In your face


About three months ago I googled “Ikea Kansas City” to find the address and scoffed that a bunch of weirdos had actually bothered to write Yelp reviews for a cafeteria inside of a furniture store. I mean, they couldn’t possibly have expected gourmet Swedish food for the cost of a McDonald’s meal, right? But now I’m here writing a whole dang blog post on the stupid thing. Way more ridiculous! So sometimes life has a way of humbling even the most sanctimonious of scoffers.

Part of the Ikea restaurant’s appeal, I suspect, is that most Americans have no referent for Swedish meatballs other than the Stouffer’s frozen version (or worse, that mangy meatball-ish thing let loose by Lean Cuisine). Compared to either I have to admit that Ikea’s balls sparkle. For anyone who’s ever prepared Swedish meatballs from scratch, though, Ikea is at best a purgatory of blandness. My favorite recipe of the admittedly few that I’ve tested is the one attributed to Marcus Samuelsson’s grandma here. The difference is not only the awesome proportions of honey, lingonberry preserves, and pickle juice but that they’re browned in the pan before simmering. The Maillard process is your vän!

Which is not to say, I’m at pains to repeat, that the furniture store version is horrible. They’re not and they’re part of a weirdly fun experience. It begins when you realize that the Ikea “restaurant” isn’t a real restaurant, but an airport snack kiosk with an extra X chromosome.

counter

With miraculously fingerprint-resistant glass cases.

You realize that the $5.99 meatballs of your erstwhile dreams sit in a lukewarm vat of gravy with a couple dozen others of their kind until you tell the lunch lady behind the counter to scoop them out for you. You realize that the instructions for assembling a meal, telling you to grab a cornbread or bagel or whatever from some unspecified other part of the cafeteria, and an empty glass (not a cup, you fool), are about as clear and concise as you’d expect from Ikea instructions.

meatballs

Then the dining experience rollercoaster takes a swing upwards again

You take a bite in trepidation, trying to shove a little bit of mashed potato, gravy, lingonberry sauce, and meatball into one forkful. And you realize to your surprise that it’s quite a bit lighter-tasting and more flavorful than the Stouffer’s stuff. And that’s a decent side salad. And those veggie patties somehow retained the tasty qualities of the broccoli and cauliflower they’re made of. And that sketchy nondescript “cream cake” is fluffy and delicious. And that elder flower drink tastes like the cum of the gods! (One would hope, for the gods’ sakes.)

I who am somewhat of a meatball snob would probably rate the “restaurant” a 5/10, if it were a stand-alone joint. As it is attached to the store I feel it deserves a 7/10 to account for the boost in novelty value. Where else can you take a leisurely after-dinner stroll as you watch perfectly sober people snap absurd selfies of themselves in model rooms?

selfie

Sascha told me to quit it, the people leisurely strolling by are laughing at us.

 

The Kansas City Ikea is actually located a few miles away in Merriam, KS, which Merriam is pretty proud of. It was built after the town gave the company a whopping $19.9 million tax increment financing incentive to invest $85 million there. As a newcomer I’ve found the rivalry between different KC suburbs a bit surprising – and the schism between Kansas-side and Missouri-side ‘burbs especially so. It seems that many of them are investing a lot in throwing up new infrastructure and trying to attract tax-paying residents and businesses. Counter to that is the “rebuild the downtown” crowd, which deserves its own post, but suffice to say that at least some of these boosters are going to be super disappointed in their investments in the next few years.

Other than the sweet tax break one of the reasons Ikea cited for building in the Kansas City area is the high number of preexisting website customers here. Indeed the Midwest must be gripped with Swedish furniture fever. There are two stores in the Chicago area and a St. Louis location slated to open in Autumn 2015.

So, what to make of that? I don’t really know yet, to be honest. I like Ikea furniture myself because it’s clean and simple and once you make it your own it usually looks better than in the catalogue, which is the opposite of almost all other furniture I’ve ever owned. The casters and slidey things along drawer sides work great. But it also looks pretty obviously like cheap Ikea furniture. In Upstate New York it was Thomasville, in New Orleans it was anything with a fleur de lis slapped on it, but in Kansas City apparently the populace harbors very few pretentions when it comes to home decor.

Of course I’m not trying to say that studying Ikea will reveal this area’s ethos. There’s far more to it than that. It’s only that, having spent more hours in that meatball-n-melamine depot than any other place here except for my own home, I couldn’t help but notice some things.

lamps

Like these incredible lamps! I bought one and will incorporate it somehow in our new digs or get killed trying.

Anyway, so far so good! Mediocre meatballs and loony lights, community loyalty and lack of snobbery, and I’m still pretty excited to be here!

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I like a good tossed salad as much as the next gal. When does what you do in the privacy of your own kitchen go too far?

 

Not bad, but those three strawberries are silent carby killers.

Before getting dressed.

 

Something called “orthorexia” half-caught my eye as I was drinking my coffee this morning and scrolling through Facebook, but I was distracted by shiba inu puppy videos and kids riding bikes and barely managed to remember the word so that I could look it up later. As it turns out orthorexia is an eating disorder marked by an obsession with eating healthy food. Unlike my co-bloggess/alter ego Lydwina I’m quite middle-of-the-road with my eating habits. It was tempting, then, to jump on the bandwagon and condemn those clean-eatin’ jerks for all their judgmental and self-satisfied ways. But in honor of my first gray hair, gloriously discovered as I was trying to decide if I should go for the record of days between showers, I decided to put my catapult aside and do a wee bit of research before I start casting stones.

hot dog

Halloween costumes to make an orthorexic weep.

The most surprising thing about orthorexia (meaning “correct appetite”) is that people who have it suffer terrible malnutrition. It’s actually easy to imagine extreme health nuts spending three hours a day planning their meals, shunning society because no one else can cater to their ridiculous purity requirements, and being thrilled by the feeling of control they get from avoiding carbs and preservatives for 692 straight days. But malnutrition, really? Yes, really. One of the hallmarks of a true orthorexic is that they’ve become so restrictive in their diet quality – though not its quantity, which is what an anorexic (“no appetite”) person would restrict – that they actually don’t consume enough of many nutrients at all.

As a society we tease and push people towards orthorexia as much as we do towards anorexia. Think “health is the new wealth” and all that jazz. Half the reason people shop at Whole Foods must be for the shopping bags, and 365 is the only supermarket brand I know that actually swings a big dick in the minds of anyone but budget shoppers. We collectively tell people who aren’t “investing” in their health that it’s their own fault they’re going to come down with some horrible disease one day. And that’s a problem. Just like anorexics, orthorexics make perfect recruiters for their condition: they’ve got loads of enthusiasm and they look great at first. If they’ve noticed some of the negative effects already they hide them from the world. So someone who starts off modestly replacing butter with olive oil might hear some friends raving that they’re in the best shape of their lives thanks to cutting out gluten, refined sugars, and everything grown with pesticides and gets very curious. Maybe eating just a little bit “healthier” can work the same miracle on her too? And then a little bit more, and a little bit more?

Word on the street is that all of us are going to die someday. Our ancestors ate horrible crap, rotten and contaminated and nutritionally monotonous, but if they had modern medicine they might’ve lived just as long as we do. It’s sad that people stop enjoying life and even damage their bodies because stores figured out that by aggressively marketing the healthy “lifestyle” they can sell more stuff (or sell the same stuff for more money). On the other hand, let’s be real here: that many medical conditions can be prevented or cured by making better nutritional choices is something people have known since at least forever. It’s the origin of medicine. By “better nutritional choices” the 1st century Greek doctor Galen, for example, meant eating more rose oil, raw quinces, and gruel to cure diabetes, but the spirit of the advice is the same even if the content isn’t. My point is just that rallying a movement against health food propaganda ain’t the solution, either.

So, because my father is from the same country as Sigmund Freud, a widely discredited but bold and highly opinionated psychologist, I feel obligated to offer my very first DIY tutorial, How to tell if you’re suffering from orthorexia/ porn addiction/ World of Warcraft addiction?” 

  1. Ask yourself if health food/ porn/ WoW is the center-point of your daily life.
  2. If yes, ask your friends and family if they can help you find ways to tone it down a bit. Unless it’s porn, then don’t ask your family.

Not to put a too fine of a point on it, please let me disclose that I saw a psychiatrist for addiction counseling for six months when I was younger. She had great patient reviews and yet was a steaming, horrible, terrible waste of my time and money. Most days she just badgered me about possibly quitting my reckless one-cup-a-day coffee habit (not the addiction I was there for). The low point was when she decided out of nowhere to start psychoanalyzing my relationship with my mom, invited her to a session, and made her cry. I would never recommend professional counseling to treat any addiction. What helped was deciding for myself that I wanted to quit and then getting my friends to support my choice and keep me out of temptation’s way while I got used to living without it. I’m not saying that’s the only way, people are different! I just think that there’s better reasons to pay to get on a random stranger’s couch.

organic food porn

One last food-related question, though: why does this image come up when you Google “organic food porn?”

This will be “my” last diet or exercise post in a while, by the way. Just like with my Robin Thicke phase I tend to become fixated on a topic, read about and write it to death, and then never think about it again for a few months. I feel like I’ve been holding back on topics no one agrees with me on, blog-wise. I’ve been, for example, itching to write about NAFTA and undocumented workers. Which believe it or not I actually have more authority to write about than orthorexia! I guess I’ve just been trying harder to impress people lately, but that’s a long story too, and if I write about it at all it will be in the guise of a disturbing and far-fetched fable.

I know I’ve been all up on similar topics before, but I really want to reiterate something that my friend Robin told me a few years back, which is that “intelligent people can change their minds.” 

Bad illustrative example: There was time when I found a ridiculous photo on Google and set out on a daunting quest to bake vagina cupcakes, only to reevaluate the situation and realize I probably need counseling.

 

Crumbs in your vagina

Mmm, vagina cupcake

 

Anyway, I obviously maybe possibly don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess I’m just amazed that a lot of people consider cleaving to an opinion for decades to be the sign of moral courage. It can be. But more often than not it’s a sign of making oneself blind to new evidence. Just not really ever thinking about the issue deeply again. Though I’m not a fan of habitual flip-floppers – those who care most of all for popularity – it’s probably not a good thing that we live in fear of being derided for having a change of heart.

Okay, fine, I’ll stop beating around the bush. I’ll stop trying to distract with lewd pastry. The thing is that after being against the death penalty all my life I might actually be pulling a reverse on that. Long story, I’ll get to it another day, just wanted to plop some pillows down for the descent.

Might as well find out now! Because honestly, if you’re ever in a situation where you have to consider eating a penguin, you’re probably not going to have an Internet connection.

The first thing you should know about penguin meat is that it’s not going to be the Next Big Thing at fancy restaurants anytime soon. The Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1998, prohibits its consumption except for “emergencies.” Not that even the most intrepid chefs wouldn’t turn their nose up to penguin steak. Want to know what the bird tastes like? Seal, according to most of the literature. And maybe ox heart. Doesn’t help? Well, this is what the surgeon about the RV Belgica observed during that ship’s Antarctic voyage in 1897-1901:

“We have absolutely no meat with which to compare it. The penguin, as an animal, seems to be made up of an equal proportion of a mammal, fish, and fowl. If it is possible to imagine a piece of beef, an odriferous codfish, and a canvas-back duck, roasted in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce, the illustration will be complete.”

Tasty! And the poor guy probably had plenty of occasion to chow down in the nearly four years he was stuck in the ice in the middle of nowhere. It’s like God finally got his revenge on the Explorers’ Club after letting the peccadillos of Columbus, Cortez, and the various “explorers” of Asia and Africa slide. In any case, I digress…

Nearly all who tasted penguin meat agree that the blubbery part is pretty “abominable,” and must be cut off before cooking. The meat itself is black and oily. All of it is edible, but none other than Lonely Planet’s Antarctica travel guide recommends penguin breast for the choosiest of gourmets. Ideally, penguin breast should be prepared thinly sliced, coated in egg and bread crumbs, and fried. Your emergency bread crumbs, of course.

 

In case of emergency, eat Puffy.

In case of emergency, eat Puffy.

 

So there you have it! I’m definitely not advocating eating these cutie-pies; I’m not even really advocating eating animals at all. Mostly, penguin meat came to mind after my husband creepily admitted that if we were stuck in the Antarctic he would totally eat me to survive… 😥

 

This contribution to your questionable browser search history was graciously sponsored by the good people at http://graciesouthtampa.com/.

Oh, hi!

It’s the morning after. The morning after my first Great Filipino Cooking Experiment, that is. I’m only fifteen pounds heavier and ready to share some judgy, unqualified ramblings as if I were some sort of expert. Learning a wee bit about Filipino food could be useful since it’s been pegged by many journalists as a hip “new” cuisine trend. It’s kind of familiar but something completely unique – a Pacific island culinary soul peeking through behind mainland Asian and Spanish bling, with random unexpected touches like achuete (achiote or annatto seed), a spice that first came over on the Manila Galleon from Mexico in the seventeenth century.

The backbone of every meal is rice. Even breakfast! Actually there isn’t really anything that sets breakfast apart from other meals except that you’re slightly more likely to get fresh bread like pan de sal or puto along with it. The main dish could well be fried fish. If there’s a national dish of the Philippines it would probably be chicken adobo which is way, way more than the sum of its soy sauce and vinegar parts. Or it might be lechon baboy – whole pig roasted on a spit – though that’s obviously only for more festive occasions. If you hate rice, you’ll probably be suspected of being the devil. Lest you steal someone’s soul you might be appeased with pancit (sort of like lo mein but in my opinion way better) or the local take on spaghetti which features sweet spaghetti sauce. For dessert, options include halo-halo (purple ube ice cream mixed with beans, shaved ice, evaporated milk, and mango), leche flan, bibinka (coconut cake) and fried sweet potato. However, if you’re presently in the Philippines you should know that the best versions of the best fruits in the world – mango, papaya, and banana – are right at your fingertips.

Okay, actually, although I’ve never cooked it on my own before, in way I am “some sort of expert” on Pinoy food. I was born in the Philippines. I’ve eaten tons of it all my life, and have watched my mom roll billions of lumpia like a boss. Cooking last night was a pleasure in part because it helped me reconnect to a part of my Asian side that I’d ignored. My European side is Austrian, and I cook Austrian/ German food a lot. I’ve always fancied myself a Schnitzel girl so it was cool to discover that I can be a kinilaw woman, too.

Before yesterday I scoured the Internet for good, authentic recipes. I have to say that there’s a lot of crap out there that doesn’t even look like it might turn out delicious. Or lacks enough instruction to be of use to a novice cook. Or uses ingredients that no one in the Philippines has ever heard of. So I’d like to highlight the recipes that I did try, as well as add my notes and modifications. But first, if you’re going to cook at home it’s absolutely mandatory to buy the ingredients at an Asian supermarket. If authenticity matters to you there’s just no way around it. In the New Orleans area I gleefully recommend Hong Kong Market. Such cheap produce! I found everything I was looking for minus Filipino limes called calamansi but plus some magic instant jellyfish that are so going to find themselves in Sascha’s omelette one glorious April 1.

Don't be jelly

Don’t be jelly

Lumpia. This turned out to be everyone’s fave last night, including mine! It was lighter and crispier than any restaurant eggroll. I omitted the pork and added some soy bean sprouts instead. Oil tips: Add a tiny bit of sesame oil in with the regular oil when sautéeing the veggies, it seems like nothing but it deepens the flavor of the finished product. And for the final frying use peanut oil because it splatters at a higher temperature.

Kinilaw. I honestly couldn’t find a satisfactory kinilaw recipe. They either called for cooked shrimp or didn’t specify how long the raw fish is supposed to “cook” in acid. So, since kinilaw is basically ceviche, I rummaged through ceviche recipes instead. This one was well-detailed and reassuring. I ended up using scallops because I chickened out of buying whole fresh fish. The marinade was a composite of my memories and various kinilaw instructions, modified by my sad lack of calamansi (fresh-squeezed lime and orange juice, seasoned rice vinegar, minced ginger, and pepper) as were the additions (minced red onion, cucumber, a Chinese pepper that looked like a monster jalapeno was not that hot, and chunks of Manila mango). It turned out nice! 

Chicken adobo. Lots of versions omit the searing part or call for added brown sugar, both anathema in my book. This one called for reducing the sauce separately – Not authentic but a clever innovation. I used Silver Swan soy sauce because it’s got a stronger, sweeter flavor than Kikkoman and modified the whole cooking process somewhat so that the simmering could take place in a slow cooker (3 hours on low heat instead of 25 minutes stove top). Otherwise I didn’t wander far afield. Napaka sarap! Seriously, I can’t even express how much this recipe rules.

Rice. Or check out Tucker Max’s latest, I Hope They Sell Rice Cookers in Hell 🙂

Fact: Fresh lumpia is the currency of heaven.

Fact: Fresh lumpia is the currency of heaven.

Overall, my non-Filipino guests really liked these dishes. They were fun to prepare and I’m so excited to experiment with different ones in the future. Happy home cooking!

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