Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Another Midsommar has come and we've danced around the maypole, eaten lots of potato salad and herring, and enjoyed a glass (or two) of aquavit. Summer is officially here, and we are ready to absorb every single moment.

My favorite asparagus and berry farmer assures me that there are two weeks left of strawberry season, so I am trying to tamp down my tendency to hoard. I've got no time for canning this year, so I've found other ways to enjoy the freshness of early summer. Macerated strawberries are perfect over ice cream and in cocktails. Strawberry salsa, heavy on the heat, is great with chips and tucked into tacos. Toss diced strawberries with lots of chili peppers (use a variety of hot and sweet), onion, pickled shallots, cilantro, and lime juice. A hit of salt and pepper to finish and you've got a great start to dinner.


Monday, June 13, 2016

Summer red

I freely admit that I am a wine dolt. While I appreciate an expensive bottle of Pinot Noir or Cabernet, I can't taste enough of a difference to justify purchasing anything over $20, and even then only for a very special occasion.

This past spring I took a wine class through the University of Minnesota's College of Continuing Education and our instructor, Jason Kallsen, introduced me to the concept of dry rather than sweet pink wine. My wine world entered a whole new phase of experimentation. Now that summer is here and I find myself reaching for nice dry rosé more often than ever, usually around the affordable $10 a bottle mark. 

For three short weeks in Minnesota we enjoy strawberry season. Happily, this weekend I discovered that strawberries and rosé marry well. What to do with the leftover berries (if you have any)? Macerate them for a few hours and add to everything from salad, ice cream, and even that inexpensive glass of rosé for a fun sangria.

Macerated Strawberries
1 quart strawberries, halved
1/4 cup Cointreau 
A few tablespoons of your favorite liquor (brandy, rum, aquavit)
A few tablespoons of maple syrup
1 dropper of orange flavored bitters, such as Bittercube 

Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl; set aside to macerate for a few hours. 


Sunday, June 5, 2016

No use crying over spilled aquavit

Frejya is this cool goat gal pal of mine who lives at the American Swedish Institute (ASI), keeping an eye on things, making sure everything runs smoothly. She wanders around, but once summer arrives Frejya prefers all-day dining on the green roofs overlooking the mansion. As you can imagine, Frejya has seen a lot since her arrival coincided with the expansion of ASI's campus in 2012. Has it really been four years?

We've enjoyed cocktail parties and lectures, concerts and art exhibits, and visits from dignitaries. We've eaten crayfish and sang Swedish drinking songs with strangers who quickly became friends. There have been delightful meals at FIKA and cooking classes down in Paulson Hall. Whether Midsommar or Jul, ASI opens her doors to us and Frejya reminds me of how far we've come together.

Yet nothing could have prepared Frejya and I for the Fäviken frenzy that we witnessed (OK, I admit, we participated in) when it was announced that Swedish chef, author, and photographer Magnus Nilsson was coming to ASI to introduce his photo exhibition. We Nordic nuts lost our collective minds. You could spot us pretty easily: we were the ones carrying around sacred copies of Nilsson's "The Nordic Cookbook" (a formidable publication that documents the diverse cultures, traditions, and foodways of the Nordic region and includes 700+ recipes, countless photos... and weighs approximately 25 pounds) and limping from the heft. We binged on Netflix episodes of PBS's "Mind of a Chef: Season 3" and "Chef's Table" which featured Chef Magnus. We ate a lot of herring and rye.

As each Chef Magnus event was announced, our hysteria heightened. We rushed to register for guided tours, a recipe exchange, local spirits and beer tasting, multi-course dinners prepared by some of the best chefs in town, and a lecture/book signing by Chef Magnus himself. I prepared by combing through my already well-thumbed "The Nordic Cookbook" and memorizing questions I would ask the chef if an opportunity arose, silly things like: "What did your family eat on Christmas Eve?" "What is your favorite cookie? Pizza topping? Movie?"

Wednesday we frolicked on the lawn outside of the mansion for a party and preview of the Magnus Nilsson photography exhibit. We ate hotdogs, Juicy Lucia's, and fried pickles, while enjoying generous pours from Gamle Ode, Du Nord, Far North, Fulton, Indeed, and State Fair. There was music, kubb, and warm fires. And there was Chef Magnus.

Whenever I get too giddy with joy, I tend to make a fool of myself blurting out any goofy thing that hovers between my brain and mouth. Thankfully each time I got close to Chef Magnus I clammed up like a nervous schoolgirl, smiled a lot, and said appropriate things like "Thank you! Thank you! Tack!" 
By Friday I was ever so slightly impressed with myself for maintaining self-control around the esteemed Chef Magnus. I arrived at ASI ready for the recipe exchange and Origins of Nordic Food lecture from Örebro University's Professor Richard Tellström. I viewed the exhibit on a guided tour with Chef Magnus and an entourage while Chef M gave insights into each image. All the while I maintained my cool.

My friend M and I reapplied lipstick, I changed into less comfortable shoes, and we headed up to dinner. We each collected a glass of Pinot, ever calm, and nibbled at passed hors d'oeuvres of white fish and pickled onions. We were to be seated next to the recipe exchange lecturer, and he joined our conversation. Music played and we could smell amazing things coming from the kitchen.

Dinner arrived and course after course, each more stunning than the one before, kept us occupied. One by one the evening's chefs were introduced and we applauded them and skålled with aquavit. Prof Richard pulled a tiny music box from his suit pocket and played "Helan Går" as we table companions did our best to sing along.  

A wise man once said, "Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at it's zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us." (I call it life keeping me humble.) Sitting at that beautifully set table, it was as if I'd been taught manners from my cats. First, in my greedy haste I shoved an entire mouthful of fish bones into my mouth. Just as my dining companions decided it was time to skål, I began spitting macerated bones into my napkin, then sheepishly handed the foul thing to our attentive server. I recovered and soon we were taking selfies: me and M, the professor and his neighbor, me and the professor. Evidence now demonstrates that I had a large black thing in my tooth for all photos. Finally, in my excitement to be served the lamb course, I thwacked a shot of aquavit across the table with my fork (possibly onto the professor's lap). Humility knocked, and I answered.

After dinner, M and I found ourselves among the private festivities of the cooks and watched Chef Magnus and his new kompisar (buddies) knocking a piñata until the candy spilled forth. I attended one more event the following morning, with Chef Magnus speaking and then signing books, but already the week reached perfection. 

Frejya and I will discuss these events for years to come. I am sure of it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ever thus to deadbeats

For T and I Memorial Day Weekend bookends our years, marking the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. We celebrate with an annual viewing of our favorite movie, the Coen Brothers' classic "The Big Lebowski," and for two hours we hang out in a smoky bowling alley drinking Caucasians, macro-beers, and Sioux City Sarsaparilla with The Dude, Walter, Donny, and The Stranger, 

As I wrote last year in my Called to the Table column:
What holiday could be better than Memorial Day to celebrate all things Lebowski? With its rainbow of fragile pacifists, conscientious objectors, veterans, and rich politicians, "The Big Lebowski" reminds us of the politics behind war and the characters who play their parts in America's history of lines in the sand. Every time we watch "The Big Lebowski" we notice more of the "ins and outs," the strands in the old Duder's head, and the the rug isn't the only thing that ties the room together.
"The Big Lebowski" is a perfect movie. Although as the Stranger once asked, "Do you have to use so many cuss words?" It is nearly impossible to quote from the flick without injecting swear word here and there.
And then there is the bowling.
A viewing of "The Big Lebowski" isn't complete without our homemade Minnesota version of In-N-Out burgers (I like them Animal Style) and some delicious deadbeat dessert. This year we added White Russian Ice Cream to the menu.

The Dude abides and he is still taking 'er easy for all us sinners, and just like The Stranger I take comfort in that.

White Russian Ice Cream
14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
14 to 15 ounce can coconut cream
3 tablespoons each coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua) and cold coffee or espresso
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In large mixing bowl whisk all ingredients together.

Pour mixture into prepared ice cream maker and mix according to manufacturer's instructions until ice cream forms soft-serve consistency. Spoon into lidded container and place in freezer for 2 to 4 hours.

Pour a few tablespoons of Kahlua and vodka over a few scoops of ice cream and serve.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The world's best chicken tacos with rhubarb salsa EVER

The sun is up, the grill is on, and we are looking for ways to spice up our summer. Last night I cooked up a rhubarb-habanero salsa that made my head hot but didn't blow out my taste buds. Spooned over tacos with grilled chicken and corn, avocado, queso fresco, and radish, the rhubarb salsa balanced each bite with a sour pickle flavor. The tacos were a perfect balance of texture, flavor, and color. Can I have them again tonight?

Next time I will cook the rhubarb for just a minute or two so the vegetable doesn't completely break down (see instructions below). And while I love the bright tones of this salsa but it might be too tart for some eaters. I'll probably add a little more maple syrup to the finished product.

Rhubarb-Habanero Salsa
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

2 cup rhubarb, diced
juice of 1 lime
2 ramps, diced
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minces
1 habanero, minced
1 jalapeno, diced
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
2 tablespoons mint, minced
1/4 cup maple syrup, or more to taste (honey would also work)
Salt and pepper to taste

Place rhubarb, lime juice, ramps, garlic, and habanero in small pot. Bring to boil and simmer 1 minute, then immediately remove from heat. Cool mixture.

In mixing bowl stir remaining ingredients together. Add cooled rhubarb mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Adjust sweetness if wanted.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Pesto and Leche

This was The Week of Sauces! Not a bad proclamation. Quite a tasty adventure, actually.

First was ramp pesto made with spring's first tender onions, parsley, and mint. We ladled it over grilled chicken (brined in buttermilk and Franks HotSauce, then plopped over a can of lemon San Pellegrino for an extended stay on the grill), and the leftovers will pair nicely with potatoes or pasta.

Second was Leche De Tigre (tiger's milk), a sauce that is new to my kitchen and my palate. Our Fig to Fork delivery this week included the recipe from Chef Brendan McDonald of 4Bells. The leche gave our snapper tacos a zesty appeal. Tonight we'll brush the sauce over turkey burgers while they grill.

Ramp Pesto
1/2 cup ramps, chopped
Large handful Italian parsley
Small handful mint
Good handful walnuts, toasted
Good handful of parmesan cheese, shredded
2 cloves of garlic
Juice from half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Olive oil

In small saute pan cook ramps in a small bit of olive oil over medium high heat until ramps are just tender, about 5 minutes. Add ramps to bowl of a food processor fitted with metal blade. Add parley,mint, walnuts, cheese, garlic, lemon juice, and black pepper. Turn processor on and add enough olive oil to make a loose paste. 

Leche De Tigre (adapted from Chef Brendan McDonald's recipe)
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 habanero chili pepper, seeded and rinsed well in cold water
3 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons pineapple juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wear gloves to cut habanero in half and remove seeds. Rinse under cold water.

Roast red and yellow peppers, garlic, and shallot on parchment lined baking sheet for 15 to 20 minutes or until charred, turning every 5 minutes to get all sides evenly roasted. Remove from oven and let vegetables cool enough to handle. Rinse pepper under cool water and pull away charred skins and seeds. Return peppers to oven to warm them. Remove skin from shallot and garlic.

Add all ingredients into a blender or food processor fitted with metal blade and puree for 5 to 10 minutes. Cool and serve.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Spring simplicity

It really isn't officially spring until I've snapped the bottoms off of the season's first asparagus and rolled them across the hot grill. Radishes, rhubarb, halibut, and a chilled rosé: these simple flavors set my expectations for the warmth that is to come and yank me out of winter's stupor of starch and heft. 

We trekked toward the sunshine last Saturday intent on foraging for the ingredients that launch our seasonal tasks. We required tomato and pepper plants, flowers, potting soil, and a grand assortment of herbs to plant. Across Minnesota millions of others had the same plan. We assembled en masse at the farmers market, the nursery, the hardware store, and Costco; merging with swarms of happy people lugging pots of bright peonies and phlox and finding our place in a line a block long, I heard a woman tell the man next to her, "It is a good thing that everyone is happy when they buy flowers."

T carefully balanced a tray loaded with tiny cartons of basil, sage, and tarragon while I toted bouquets of green onions, asparagus, and rhubarb. Our small car groaned with the weight of several 55-pound bags of potting soil and the bounty of our spring shopping spree.

At home I spread the edible loot across the butcher block and set to work on a rhubarb simple syrup while T travailed in the yard, mowing the lawn and raking unidentifiable foliage. Eventually we connected in the backyard and started filling pots with soil and green promises. When it was time for happy hour, we collapsed with relief from a job well done and opened a bottle of pink Pinot noir.

Rhubarb Simple Syrup
4 cups rhubarb, chopped
2 cups sugar

Place rhubarb and sugar in large stock pot and cover with water. Simmer 30 to 60 minutes. Use immersion blender to puree. Strain through wire mesh colander, pushing solids against mesh to extract liquid, and discard solids. Chill in glass jars.

Use rhubarb syrup in mixed drinks with soda water, and in cocktails. Add to vinaigrette and BBQ sauce.