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Posts Tagged ‘Scandinavia’

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Years ago Gourmet Magazine* published an article about a Scandinavian woman who, like the rest of her countrymen and women, grew up foraging. She took the lifestyle quite in stride, speaking of it the way the rest of us speak of lacing up New Balances. Hunting for chanterelles for breakfast with her grandparents, nibbling on bits of pasture as she walked home from school, she said with no pretense that her country was edible.

Someday I will forage in Scandinavia with faithful Swedish reader Pelle as my guide, I hope. In the meantime, I am determined to gobble up my own country, starting with the Jersey Shore. For the past couple of weeks I have been extracting local flavors and making simple syrups. Granulated sugar, cold filtered water brought to a boil, immersion—1:1:1.

My pastry chef friend Matthew made macarons with lilacs a couple of weeks ago, and you read about the results last week. I have since been drenching pieces of my olive oil-almond cake in it every day. The rest I poured into a one-gallon freezer bag, labelled, and popped into the freezer.

Matthew wondered aloud if wisteria is edible. I looked it up, discovered the flowers are (a member of the pea family. Look above: Don’t they look like sweet peas?), and grabbed my clippers. It dangles from the trees that surround my lake. I will not say how close I came to falling in, nor what the waterfowl were likely thinking as they watched me test the brush that was the only barrier between me, the brackish water, and them. I snipped a few blossoms (see above) and jumped to safety. Then I took them home, separated the flowers from the stems, and put the flowers in a nice warm bath. The flavor is lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than the deeply perfumed lilac.

Next up: wild peppermint, which I found last spring at a time when I really needed a treat in my life. Soon after I made a big bowl of truly fantastic tabbouleh, with all local vegetables and really bloody local mint. This time around I need a treat again and can’t wait until the tabbouleh vegetables are ready, so instead I clipped about six cups’ worth and made more syrup.

This one was a like a smack upside the head: The whole house smelled like mint for the rest of the day.

I have always hated mint-flavored things, never could understand the immense appeal of chocolate-chip mint ice cream. To me it always seemed like eating a giant, cold heap of toothpaste. But when you start with an actual plant, the whole ballgame changes. The peppermint syrup is grassy, pungent—a knockout. It, too, went into the freezer. And mint being mint, I know I’m good for more, as much as I want, until just after frost.

In cocktails, in marshmallows, in marzipan…there’s no end in sight to what I can do with these syrups. And don’t look now, but honeysuckle season is right on our heels. And elderflower, too. Another newbie!

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Below we have the fruits of my flowers: lilac, wisteria, and peppermint syrups, respectively. Totally digging that the mint at right is faintly green.

I can’t wait to see what else is out there. The earth never fails to be there for me, to teach me about starting over, and to surprise me.

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*Will I ever stop mourning the loss of this publication?**

**Nope.

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Through the steady cold of winter we wait for the natural world to wake and grow green again. Many of us become disheartened by the stillness and the stark landscape, by counting the days until warm weather returns.

But the darkest season offers gifts none other does. It allows us to follow suit: We, too, are part of the natural world; and we, too, can be still, rest, and incubate buds of our own. This is our time to dream.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “There’s a certain Slant of light/Winter Afternoons,” and went on to describe it as ominous. Much as I love her, I have to disagree. It’s cheering to see that slant now, when light is scarce. I tip my chin up to it and close my eyes, warming my face.

Here are more of the singular comforts, and joys, of winter.

Snowy Sundays

Writing and daydreaming under my aunt’s vintage quilt as the snow piles up outside is coziness defined. Sipping the planet’s best hot chocolate sinks me into the cozy that much more.

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Comforting Sounds

Radiators releasing steam, freezing rain clattering against a windowpane in the middle of the night, a log fire popping and hissing—these sounds seem to make the warm indoors envelop us more fully and make us feel safe.

Winter Wonderlanding

The Scandinavians have a great saying: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothes.’ They would know, and they have a point. For Christmas my mom gave me a balaclava—one of those all-in-one hood/scarf things. Wearing it together with fleece, my down jacket and long underwear made in Vermont (and they know from cold weather, too), I can walk in warmth for hours, in the still, frosty air mingling with the wood smoke wisping out of fireplaces all over town. Very Currier and Ives.

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Soaking in the Bath

Winter-chapped skin and muscles aching from snowball fights are soothed in a warm bath. Now is the season when I rummage through the bath products I’ve squirreled away, like that luscious bubble bath from Anthopologie that smells like sandalwood. I’ve always wanted one of those cast iron, clawfoot tubs that are so deep that the bubbles would come up to my chin. Until then, I’ll take baths in my ordinary tub this winter, a handful of lit votives on the floor, and my towel warming on the radiator. The feeling is pretty close to goddesslike just like this.

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Afternoon naps

Winter is a time to stretch out on, and wrap yourself in, things that are soft and obliging. On the weekends I plop down on the sofa with a book and my winter trifecta—old flannel pajamas from L.L. Bean, a faux fur throw and thick alpaca socks that I bought from a breeder in south NJ. Sometimes I doze off watching the fading afternoon light, the sky turning shell pink. When I wake up at twilight, the light, and snow, have turned otherworldly pastel blue.

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The Beauty of Snow

Speaking of snow, I love the delicate hieroglyphics that it, along with frost and wind, etches on the window panes. I dust the cakes I bake this time of year with powdered sugar just to imitate and celebrate snow. This morning I cut snowflakes and suspended them from my living room ceiling, the way I used to do in my nursery school classrooms. Looks just as cool.

Lighting Up the Night

When the faint daylight dies and the midwinter night becomes inky black, light a candle and gaze into its flame. It’s relaxing, almost hypnotic. Our ancestors spent their winters this way, too: looking into their cooking fires and into candlelight through hurricane glasses, wondering what the new year had in store for them, worrying about plans they’d made, imagining personal wishes coming true. Winter candlelight is a link to the past, into the collective, restless, hopeful heart of the human race.

Warm Kitchens

Our favorite cold-weather dishes warm and cheer us right through to the soul. It’s time for long-simmering Italian beef stew, soda bread with raisins and turkey noodle soup. This time of year I fantasize about making up two bowls of whatever it is I’m cooking: one for my stomach, and one for my chilly feet. Wrapping cold fingers around little earthenware crocks full of French onion soup, the kind with a toasted crouton on top that’s covered with bubbling Gruyere, suffices pretty well. These wintertime dishes also offer some of the best smells in the world.

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Staples of my winter kitchen

Fresh garlic

Chicken and beef broths

Dried sage and rosemary

Rigatoni

Bittersweet chocolate

Navel oranges

Walnuts

Organic milk

Molasses

Crystallized ginger

Lentils

Black kale

Tomato paste

On New Year’s Day I baked shepherd’s pie. I worked more slowly than usual, chopping the onions and carrots, browning the ground lamb, spooning the mixture into ramekins and layering mashed potatoes on top. It was surprisingly relaxing. Out of the oven they came, hot as winter is cold, asking me to slow down and enjoy every spoonful, this unique and special treat.

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I was wandering around in Red Bank’s Galleria last Sunday morning, looking for a little tiny snack to have before going to the farmers market out in the lot adjoining (very dangerous, waistline-wise and wallet-wise, to shop there while hungry), when I passed a little eatery called The Danish Cafe. Immediately I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was an actual Danish place, as in Denmark Danish, with Scandinavian cuisine, instead of doing what it probably does, which is to offer scary yellow ‘Danish’, sodden and leaden, with that ghastly colored gel in the middle?”*

But guess what? It actually WAS an actual Danish place! As in Denmark Danish! Totally brand new to me, unless you count the cute little Scandinavian bakery in EPCOT.**

This place—wow. Smorrebrod! Red cabbage! Rye bread! But now, remember–I was just there for a snack. So I didn’t try any of that (this time), but instead asked the server about the pastries in baskets on the counter, all of which looked as though they had advanced degrees in integrity. There were nicely-browned cinnamon buns and Danish, with several varieties of filling in the latter. I asked if all had been baked that morning. He nodded. Good answer.

I chose a cheese Danish and took it outside. Maybe you’re the same; when I think of Danish, besides the gruesome descriptors above, I think of it as sort of doughy and malleable, as if you could, with a few squeezes and pinches, make an ashtray out of it for your auntie. One bite of this told me otherwise: It crackled and shattered in my hands, revealing it was made of many, many buttery layers. And the cheese within was soft, fresh-tasting, delicate and tangy; in other words, it did not taste like an afterthought, as I am (and I suspect most of us are) used to.

Nothing puts a smile on my face like finding out people care. Nothing makes me GRIN like knowing where those people are. Looking forward to an open-face roasted pork on rye.

*As any qualified mathematician can tell you, jaded + hungry = cranky.

**Which I love, and I gobble their lefse (sweet dough slathered with butter and cinnamon sugar and rolled up) without fail every time I get down there.

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This is the most trying time of year. No doubt. As far as sunlight goes, we’re on the other side of winter; if we can make it through January, we’ll be out of the woods. But the landscape here on the U.S. east coast is still dreary, and the air is still bleak, only to get bleaker before daffodil season. As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen, as the saying goes. Now what?

Well…as long as we still have a couple of months until springtime (a groundhog’s yet-unknown prediction notwithstanding), I vote we pass the time by having fun. And by that I mean having treats—experiencing something every day that guarantees us a smile. Making a point to doing this at least until daffodils do it for us.

Treats can be food, but there are dozens of others I can think of. They’re personal, to be sure; an hour of Grand Theft Auto on the upstairs TV, with the door shut behind you, may spell bliss for you. For someone else, it’s a Sunday nap, cat curled up next to you, sunlight streaming across your legs, the sound of the radiator popping and hissing.

A treat is anything that makes your heart swell, anything that makes you want to splash around in it like Labrador in a kiddie pool. A color. A sound. A smell. What makes you feel 100% in the moment?

Photography does it for me. Four out of five senses gratified in one fell swoop. I get a bang out of putting on my snow boots now and trekking around, looking for beautiful low light or color or patterns in a wet sycamore or snow.

The beach, just a couple of blocks away, is desolate and gorgeous in winter. This shot was taken last February, in the late afternoon light.

This time of year offers more challenges for photographers (and athletes, and all outdoor types), but I have also found opportunities not to shoot the same old thing, not to be cliche, when the light and landscape are so spare. The same stuff you walked past last August doesn’t look the same now. It’s kind of cool.

In Scandinavia, people crave winter. They wait for summer to pass so they can jump into the winter sports they’ve either invented or perfected: skiing, ice skating, ski driving, or ski-joring—that’s fastening your big pooch to a harness, tying a belt around your waist, putting skis on, and letting him cruise you around the neighborhood. Apparently there are groups springing up here in the States, devoted to this most awesome idea. And after a day out in the elements, the Norse have a sauna—their lifeblood.

Doctor Who is a nighttime treat for me, a new one (okay, yes, I’m a late arrival, mock me). I borrowed DVDs of the modern series and am enjoying Chris Eccleston’s impish grin, the cheeseball special effects, and hearing Billie Piper say things like, “Nine-een-ay-ee-seven” (1987).

Back to food, because 1) I can’t veer too far from that topic for long and 2) cooking treats, and eating them, get me through these winter days pretty well.

I know many of us are trying to ease back from holiday overindulgence now, but that’s not I’m talking about when I say ‘treat’. I mean eat healthy most of the time, and allow yourself something yummy from time to time. Being good to yourself is good.

Tonight I’m writing this while checking on my vanilla fudge, which is cooling on the counter. It’s a gift to bring to a party tomorrow, and the smell in the place right now is rich and sweet, warming up this winter night.

Then there’s teatime. A centuries-old institution based on having a civilized treat in late afternoon—why did we ever diss this notion? I love my version: eating really high-end bittersweet chocolate buttons in the teeny cloud-covered bowl I got at a Ben & Jerry’s in D.C., and drinking milk through a straw stuck in the carton. Anglophile I may be; civilized, not so much.

My neighbor, in his late eighties, makes himself blueberry pancakes in his small, not-even-slightly-updated kitchen every Sunday morning without fail. Endearing creature of habit that he is, I suspect he has done so since the mid-fifties when he moved into town. He knows treats are there for the taking, and he makes a point to incorporate them into his life every day.

Life is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Even in the winter.

It’s getting late, and the vanilla fudge is finally done. Here it is in the fridge, where it will wait in the cold and dark until morning. Just like us.

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