A Las Vegas Strip Sandwhich · 27 July 2007
The setting of Last Call by Tim Powers is the Las Vegas before its modern revival. Circus Circus, Caesars Palace (pre-renovation and Forum shops), and the Flamingo are the most widely lavish hotels. The Dunes, the Sands, and the Stardust are big powerhouses. One of the characters mentions that the Excalibur is under construction. The Mirage has just opened, ushering in a new era of mega-casinos. This is Las Vegas before it remade its image into that of a “family-friendly town,” a Las Vegas that had no place for fun and games or innocence, a Las Vegas in which people came to win or lose, at cards or at life.
I did a little bit of research on Vegas in order to write this review. And while Vegas really tried to clean up its image in the 1990’s, I read a few interesting tidbits. In 2000, the MGM grand closed down its amusement park due to lack of interest. In 2003, Treasure Island closed its video arcade, and revamped its kid-oriented pirate’s theme. In 2004, the Wet n’ Wild water park closed down.
It seems the roots of Las Vegas run deep, and the town itself is resisting the attempts to “clean it up.” The idea that Vegas is a seat of old power that wouldn’t take kindly to squeaky-clean family-fun is one that fits right in with the themes of Last Call. Las Vegas has a distinctive flavor, and it isn’t bubblegum.
Even though Las Vegas seems to be in an adult revival period, now more committed to catering to its libertine clientèle, a few people have claimed that the food in Las Vegas is changing, and I'd agree. There's been an infusion of celebrity chefs to join the celebrity entertainers and apparently it's no longer easy to find food on the cheap. But, at the heart of Las Vegas is the original home-style food first introduced at the Hotel El Rancho in the 40's. The last time I visited Vegas (admittedly 6 years ago) this food was still the bedrock of buffets all over town.
Moreover, you can see from a great collection of menus from the 1960's, that even if the selection wasn't as multinational back then, the idea of going out to a nice dinner in Vegas isn't new.
So food has long been part of the hedonistic experience of Las Vegas. When I think of eating in Vegas, I usually think of eating buffet style. That should have made it easy to come up with something to discuss, after all just about everything from sushi to scrambled eggs can be found in a buffet these days. But, I wanted to capture the original seedy feel of Las Vegas, the gambler's Vegas in which people who would look abnormal in the light of day.
He had found other things: the old women who played as obsessively as he did and who wore gardening gloves as they pulled the slot machine handles to fertilize a cold and stingy soil; he had seen players . . . so obese or deformed that their mere presence would elicit involuntary shouts of wonder in any town but this one, in which the facts of action made physical appearance genuinely irrelevant . . . - Last Call by Tim Powers
I remembered hearing a story about how the sandwich was named after one of the Earls of Sandwich, who favored the meal as something he could easily eat at the gambling table. It turns out there is a bit of ambiguity as to the truth of that rumor but it persists all the same.
The marvelous thing about modern sandwiches is that you can put just about anything on them. In order to tap into the feel of the Vegas that Scott Crane occupied, I decided to use some traditional Vegas buffet ingredients and make a steak sandwich. As usual, I set a challenge for myself with this recipe. You may have noticed that almost everything posted on this site is vegetarian. I do eat meat, but I rarely cook it myself. Even though it's summer, and the cooking trend is for fresh and fabulous, I decided on a hearty recipe to complement the mood of the city that never sleeps, for a sandwich appropriate to a casino in which you can hardly tell whether its night or day, much less what season it is.
Steak (or Portobello Steak) Sandwich with Carmelized Onion
Recipe adapted from - Epicurious. Steak Sandwich is pictured at top, and the Portobello one is pictured directly above.
- 1/4 cup prepared white horseradish
- 4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) butter, divided
- 2 1-inch-thick beef tenderloin steaks or 4 whole Portobello mushrooms
- 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
- 4 oz large shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps thinly sliced
- 1 cup beef broth
- 4 large ciabatta rolls, halved horizontally, lightly toasted
- 2 cups fresh spinach
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions; sauté until dark brown, about 25 minutes.
Add mushrooms; sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add broth; boil until juices are reduced to glaze, stirring occasionally, about 1 minute. Season onion mixture to taste with salt and pepper.
If using steak, melt 1 tablespoon butter in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle tenderloin steaks with salt and pepper. Add steaks to skillet and cook about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. Using tongs, transfer steaks to work surface and slice into strips. Return the strips to the skillet and stir-fry another 1-2 minutes to soak up the vegetable juices.
If using Portabello mushroom, add 3 Tbsp broth to the same skillet. Simmer on medium-low heat approximately 2 minutes on each side. Transfer mushroom to plate.
Toast ciabatta rolls. Place 1 bread bottom, cut side up, on each of 4 plates. Spread each with horseradish and top with 1/2 cup spinach leaves. Top spinach leaves with onion mixture, then with steak strips or Portabello mushroom. Place tops on sandwiches.
The steak sandwich was quite tasty. The horseradish added a nice bit of zing to the otherwise relatively mild flavors of the sandwich. The steak was excellent on the medium-rare side. I chose to cook the steak in the vegetable juices (rather than the opposite which was recommended in the original recipe) partly to keep the vegetable vegetarian, but also because I thought it would add some flavor to the meat. I'm happy to report that it worked well and that the Portobello eater also appreciated and enjoyed the mushroom sandwich.
I seem to keep making excuses for substitutions, for not having the “exact” authentic ingredient and whatnot. It was brought to my attention that people read blogs not necessarily for the factual content of the sites, but for the personal experiences that the author brings to the facts.
So, here’s goes, my personal experience with this segment, the first in a recurring series of the experience of food tied to the experience of reading.
I started off reading In the Time of the Butterflies with high hopes for the blog. It’s a beautiful story, as I mentioned in my review, and it has delicious sounding food that tied into the lives of the characters (what more could a literary food blogger ask for?!) I also (wrongly) thought that recreating Dominican food would be a piece of cake since I live in an area that hosts a large number of Latino markets. You know what they say about assuming . . .
You’ve already heard about the search for guanabana juice. My search for the goat meat specified in La Bandera met with similar results. You would think a store literally called “International Food Market” would have a better answer to “Hi, do you sell goat meat?” than “Huh?” You would be thinking wrong.
What didn’t even make it into the food archives is my humorous experience with Arroz con Leche. I found multiple recipes for this dish, the dessert that Mate cooked for Valentine’s Day, all of which sounded fairly simple. Here’s a few of the lines from the recipe I used:
- Begin to cook for 1/2 hour . . . stir frequently.
- Stir again, and cook for 10 minutes.
- . . . and stir . . .
- Continue cooking for about 15 minutes always stirring.
- After 15 more minutes of cooking (continuously stirring) . . .
Notice a pattern? I didn’t, until I was about halfway into the second step, and my elbow had already gone numb. The Arroz con Leche actually turned out very tasty, but as I have no desire to recommend a recipe that left me wincing in pain for 24 hours, it got cut.
So, there you have it. High ideals of creating a catalogue of authentically inspired dishes recreated in authentically analyzed discourse all dashed. Perhaps it’s all for the best. I suppose that even the Mirabel sisters burned their rice on occasion, or went to the market and found they were out of goat meat. Here’s to realism, and to making do (and to the red beans, which were the tastiest part of this segment).
"Guisade": the stewed meat:
- 1 Tbsp oil
- 1 Tbsp lime juice
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped onion
- 1 tsp oregano
- Salt & pepper
- 1 lb of goat (or steweing beef), cut into cubes
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 roughly chopped onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 tomatoes roughly chopped
- 1 sweet peppers roughly chopped
- 2/3 cups beef stock
- 1 tsp coriander
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in the marinade, then rub the marinade into the goat or beef cubes and refrigerate in a closed container or sealed bag overnight.
Add the vegetable oil and meat to a large pot and cook on high heat until the meat is browned on all sides.
Then add the onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers and sauté for five minutes.
Add the beef stock and simmer for at least a few hours. My grandmother always allowed stew to simmer all day before eating it, so that’s what I did, and it turned out wonderfully tender.
Serve with rice and the other ingredients in La Bandera.
Food from Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor · 9 January 2007
On trial for the death of the late Earl, Isoble is asked to present testimony on what he ate the night of the ball. She lists the celebratory fare as: roast beef, a variety of vegetables, roast goose, pudding, pasties, oysters, mulled punch, and claret; a very English menu.
Traditional English food takes a lot of flak in the culinary world. The lack of spices, the heavy inclusion of fatty substances, the general boiling of ingredients past any semblance of freshness all contribute. We’re spoiled these days by the relative economy of flavoring agents, modern shipping, and agriculture technology, which allows us fresh food year-round and most people opt to take advantage of this by demanding food that has taste. Yet despite all odds, English food has its champions, and indeed even its fans.
I once attended a traditional English birthday dinner for an ex-boyfriend of my sister. I can’t rightly tell you where it was, but I do remember we drove for hours to get to this English pub. The pub itself was great, a legitimate transplant from Europe, timbers and all. The dinner . . . well, when I said there were fans of English food, I wasn’t claiming to be one of them, but the erstwhile boyfriend and his family were ecstatic about Toad in the Hole and other such traditional English “delicacies” so I know there are fans out there. I found the menu full of things too bland to bear describing.
If the taste isn’t enough to turn you off of English food, there’s the fact that practically everything is rolled, battered, or fried in butter. I don’t pretend to be a health scientist, but I have heard enough times, from enough credible sources, that “fat is bad” to believe it’s true; however like most things in life, opinions differ. While researching recipes for recreating some of the likely dishes from the ball, I saw ‘fat is good’ for the first time. This dietary philosophy tries to address the concern born out of the Atkins diet craze, that the high protein/low carb diets did indeed help people lose weight, but at the expense of their heart health, and the site advocates that the fat heavy traditional English diet is actually good for you. I suppose it really is true there’s a diet for everything. I personally subscribe to the ideology that anything is fine in moderation, eating a variety of different foods is preferable, and that the less processing your food has undergone the better. I’m also of the school of thought that someone will find a way to prove that everything is bad for you anyway, and that the health trends of today will be the health taboos of twenty years from now so while a high fat meal didn’t necessarily appeal to me, it didn’t scare me off either.
Once I committed to taking on English food for the sake of furthering my experience of the book, I decided to recreate Isobel’s celebratory feast on a small scale to the best of my ability to eat it. On the agenda were the mysterious “pasties” and a variety of traditional vegetables. With the holiday gorging still fresh in my mind and dozens of cookies and candy still stalking me at home and work, I had to skip the pudding. Since I couldn’t rustle up enough people on short notice for yet another huge meal, the roast beef and goose were out of the question as well.
Cornish Pasties – Fresh From the Oven
Since there was a lot of food to be tackled, I broke the meal into two days worth of cooking. Pasties were scheduled for Day 1 and the vegetables were scheduled for Day 2. The first question to be answered in preparing the meal was, “What in the world are pasties?” Visions of body painting and desert worshiping were quickly summoned and then banished, as I dismissed the idea that Jane was a founding member of the Burning Man project. A quick search proved that pasties are indeed a colloquial term for a filled pastry dish, not body ornamentation, where the pastry is filled with raw ingredients and both shell and filling bake together. The traditional Cornish pasty, filled with beef, onions, and turnips is what I tackled. Jane dined in Hertfordshire, roughly north-east of Cornwall, and the cook may have added local favorite ingredients, but despite a hasty search, I was unable to find a traditional Hertfordshire adaptation to the pasty.
What I did find, is a wonderful piece on household management from 1750 which mentions Hertfordshire pork pasties, among many other things. This article makes me realize just how glad I am to have been born well after the Industrial Revolution, and not be upbraided for buying my pork and beer instead of raising my own pig and brewing the beer myself. The site is a little daunting, with dozens of articles on proper household practices and money saving techniques but the introductory articles provide a great overview of the concerns of the working class and are worth a casual read. If nothing else, they put me in the mood for some laborious and traditional cooking.
I found my Cornish pasty recipe at The Green Chronicle and made it with zero modifications. I wanted traditional, and this site claims it’s about as traditional as you can get. The only suggestion I would make in using this recipe is that I found the quantity of filling far exceeded what was necessary for filling the pasty dough. I used a rather large Russet potato and a normal sized Swede (yellow turnip). If I were making this again, I’d either increase the amount of dough or decrease the amounts of ingredients to make it all come out even in the end. You can see how much leftover filling material I had after baking 2 out of the 4 pasties in the background of the above picture.
While the pasty was unfortunately everything I’d come to expect from English cooking, it was a fun and worthwhile exercise into the world that Jane Austen inhabited during the period of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.
Cornish Pasty Filling
Searchable Keywords: Beef, Main Dish, Onion, Pastry, Potato, Swede, Traditional English, Turnip