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#OklahomaStrong

OKStrongThough only a week has gone by since the May 20 tornadoes ravaged the greater Oklahoma City area, it has felt like many weeks to those of us living in the area and, I’m sure, many months to those who have lost their home, workplace, and in some instances a family member (which also includes thousands of pets). While Moore has received the most media coverage due to the shock-value of its mile-wide tornado and the damage sustained, the communities of Carney, Shawnee, Newcastle, Wellston, Prague, Luther, Little Axe, Bethel Acres, Edmond, and southern Oklahoma City also sustained heavy losses.

In the wake of the tragedy, both locals and outsiders alike have rallied to show their support though donations of their time and resources. Some call it survivor guilt, some call it community support, but something has come alive in the people of Oklahoma, and many thousands of people have spent every spare moment of their time shoveling through the debris of Moore or taking food to a family who have only the clothes on their back. Local businesses have stepped up to do all they can, lending their facilities as a drop-off point for donations or providing services at free or reduced rates. One local company refused to have their name said more than once in a radio ad that designated them as a drop-off location. Instead of using a tragedy as a marketing ploy, they used their thirty seconds of radio space to express heartfelt sympathies and provide a means for others to help.

My own office, VI Marketing and Branding, has joined together with other local marketing and design firms to create original “Tornado Tees” in support of relief efforts: http://tornadotees.bigcartel.com/ With themes such as “Never Broken,” “OK Rise,” and “Hope for the ‘Homa,” these shirts express the united strength of Oklahoma residents during this time. Shirts are $25 each, and all the proceeds will go towards the OK Strong Disaster Relief Fund. Buying a shirt is a great way to be involved and show your support, even if you don’t live in Oklahoma.

So what does this have to do with travel and/or food? Well…maybe nothing. But it is a close-to-home topic for me right now and well worth a post.

Many people have wondered aloud (especially in light of recent events) why anyone would want to live in Oklahoma, and especially why anyone would want to live in tornado-prone zones like Moore.

I live in Oklahoma because I see friends all around me, even (and sometimes especially) in the faces of strangers. I rarely pass someone without exchanging hellos.

I live in Oklahoma because you can see the most brilliant sunsets across the flat plains.

I live in Oklahoma because a community of Christians and non-Christians, rich and poor, from every walk of life in every corner of the state can come together to pick of the pieces.

Oklahoma is not broken.

Buildings are broken. Fences are broken. Pavement is broken.

Oklahoma is strong.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Oklahoma

 

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Gwak-a-mole

Ever since I was a kid, I have hated avocados and the mushy paste that people make with avocados formally known as guacamole. Sound familiar? Almost everyone I know began life hating guacamole, and only a select few have made the transition from hating and loving guacamole. There is no middle ground, and the transition is usually sudden and surprising.

AvocadosMy transition from childhood into adult tastes began last summer when I was first learning how to cook. While helping in the kitchen, one of my roommates asked me to make the guacamole. Even though I knew I wouldn’t be eating the guacamole, I complied in order to be helpful. True, I had never made guacamole, but how hard could it be? You just mash some stuff up, right?

It turns out the difference between true guacamole and a bowl of massed up avocados is in the additional ingredients. The supporting ingredients are vital to counterbalancing the less-than-palatable taste of straight avocado. While I know some people who swear by a simple combination of lime juice, salt, and pepper, I prefer a slightly more complex blend of flavors.

For your entertainment, here is a link of comedian-musicians Rhett and Link singing their personal recipe for guacamole: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRlqsvphYww. Sounds pretty tasty, though maybe adds even more ingredients than I would suggest.

My own recipe goes something like this:

1 avocado (double recipe per additional avocado)
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
1 tsp lemon or lime juice
¾ tsp garlic powder (or to taste)
2 Tbs salsa
2 Tbs chopped onion (green pepper is also good for a chunky texture)
Chopped cilantro optional

I say it goes “something” like this because over the course of developing and perfecting the formula, I have stopped using exact measurements and going by sight and taste. I found this recipe online that first time I attempted to make guacamole. I inadvertently added the garlic powder in tablespoons instead of teaspoons. Although I added in more avocados to dilute the overwhelming flavor of garlic, it still packed a stronger kick than I intended. However, through that mistake I came to see the garlic powder as an integral part of the flavoring, adding just the right zing to ward off blandness. Even now when I have become a practiced connoisseur of guacamole, I still include slightly more garlic powder than the recipe calls for. I will swear by this recipe, as it has allowed me to convert many non-believers to a love of guacamole (but only if it’s my guacamole).

When I left for Europe, my greatest concern was that I would have to go three months without guacamole (do they even have avocados in Austria?!) As it turns out, you can find avocados, albeit for a rather high price, at most grocery stores in Vienna. Although I could not make guacamole very often, I did get to display my secret recipe to my travel buddies, much to their delight.

Here’s a tip when making guacamole ahead of time or saving leftovers afterwards (not that you will have leftovers because obviously it will all be devoured): when storing in the fridge, leave the pit in the guacamole to prevent it from turning brown.

As a last hurrah for guacamole, here is the Oscar nominated short “Fresh Guacamole.”

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2013 in Food, Recipes

 

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Comfort Foods

As their name implies, comfort foods help us go to our happy place and provide the comforts of home. Everyone has their person comfort food, depending largely on their regional and family specialties. My favorite comfort food is a nice, big bowl of cereal—a preference I inherited from my mom—partially because it reminds me of home and partially because I just find eating with a spoon comforting. However, nothing says home like a big bowl of macaroni made just the way my dad likes it—with lots of milk to make the cheese runny.

Comfort food Just as travel displaces you from home, it often displaces you from your comfort foods, particularly when visiting eastern countries. Even in Vienna, taken-for-granted necessities like peanut butter were hard to find and dishes such as macaroni come few and far between. Near the end of our trip, my friends rejoiced in finding a KFC in Munich, yet discovered menu options catered more to German tastes than American. Even they had no macaroni.

However, when traveling for extended periods of time, you learn to create home around yourself, even if you have to get creative. Two of my friend attempted homemade macaroni using the pasta shells and cheese available, and though it was not my dad’s macaroni, we all counted it a success just because it helped remind us of home. Later, while on a mission weekend in Chemnitz, Germany, the American missionaries we worked with made us an American feast of macaroni and pigs in a blanket, and I ate until my sides hurt.

Sometimes even foods we do not consider our favorites can become signs of home. Last summer while living away from home, I surprised myself by getting excited over beef stroganoff night. My roommate, the cook, asked if I liked stroganoff, and I immediately admitted that I hate stroganoff, yet it reminded me of home. During my fall trip, I suddenly found myself craving a big bowl of chili, especially when the weather turned cold. At my request, my dad made a huge pot of chili shortly after I returned home.

And of course, being away from beloved fast food joints can sometimes make you want to kill to get it. Although we encountered several McDonalds, Burger Kings, and even a Subway, not a single Taco Bell or a Chick-Fil-A exists in all of Europe.

However, though returning home enabled me to satisfy all my previous cravings, I now often find myself craving the comfort foods found only in Vienna. We ate schnitzel sandwiches until we thought we never wanted to look at schnitzel again, and yet now that it’s gone, no Chick-Fil-A sandwich can stifle my craving for the schnitzel of KOC, where the owners knew us by name and put love into each sandwich.

Although it may be hard to cope without your favorite foods, do not neglect to experience the local comfort foods. Your cultural experience will be more enriched and you might even come away with a new favorite.

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Food, Travel

 

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“One ice cream in carpet, please”

LanguageThe most difficult obstacle to overcome while traveling which often deters people from international travel is the language barriers. As I mentioned in my Gelato post, one of the funniest language blunders of my trip occurred when my friend accidentally ordered his eis “in teppich” (carpet) instead of “in tüte” (cone).

I will admit, language barriers did prove to be the greatest challenge to assimilating into my surroundings in Deutsch (German)-speaking Austria. Although some Austrians might speak a fair amount of conversational English, in general the populace knew the same amount (or less) of English as an American high school graduate might know of Spanish or French. However, we who had not even completed basic-level Deutsch knew even less how to communicate in the dominant language around us.

In general, luck favors the bold, though trip-ups are inevitable to the learning process, just as babies often mistake or interchange words when learning to speak their first language. The best advice is to not be ignorant. Even if you are only traveling to another country for a week instead of three months, learn how to say the basic words: hello, yes, no, thank you, you’re welcome, please, and a few longer phrases such as how much does this cost, and I would like… Even if you have to point, these phrases will help get your point across.

Do not be afraid to interact with people, even with your limited knowledge of the language. When you don’t understand someone, don’t sweat it. The people of Europe are much more accustomed to encountering language barriers than Americans due to its rich diversity of languages. To be honest, I find the “deer in a headlights look” is universally understood as “I do not understand anything you are saying” (even if travel and language experts might frown upon it). In some cases, the person you are speaking to might even switch over to English or at least try to communicate with you in other ways. Most people in Europe are kind, even if they do not seem outwardly friendly, so relax and just do your best.

Here are some tips for how to understand and be understood when traveling abroad.

1. Speak slowly: It will be easier for the locals to understand your butchered attempts at their language if you annunciate clearly. If the person you are addressing does speak some English, it becomes even more important to speak slowly (I once talked the ear off a French speaker for the better part of an hour before he admitted that I spoke to fast for him to understand).

2. Use internationally understood words: like toilet. Even if you don’t know the local word for toilet, several languages use practically the same word for toilet as in English. In all other cases, many if not most Europeans will recognize the English word. Voice inflection also helps convey meaning, so put some gusto into your words.

3. Figure things out: By being observant and listening, you can often pick up the meaning of words in other languages. When you are shopping, look for something familiar and make your best guess. You might end up with turkey instead of ham your first time, but at least you will learn the word for turkey!

4. Fake it ‘til you make it: if you think you know what something means (on a menu, sign, or in conversation), go with your best guess. Even if you are wrong 50% of the time, that’s better than never engaging and it can lead to some hilarious stories!

 
 

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The Crock

[This one’s for you, Holly Kooi]

The most valuable piece of cooking equipment I’ve ever invested in is a Crockpot. It ranks just above blender on my list of must-have appliances. Since I could not pack along either a blender or a Crockpot when I went to Europe, I made due without the blender but chose to order in a Crockpot from Amazon.co.uk and have it delivered to my hotel. Though in all honesty I did not use the Crockpot more than six or seven times while in Vienna, it did allow me to cook dishes that would have otherwise been impossible.

While cooking in a closet-sized kitchen with no oven, my roommate and I had to adapt our cooking styles to meet the limited resources. Spaghetti became a popular dish and we consumed many gallons of soup over the three month period. However, a person can only eat so much spaghetti, and so one week I took it upon myself to cook up a Crockpot meatloaf.

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At the time, I had never made meatloaf in my life and I had only begun to learn how to cook three months prior to my trip. Although meatloaf is hardly a beginner’s dish, I love to try new things and experiment in cooking, and so I took it upon myself to create a masterpiece of spinach and feta-stuffed meatloaf (a recipe I found in the Amazing Slow Cooker e-book). I ran into difficulties when trying to convert from Customary to Metric, plus the additional challenge of finding the right ingredients in the Austrian grocery story, and had to make more than one return trip to the store for something I had forgotten; eventually, however, I created a well formed meatloaf that all of my friends agreed was excellent—though it’s hard to say how reliable that judgment was, since we were all just dying for a home-cooked meal.

Other Crockpot successes on the trip included an improvised chicken and vegetables dish, and an apple crumble desert. It became particularly useful at times when we spent the whole day sight-seeing and could return to a fully cooked meal.

Although I had to leave my Crockpot in Europe, I received a replacement for Christmas and have continued to perfect my meatloaf and investigate other dishes. Despite its reputation as primarily a soup and stew cooker, a Crockpot can actually become a versatile tool when used properly. The most important thing to know is exactly how powerful the heating element of your Crockpot is, which can affect the recommended cooking time. And while it’s tempting to open the lid and peak at your dish, this adds 15-30 minutes of cooking time as the heat escapes.

For more information about Crockpots and Crockpot recipes, see the official site: http://www.crock-pot.com/

Recipe for Stuffed Meatloaf:

4 lbs. – Ground beef

4 – Eggs 1 cup – Breadcrumbs (seasoned)

1 packet – Onion soup mix

3 cloves – Garlic (minced)

1/3 cup – Parmesan cheese (grated)

¾ cup – Ketchup (divided)

1 ½ cup – Feta cheese (crumbled)

4 tbsp. – Sun-dried tomatoes (minced)

12 oz. – Chopped frozen spinach

Mix the breadcrumbs, eggs, ground beef, Parmesan cheese, garlic, onion soup mix, and ketchup in a large mixing bowl, holding back 2 tbsp. of the ketchup for later use. Combine the sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese together in a small mixing bowl. Cover a cutting board in wax paper and shape the meat mixture into  6 x 10-inch rectangles. Sprinkle the mixed tomatoes and feta over each meat patty, staying 1-inch away from all edges. Over the feta cheese, place the spinach leaves and roll the meat using the wax paper. The meat should be rolled tightly to completely seal the cheese and spinach inside and close all ends shut. Spread the remaining ketchup on each of the meats, and set in the slow cooker. Cover, and cook for approximately 9 hours on low or 5 hours on high.

(Catherine Reynolds, The Amazing Slow Cooker Cookbook)

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Food, Recipes, Travel in Europe

 

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When in Austria Part 3: Gelato

You may think you know about gelato. You may have eaten something called gelato. But until you have had gelato from either Austria or Italy, you have only tasted a lie. The difference between authentic gelato and the American knock-off is like the difference between a gourmet hamburger from your favorite grill restaurant or a cheeseburger from McDonalds. Or perhaps a closer comparison—the difference between Blue Bell Ice Cream and the generic brand (Blue Bell could be another rant entirely—if you’ve never had Blue Bell, you’ve never had American ice cream).

Eis

Austrian gelato (called Eis) and Italian gelato form two different schools. Personally, I liked Austrian the best, though many people swear by the higher authenticity of Italian gelato. Sure the Italians invented gelato (supposedly), but as is the case with most Italian food, the adaptation is better than the original.

As a rule of thumb, the more puffed up and globby the gelato looks, the worse it tastes. This is the common gelato served to tourists who don’t know any better. If an establishment serves another type of food (or no food at all) with a gelato stand on the side, this is also interior gelato. The best place to find the real deal is in the established gelato restaurants that serve gelato which appears more natural in color and texture, in many ways resembling ice cream.

I patronized the gelato shops quite often during my stay in Vienna, particularly during the month of September. My favorite gelato shop, Tichy Eis, served arguably the best gelato on the planet, but unfortunately closed for off season beginning in October. A lesser but still yummy alternative, Zanoni & Zanoni, is a chain gelato shop recommended by the great travel god Rick Steves. The difference between Tichy and Zanonis comes down to the creaminess of the texture and the freshness of the flavors, particularly the fruit flavors. Both shops make their own gelato and have comparable pricing, so everyone may judge for themselves which is best. (Team Tichy vs Team Zanoni)

To this day, the phrase I have most fluently learned in Deutsch is “Ich möchte ein kugel in tüte, bitta.” I would like one scoop in a cone, please. (Hilariously, while learning this phrase, one of my friends accidentally asked for his ice cream “in teppich,” meaning in carpet) Flavor names include Schocolade (chocolate), Erdbeere and Heidlebeere (strawberry and blueberry), and my personal favorite, Stacciatella (as I referred to in my “Lucky penny” post).

Nothing in America compares to stracciatella. While you could say it resembles chocolate chip, the chocolate pieces are shaved or chopped rather than whole pieces of chocolate. The word stracciatella is Italian and literally means “torn apart.” These shavings add the hint of chocolate without overwhelming the texture of the gelato. I first encountered this flavor at Tichy and spent the rest of my trip searching for the equal of Tichy’s stracciatella, and eventually encountered some Italian gelato at a shop in Rome that was nearly its equal. My love affair with stracciatella, as with my love affair with Tichy and with gelato in general, ended with my return to the States, for nothing in America can equal it. However, if/when I return to Vienna, stracciatella Eis will be the first thing I seek out.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Food, Travel in Europe

 

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When in Austria, Part 2: Naschmarkt

Nasch2Nasch meaning snack, and markt meaning the open air market where you can buy said snacks. Stretching the 1.5 kilometers (just under a mile) between the Karlsplatz and Kettenbrückengasse stops on the orange line, this market is open every day and attracts both tourists and locals.

I should preface my account of Naschmarkt by noting how much I love open air markets. Whether it’s a craft fair, a flea market, or a produce sale, I love the energy of walking around and looking at the various items, even if I do not plan to buy anything. However, the venders at Naschmarkt make their living off convincing others to buy their wares, and they can spot a tourist a mile away—so I quickly learned.

The first time I visited Naschmarkt was on a Saturday. Saturdays are unique from the regular days of business because the permanent produce and textile stalls are joined by make-shift booths selling every kind of thing-a-ma-bob or what-have-you that you could imagine: the quintessential flea market. Items range from ceramics to old clothes to tables full of used cameras. One peddler sold a violin amongst his piles of miscellaneous junk. However, this form of commerce demands skill in haggling, which was never my strong suit, so I moved on from the flea market to investigate the permanent stalls.

I was quickly roped into buying a scarf from a nice, though slightly pushy man who spoke English. I’m still not sure if I actually liked that scarf at the time, or if the low price of €5 made the deal too good to pass up, or if I merely felt relief to have someone speak to me in English. I convinced myself that I did want this scarf, despite ulterior motives.

However, the next vender I encountered played me like a song. My first mistake was in showing any interest. This man owned a falafel and humus stand—two of my favorite Mediterranean foods, so I eyed his ware. He Naschmarktimmediately offered me a free sample and asked which language I spoke. I took the sample (mistake) and admitted I spoke English (big mistake). However, all of these mistake could have come to nothing had my friend Tyler not walked up to join me. Where I hate haggling, Tyler thrives on it, and he immediately began haggling on my behalf.

He haggled the vender into giving me 25 falafel for €2.50. I didn’t want 25 falafel, but even I admitted that as a good deal and prepared to purchase them. However, Tyler continued his back and forth with the vender, despite my protests, until he had created a bundled deal of 25 falafel, a container of assorted humus flavors, and a small bag of olives. Unfortunately the bill then came to €10, as Tyler proved less of a haggling master than he thought. Though exasperated, I agreed to buy all of these items out of buyer’s guilt, and Tyler agreed to foot the bill out of guilt for embarrassing me. We now look back on the incident and laugh over our shared experience.

From that point on, I learned to watch out for the venders who spoke English, though I’m still poor at haggling. The market experience still attracts me, even if I don’t know how to play the system, and as Tyler pointed out, a market is the best place to learn the local language. You never know what you will find at a market or what lasting memories will come of the experience.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Food, Travel in Europe

 

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