A Dead Muse, a Grilled Vanilla Quail Recipe and a three hour trip to 'GAUGUINS ISLAND'

Or, how a vanilla spice blend and a mug of grog can take the edge off a very bad day...

My Swedish muse died a few days ago. Her ability to creatively inspire me in even the smallest sense suddenly fizzed and our once fluid connection hardened like gristle in a Tijuana hamburger. Even the afterglow of creative energy is now nothing more than a sunburn that's currently peeling with the vigor of latex paint on the hull of a battleship. I buried her in that overgrown garden of my past today. RIP my dead muse.

With my muse now dead, summer taking its final bow, and a tax bill bigger than my zip code and phone number combined, I feel like pulling a geographic. Fleeing. Gone daddy-o. I want to become more than just a simple runaway from a bloated right thumb of a state, I want to be a fugitive from the whole red-white-and-blue, no-money-down, fast-food-fads, status-over-substance, if-it's-sweet-fry-it American-dream thing.

Flee to an island oasis somewhere. Pull a true Gauguin and live among tanned topless beauties with unpronounceable names. Chase down wild spotted shore goats, indulge in tough gamey meat and soft bitter papayas. Spend my days painting the lush green paradise that is an exact opposite of my here and now.
Yes, that is what I want to do. But, with my muse now dead, the canvas here sits blank. A blank canvas means no income and no income means no method to flee and on and on it goes. But I do have a short term answer...Three simple words...

Rum, vanilla and quail. I'll put some Martin Denny on the iPod, pour a serious 'Ball-less Monkey' (with a twist of lime), and make myself a tropical spiced tiny bird feast. And in that meal I will travel to Gauguins island in both mind and taste, forgetting my 'apple-pie' woes for a few hours. 

The rum was a birthday gift, the quail an impulse buy (from a misguided trip to the local Pilipino market in search of crispy Patas), the vanilla spice seasoning a personal creative experiment with a damn happy outcome.

Lately I've been on a spice kick. I've taken to mixing my own rubs, seasonings, and marinates. I have jars and jars of personal blends; some are romantic like a Goya, some are bitter with realism like a Vemeer, some are abstract by design like a Matisse, and some simply push the boundaries like a Duchamp.

But the jar I reach for now, my Vanilla Spice blend, is pure Gauguin. It reeks of vanilla orchids and rich tropical cumin with a hint of paprika peering though like reflective eyes in the black jungle night.

It was a bold move, using powdered vanilla in a spice blend, but it was also conjured in the time of the muse. She guided the boldness (all I dare combine now is salt and pepper, damn my muse for dying).  

Don't be frightened by the Vanilla, it synergies with the cumin to create a unique flavor that is so exotic, it can not easily be recalled, yet the mind - through swaying taste buds - will find its way to a tropical paradise of forgotten islands. 

Gab a bunch of prepped quail, mix a batch of spice and fire up the grill (although this works best with the gaminess of small wild/unconventional fowl, I suppose a fat lazy city chicken will do in a pinch).

THE SPICE MIX (makes a normal spice jars worth):
3 TBS Vanilla Powder
1 1/2 TBS Ground Cumin
1 TBS Granulated Garlic (not salt or powder)
1 TBS Granulated Onion (not salt or powder)
1 TBS Celery Salt + 1 tsp white salt
1 TBS Paprika

1 1/2 TBS Vanilla Spice Mix
2 TBS Apple Juice
1 TBS White Wine Vinegar

Place the marinate in a zip-lock bag along with 6 quail (or 4 skinless boneless chicken thighs if you insist) and let it sit in the refrigerator 4 to 12 hours. Grill over indirect heat and finish with a quick kiss of flame.

So that my friends, is a quick get-away gift from this shore-locked muse-less artist to all those in need of a quick trip to Gauguin's island (there is no Mary Ann but the Ginger grows wild). Don't forget the rum and sunscreen and send me a card when you get a chance.



A lot has happened since my last post. On the downside I went through a VERY nasty divorce to a vindictive lawyer (ugh), endured another long illness and moved to a place that can truly be called ‘hell on earth’ in the summer months. On the upside I kicked an addiction, wrote a novel and started a trendy (but fulfilling) long distance relationship with a beautiful Swedish girl. In the words of the Grateful Dead, “what a long strange trip it’s been”. Through it all I maintained my curiosity and passion for that peculiar magic that can only happen in a kitchen. Well, for awhile anyway.

Soon after the divorce was finalized I was forced to seek shelter in the, shall we politely say, ‘lower echelon’ of the city. My kitchen shrank by two thirds, and with it, my tools. Fading finances from legal bills dictated the liquidation of my cherished pots and pans. Three different sauce pans, all with their own individual personalities and purpose shrank to one beat-up and chipped porcelain thrift store pan. My favorite stock pot was replaced by a lopsided aluminum pot that, when viewed from above, resembled a flat tire on a two ton semi-truck. I went from a state-of-the-art self cleaning gas oven to a wobbly box with four leaky burners that could make the most jaded of thrill seekers swoon. It was not what one would call ideal conditions to flambĂ© a cherry jubilee or roulade a tender strip of Venison, but it was all I had. For awhile I made a challenge of it, determined to dominate and control a very uncontrollable  environment. With a stove that made a toy store Easy-Bake Oven look professional and pots and pans that were barely a step above tin foil wrapped around flower pots, it was an impossibility. Add to that the equation of cooking complex and involved meals for a party of one and my passion started to fade like the green of oxidized avocado flesh. I knew I was towards the end when I suddenly realized I was eating champagne poached scollops with Blanco Modena & truffle oil off a flimsy paper plate while standing over the sink watching an infomercial for a bogus non-stick skillet.  I was struck by the thought I now had no personal regard for the culinary high art I was stuffing into my mouth, only a begrudging lament for the time spent preparing such an extravagant meal. I had to find a way back to my cooking roots, a reason not to fill the freezer with dollar store TV dinners and bean-padded precooked burritos. Strangely, salvation came in the form of a Swedish love.

Although she was roughly 10,000 miles away, technology afforded us all the closeness a couple can have short of being in the same room together. In time she would visit, but for now we had to make the most of the marvels technology offered, and we did. Everything was shared through phone, Skype, text and video. I was immersed in her world, from trips sent live from the bus on her way to work to stops at the market to buy ‘pickled beet root’. I watched as dinners were planned and cooked and I got lessons on ‘Husmanskost’, traditional Swedish foods based on classic country cooking. She made odd Swedish casseroles like ‘Janssons Frestelse’ and showed me the best way to serve ‘Dip In The Pot’ (pieces of rye bread with butter or meat dipped in hot ham bouillon). The relationship grew until, like everything that is good in this world, there developed a bittersweet edge. The senses beyond eyes and ears longed to be stimulated. Yes, I could vier off at this point and turn this blog into an ‘adults only’ rant, but much like the sensual nature of sex, food can offer the same intoxicating quality. As I watched her work for a full week preparing the Christmas holiday smorgasbord, I became increasingly agitated I could not be present at the buffet style feast of foods and wines that made up her menu for the day-long eating binge. She sensed my frustration and offered a suggestion to my discontentment. Just one simple word. "Ikea".

I’m sure everyone reading this knows of Ikea, the Swedish owned masochistic do-it-yourself home furnishings store. And I’m sure most of you also know Ikea offers an in-store restaurant specializing in a set menu of Swedish dishes (be it limited) such as Swedish Meatballs (with mashed potato, gravy and lingonberry jam). But if you are like me, you’ve questioned the ‘authenticity’ of both the furniture and the culinary fare. Do Swedes really eat meatballs as a standard? They do. My Swedish love said so. She also said the people of Sweden not only fill their homes with wares from Ikea stores, they often travel out of their way just to enjoy a meal in the palatial ‘factory like’ setting of the dining area. And on holidays, like Christmas, Ikea holds a month long holiday smorgasbord (yes, all you can eat for one price) that features succulent ‘holiday only’ dishes that “taste as good as mum use to make”. I was sold and the next day I headed to the Burbank Ikea for a taste of Sweden and, hopefully, a further pronounced connection to the beautiful girl who was so close and yet so far.

The holiday smorgasbord in American Ikeas, unlike those held in Swedish Ikeas, comes but once a year and I’d just missed it. There was an upcoming ‘Midsummer celebration smorgasbord’ and I quickly made sure to RSVP a spot. For now, the daily (rarely changing) Ikea menu would have to suffice. Once one gets past the shrill echoing of children screaming for attention through crowds of hungry build-it-yourself shoppers and one looks beyond the surrounding low decor on par with a high school cafeteria lunch room, the food at Ikea has a way of transporting one into calmness. It is, after all, nothing more than swedish comfort food. I’d ordered the obligatory Meatballs (with gravy, mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam), Swedish tapas (smoked Salmon, salmon mousse and shrimp with root vegetables) and a Najad salmon ‘salad’ (cold smoked marinated thin slices of Najad salmon under a scoop of lime marinated vegetables). I threw in a desert cookie to top the meal off. At the cashier my well worn twenty dollar bill got me change in return. There was no wonder it was so crowded. As I dug into the meatballs, supported by a velvety light brown gravy, I realized these were not like my ‘mum’ use to make, there were no chunks of undercooked onion poking out under a cover of cooked-on ketchup and it didn’t explode with bread crumbs like a baseball filled with sawdust. It was dense with meat and rich and complex in flavor. I couldn’t put my finger on what made it so different, but I enjoyed every bite. The same with the potatoes, they too were heavy with a profound richness. The lingonberry jam was just icing on the cake. I Skyped the meal to my girl in Sweden and insisted she share the recipe to this anomaly known as the ‘Swedish meatball’. “And I want to know how to make all the fixin’s too” I added, scrapping the last of the gravy from the plate with the side of the fork. She shook her head and laughed - after all, this was just a meatball I was excited about. But she eagerly agreed to send me the recipe so I could make this pedestrian Swedish dish at home.

That night an online search turned up pages and pages of Swedish meatball recipes - most were lifted directly from, wait for it.....the official IKEA COOKBOOK! Yes, Ikea not only makes living-room couches that fit into a box half the size of a steamer trunk but they also published a cookbook divulging their secrets to cooking kick-ass meatballs as well as other Swedish delights (the ingredient photos are nothing less than stunning and hold true to the Ikea 'clean line' esthetics). Although out-of-print, the recipes now comfortably make their place online alongside misguided casseroles and oh-so-wrong dishes with names like ’Corn-dog crusted pork chops’ and ‘Granny’s CocaCola pot pie’.   
The next day my girl sent me her recipe for everything except the lingonberry jam. “Sorry, we get our lingonberry jam in jars at the store like normal people” was written at the end. 
That wouldn’t be a problem, my online search showed I could readily find an imported jar at any ‘Cost Plus World Market’ (or Ikea, Doh!). She sent the recipe in an email with the heading ‘Shhhhh, Swedish secrets’. Funny, I felt like I was about to peek into the basest of adult movie theaters and witness techniques so provocative they were forced underground.I looked over her recipe and compared it to the Ikea recipe and found only subtle differences (mainly ingredient amounts). The Ikea recipe was authentically Swedish. The secret to the quintessential Swedish Meatball? Besides the fact it is made with a combination of beef and pork? The binding is made with cream and pre-cooked potato. Yes, I said potato. Within hours I found myself back in the kitchen enjoying the creative culinary process again. Crappy cooking utensils be damned, I ended up making a plate that equaled, if not exceeded, that of Ikea (yea, I know how lame that sounds). But believe me, In the world of a zillion meatball recipes, this is one solid dish.

Now, in a typical blog the recipe would start here, followed by pictures of me making it step by step. But face it, does the internet need yet another carbon copy of the Ikea recipe? I think not. So it is I encourage you to do a search for the official version of Ikea meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy then go to town with it. I will admit I cut the potato down a bit, substituted ground (fresh) breadcrumbs for unsweetened rusk flour and fancy-ass Creme Fraiche for regular run-of-the-mill cream. In the end the entire dish sang as loud as it did at Ikea. OK, OK, so Ikea is no French Laundry or Alinea, but sometimes you just want comfort food that kicks it up a peg from what you are accustomed.
Trust me, try it Swedish style, it’ll scratch that itch.

 UPDATE: A reader sent me this news article: Horse meat found in Ikea's Swedish meatballs. No, horse is not a typical ingredient at the everyday Swedish dinner table, and "Not in MY damn meatballs" yelled the beautiful girl who sent me to the track - I mean Ikea for dinner.