My Dairy Queen Diet, With a Side of Perilla Leaves

We were moving, which meant no kitchen for a week. Or so we thought. Our old kitchen dismantled and boxed, we finally got into our new place, and the mover—a large, bossy sort, charging $50 per hour—tells me that if I want him to bring my stove into the house, I was going to have to get rid of the one already there. He refused to touch the gas line.

“Uh yeah, no problem,” I said. With what I thought was impressive speed, I pulled out my vice-grips and in short order managed to crimp and then nearly break the gas line. This resulted in a brief, albeit exciting, evacuation of the premises, followed by a second week with no kitchen.

Where, you might ask, does a less-than-handy chef eat when he has no place to cook? Well, we breakfasted on box cereal, supped at Subway, dined with views of Playland, and enjoyed frozen confections from Dairy Queen with enough frequency for my seven-year-old daughter, Sonia, to ask, “Daddy, does this taste like frozen vegetable oil to you?” I couldn’t answer her though; my mouth was too full of the thing that may or may not taste like vegetable oil. I like it. Or I did.

After two weeks of this routine, missing home-cooked meals (thanks for all the invites, people), and still buried in boxes, I could not take it anymore. Without a stove or kitchen, I had to make do: I made a “semi-scratch” meal. I broke out the rice cooker and made rice, and then arranged a selection of leaf lettuce, herbs, and vegetables for wrapping. I picked up take-out spring rolls and piled them high on a plate. At the table, we wrapped the rolls, cilantro, perilla (a purplish leaf found at most Asian markets), and slices of jalapeno or cucumber in the lettuce, dipped them in the take-out sauce, adjusted the heat with a little dash of Sriracha hot sauce and some chopped peanuts, and then squeezed the little packages into our mouths, accompanied by spoonfuls of steaming rice.

In Vietnam, spring rolls (cha gio, pronounced cha yaw) are usually served with piles of fresh herbs. For some reason, though, most Vietnamese restaurants in town don’t offer them. Try Que Nha on University Avenue in St. Paul. They serve a nice selection of interesting herbs.

When real cooking isn’t possible, some fresh raw vegetables and a bowl of hot rice can make all the difference—a quick and tasty meal, healthier than eating out, and nobody in my family seemed to miss the plastic seating.

Eventually the kitchen got fixed, and I was able to cook again. But the experience made me think about why people eat fast food. All of us do it, some more than others, but is it for convenience or speed or do we just love the taste? I don’t know, but I do know this: I still love you DQ, but sometimes I love perilla leaves more.