Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lucia Day: of cats and saints

For the first time since this little blog began I skipped St. Lucia Day. No scent of citrus and saffron wafted from our oven throughout the house. No sweet buns shaped like S’s found their way to our breakfast table. Not a single home-made, IKEA-bagged, or bakery-baked Lussebulle or Lussekatt eaten on this most awesome of holidays. 

In Sweden and among Swedish Americans, December 13 is the celebration of St. Lucia and the day triggers the onset of the holiday season. Lucia, the martyred Saint of Light, provides light during the dark season which is why girls playing her wear a wreath of candles as they carry trays of saffron buns, hot coffee, and other baked goods to their families and friends on St. Lucia morning.  

There are a few different versions of Lucia’s path from Sicilian saint to Swedish icon. Most accounts include variations on a theme: Lucia’s sacred virginity and refusal to marry a heathen, her generous gifts of food to the hungry, and eyes that bring light to the world during its darkest times (eyes so beautiful that she poked them out and then God bequeathed her with an even more beautiful pair). 

Yet Lucia’s origins are less than saintly. December 13 was once referred to as the night of the trolls. As with so many folk traditions that are replaced with Christian substitutes, Lucia and the trolls are now symbolically morphed. Lucia’s association with the devil stems from an early belief, prior to her sainthood, when she was said to be the leader of the trolls. Lucia’s name being the female equivalent of Lucifer did not help her reputation. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Lucia became the saint of light and goodness, and (eventually) delicious pastries.

St. Lucia saffron buns can be shaped in numerous forms including the common Lussekatter, or S-shaped buns that sort of resemble a cat’s head and long curly tail. Lussekatter come from old Lucia’s relationship with Lucifer and the cat-form witches were said to assume.

Which brings us to no-Lucia bun Saturday.

We spent the better part of our weekend (and a mortgage payment) at the emergency vet with our cat Oskar. He suffers from occasional bouts of bladder crystals, a condition that comes on quickly and can be fatal if not treated immediately.

While we are grateful to the emergency staff, we were baffled that they didn't carry feline muscle relaxer, which is one of the first medicines our little guy receives when he is ill. (Also, they called our boy "fractious" which we later learned is vet-code for a cat that will tear you apart because it is so crazed and violent. Our boy has a tendency to scream like a wild banshee when he isn't happy, and it probably terrified the staff.)

We left the emergency clinic with empty wallets and a still very sick cat. We began calling every 24-hour pharmacy we could find to see if they were able to prepare a kitty compound which is the process of making a muscle relaxer safe for feline consumption.

Sunday morning Oskar seemed worse than ever. I started calling every vet hospital in the Cities to find a vial of medicine. Just when I thought all hope was gone, T's cell phone rang and I heard him shout, "Doctor! Yes, yes, we can come right now!" Before I could put the phone down, T had Oskar packed up and in the car.

We've always felt pretty great about our pet clinic. They consistently go above and beyond regular care, whether we come in to get Orson weighed or have concerns about elderly Olive. The staff is compassionate and knowledgeable, and they treat our pets as they would treat their own. But even I did not expect the level of kindness and care we received on Sunday. Our doctor called that morning because he saw a fax from the emergency clinic about Oskar. He opened the clinic for us after hours and sent us home with prescription food and enough muscle relaxer to get Oskar though the painful consequences of Saturday's invasive procedures. Come on, seriously? This guy is beyond. How lucky are we? 

Our vet shares a few traits with Saint Lucia. He is generous, and brings light to our world when things are dark. And between you and me, I call him Dr. Dreamy Eyes because he has stunning blue eyes. All he needs is a sweet roll named for him.

So that is my story of our Lucia Day sans buns but filled with a cat and a saint.

And Oskar? He is feeling better each day.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Lefse day!

We began as a hodgepodge of lefse-loving Minnesotas with Lutheran-church-basement-ladies-envy who wanted to learn the art of potato flatbread. Through the years we've each developed an important role in the day, contributing our skills to the balling, rolling, lifting, and griddling. Those skills have progressed and we are now Masters. This is our 7th year together, and we are an awesome, dangerous, motley crew of self-taught lefse makers.

Last year was baby Xochi 's first lefse party. Now she is old enough to partake and we captured the moment of her first bite. She was born into her role as a lefse-lover! Next year we'll hand her a rolling pin.

An abundance of sparkling wine and snacks keeps our hard working corps lubricated and adequately nourished. This year I brought four batches of vegan lefse dough, pork belly, herring, and gravlax. Our lefse gathering wouldn't be a party without a few slices of lefse pizza topped with plenty of cured salmon and caviar.

We came, we rolled, we destroyed our friend K's house, and we made enough lefse to satisfy our Christmas needs.

Vegan Lefse 
4  cups riced potatoes*
1/4 cup Smart Balance Butter Spread, melted
1/2 cup almond milk (non-sweetened)
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Add melted butter spread to cold potatoes and stir until just combined; add remaining ingredients and stir until rough dough forms. DO NOT OVER MIX. Chill dough 2 hours. Form into walnut-sized balls (be sure to keep dough chilled during ball process as dough will rise when it warms); roll into thin rounds. Griddle each side until done.

*Note: Peel and place whole baking- or roasting-style potatoes in cold unsalted water (just enough water to cover potatoes). Bring to boil and cook until just tender. Drain potatoes and allow to cool completely. Push through ricer and chill at least 2 hours.

Lefse Pizza/Gravlax Flatbread
Brush a generous amount of olive oil on each side of a lefse or flatbread round; bake in moderate oven (around 325 degrees) on both sides until just crisp but do not burn. Remove from oven and top with sour cream or creme fraiche, fresh dill and chives, gravlax, caviar, capers, pickled cucumbers and red onion.

Beer Braised Pork Belly
Read about the pork belly at Called to the Table.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Gravlax Project: Fika

Welcome to Part 2 of the Gravlax Project, an effort to dine on any and all of the gravlax we can find across the Twin Cities and document what we find. We began at Public Kitchen in St. Paul, and for our second dip into the cured salmon pond we returned to familiar grounds: Fika at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I must acknowledge that I am a member, volunteer, and self-appointed head cheerleader for ASI and all things Fika. I forced myself into a sort of out-of-body mode so that I could fairly assess the gravlax served in a kitchen I've grown to love. To properly manage my assessment, I ordered the season's first glögg (Swedish mulled wine) and settled in for a weekday lunch.

Fika opened with ASI's campus expansion in 2012, and since that time they've changed up menu items pretty regularly. They've also graduated a few chefs and Chef John Krattenmaker is now at the helm. Fika's gravlax updates express the evolution of ASI and the New Nordic movement, and the personalities of the kitchen staff, and it has been a fun evolution to witness (see photos for evidence of this progress). In the beginning, Fika's gravlax was a simple and classic dish served with potatoes. In later efforts, croutons, pickled vegetables, and a variety of sauces were added. Then, a crazy and wonderful plate was born: cubed gravlax coated in tart crème fraîche and herbs, set atop velvety leek-dill panna cotta, and served alongside a warm pile of thick and crispy house-made sea salt and vinegar potato chips. Gravlax heaven.

However, after a year of gravlax heaven I was no longer dancing in my pew. The salty chips buried the delicate custard, and (yes this is a strange criticism) that custard was so luscious that it outshined the salmon. It became a plate of gravlax on which the salmon was no longer the star of the dish, but just a bit player.

Chef John Krattenmaker's updated gravlax is a welcome change. The salmon is cured in sugar, salt, and a combination of gin and aquavit. The addition of both liquors brings a subtle yet complex flavor to the gravlax. It is cubed it and dressed in an herby crème fraîche, and topped with pickled beech mushrooms. Dollops of mushroom purée and roasted oyster mushrooms lend a rich earthy tone that grounds the bright cream and salmon. The gravlax has the lush bite I look for in cured salmon, and cubing it brings a texture-forward feel to it. The gravlax is served with toasts of the house rye, and the addition of mushrooms actually elevates the rye to new nutty heights.

Other choices at Fika are equally appealing. You'll never regret ordering a cup of the signature soups regardless of which root vegetable gets pureed into the flavorful bowl. There is a variety of open-faced sandwiches (smörgåsar) and salads, and the meatballs are still the best in town. Wednesday evenings Fika is open for happy hour and dinner, and playful specials often grace the menu. Chef John Krattenmaker serves food that is smart and occasionally witty. His pork belly BLT with tomato, smoked tomato aioli, and grilled lettuce is served with the skinniest little rye crisp ever sliced, and I actually giggled as I savored each bite.

Conclusion: Fika's Gravlax ($10) is a essential addition to the salmon conversation. I don't know when Chef John Krattenmaker will morph his dish into yet another version, so be sure to taste the current dish before it is replaced by an equally charming plate.

Fika Cafe
2600 Park Ave
Minneapolis, Minnesota
(612) 871-4907

Summer 2012

Spring 2013 

Summer 2013

Monday, December 8, 2014

Would Jesus play the tuba?

If Jesus marched in the band, would he be cool with the tubas? Would he get so wild and excited the oompahs coming out of that deep brass section that he'd agree to direct an entire ensemble of tubas knocking out enormous noise and joyful Christmas music in a chapel? Why, yes. Yes, I believe Jesus would. 

A Tuba Christmas is one of those oddities so unique and wonderful that we just had to check it out. We attended Tuba Christmas at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota on Saturday, and we were blown away. Imagine fifty-plus tubas in all their splendid shapes and sizes gathered in one venue belting out (er... bleching out?) everything from "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells" to "Fum Fum Fum" (the later which certainly must have been written with tubas in mind. A tuba-friendly carol if ever there was one.). Fellow band geeks and general music enthusiasts out there, this is a can't-miss event. Finally some respect for our spit-valving friends.

After the tuba jubilee we headed to St. Olaf's Scandinavian Buffet (a.k.a. smörgåsbord). We arrived early enough to immediately snag seats (by the time we left, the line to enter was hundreds deep and guests waited upwards of an hour to enter the dining room). While our companions ditched smörgåsbord etiquette and went straight for the meatballs and ham, T and I found ourselves among other gravlax, herring, and mackerel lovers at the fish table. Almost as good as the silky cured salmon were the delicate and lacy lefse slips. I took more than my fair share of both the salmon and the lefse. 

Being a Swedish meatball snob I wasn't overwhelmed with the Norwegian rendition, but I was pleased to partake in the lutfisk (perhaps I should honor the Norwegians who provided our feast and use their spelling: lutefisk). T had his first taste of the gelatinous lye-soaked delicacy, and promised to take two bites next year. 

While I wasn't completely won over by the meatballs and stuffed pork roast, the dessert tables more than made up for my Swedish snoot. We chose from infinite arrangements of pies, cakes, cookies, rice pudding, fruit soup, and rømmegrøt. If you are ever invited to a Norwegian's holiday celebration, don't snub your nose when rømmegrøt is offered. I've spent enough delicious Christmas Eves with Norwegian friends to appreciate their cream porridge and the love that goes into slowly stirring the cream and wheat over low heat until the butter separates. Add a bit of cinnamon sugar and settle in for a long and happy night. 

We drove away from St. Olaf singing along with Christmas carols on the radio, and I remembered why I never eat a full bowl of rømmegrøt. It sits in the eater's tummy, expanding and reminding us to be grateful that we are only this well-fed once each year.

Today my ears are still warm and slightly buzzing, my tummy is still a little bloated, and I cannot wait to return to St. Olaf's Tuba Christmas and Scandinavian Buffet next December.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cookies and herrings and eggs, oh my

Coming off a Thanksgiving-family-high has me thinking about the gifts we receive from relatives, especially heritage, traditions, and language. In my family, Grandpa Johnson taught us girls a secret language that he called, "Counting in Swedish." He'd hold up his index finger and say, "Timmyteetta," hold up his middle finger, "Lyckasleet," and so on. We sisters mimicked him and memorized the sacred family counting words. We recited them for each other, for friends, and best of all, for Grandpa Johnson. One of my nieces even stood on stage before thousands of onlookers and recited the ditty at a talent show when she was three-years-old.

Years later I spoke the counting words to Norwegian friends at a dinner party. Like Vince Vaughn in the movie "Old School," the parents rushed to their children to administer the earmuffs. "That!" the dad sort of stuttered in shock,"That, is gibberish!" If it was gibberish, why did he earmuff his Scandinavian-speaking kids?

Grandpa Johnson died before I finally took Swedish language classes. In his memory I painstakingly checked my Swedish Dictionary for the counting words in all their possible alliterations. The words were actually phrases and I quickly understood the truth: Grandpa's Swedish counting words were a dirty limerick about a peeping Tom, or in this case, a peeping Timmy. In death as in life, Grandpa Johnson got the last laugh.

We are heading quickly into the holidays, and in many homes that means it is cookie time. My sister Susan has always been a cookie queen, and at our Thanksgiving get-together she was kind enough to gift me with a new cookie recipe (Almond Cherry Tea Cakes) and two dozen eggs from her chickens (named for our beloved aunties, including several of Grandpa Johnson's sisters). I wrote about Susan and her cookies at Called to the Table this week.

And in herring news, check out the Star Tribune today not only for their awesome Annual Holiday Cookie Contest winners, but for a little blurb I wrote on Smörgåsbord and the herring table. Grandpa Johnson's love of smörgåsbord joints like the Jolly Troll is yet another gift bestowed upon me, and this one I can actually speak about in public without fear of the earmuffs.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gratitude, Nordic style

Tuesday morning I attended the 30th Annual Nordic American Thanksgiving Breakfast. The event is sponsored by the Sons of Norway and is a charitable venture (donations were collected for Second Harvest Heartland and the Minnesota Military Family Foundation) loaded with local celebrities, politicians, and 963 guests. I sat at a table in the back dubbed The Johnson Table. Of ten at our table, seven of us were Johnsons. The event was, as 2014 Event Chair Bruce Karstadt observed, "Fika on steroids." (Fika is a Swedish tradition meaning to take a break, most often with coffee, with colleagues, friends, or family. It is both a verb and a noun.)

There were stories about freedom, family and friends, and faith, arched beneath a theme of gratitude. Don Shelby emceed, the Gustavus Adolphus College Choir sang, Kevin Kling brought down the house with his wild humor and gentle lessons in compassion and loss (the keys to freedom), and Chef Andrew Zimmern spoke of the simplicity and beauty of gratitude. There were members of the military, representatives from all five Nordic countries, and much singing. Prayers were prayers said and sung in Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, and English, and Reverend Ruth MacKenzie reminded us that we must slow down, savor silence, and embrace gratitude.

Whether ordained by luck or some sort of divine Nordic guidance, at the breakfast I was seated next to Lois, one of the (formerly) Johnsons at our table. Lois told me about her second career as a writer after spending years teaching and in libraries, "Always surrounded by words." After the event Lois was off to visit her friend, 103-year-old Marjorie Douglas. Lois met Marjorie years ago at a writers group. At that time Marjorie was in her 80s and having her memoirs published through the Minnesota Historical Society; "Barefoot on Crane Island" and "Eggs in the Coffee, Sheep in the Corn."

While I am appreciative of the life I have, of family and friends, food on the table, good health, I struggle with something I refer to as "2 AM moments." In fact, a few hours before the Nordic breakfast I was doing my usual tossing and turning, awake and wondering if the effort is worth it. If I curl up and quit, if i just stop writing, would it matter? I am not the only writer who fights bouts of insecurity. Yet, we are compelled to return, though often without a sense of thankfulness. Lois and Marjorie inspire me. I faced Thanksgiving with much gratitude for their proof that it is never too late.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Friends Thanksgiving Year 20

We gather on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and recall the many years we've spent together as friends. We feast on mostly vegetarian fare in honor of those among us who don't eat turkey, and every year the wine gets a little better, the roaring fire a little more comforting, and our bonds a little stronger. Every year I am more and more grateful for those bonds of friendship.

This year our menu was slightly eclectic. My contribution was the wild rice blini (see photo). Get the recipe here.

2014 Friends Thanksgiving 
Tasty treats from Broders

First course
Caesar Salad with tofu dressing
  The most gorgeous delicious loaf of bread ever baked (contributed by 
my friend's accordion teacher's husband)

Main course
Curried vegetables
Roasted potatoes with caramel and prunes (from "Jerusalem: A Cookbook")
Wild rice blini with cranberry mostarda and crème fraîche

Pumpkin mousse
Salted caramel monkey bread
Espresso and mulled wine