Home cooks bring a certain finesse and authenticity to the dishes they know well. In many homes, you’ll find no recipe books sitting on the kitchen counter, no second-guessing of measurements, and often the simmering and spicing of home-cooked meals solely depend on the cook’s palate, which continuously assesses all the familiar flavors lightly bubbling on the stovetop until they’re just right.
All of these methods ring true for Olla Swanson, a seasoned home cook who was taught how to make rice properly by her mother at age 4. Her advice: Wash it three times.
Growing up in a large Filipino household, Swanson inherited the natural ability to cook traditional-style Filipino dishes from her mother, Olivia, and her Aunt Lupe.
“When I was growing up, my mom and my Aunt Lupe between them had eight children, and we all grew up together in this big house, and there would be so much food,” Swanson says. “I like how Filipino food makes me think of community and all of us eating together, especially if there’s a big party. Also, it’s hard to find. The only way you can get it is if you make it.”
Under the moniker The Olla Factory, Swanson now serves the Filipino dishes of her childhood during a rotating Monday popup dinner series at Sacramento’s Old Ironsides restaurant, to crowds she hopes will discover a love for these foods that meant so much to her and her family.
Bringing people together
For Swanson, Filipino cuisine is all about family style. So it’s no surprise that her test kitchen is located in the comforts of her home in Citrus Heights, where she cooks Filipino staples for her husband Stephen, her siblings Oliver and Christine, and, of course, her mother.
They include dishes such as chicken adobo seasoned with soy sauce, garlic, and vinegar; pancit, which is fried rice noodles with sautéed vegetables and seared pork; and embutido, a Filipino-style steamed meatloaf that combines sausage, hard-boiled eggs, and raisins. All make frequent appearances in Swanson’s kitchen.
Her kare-kare dish (pronounced karay karay) holds memories of birthdays and special occasions and is a dish that family and friends quickly devour after its six-hour-long cooking process.
“When people think of Filipino food, they think of adobo and lumpia, and that’s pretty much it,” she says. “But that’s not even scratching the surface. Kare-kare is my favorite dish, and I ask for it on my birthday. Now that I make it, I make it a little different from [my mom].”
The main difference between Swanson’s dish and her mom’s is simply measured by preference of ingredients — with or without tripe, for instance, or with coconut milk added.
Swanson’s take on kare-kare is a rich and savory stew that packs great flavor. Braised oxtails, slow-roasted Chinese eggplant, sautéed long-beans, Spanish onions, and baby bok choy swim in a creamy coconut-milk-and-peanut sauce. The finished dish is served over steamed rice and topped with fried garlic chips and a dab of bagoóng (shrimp paste).
The lush mouthful sends a variety of happy signals to the palate as it cleverly dances among sweet, savory, salty, rich, and creamy … all the flavor profiles that give this dish its comfort factor. It’s abundantly clear why kare-kare is a family favorite and was a huge hit when Swanson served it to patrons during her popup dinner series.
Event organizer and longtime Old Ironsides bar manager Mark Gonzales says Swanson not only brings her unique take on Filipino cuisine to the restaurant’s regular patrons, but she also invites new diners whenever she’s in the kitchen.
“It’s cool that people can bring their culture into [the popup dinners], and you can try dishes that you might never have tried,” Gonzales says. “It’s its own thing. I’ve enjoyed everybody who comes to the Monday popups because they put their heart into the food.”
Swanson’s love for her culture’s cuisine is displayed in the time and energy she dedicates to her dishes and can be measured by her eagerness to share her food with the masses.
“When I started doing [the popup dinners], I really wanted people to try more Filipino food,” Swanson says. “Filipino food has a way of bringing people together. Lumpia, one of the most popular Filipino dishes, is eaten with crowds, and kare-kare is made better when cooked with family members. I want to bring good food to everyone and bring people together.”
Photos by Debbie Cunningham