Merry Christmas!

Ok, I’ve been a bit lax recently with my posts but I’ve been so busy with holiday preparation – sorry!!  I’ll post more in the New Year.  Should have lots to report on because we’re off to Memphis and St Louis for the holiday season.  All the best and have a great New Year! xx

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A question of rarity – Sycamore, Columbia (MO)

I’m the sort of person who usually has a very clear idea of how I want things to be.  This can be an asset at times but also quite distressing at others.  A case of the latter, I like my steak to be rare.  French rare.  Why anyone would want anything more than medium-rare is an absolute mystery.  Surely, it’s the strata of flavour achieved by firmly searing the outer layer of flesh whilst maintaining the integrity of  within that makes a great steak?  Who could forgo the seductively smooth, succulent texture of raw beef?  It’s criminal.  In France, any attempt to specify how to have your steak done would be met with great disdain.  You will, naturally Monsieur, be served the steak in the precise condition that shows it off best.  The suggestion of having anything well-done would (and should, in my opinion) get you kicked out of any half-decent (non-tourist) establishment.  If I’m in Europe and request a rare steak, I get rare steak.  In America, I get a rubbery medium.  So, now my steak ordering technique has become a clownish, comedic thing of local legend.  A chef at Piropos actually came out to meet me when he heard it.  It goes something along the line of:-

“Rare.  No – really really rare.  Wriggling, pulsating with nerve twitches, just hacked off the cow.  Don’t be scared.  I will not sue you and am willing sign a waiver, if necessary.  I know that I appear like a somewhat unassuming petite Asian gal but, trust me, I can take it Mister“.

I do feel a bit of a fool to give the whole affair such emphasis but I find that many chefs in the mid-West are simply unwilling to deliver the product I desire.  So, like the good foodie that I am, I endure the silly pantomime to achieve the taste I crave.

Which brings to mind, we were treated to a most prodigious meal in Sycamore (Columbia, MO) last weekend.  I braved their 8oz “Special” steak and, as expected, I impressed upon our waitress the gravity of the rare-ness that I desired.  What I received was a glorious chunk of well-seasoned, lightly charred steak that was just below body temperature within.  It was heavenly.  I savoured each bite and consumed it all.  The sides weren’t much to write about (broccoli was still raw in places, I guess they thought I wanted everything underdone?).  Still, I didn’t care.  I had no time for anything else – stomach real estate was scarce and I had cow to chow.

Frankly, I don’t feel the need to write about the other mains we ordered but in the interests of journalism I’ll let you know.  I managed a few swipes at Hubby’s beef short-ribs which were pretty darn good.  The picture (right) doesn’t look like much but the meat was rich, full and tenderly soft.  Hubby’s sister ordered the lamb which also looked fantastic, although I didn’t get a bit she seemed to enjoy it immensely.

I suppose it could have been all that champagne or the happy occasion that heightened the experience but I have to say that Sycamore delivered a finely executed meal.  All in all, quite a treat!

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I love Oklahoma Joe’s but it sure doesn’t love me…

Last night, went to Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue with Hubby.  A great treat because we love the place.  Like nearly all authentic BBQ joints, it’s a bit rough around the edges.  Located within a gas station (yes) the tables are edged with metal and there are no napkins, just rolls of kitchen paper.  Seems like whichever time we go there is a crowd.  You queue for about 15-20 minutes and then shout your order at the server who is hidden behind a screen and watch while they whip together your meal in seconds.  Like all well-oiled machines, it’s great to observe.

I ordered the rib & chicken dinner with BBQ beans.  Hubby had a pulled pork sandwich with fries.  Each meal could have fed two people.  I received 5 good-sized ribs and managed to eat three plus a spoonful of beans and a handful of fries.  That was all I needed.  Hubby did better and managed all the meat in his sandwich, a good share of the fries and my remaining two ribs. We were stuffed.  The ribs completely stole the show.  They were juicy, succulent, flavourful and delicious.  I couldn’t believe just how meltingly soft it was.  Amazing.  The pulled pork was pretty darn tasty too but couldn’t compete with my ribs.  Beans were nothing special.  Fries were crunchy and salty.  All of this was liberally accompanied with the house spicy BBQ sauce, Night of the Living Bar-B-Q Sauce.  No jokes, this stuff will knock your cotton socks off and make you feel good at the same time.  Thankfully you can get it in the supermarkets around KC which means that I can have it whenever my heart desires.  Overall, the meal was delicious and set us back $24.

However, we got a bit more than we bargained for when we got home because we were both ill.  Sadly, for some reason, everytime we eat OJ, it never sits well with us!  Perhaps it’s the overload of salt, sugar, meat and saturated fat (go figure…).  I don’t know.  Would it stop me going again?  Nope.  That’s how good it is.

Oklahoma Joes Website

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Going paperless this Christmas

For those who do not know me well,  I am a bit of an eco-geek.  Before leaving the house, I run around the home ensuring that all the lights and faucets are turned off.  I’ve carefully sealed off all heating vents in the rooms that we do not use.  I go around with a candle trying to catch draughts and then seal them up.  I religiously recycle as much as I can and sometimes even go through the rubbish bins to make sure that no scrap of paper or metal was accidentally thrown in.  It pains me to see the people in my neighbourhood who never put out their blue recycling bin for collection.

So, in keeping with this tradition, I have decided to go paperless for Christmas cards this year.  I have prepared a pretty PDF newsletter and will send it out attached to personalised email messages.  Yes, I admit that the romance of receiving a card in the post is hard to beat, but I cannot justify the use of all that paper.  Also, think of all the fossil fuel that would be used to grow the trees, collect the trees, produce the paper and, finally, deliver my messages around the world.  Personally, that’s too much for me.  However, if you can’t do without your paper cards, here are some other things you could try to make your Christmas a greener one:-

– Avoid festooning your home with Christmas lights.  Yes, I know, they do look lovely.  Even I can’t help looking admiringly when people do decorate with lights.  However, keeping all those bulbs turned on each night pumps out masses of unnecessary carbon.  If you can’t live without your lights, consider switching to LED light strands which use less energy (plus it’ll save you some money on your electricity bill).

– Avoid metallic, glittery, etc paper for wrapping and cards.  This paper cannot be recycled.  In fact, try some alternative methods of wrapping – like newspaper/magazine pages and brown string.  It could look quite modern, actually, if you pick the right pictures.

– Notice your impact on shops.  In this cold season, a lot of shops keep their doors wide open to appear welcoming.  They then pump out masses of hot air to compensate.  This is wastage on a criminal level and really upsets me.   If you see this happening, tell the manager that this is incredibly bad for the environment and that it’s irresponsible on the part of the company (it’s rarely the manager’s fault, it’s normally a head office edict – just ask them to pass on the message to HO).  Also, when you buy something, tell the cashier not to wrap your items in bunches of paper and un-recyclable plastic.  Just bring your own bags to the shop.

Have a Merry Christmas and love your planet!

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I’ve got chili on my mind…

Nothing quite like the great American institution of chili con carne (chili, for short).  It is the official state food of Texas, apparently, which gives you an idea of its significance here.  So, I’ve been meaning to get to grips with this dish for some time.  Hubby and I both love to eat it and it’s a spectacular winter warmer.  Plus, it’s so easy to do – lots of chopping up but no fancy techniques required.  You can whip up a massive pot and freeze most of it for mid-week dinner emergencies during the next few months.

Brits, take note: Americans do not eat their chili with rice.  In fact, a lot of Americans think that this method of serving chili is horrific.  From what I’ve observed from the Americans around me, they prefer to eat their chili plain with crumbled crackers and grated cheese on top (I know!).  I guess they get sufficient carbs from the beans in it?  Yanks – do you eat it with anything else?  Answers on a postcard please!

Still, before I could embark on my chili voyage, I had to find the right recipe.  I wanted a recipe with some serious punch-kick action.  I didn’t want to mess around with the chili equivalent of a soft handshake – which is why I got so excited when I saw an episode of Down Home With The Neelys when Pat made a stonking chili with tonnes of spices, ground (aka minced) pork and beef and even beer (Budweiser preferred…).  The Neely’s aren’t afraid of dabbling with the aromatics so I knew that it was worth trying.

By way of background, the Neelys are a lovely, exuberant married couple called Pat and Gina, who share their delightful family recipes with millions of viewers each week.  Really, I wish a knew a Neely.  They are the sort of people who would invite you to their home for dinner and you’d spend the entire evening laughing and eating amazing food.

So, armed with my recipe, I decided to document the process for my blog but in the interests of time and copyright, you may find the original recipe here.

(1) Amendments to his ingredients:-

  • applewood smoked bacon – couldn’t find applewood smoked but it didn’t make a difference.  I only used the meatier half of each bacon slice because I didn’t have the heart to add that much saturated fat to my food.
  • bell peppers – the price of peppers in supermarkets is a total rip off.  I saw good ones going for 4/$1 in City Market. Go there and you’ll save an automatic $5 on this recipe.
  • spices – I substituted these with the Penzeys Chili 9000 spice blend (Penzeys is an amazing spice shop in downtown Overland Park) then topped up with the individual spices according to taste while I cooked.

(2) Directions (with my notes!):-

Chop up a whole bunch of stuff

In large Dutch oven (I used a non-stick pot, didn’t seem to matter), fry the bacon over medium heat until lightly crisp, stirring occasionally.

Once bacon is brown & crispy, add garlic, onions, bellpeppers, Penzeys chili 9000 (don’t be shy here, I put in about 2 tablespoons to start with and added more later) and season with salt and pepper.  Cook until veggies are soft.

Add beef (crumble it in using your hands).  Cook until beginning to brown, crumble in the pork.  Cook until pork lightly cooked.  I find crumbling with hands much easier than breaking it up with a spoon in the pan.  You get much smaller lumps.  For those who don’t want to touch raw meat with their hands, stop being a wuss.

Stir in beer and beans.  Add tomatoes.

Simmer for 1 1/2 hours (can add water if it evaporates away, just make sure that there are only tiny irregular bubbles).  Taste and season regularly throughout process.

Sadly, I was so excited about my new creation that I completely forgot to get the ‘final’ shot (silly me).  Rest assured that it was a thick, rich mess of deliciousness.  And, if you don’t mind chopping, it’s a doddle to make.  Go to it!

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Blue Nile Cafe – Ethiopian food rocks!

Had a highly enjoyable lunch at the Blue Nile Cafe over the weekend.  It was a cold day, I was feeling a touch hungover and I thought about how some comforting Ethiopian stew would be perfect for settling my stomach.  We’d heard about the Cafe a few times and wondered about it every time we’ve walked past it on the way to City Market.  This time, we decided to stop in and, boy, are we glad that we did!

The restaurant decor was not particularly special.  It had low-budget tables and chairs, earthen wall colours and a mass of haphazardly hung Ethiopian-themed artwork and artefacts.  Gentle world music tinkled over the sound system and it was, overall, very calm and relaxing.  If this ‘rustic’ description turns you off, I would warn you that you should never judge an ethnic food restaurant on the basis of its appearance.  In fact, the better looking a joint is, the more likely that the food will be a watered-down westernised ghost of the true original.

Anyway, who cares about the looks – the food speaks for itself!  Having never been to Ethiopia (although, I can’t wait now), I cannot say whether the fayre we were served was truly authentic.  All I can tell you is that the vibe was something unique and special, distinct from what I’ve tasted before and – as yet, thankfully – remains untapped by the unscrupulous surge of ‘fusion food’ which has flooded the restaurant scene with sudo-Asian flavours (long live authenticity!).

For those not experienced with Ethiopian food, a lot of the dishes come in the form of meat and vegetable stews.  All the items are served on a platter of injera bread, a sourdough flatbread that’s soft, elastic and spongy in texture, which is a genius move because the bread soaks up all the yummy juices and you can scoop up the stew within the bread for a satisfying mouthful (no cutlery required in this place).  Hubby and I shared the meat combo platter, which consisted of collard greens, lentil stew, cabbage, chicken and beef.  The outstanding winner must have been the beef, followed closely by the lentils.  It was such a tango of flavours and textures in my mouth.  The meat was soft, the juices unctuous and rich.  It was a perfect winter soul-soother.  Veggies also have lots to look forward to because the Cafe has a big selection of non-meat dishes too.  In fact, I’d say this would be one of the better places to take your veggie date to.

Finally, service and prices were great.  Our waiter was intelligent, thoughtful and efficient.  Unless you’re ravenous, used to gigantic American portion sizes or are a hyperactive teenage boy, I would say two of you would be fully satisfied with sharing a combo platter.  Lunch for two with fresh fruit shakes and tea/coffee cost us $30.  Bargain!

We had a wonderful time and look forward to going back again.

Blue Nile Cafe website

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People of Walmart

A choice Wal-Mart customer...

Perhaps you haven’t seen this website yet (People of Walmart – warning, it can be addictive!).  The premise is that members of the public post photos of things or people that they have observed in Wal-Mart.  I can’t believe some of the things that people wear or do.  There’s actually a picture of a fellow doing a number two outside a New York store.  Putting the hygiene and rudeness issues aside, how stupid is that?  Wal-Mart offer bathrooms for anyone’s use.

I also can’t get over the number of immensely obese people.  I know Wal-Mart is a mega-superstore but the people too?  Those wishing to lose a few pounds would do well to visit this website often just for the cautionary tales.  If you are what you eat (and you can buy Wal-Mart chicken breasts that would rival a whole chicken in some countries – for less than a dollar each) then we’ve really got to reconsider the benefits of ultra-cheap food.

Somehow in America, way back in the past and I’m not entirely sure when it happened, food volume became more highly prized than quality.  I can buy pork chops for next to nothing but the meat is extremely fatty and has no taste (a sign of feeding the pig a single-grain diet and keeping it in confinement).  Tomatoes are picked when still unripe then reddened by exposing it to ethylene gas.  So, while it’s bright red and less susceptible to rotting (so Mr Supermarket can transport it further and keep it on the shelves longer), the tomato tastes of nothing.  Water.  Have you ever eaten a fresh tomato bought in a market in Provence?  It’s like sunlight and earth.  It tastes wonderful.  Nothing like the uniform spongy balls we’re served up in supermarkets.

Having grown up with a Anglo-Vietnamese diet, the move to the US has had a massive effect on my body.  I’ve got heavier and my digestive system can’t handle all the extra fat and chemicals.  I now, for the first time, have trouble with indigestion, lethargy and even my mental state.  I have to eat home-cooked Vietnamese as much as possible and avoid eating out.  It’s quite sad because I love going to restaurants (note previous blogs!).  It’s just that American food makes me feel bad.  So, if it’s doing this to me, what has it been doing to you all these years?

Lame broiler chicken

Worst still, it’s bloody expensive trying to stick to healthy options.  Fresh food (meat, fish, vegetables, fruit) costs more pound-for-pound than the pre-processed stuff.  In Britain, free-range chicken is widely available and the price step-up isn’t that significant.  In Kansas City (not sure about other parts of America), the price differential is massive.  Hubby bought a Campo-Lindo chicken (organic, free range – website) yesterday.  It weighed around 3lb and cost $13.  I could get its mass-produced cousin from Price Chopper for about $8, 38% less.

I can’t wait for the mid-West backlash against bad food to start.  I guess news takes a little bit longer to get to the middle of the country compared to the edges!  When it does happen, the Wal-Marts of this world will have to step up and take notice.  If a market comprises a supply and a demand, shouldn’t we be demanding better?

Finally, a thought to leave you with now that you’re all fired up – if we all demand organic and free-range meats then there will not be enough land on which to grow all the stuff we currently consume.  Intensive farming maximises the efficiency of input use.  Applying a more natural process to producing food will inevitably reduce output.  Are you ready to eat fewer ‘luxury’ foods and pay more?

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Making charitable giving easier

Just been trying to figure out which charity to give to this Christmas.  It’s a bit tricky because there are so many of them and it’s rather tedious to review all their annual accounts to see what they’re about (lots hidden in the small print, believe me).  Then I found a wonderful website ( that does an independent analysis of hundreds of US-based charities.  They rate and rank them on multiple criteria (such as percentage of revenue spent on direct charitable giving, admin fees, CEO salary, income growth, etc.) and churn out a zero-to-four star rating (plus a percentage score to help you differentiate).

Having focussed on economic development in my final year at university, I have a bit of a soft spot for international humanitarian agencies.  In particular, the improvement of girls’ health and education.  Why?  Well, having healthy and educated women produces much greater positive benefits for her community than if you did the same for the men.  Give a man a fish, he’ll eat it.   Give a woman a fish, she’ll share it with her family.  Teach a man to fish, he’s most likely going to spend the extra income on alcohol and tobacco.  Teach a woman to fish, she’ll help to bring her family and community out of poverty.  I know, I sound terribly anti-men, but there really is so much academic literature out there supporting this view (I wasn’t even making a joke when it comes to alcohol and tobacco; I’ve read a few papers on the income analysis of people in developing countries and how the proportions change when male incomes rise vs. if women control the money).

Anyway, with this in mind, I wanted to find a charity with which to develop a long-term donor relationship that felt the same way about women as me.  I didn’t know if any other organisation existed.  Thankfully, and I am sooo excited to have found this, I discovered CAMFED using the search function on Charity Navigator.  CAMFED is based in the UK (but is registerd with the IRS so hello tax deduction) and was set up by a lady in Cambridge, England.  CAMFED supports the education of girls and women in Africa for precisely the same reasons illustrated above (check out their website, it’s easy to read and very inspiring –

Did you know, educating a girl means she’ll:-

– Earn up to 25 percent more and reinvest 90 percent in her family.
– Be three times less likely to become HIV-positive.
– Have fewer, healthier children who are 40 percent more likely to live past the age of five.

Plus, CAMFED spends 90% of its incomes directly on the programs and services it was set up to deliver.  It has only 7.3% admin expenses.  So now I feel just great because I know it’s a cause I really care about and it’s effective at doing its job.

Perhaps, to some of you, it sounds a touch calculating when assessing an organisation’s ‘efficiency’ but why give your money to an organisation that will spend it all on themselves? Take the American Tract Society, who spent 68% of their income on admin expenses. Each dollar you give to them (and they earned just over $2m in 2007), only 30¢ is spent on delivering what is required.

So, if you feel like spreading a bit of holiday cheer beyond your friends and family (or if you would like to take a good hard look at the charities you already give to),  I would urge you to use Charity Navigator to find and assess any recipient of your hard-earned dollars.

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Let it snow!!

Whooo hoooooooooo!!!  He he,  I woke up this morning to a winter wonderland!  Ok, so the rest of you KC peeps did too.  However, I have the excuse of not having had much snow in my life.  The best London can deliver is a sort of grey slush that sticks around for about 4 hours so these few inches are unbelievable!  I’m still at that 5-year-old-and-completely-excited-about-snowmen phase of my life.  This morning, I hopped out of bed to get a few snaps before the neighbours’ kids mess it all up this afternoon.  Man, it looked amazing!

However, I have learnt today that it’s not all roses.  I haven’t been out yet.  Roads are slow and there’s great fear of ice on the roads.  My little 2WD vehicle may spin out of control.  Great.  Besides, there are lots of nice hills to lose traction on.  We’ve had to cancel our book club tonight because people may not be able to get home.  It’s also so fiercely cold that walking around is out of the question.

Oh well!  Can’t have everything.  So, I’m off to snuffle into some blankets and watch an old movie, methinks.

Stay safe, KC!

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Discounted restaurant gift certificates

I love to buy these gift certificates to reduce the cost of eating out.  They are available for a variety of independently-owned KC establishments including Cafe Trio, Piropos, Bluestem, 1924 Main, Cafe Des Amis, Le Fou Frog – the list goes on.  I suppose they’d also be great stocking fillers too!

[Word to the wise: avoid One Bite Japanese Grill, it was awful]

NB you can only use one certificate per meal and there are some other conditions so just read the Ts&Cs before you purchase.

They get sold out pretty quickly so you can subscribe to an email alert which gives you a two day heads-up.

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