Thursday, July 28, 2016

Christmas in July

Slowly but surely I am collecting recipes and stories about Swedish Jul as it is celebrated in the upper Midwest for a book to be published by the Minnesota Historical Society. To keep my mood in a forever-Christmas place this summer, rather than locking tomte away with the other holiday decor he stands in our living room reminding me to Think Jul.

Last week T and I trekked up north, WAY up north, where I spent the afternoon with three of the most generous, funny, smart women I've ever met. They invited me into their homes and told me wonderful stories about their Christmases, families, lives. We ate beautiful smörgås (open-faced sandwiches) and enjoyed a fika with egg coffee, homemade strawberry ice cream, and cookies. I left them filled with their kindness and restored (and my car filled with eggs from their chickens, lettuce from their gardens, notecards from their art studios).

Christmas is all about gratitude and celebration, and these women reminded me that Christmas doesn't just have to happen in December. If we are lucky, sometimes tomte appears in July. 


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Who says you can't go back? Zantigo's chilito

We were seniors in high school working nights selling magazine subscriptions over the phone. Our afternoon commute included a walk through Brookdale Mall where Zantigo lured us to eat the cheapest tastiest dinner available. For less than a buck we could dine on a warm flour tortillas rolled around gooey cheese and hot sauce. It was filling and luscious, with enough heat to satisfy a Minnesotan teen before she discovered chili peppers, Thai food, and hot sauce.

Something about that tortilla always satisfied me. It tasted, in a really really good way, like the frozen burritos my dad fried in butter on his well-seasoned cast iron pan. Those butter burritos were a staple on the weekends when I visited him in his smoky apartment, and a sentimental taste that I've only ever experienced in Dad's apartment and at Zantigo.

Zantigo slowly faded from our fast-food scene here in the Twin Cities, replaced by Chipotle, Qdoba and burger joints. Whenever I discover we are within range of one the remaining "authentic Mexican American cuisine" stands, I am helpless and require immediate sustenance.

It has been a few years since my last Zantigo spotting. Earlier this week when we saw the highway signs directing us to a local strip mall I noted the familiar mustached, sombrero-sporting Zantigo spokesmodel and my taste buds tingled. We had no plans for dinner even though it was well past eating hour. Chilito heaven awaited.

These days the chilito comes in two varieties: mild and hot. Mild is described as: our soft, flour torilla painted with our famous mild red chili sauce, covered with shredded cheese. And hot: our soft, flour tortilla painted with our hot and spicy green chili sauce, covered with shredded cheese. I ordered a hot chilito and grabbed a handful of hot sauce. Zantigo hot sauce is a unique and appealing vinegary concoction with just a hint of heat. Biting into the chilito was every bit as wonderful as I remember. The soft and warm flour tortilla, the indefinable yet pleasant cheese, and the sharp sauce meld into the bites that lured me as a teenager. Next time I'll order two.

Various locations
Price: about $1.69 plus tax (and did I mentioned I'll order two next time?)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Swedish week

I once heard an apt description of blogs: blogs are online diaries that no one reads. Today I honor that description more so than usual.

Dear Diary. This week is a whirlwind of Swedishness, and happily it doesn't appear to be ending soon.

Thursday I attended a cocktail tour of the Chef Magnus Nilsson exhibit at American Swedish Institute. While I've explored the exhibit multiple times since the opening, there is always something new to see and learn. ASI Interpretive Services Coordinator Hanna guided us through the photos with a particular eye toward food preservation across the Nordic region. FIKA provided tasty cocktails and bites.

Friday I interviewed Swedish Crown Bakery owner Eva Sabet at her shop in Anoka. I met Eva last year when she taught a Christmas baking class at ASI. A Swede born to Hungarian immigrants, now Eva makes her home in Minnesota with her Persian husband Fari. I love the Swedish, Hungarian, and Iranian influences on the bakery menu, but mostly I love biting into Eva's pastries. They are lush and full of the flavors I love best: cardamom, citrus, almond, and fruit. We left the bakery loaded with cardamom bread, several twists, chocolate meringues, aquavit and orange herring, and a taste of Bohemian vegetable soup that I cannot stop thinking about.

Saturday we drove up to Lindström for Karl Oskar Days. I've wanted to visit Karl Oskar Days for years to celebrate all thing Moberg. Lindstöm is part of Chisago County where the characters from Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrant series settled after their journey from Sweden. We used an event map to weave our way to the Karl Oskar House on the outskirts of town. There we met fellow Swedish enthusiasts and heard some amazing stories of immigration. They've even recreated (spoiler alert) Kristina's deathbed complete with an Astrachan apple tree at the window. The apples are already plump and ready to drop.

Swedish week continued into last night at the Modern Swedish Supper class I taught at ASI. We cooked and enjoyed a meal of Flying Jacob, Taco Paj, Biff a la Lindstöm sliders, and kladdkaka with boozy berries and whipped cream.

From modern Sweden and new immigrants, to old immigrants, and back to modern Sweden: it really doesn't get better than this.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Gratitude in the dark

Our power went out for three days a few years ago. The first night was sort of fun and magical. We skipped through the neighborhood, made new friends, drank wine from a box, and had a pretty good time.

The second day was filled with neighborhood camaraderie. We shared information on the best places to find ice (many stores in our area were sold out, or also without power) and rumor-mongered about when the lights would come back on. The neighbors across the street (who, by some miracle of city planning, are NEVER without power) allowed friends to run extension cords from house to house, sharing their good fortune and valuable electricity.

By day three our happy little neighborhood became Lord of the Flies (the zombie version). We were covered in mosquito bites, without a vacuum our house was filthy, and it was time to toss our food. We were out of wine. And the continuous bass buzz of multiple generators was taking its toll on me and our cat Orson.

After those three days without electricity I learned some important things about myself: As much as I love reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's accounts of pioneer days, I don't want to reenact them. I'm a little too delicate to camp. No electricity? No way. No hot water? No thanks. No fan to keep me comfy while I sleep? No sleep.

Last night we were on the road as storms approached the Twin Cities. Some guy called into the radio station we had on, saying the skies were unlike anything he'd ever seen. "Looks really bad!" his voice cracked with excitement and fear, "This is just something to behold."

T and I chuckled and agreed, "Must not be from Minnesota." We Minnesotans tend to be smug about our weather. We are stoic survivors, and it takes a little more than a clap of thunder to scare us.

As we drove closer to home, the storm hit. Wind and sheets of rain rocked our little car and I crossed myself and said a few dozen Hail Marys (As Ralphie in a Christmas Story says, "Let's face it, most of us are scoffers. But moments before zero hour, it does not pay to take chances"). T drove the car with both hands tightly clasping the steering wheel and kept muttering, "I've got to get home to my boys. I've got to get home to my boys."

Trees and branches flew around us, garbage cans tumbled into the street. Roads were flooded and we floated a few times. As we pulled into the driveway I heard another radio caller describe the lighting that hit near our local mall and how the power was out.

Our house was dark and wet. The wind blew water in from every open window. The boys were riled up but none the worse for wear. We dried off and got our emergency stash together: flashlights, DVD to watch on laptop with most battery left, and snacks.

In the middle of the night I woke to a familiar sound. The neighbors four doors down were running their enormous and enormously loud generator. I'd forgotten the hell of that noise.

Tonight we are armed with plenty of ice and earplugs. I might not be pioneer material, but I know how to get a good night's sleep in just about any situation. Of course, it is easy to sleep when you are filled with gratitude. We've got no damage to our house, no water in the basement, and the enormous trees that line our yard are still standing. T managed to save most of our refrigerated food and we won't starve (Hey, you don't need electricity to light a charcoal grill!). We'll have power back eventually, unlike folks who live through a major disaster or live in places without resources.

The biggest problem we need to solve tonight is which DVD to play in the laptop that's been charging at my office. If I complain too much, remind me of that.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Day tripping in Minnesota: Alexandria

The good people of Alexandria welcomed T and I last week when we invited ourselves into town to do a little Scandinavian research and exploration. Following a quick two-hour drive from the Twin Cities, we arrived at the Knute Nelson House, aka home to the Douglas County Historical Society, where I received a personal tour of the house and learned a thing or two about Minnesota's 12th Governor.

Later, we checked out the Runestone Museum. For $8 a piece we enjoyed a short movie about the history of the Kensington Runestone and wandered through exhibits about early settlers, Douglas County history, Native Americans, and wildlife. (We actually walked right by the runestone without realizing it.)

The day culminated with a call to Big Ole, the viking who stands on the edge of town. Apparently Ole is as vain as a Bravo TV housewife and was undergoing one of his frequent makeovers. Regardless, he looked pretty good to me.




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.