Food Feed

The Skill That Goes Into a Skillet

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Right now, it is trendy to reach back for older technologies. There are, likely, a number of reasons for this. First, nostalgia is ever-present in our culture. When I was a young chap in the early 1980s, the decades of the 1950s and 60s were all the rage. We watched "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley." My junior high even referred to our dances as "sock hops." Secondly, I believe there is a growing dis-ease within our society over the constant updates on technology. I am sure that I am not the only one who has vented out loud over some new improved version of an app, program, or website that is less functional, convenient, and/or easy to use. People are beginning to wonder, "Is there really that much value in the latest gadget?" Maybe some of that old technology is perfectly fine, does the job at least as well (if not better), and doesn't try to steal your private information in the bargain.

Cooking is one of the subject areas where some people are embracing older technology. I now grind my own coffee beans. And I use a hand grinder. It takes almost exactly as long as it takes for my water to boil to grind beans for my French press, I use no electricity, and my grind is exactly the way I want it. I think my coffee is now better than what I get at my local coffee shop. I also use cast iron skillets. And that is the subject of today's blog post.

I am aware that there are new technologies emerging in the realm of non-stick pans. I've heard that these new "blue diamond" pans are supposed to be toxin-free, non-stick, and virtually indestructible. I've also heard that they chip and/or scratch easily, and lose their non-stick surface quickly. Well let me introduce you to my little friend, "the cast iron skillet." The cast iron skillet is, truly, nearly indestructible. It used to be common for skillets to be passed down from generation to generation. They can lose their non-stick surface, but re-seasoning them is easy to do. I suppose, if you really tried hard, you could scratch one, but not with any kitchen utensil I know about. So, why have we switched to these new tech pans?

Well, cast iron does require a bit of thought and effort. But in return, you get a device that will not wear out and will not add toxins to your food or your home. In order to use cast irons, there are a few things you need to do:

  1. You need to season your pan (which I will cover).
  2. You need to learn how to care for your pan (covered in an upcoming post).
  3. You need to learn how to cook with your pan (covered in an upcoming post).

Seasoning Your Pan

Seasoning a pan is not difficult, but it will take some time. I would set aside an afternoon. You can get plenty of other things done at the same time, but you will want to be around to monitor the process. 

How do you know if your pan needs seasoning? The simple answer is that it looks dirty. If you are using your pan correctly (which will be covered in an upcoming post) and food is consistently sticking to your pan, or if it will not wash up easily after use, then it probably needs seasoning. If you can see rust, or discoloring, or the surface is uneven, you probably need to season. Rust is the enemy. You really want to get that off. If it does not scrape or wash off, here is an odd trick that really works; cut a potato in half, sprinkle the rust with baking soda and use the cut potato to rub the rust off. 

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A dirty skillet that needs re-seasoned.

But if you have no experience with a cast iron skillet, you may not know what to look for. So, this is what a well-seasoned cast iron skillet looks like. The surface of the pan should look like a black mirror. It will not be reflective enough for you to actually see yourself in it, but it does reflect light. The surface will be smooth and even. When you wipe it with a paper towel, the paper towel should show little or no residue.

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A well-seasoned pan

Step 1: Wash the pan

One thing seasoning does is use a lot of heat to clean your pan, but let's do our best to give the process a head start. You can start by using a metal spatula and water, as hot as you can take it, to melt and scrape any food or rust off of your pan. If you have food or gunk that is really baked on, put a bit of water in the pan and simmer it for about a minute to loosen it up. To get the pan really clean, I recommend steel wool without any soap embedded in it (like SOS pads have). You don't have to be religious about not using soap on your pan, especially if you are about to season it. But those steel wool pads are handy to have around after your seasoning, so why not buy a box? And if you are going to use soap, I recommend avoiding soaps with perfumes or chemicals.

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Plain steel wool - no soap

Once the pan is clean, heat up your oven to around 375 degrees. Make sure the pan is bone dry. You can even heat it up on the stove, on a low temperature, to make sure you drive off all the moisture. Using a paper towel, wipe the surface of the pan with oil. If you have done a good job cleaning it, the paper towel should come off clean. If it is not perfect, like I said, the process will clean it. Put your pan into the oven face down and let it bake for an hour. After an hour, turn off the oven and let it cool down naturally. Remove it from the oven (carefully - it might still be hot) and wipe it with oil again. Is the paper towel coming off showing nothing but the oil (no black gunk)? Congratulations, you're done! If it is still blackened by wiping the surface of the pan with oil, clean it, and bake it again. Repeat this process until the pan wipes without leaving residue.

I hear some of you remarking, "You say 'oil,' but you don't say what kind." That is a tricky subject and one that people feel pretty strongly about. Here are some guidelines. Any oil (except olive oil) that is liquid at room temperature is in danger of adding PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) to your diet. Some people think PUFAs are liquid death; others think that in a proper ratio with saturated fats they are fine. Traditionally, skillets were seasoned with lard, tallow or other animal fats. These work well, but if you are not using your skillet regularly (multiple times a week), they can go rancid. Some oils add flavor to the pan, which can transfer to your food (avocado, sesame, coconut, flax). Some people dislike that, and some people are looking for that. Finally, some people need their pan not to smoke at a very high temperature. They are planning to use their pan to do things like sear steaks before cooking them. In that case they need to use oils with very high smoking points (avocado, safflower, refined olive oil). If you've been following this blog you know that we render our own fat, so it will be no surprise that we use tallow. We cook with our skillet almost every day, so there is no real concern with the fat going rancid.

Can you mess up the process? You bet. I managed to make cardinal error number one seasoning the pan for this post. I did not make sure the pan was bone dry before wiping it down with oil and putting it in the oven. When you do that the oil clumps up, and your pan looks like it is wearing a camouflage pattern.

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Terrific - I messed it up

The fix is elbow grease. I got to spend a whole lot of time with steel wool in my hand and hot water. I even used salt instead of soap. It took a good 20 minutes of work, but in the end I got the pan seasoned correctly.

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A well-seasoned pan

Seasoning a skillet is one of those processes that anyone can do without understanding what is going on. It's like getting water scale out of the bottom of a teapot. You can know that an acid will likely break up that alkali residue, or you can do what your grandma did and pour some vinegar into the teapot and let it sit before cleaning it. But for those who are curious, here is the layman's science behind seasoning. The iron in the skillet is porous, and the high heat opens those pores wide enough to let the fat seep into the pan. This forms a layer that both protects the metal and creates a non-stick cooking surface. Thus, the effects of flavored oils, high heat oils, and the risk of oils that can easily go rancid. The oil you use to season the pan is still there after the process, even after you wipe it away.

The nice thing about seasoning is that it is not like coating a pan with a non-stick teflon. That is something that can only be done once, and only done in a factory. Seasoning can be done, redone, and done by you in your own home.

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Authors Team Up to Pay Tribute to Fungus - and Raise Money for Cats

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All photos courtesy Ellen King Rice.

Lisa Brunette: Last week we took a magical mushroom tour with former wildlife biologist and author Ellen King Rice. Ellen and I first connected back when I lived in Lewis County in Washington state. She was just starting out on the author trail and lived in neighboring Thurston County. Both counties are primarily rural. I found the community in Lewis to be highly close-knit and tremendously supportive. I myself received a lot of support as an author, and it inspired me to give back to the community and help other authors, like Ellen. I witnessed the community continually coming out to support individuals in need as well as businesses and organizations. Ellen's project, Naked Came A Fungus, is a terrific example. 

Naked Came A Fungus is inspired by the award-winning story collections Naked Came the Stranger and Naked Came the Manatee. Cool coincidence: My writing mentor, Evelyn Wilde Mayerson, wrote one of the stories for Naked Came the Manatee, Chapter 7's "The Lock and Key." She used to teach at University of Miami, where I earned my MFA in Fiction. OK, now here's Ellen to tell us about her fun, fungus-y take.

Ellen King Rice: Fame and fortune are not finite. Too often insecure authors and artists can act as if success is a pie where one person taking a large slice means the next person will have to be contented with a small slice. Thank goodness there are creative people like Lisa who see the world as a place where there can be many pie makers - and exchanging recipes and presentation ideas means... more pie for everyone. Lisa encouraged me when I was absolutely brand new at storytelling. It was a huge lift to my heart to have a published author see value in my work. 

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Now three books into my world of thrillers set into the woods of the Pacific Northwest, I am following in Lisa's footsteps. This winter I've put together Naked Came A Fungus, which will showcase Puget Sound-area mushrooms and independent authors. Some background on the project: In 1969 two dozen writers created a literary spoof of the naughty potboilers of the day. They titled their creation Naked Came the Stranger, and it became a bestseller. A few years later, humorist Dave Barry led a group of Florida writers - including Lisa's mentor, Evelyn Mayerson - to create Naked Came the Manatee. Proceeds from the book benefited charities. 

Given that it is January, it is high time to launch Naked Came A Fungus, a showcase of fungi and writers from Puget Sound. We'll have a number of Puget Sound writers contributing stories or other material to the Naked Came A Fungus blog. Check in frequently to see if a poem, a song, a recipe, or an-out-of-this-universe experience has appeared. Each contribution will be paired with a photograph of one of the Northwest's stunning fungi (or a fungus from the destination of a traveling writer). 

The adventures will continue until the first day of spring, March 19, 2020. Want in on the fun? If you have an idea you'd like to contribute, please contact me.

Because I think we all need to have a party AND do good in the world, this project is also a fundraiser for our neighborhood cathouse, Feline Friends, a non-profit organization staffed by dedicated volunteers partnering to rescue stray cats and kittens.

May your day be filled with colorful wild mushrooms or loving pets or lots of pie - or perhaps some of each, along with a smidge of encouragement when it is most needed.

EllenKingRice

A wildlife biologist by training, Ellen King Rice is author of a three-book, fungus-themed mystery series: The EvoAngel, Underworld, and Lichenwald. In her fiction and non-fiction both, she is particularly fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes and believes that we don't know near enough about the thousands of fungal species that exist all around us. She lives near Olympia, Washington. Find out more at www.ellenkingrice.com.

As with all our content, this post was not sponsored, and we received nothing in exchange for the references made here.

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So Much Fungus Among Us! Tips on How to ID the Mysterious Mushroom

Amanita Orange 2019
Spotted on the trail near the World Bird Sanctuary here in Missouri near the Meramec River.

Twenty nineteen was a really wet year for us in the Midwest. As a result, we experienced a bit of mushroom mania that began in spring and lasted clear through the fall. To pay tribute to both the magnificent mushroom and the fantastic fungus, today I've asked former wildlife biologist and author Ellen King Rice to collaborate with me on a special guest post. Here I've compiled images from Dragon Flower Farm as well as from walks in the woods. The plan was to have Ellen ID the fungus among us, but that proved a little bit tougher than either of us anticipated. So if you've got some IDs for us, please share in the comments below!

With this project I was asking Ellen to stretch outside the Pacific Northwest territory she knows best and explore the mycology of the Missouri river bluffs around St. Louis, where I frequently hike, and the suburban 1/4-acre that is our little farmstead. Because the process for identifying fungus must be quite thorough, as there's the risk that they can be poisonous, and here I was asking Ellen to ID them on the basis of a photo or two, we decided to turn this piece into a how-to instead. So along with some successful IDs and fun facts, Ellen will share some ID-ing tips.

LB: Let's start with the photo above. I believe that marshmallow fluff-meets-wart stuff on top, paired with the bright orange cap, signal the poisonous amanita. Am I right?

EKR: Some mushrooms begin growing inside an egg-shaped "leathery" sack. As the mushroom pushes up, the sack breaks apart and becomes blotches or spots on the new mushroom’s cap. The "warty" cap and the "egg cup" base are indeed hallmarks of the amanita group of mushrooms. Some of the amanitas are terribly poisonous. Some are psychoactive. A few are edible. Which leads us to the number one rule of mushrooming: Don't eat fungi until you are an absolute first-class champion at identifying the genus and species you are hunting.

But mushrooms are not nuclear waste or some spy-novel deadly dynamite. You won’t be poisoned by a mushroom if you photograph it or handle it! 

LB: Ah, so that's where the "wart" comes from; fascinating! And thanks for the balanced approach to identification. I assumed all amanitas were poisonous, so it's interesting to hear that some are actually edible. Still, the risk is pretty great, so I for one wouldn't eat anything that looks like this. Better to admire its remarkable orange hue. 

Speaking of orange, regular readers of this blog know how much I love that color, and the next fungus is in keeping with that bold preference. What's going on with this beauty?

Orange_Fungus_2019
From another Missouri hiking trail in the Meramec River area.

EKR: This fungus as well as the next three lead us to the challenges of identification. Like Sherlock Holmes, we need to pay attention to a lot of details to know the entire story of "what’s going on." While I can't with confidence identify these three, I'll instead list some ways to start Sherlocking, with pros and cons for each.

Here's my first suggestion: Use a field guide. Every region of North America has a mycological field guide. The biggest "con" for field guides is that these books are often organized by spore print color. The fungal finder is supposed to take a sample of the fungus home, lay a cap section on colored paper overnight, check the color of the dropped spores the next day, and then go to the correct section of the field guide to begin the identification process. Whew! Not always easy or possible, especially if there are pets or small children in the home. Pro: Sometimes one can page through the photos of the field guide and "bingo," quickly land on a photo that looks just like our find (Keep looking! Sometimes many things are nearly identical!).

LB: That's great. I have a laminated, map-style field guide for North American birds on a stand next to my back windows, which look out onto the bird feeders. It's been instrumental in our identification of about 20 different birds so far. I've used more elaborate field guides both in the Pacific Northwest and Florida, and I need one for the Midwest now that I'm back here. I don't own a guide to fungus, but I'll put that on my wish list, too.

Next up is this incredible 'tree condo' my brother and I happened upon one day in the woods. The first photo shows the whole 'condo,' and the second gives a zoom in. By the way, check out all that velvety moss we've got here in Missouri. To me it rivals the Pacific Northwest - at least in early spring, when these were taken. By summer, it dries up pretty well, even when it's wet like this past summer was. I think that might be due to the heat.

Tree Condo Fungus1 2019

Tree Condo Fungus2 2019

LB: The rest of the photos were all taken at Dragon Flower Farm. I should preface the first crop by letting you know we had a ton of bark mulch on our land, making use of the sheet-mulch method. So I think this curious flora was born of rotting wood chips. The first to arrive in spring were these, which I've dubbed 'fungus cups,' but that's probably wrong.

Fungus Cups 2019
At Dragon Flower Farm.

EKR: It's definitely a cup fungus. I suspect it might be Peziza repanda, the Palomino cup or a close relative -  but I’d have to look at Peziza literature and see if does grow in your area... That could take some time. 

LB: Oh, you've done so much already, Ellen! Why don't you give us another tip for how to manage this ourselves.

EKR: Go on a mushroom club outing. The pros are you’ll meet some nice people, and you may quickly learn half a dozen of the most common fungi in your area. The cons, however, are that the dogs need to stay at home, and not every outing may be kid-friendly. You’ll also be working with a group, so it may be slower or faster than you like. 

LB: That's a great idea and something I've personally never done. I've seen quite a few opportunities to go on birding walks with experts who can share tips, but I've never seen anything like that for fungus. I'll have to investigate!

From our cup fungus, we move to what I've been calling 'spore pads,' paired with what I think is slightly different, so I've named them 'spore pops.' What are these strange, alien things, Ellen?

Spore Pads 2019
When the caps pop off, you can see little seed-like capsules inside. Also, more orange! Nature loves orange.
 
Spore Pops 2019
These are darker in color, and the seed-like capsules inside are almost black.

EKR: I feel completely confident about identifying these. They are bird’s nest fungi, a distinctive group. Browse the photos here to see several species that have this wonderful nest-with-eggs look. 

LB: The pictures you linked to over at iNaturalist are amazing. I'll look for these again this year. They are pretty special.

The last series is more traditionally mushroom-shaped, and wow, did they grow to huge sizes. I asked my husband, whose hands are way bigger than mine, to pose his mitt next to them for comparison.

Hand Colony 2019
Mega mushroom mania!

EKR: I'll take this opportunity to offer my last bit of ID-ing advice: Use iNaturalist. This is a website/smart phone app that uses photo recognition software to suggest names for what you’ve just photographed. This site also has tons of information about species' ranges, seasonality, and other details. However, you should take it with a big grain of salt. It may tell you that blurry picture of a brown mushroom is a bunny or a deer. The "suggestion" is exactly that - a starting place to learn more.

LB: I've been using PlantNet, with very mixed results for exactly the reason you cited. It hasn't helped at all in trying to identify any of the above, not even the amanita, which you'd think would be clear cut. That's partly why I reached out to you. I'll try iNaturalist to see if it's any better. The most useful resource I've found is the Plant Finder index on the Missouri Botanical Garden website. You can't ID from a photo alone, but I think I've learned more about plants from this digital resource than any other. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't seem to be as robust in coverage of fungi as it is flora.

I'll share a few more photos; perhaps readers will recognize them. I believe the two photos below depict the same type of 'shroom, top and bottom.

Mushroom Cap  and Violets 2019
Caps peeking out between our native violet, Viola sororia.
 
Mushroom Gills 2019
Mushroom gills. These grew in a bed mulched with pine sawdust.

LB: The last image is of one I've never seen before. The cap was slightly transparent; you can see the green of the leaves through it.

Transparent Fringe 2019

LB: Perhaps you lovely readers can help out with some IDs in the comments section below. I do enjoy how this piece morphed into a how-to, though. Thanks for the tips, Ellen!

EllenKingRice

A wildlife biologist by training, Ellen King Rice is author of a three-book, fungus-themed mystery series: The EvoAngel, Underworld, and Lichenwald. In her fiction and non-fiction both, she is particularly fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes and believes that we don't know near enough about the thousands of fungal species that exist all around us. She lives near Olympia, Washington. Find out more at www.ellenkingrice.com.

As with all our content, this post was not sponsored, and we received nothing in exchange for the references made here.

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Chewing the Fat... About Fat

Demofat

Trigger warning: If you're a vegetarian, or the type of person who likes sausage but doesn’t want to see how it's made, you might want to skip this particular post. Today I'm handing the blog over to ol' dusty buns (AKA Anthony Valterra, the other half here at the Dragon Flower Farm). He's going to talk about how to render fat. 

Here's Anthony:

First of all, why render fat? Well, fat is a substance that the human body is accustomed to absorbing. In fact, if you take in too little fat, it can have numerous deleterious effects on your health. It can lower your hormonal levels, make your skin dry, encourage you to overeat, mess with your body's natural temperature regulator, and cause mental fatigue. Now, that does not mean you have to eat animal fat. But if you are a meat eater anyway, it is certainly one of the easiest ways to make sure you are getting enough fat in your diet.

Rendered fat is fat that has been heated so that it melts the fat and makes it easy to separate the usable liquid fat from the proteins and other “waste” materials (although those materials don’t need to go to waste–more on that later). If you are rendering pork, the rendered fat is called “lard,” and if you are rendering beef, the result is called “tallow.” The process is the same, but just for clarity’s sake, we are going to be talking about making tallow. 

Tallow makes a fantastic frying pan lubricant for cooking just about anything. It also is great for providing a bit of flavor and helping the cooking process in a slow cooker, or "Crock-Pot" (which is a brand name, and we actually use one of those). You can bake with the rendered fat, season your iron skillets with it, and even make candles. It is high in vitamins A, D, K, and E and can be stored in a cool, dry shelf (refrigeration is not necessary although in the summer months when every place in the house is hot, we will toss our tallow into the back of the fridge). 

The first thing you need is a large chunk of cow fat. We buy organic, grass-fed beef in 1/4-cow quantities from a local rancher. When we make that purchase, the rancher throws in the fat for free. But we go through the fat faster than we go through the beef, so we end up buying single bags of fat separately between beef orders.

Pictured below is the last one-fifth of a $28 purchase, the last round of rendering we did from this chunk of fat.

Fat

As you can see, the fat comes in a large mass. It can’t be rendered in this state as the liquid fat needs to be able to pass easily through the fiber and protein holding it together. In a perfect world, if I had a meat grinder, I'd first grind the fat and then render it. But I am still looking for a good cast iron hand-cranked grinder, so until then, I just dice the fat into small cubes.

Cutfat

Our Crock-Pot holds five gallons, and I typically render about 3 or 4 cups of fat in a batch. I suppose you could render more, but the process of getting the fat out of the Crock-Pot is tricky enough with this amount. More would be a bit too much of a process for me.

Here is the Crock-Pot full and ready to go. I don’t put anything into the Crock-Pot with the fat. I’ve seen some sources that recommend a bit of water, but I have not found that to be necessary.

Crockfat

I start the Crock-Pot on high and set the timer for about two hours, but in reality, I check the pot about every 30 minutes and give the fat a quick stir with a silicone spoon that can handle high heat. This will be the first of a number of warnings that fat can get really hot and is very slippery! Those are two of its wonderful qualities. You can cook with very high heat with tallow or lard and it will smoke very little, and it creates a great non-stick surface. However, those qualities can make it exceptionally dangerous to work with. So be very careful that you have heat barriers and that you handle everything like you would a slick water eel.

Rendering

Once the fat has given up some of its liquid, and you can see it in the bottom of the Crock-Pot, you can turn the heat to low. Now you can check on it about every hour. You are waiting for it to separate into two distinct parts. First the clear liquid–that is the tallow; second, the brown, crinkly remains–that is what we are going to call “the crackling.” Once the crackling is uniformly shrunken and brown, you have probably pulled as much tallow out of it as you can. Turn off the Crock-Pot and unplug it. Now comes the tricky part.

Funnel

You’ll need a jar that you can seal, and I highly recommend a heat-safe funnel. To be very safe, I recommend that you put the jar with the funnel into the sink and have the Crock-Pot next to the edge of the sink. Everything is very hot and very slippery. The Crock-Pot, tallow, the crackling, and the jar itself will be hot and coated in fat. Using a heat-safe ladle, ladle the crackling out of the Crock-Pot and into a heat-safe container, leaving the liquid tallow behind. I use a second spoon to squeeze the crackling to get as much tallow out of the crackling as I can. 

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Once you have emptied as much of the crackling out of the slow cooker as you can safely manage, you can start ladling the remaining liquid into the jar. I can get the vast majority of crackling out of the Crock-Pot, so it is fairly easy for me to get just liquid into the jar with no tiny floater of crackling. But in the end, you will likely need to use a cheesecloth over the funnel so that you can get the last of the liquid separated and into the jar.

Cheesecloth

Be super careful. Have I mentioned how hot and slippery fat can get? If you knock over the jar, don’t try to grab it. Just let it be, and take the loss. No use getting burnt over spilt tallow. Don’t splash cold water on the jar–it will likely break from the temperature change. Carefully put the lid on the jar (not real tight as the fat is cooling and will cause a suction) and use oven mitts or other protection. Everything will be very slippery–the jars, the slow cooker, your utensils, the funnel, likely the counter that everything is sitting on. Be careful.

Once it cools, it looks like the tallow you can buy in jars at the store. Here's ours, in repurposed sauerkraut jars.

Done

This is what we got from about $6 worth of fat: one 25-ounce jar full and another half full. Call it 37 ounces. On the open market (or Amazon in this case), beef tallow for consumption goes for about 58 cents per ounce, so for $6, we made about $21.46 worth of tallow. Not bad. And what about those cracklings?

Cracklin

Weirdly enough, they make a decent snack food. They look much more appetizing when they are dried out–sort of like pork rinds. For me they are not like potato chips where if you eat one you have to eat the whole bag. A handful of cracklings with some salt, and I’m pretty good for a long time. But they are, essentially, fat, which is very filling, so that is not really surprising.

Rendering your own fat is a good thing that can save you a great deal of money and provide a very useful cooking ingredient. But remember: everything is slippery, everything is hot…

OK, now I can hear the problem with that phrase!

By the way, here's the Crock-Pot that we use.

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That Finnish Lifestyle Is Hard to Beat

14D79C9A-2F64-4452-AD8C-CBC9C598B5DF

We came back from Helsinki raving about what an awesome quality of life Finns have, and we'd like to give you a rundown of the three main areas that make it so. Finnish style is both Old World European and cutting-edge modern, and that's reflected in the cuisine, physical activity, and design.

Food

Notably scarce in Helsinki society: junk food and fast food. Once we left the airport, we really didn't see too many fast-food restaurants. There are a fair number of Starbucks cafes, which is not surprising, given the coffee-centric culture, and I don't know, maybe a Starbucks looks like a cool, exotic American place to get a coffee if you're a Finn. We avoided them, because why? 

There were also a handful of Subway restaurants, which bewildered us at first until I realized that Scandinavians are all about the sandwich, so to embrace a Subway footlong isn't beyond the pale. I did wonder if they eat it with a fork, though, as sandwiches are open-faced and consumed that way throughout Scandinavia. We went to a "Mexican" restaurant once during our stay, and our tacos came with a set of instructions for how to eat a taco (1. fold, 2. pick up with your hands, 3. eat). I figured that was due to the practice of eating open-faced sandwiches with a fork as well. The rice and beans were actually split peas and white rice, so there you go. Finnishized Mexican food.

There's a lot of soup in Finland, maybe because of the cool climate. We tried salmon soup three different ways during our stay, and the one at Story Cafe in the Old Market Hall was the best.

Salmon soup
A typical Finnish meal, with salmon soup, hearty bread, rhubarb crumble, and "overnight oats" also with rhubarb. They are big on rhubarb in Finland. Overnight oats is a grain porridge, a breakfast staple.

Back to my main point: Finns eat healthier than Americans. Probably not surprising, but the quality of the food is higher, too, with fewer processed food options and much, much less sugar and salt. They're big on bread and cereal; the national food is rye bread. But hold the usual overload of sugar and salt we Americans add to these foods. I find it interesting that the food cultures in European cities tend not to be gluten-phobic, as the U.S. is increasingly becoming. (A popular snack is Karelian pie, a rye pastry filled with rice porridge.) But neither is their bread processed with loads of fillers and chemicals and made from GMO wheat. Rather, bread is usually baked fresh, with just a few high-quality ingredients. Our hotel, for example, offered a daily brunch featuring sourdough rye baked early that morning. 

Yesyesyesdinner
Though the Finns like their meat, which ranges from bear to all manner of fish to reindeer, you CAN eat here as a vegetarian. Here's one of our favorite meals, from the veg restaurant Yes Yes Yes: Halloumi fries with pomegranate, arugula salad with hearts of palm, avocado-pistachio dip, and naan bread.

Meat and cheese are staples, too. Again, rather than dropping these items from their diets, Finns generally prefer to craft them from local ingredients, close to the source, rather than processing and adding preservatives and additives. I've noticed that I've been able to eat a much broader range of foods when I'm in Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Helsinki--all cultures that share this emphasis on high-quality, locally sourced food. (I've written about my experiences in Barcelona here.

Exercise

Finns are a lot less sedentary than Americans. Helsinki is a highly walkable city, with pedestrian-only streets common, along with plenty of walking and bike paths even on high-traffic streets. Beyond that, the Finns take great pride in their physical activities, with an active culture around swimming and using the sauna (Finns super-love to get naked and sweaty, and this is an occasion for a sandwich, too!) as well as a plethora of winter sport options. 

Finns are pretty wild about jooga (yoga). Apparently one of 12 undeniable proofs that you're married to a Finn is that you "yoga breathe in the passenger's seat." 

Jooga

We witnessed many Finns opting to take the stairs, which were more accessible than they are in America, where it seems in a lot of buildings they're only provided for emergency purposes. Our business associates, who've spent a good amount of time in the U.S., remarked that they always gain "at least 5 kilograms" when they travel to the States. They attributed it to the car-centric culture, types of food, and portion sizes. Which is not to say that Finns are New York-skinny; they're not. Finnish women, from what I've seen, look like healthy Midwesterners!

Exercise sort of blends in with the lifestyle, too, rather than being something designated as separate and requiring special clothing, a scheduled time slot, or a specific place to do it. Finns walk everywhere, and they walk fast, in regular clothes. Which doesn't mean they won't stop for a glass of wine in the middle of that activity.

Cafeursula

Design

Maybe it's not as direct a quality-of-life issue as food and exercise, but the place where form and function meet is definitely important to Finns. Things must not only work well, but they must please the eye as well. Conversely, if they're only pretty but not at all functional, Finns don't want any part of them, either.

Case in point: HVAC ductwork. The below circular art piece--I mean heating vent--is all over Helsinki. This one's from the aforementioned veg restaurant, Yes Yes Yes. 

Ductwork

What's remarkable about them besides how cool they look is that they seem to work a lot better than the ones we have here in the States. The little baffles circulate the air, rather than aggressively blowing it in one direction. You know that problem where you sit down and then have to move because the vent is spewing right in your eyes or making you too hot or too cold? Never happened to me in Finland.

Besides the HVAC, that triple-Yes restaurant was a triumph in fresh interior design, from the gorgeous patterned wallpaper to the simplicity of the retro pitchers and bright, happy colors.

Wallpaper

There's a love of domestic objects here, and a common theme of bright, uncluttered, natural interiors, with both an organic sensibility and clean lines. The natural world is a focus, whether that's how plants are displayed inside or in the design themes themselves, like the magical coffee mugs our hotel used, designed by Finnish firm Ittala

Ittala

I've shared my love of Finland here on the blog this past week, and I hope you'll experience it for yourself. Tomorrow, I'll list my top 5 travel accessories, and tell you about a very special discount, too!

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