Lunchtime in Helsinki

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Ok, you’re cute. We get it.

Of all the things Finland (and more specifically Helsinki) is known for–design, sauna, coffee, the baby box–one thing that somehow isn’t on that list but should be is lunch. The lunch game in this town is strong, and in so many ways, all of which I’m about to lay out for you.

THE CURATED SALAD BAR

Walk into almost any coffeeshop or café around noon and feast your eyes on what I like to call the curated salad bar. Unlike America, where salad bars are a mile-long display of every vegetable under the sun, often wilting and picked over, the salad bars here offer a limited, but delectable selection.

Every salad bar in town is unique and often changes daily, offering around 5-8 different kinds of mixed salads, along with the standard base of mixed greens and a raw vegetable or two. The accoutrements are equally tailored down to olive oil and vinegar, seeds or croutons, and salt and pepper.

What I particularly love about this setup is that there is little margin for user error. My usual salad bar journey back home at Whole Foods goes a little like this: I make approximately 3.5 laps around all the different salad options, mixing, matching, contemplating if the items I select pair well together, until finally I douse it all with a combo of oil/vinegar/soy sauce/hot sauce that ultimately makes it all taste the same anyway.

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You can find this delightful number at The Skiffer

Here though, they’ve done the choosing for me. Most of the descriptions are in Finnish so I’ve done most of my choosing off of looks and so far, I have yet to meet a salad I don’t like. And all I had to do was dollop it into my bowl and enjoy. I love that I don’t have to commit to a whole bowlful of one salad, nor am I tempted to “make my own” because that’s not really an option. Plus this forces me to try new combos and flavors that back at good ol’ Whole Foods, I might skip over. But the beauty of lunch in Helsinki does not stop here. Oh no, there’s more.

THE HOT ITEM OF THE DAY

I feel like Helsinki knows a thing or two about decision fatigue, and is doing its citizens and people like me a service by removing some of the decision-making when it comes to lunch. It’s true with the curated salad bar, and even more so with cafés’ tendency to only offer one or two hot items as a lunch option.

And just like their salad bar curation, their hot item curation is on point, too. Most cafés offer at least one, but usually two, soups to pair with the salad bar. One is often lohikeitto, Finnish salmon soup, and the other is usually a vegan option, like the one I had yesterday: Carrot Ginger Coconut soup.

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A little messy, but oh so delicious Tuesday lunch at Carusel on the water.

Beyond the soup, many places offer a daily hot item that again, is again, pretty damn delicious. Items like mushroom risotto, eggplant parmesan, chicken satay, and chickpea curry. A lot of restaurants list their daily lunch specials on their website and on chalkboards out front so you can check out what they have ahead of time. And if you don’t like it, you can go to the next place, or, just stick with the salad bar.

LESS MEAT, MORE VEGETABLES

Helsinki has its fair share of burger joints and steakhouses but take a little gander at the lunch menu at almost every restaurant in town and you’ll see not one, not two, but quite a few vegetarian and vegan options.

They’ve got tofu, chickpeas, mushroom patties, lentils, falafel, and seitan but my favorite option just might be their own little Finnish invention called pulled oats. It’s a mix of oats, fava beans, and yellow peas but has the look and texture of pulled pork. And it is tasty. I’ve had it in Thai and Mexican dishes so far and am a BIG FAN. It came out a couple years ago and was so popular that it sold out in the grocery store in 11 minutes. Saveur even wrote an article singing the praises of pulled oats, so it must be good. Also, their packaging is pretty rad, too.

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Now, to be clear, I’m not vegetarian or vegan. But I can get behind consuming less meat, and that’s the mindset for a lot of Finns. I asked a friend here if a lot of Finns were vegetarian, hence all the options, and she said that it was more about eating less meat for health and environmental reasons. I mean damn. Those Finns are just such responsible citizens. I love it.

FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY AND VARIETY

My number one reason for loving on lunch here has to be the cost. You see, Helsinki is a pretty expensive place to eat and drink out. That is, until you discover the lunch special. You get so much food for over half the price it would cost at dinner time. And the best part? EVERY RESTAURANT HAS ONE.

Which brings me to Part B of this section: the variety. Now this might be a bit of a misunderstanding on my own part, but when I moved to Finland I was not expecting a lot of culinary variety. And I was wrong. Helsinki has so many different cuisines and not just that, they’re all (for the most part) really good! Granted, they tend to go light on the spice level, but if you ask for it they will deliver. If you ask a Finn for food recs, chances are 90% of the places they tell you to go do not serve Finnish food. Although, if you’re town, one of your lunches has to be traditional Finnish salmon soup.

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A must on a cold day, Fat Ramen is located in the Hietalahti Market Hall.

Well that’s it. My argument for why lunch is one of the unsung heroes of Helsinki. After I get a few more months under my belt maybe I’ll make a top 10 lunch spots list. And I can’t even imagine what throwing summer patio season into the mix will do.

Until next time. Moi moi.

 

Lauren & Mitch’s Backyard Engagement Party

When Mark and I got engaged my best friend Lauren threw us a surprise engagement party. Naturally, when she got engaged I had to return the favor. To keep things simple, we decided to nix the surprise aspect for the most part.

I say most part because I wouldn’t let her see the backyard until party time. Lauren and Mitch are super laid-back, so for their party, we went low-key with just a few special touches. This engagement party shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a party feel special. We were able to use a lot of furniture/items we already had and put almost all the money toward food and alcohol (arguably the most important parts of a party.)

Before I start any party, I like to sketch out what I want the space to look like. I pin ideas that I like and then translate that into my vision. Then I see how I can utilize stuff I already have and make a game plan from there. Here’s an example of what I had for Lauren and Mitch’s party:

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This is an overhead sketch of the backyard. I wanted to use as much of the space as possible, so we decided to stage the food off the deck so that most of the deck could be devoted to seating. In the bottom left-hand corner of the backyard is a fire pit. Since it was the middle of summer, instead of a fire, I placed a pallet over the pit to create an outdoor coffee table (as you can see below.)

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We already had the pillows on hand from the front porch, I just moved them to the backyard. TIP: Don’t be afraid to repurpose items from other parts of your home — stage the space people will be using the most and no one will notice it missing elsewhere!

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For food, I let Trader Joe’s do most of the work. They’re assorted macarons in the frozen section are an AWESOME fancy fuss-free dessert, and I’m a sucker for all their various dips and tapenades. Just pick up a baguette, toast and slice it, and serve it with a few dips and you’re good to go.

Between Lauren and I we already owned all the serve ware–but if you’re in the market for some definitely hit up local thrift stores and HomeGoods. You can find some great deals that won’t break the bank. TIP: I like to buy white and/or clear glass serve ware only. This way I can mix and match as I need without it looking clunky. Oh and that stand the macarons are on? It’s a bowl turned upside down with a plate on top!

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For drinks, we made a yummy punch recipe that I’ll follow up with in another post. We also filled our yard wheelbarrow with ice for anyone who BYOB’d. The bags on the left side of the table are simple brown lunch bags with the tops cut off. I picked up a few different kinds of flavored popcorn from TJ’s and distributed them through the bags for a fun “pick-your-own” flavor set up.

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Up on the deck, we moved our indoor bar cart outside and used it to display maps of the where the couple met, got engaged, and live, PLUS plates and napkins. To party things to invest in for the long run: a plain white table cloth (on the food table) and cloth napkins/towels. I purchased two dozen off of Amazon and have used them for so many parties–and it’s better for the environment!

Parties don’t have to be over-the-top affairs. With a few smart choices and letting Trader Joe’s handle the rest, I was able to host a pretty engagement party for my best friend. What do you think? I’d love to hear other ways people get creative with their parties! Let me know 🙂