. Don’t be on transport, make your favourite things readily available, and try to spend it with either someone you love, or someone that keeps you distracted. I was lucky enough to spend it with my awesome boyfriend and best-boy-friend, Jamie Talbot, and he helped make it awesome. Twenty six doesn’t feel so painful, right now 🙂

— Em 🙂

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Filed Under → Words
Mar 6 11

Hanoi’s Noise

by Emily Benjamin

There is a lot of noise in Hanoi. I understand that it is probably nothing compared to the bigger cities of the world – Shanghai, New York, Tokyo, Mumbai (and in fact, by population, Hanoi is only the 72nd biggest city, next to Sydney in 73rd spot (according to this website http://www.worldatlas.com/citypops.htm)) – but picture this. Give 3+ million people scooters, then give some of them a taxi as well, and give everyone else a bicycle. Then give every single one of these vehicles in Hanoi a horn – anything from ‘beep beep’ to ‘la cu coracha!’ – with the instruction to use the horn as often as possible, at a minimum of once every ten seconds. Finally, put all these vehicles on the road at once, without any proper intersections, traffic lights, or right of way rulings. Traffic. Mayhem. This is without a doubt the noisiest city I’ve ever been in, where the normal noises of cars on the road is ignored and all you can hear are horns. Some horns are basic, others fade in and out. I even saw a bike with strobe lights and a corn configured to flash and make sound more or less frequently, depending on how fast he peddled. Horn sounds everywhere, all day, every day.

Without the basic engineering marvels of roads that run parallel to each other, and some simple signs to show who should stop and who should go, then you leave yourself open to problems, namely traffic accidents. Particularly if drivers are beeping at each other every 10 seconds. But from what I’ve seen, there are very few accidents on Hanoi’s roads, despite the lack of structure to their road system. And the horns seem to be just a way of letting everyone else (in the city, I think) know that you are driving there as well. I suppose that’s ideal, given the structure (or lack of) of the old quarter. Let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about.


This photo is courtesy of Google Maps, and show’s the area in which we’re staying in Hanoi, known as the old quarter. In the bottom right, you have Hoan Kiem Lake, which turns out to be a good spot to mention to taxi drivers, and also the home of the (Un)Lucky Turtle. At the top right of this lake, you can see the word ‘Hanh’ – that’s where our hotel is! Once we established our whereabouts on the map, we felt ready to set off in search of sights/food/stuff.

Mistake #1: Don’t ever assume that there is only one ‘Hang Gai’ in Hanoi. There will be a few.

Looking for a restaurant called Little Hanoi, we each pulled up Google Maps and were shown two different maps. Did we mean Hang Gai, or Hang Giay? I know they are spelled differently, but how am I to specify this difference in a city where language is so tonal? Long story short, we walked to both. We found Little Hanoi on the Hang Gai, even though it was listed on Google as being at Hang Giay, but it still wasn’t the small, local restaurant we were searching for. It was obviously one of the other 5 restaurants/hotels in the district by the exact same name.

Mistake #2: Don’t ever assume you know which way is north.

After trekking to the very top of this picture, we never came across the Little Hanoi we were searching for, so we gave up and looked for food closer to home. Along the way, Jamie remarked that he understood this place now, and had in his mind the correct map of where we should be heading. I was not so sure. Following him, and checking the map every intersection to work out where we were, I still let him lead, because he ‘understood’ Hanoi. Well, no, not really. Bless his enthusiasm but as the road we were walking along turned a sort-of 90 degree angle, he was out by miles. He believed we were now travelling south west, but in fact were were due east. And fortunately only minutes away from a good restaurant for dinner!

Mistake #3: Don’t ever stop for traffic. See the traffic, trust the traffic, and step forth into the traffic. Don’t run!

We learned this lesson on our very first night. On our way into Hanoi from the airport, we saw people walking across freeways, stopped in the middle of the road on bicycles, and leaning against very busy roundabouts to make out. Despite the manic traffic, the slowest of all – the pedestrians – were acting like the kings and queens of the city, and budging for no one. As we dropped our bags off at our hotel and went out for dinner, we quickly understood why. If, as a pedestrian, you didn’t just set out and cross the road when YOU were ready, you’d never get a chance. There are hardly any traffic lights, intersections and pedestrians crossings, and the traffic NEVER let’s up, night and day, so when you are ready to walk across the road, just do it. Do it with confidence, with purpose, and do it carefully but quickly, while never running. Actually, that was our way of doing it, but we saw some more skilled locals doing it without any awareness at all – chatting on phones, running across in speeding traffic, and strolling slowly with friends as if Hanoi was run on their time.

And finally, the main lesson: When in doubt, order Chicken with Cashew Nuts from New Day Restaurant. Best I’ve had across Thailand, Laos and Vietnam so far!

We’ll head out of Hanoi soon and into the tranquil waters of Halong Bay. At least, we hope they’re tranquil – fingers crossed that the boats haven’t all been equipped with horns, as well!

— Em 🙂

Filed Under → Words
Feb 27 11

The Travel Diet

by Emily Benjamin

I’m not a healthy eater at the best of times. You say food – I say “double cheese burger!” I wake up and often my first thought is what I’m going to eat for dinner that night, and my imagination takes hold… roast chicken with potatoes and gravy, a big serve of lasagne, a two piece feed with a no legs or wings, upsized, with a gravy instead of potato gravy. Not only do I get food cravings, I get very specific food cravings, like right now – I’m craving about one and a half tasty chicken kievs with a side of potato bake and a cold can of coke. Om nom.

Only recently did I develop a taste for vegetables, and I can pinpoint the factors that lead to my increased appetite for the good stuff. Firstly it was travelling through Europe in 2009 with my Dad, where we were eating heavy pastas and pizzas most of the time, bangers and mash in pubs, and goulash soups with rice and bread in food halls. As my stomach swelled with all this tastiness, 5 weeks was too many to eat only the bad stuff and I began to crave a decent bowl of vegetables, which was near impossible to find in most restaurants. Secondly, I can blame the ‘caveman diet’ introduced at my gym, where we were encouraged to eat only meat and veg, day in, day out, to get us all as lean as possible. I managed this for a few days before giving in to the golden arches, but was at least appreciating that with vegetables, I could eat as much as I like without feeling guilty. And finally, I can credit the convenience of my Dad’s bamboo steamer, for showing me how easy it can be to serve up a bowl of healthy, tasty vegetables in just minutes, without fussing in several areas of the kitchen. Just chop them up, chuck them in, and you’ve got steamed vegetables with no need for washing up and wiping anything down.

I know myself (and my stomach) well enough to know that if I don’t get food when I’m hungry, there will be trouble. And I make sure those closest to me are aware of this, because no one wants to see me go mental on a food-finding rampage, when my sugar levels get too low. Jamie was warned of this not just by me, but by my family as well – they’ve seen me devour 8 roast potatoes in minutes and I’ll do it again, if you don’t stop me! So when we embarked on this adventure together, he was under strict instruction to make sure there was always food near-by and if we were hopping on a train/bus/plane/donkey to go anywhere, emergency snacks should be packed. Which, in the last few days, has been truly tested.

Our trip from Thailand into Laos was over 4 days. One of those days I was sick, and stayed in bed to get better. The other three days had us on buses, minivans, taxis and boats, with a total travelling time of 23 hours. That’s almost 8 hours a day, on each of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. When we hopped off one bus, we were shuffled onto another. And from the boats edge, we were whisked away by a taxi. Saturday was maybe even the worst, where we spent 6 hours in a minivan with 10 other people, up the very back, with only a small fan which was switched off for 80% of the trip, and no windows open. The people we’ve encountered on our travels so far don’t seem to like fresh air on transport, which is a little annoying.

In anticipation of each of these trips, I thought immediately of food and looked around for the nearest vendor. And I can officially say that 100% of the time, your only options will be Oreos and Lays potato chips. So this is what I stocked up on, which was fortunate, because I only did so to get me through until our lunch stop, and once we were there we realised the best option available at the markets was a skewer of barbecued chicken necks. No thank you. By the time we arrived at our final destination for the day, I had a splitting headache, was completely dehydrated (no planned toilet stops either, and when we did stop, it was on the side of the road) and all I wanted was to smell freshly cooked food again. And never eat Oreos again in my life.

The other 2 days of travels were the same, except I now have an emergency jar of peanut butter in my backpack, panadols close by in case of another splitting headache, and a small packet of chicken flavoured crackers in case starvation strikes. All of this would suggest that I’ve regressed and have forgotten fruit and vegetables again in favour of unhealthy snack foods. But when you’ve got exactly one minute to drag yourself and all your luggage from a boat into a bus, you’ll grab whatever you can get. Especially if your head is ruled by your stomach, like mine is.

There is a silver lining to this story though. Actually, there are three! Firstly, Jamie’s appetite, which was always so small when we were in Brisbane, has returned. At last, he gets hungry when I do, if not sooner, so we’re usually both on the same quest for food. Secondly, at the end of each of those days we found real food, and I was relieved to fill my stomach back up with stir fried veges, freshly cooked meat with herbs and spices, and rehydrate with lots of water. Headache, be gone! And finally, the immense amount of road travel we’ve done in the past few days has even convinced Jamie that perhaps all these boats and buses and back seats aren’t the best use of our time, if we want to see more of the cities and communities we encounter. So we’ve decided that we’ll be forking out the extra cash to fly from Luang Prabang to Hanoi on Sunday, taking just 1 hour by plane compared to 16 hours by bus.

And even I can survive one hour without snacking on Oreos and Lays potato chips, and wait for some fresh vegetables instead.

Hmm… now how about that chicken kiev….

— Em 🙂


Filed Under → Words