Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A hodgepodge life of tomte and trolls

As REO Speedwagon once sang, "My life has been such a whirlwind since I saw you." So true for us all these days as we are too busy to slow down and reconnect. My excuse for neglecting this little two-readers blog is that I am in the panic and crush of a book deadline: busy rolling out dough, tasting new flavors (Dopp i gryta! Eight different meatball mixes! Lard laden cookies!), and searching for lutfisk lovers. It's a dazzling time and tomte has been my constant companion. In fact, he was my date at a recent speaking gig (that's him above, admiring a Christmas tree).

Last week I met some Jolly Trolls. They live in Carole Jean Anderson's storage room in Minneapolis.(Carole Jean is the Jolly Troll heiress. Her parents founded the popular restaurant that housed the trolls.) It felt like my whole life led up to the moment when Carole Jean unlocked the storage, turned on the light, and introduced me to a dozen little men (and one woman) who continue working on the same chores I remember them doing forty-five years ago. There are little men slicing rye, stirring stew pots, and sawing tree limbs. The Jolly Trolls live in a time forgotten by so many of us; a time when families rarely went out to eat, but when we did it was an experience.

In Swedish lore, tomte hangs out in our homes and barns; sometimes a protector, sometimes a mischievous trickster. Feed him enough delicious rice pudding on Christmas Eve and he'll gladly help out until the next bowl of porridge. We've never needed their service more than we do now. I'm knee deep in rice pudding recipe testing, and all the while imagining fate unlocking the doors to many rooms full of tomtar (plural) and trolls, eager to accomplish their tasks and help out humanity.

The event of the past few months remind me to appreciate the good that I see, whether large or small. We will combat the gross and depraved among us by becoming warriors of truth and justice. A majority of the people I talk to are already embracing this moment. Together we are stronger. And it doesn't hurt to leave a little rice pudding out.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Gen X says goodbye

2016 was a hell of a year.

The losses of 2016 never ceased, and for Gen Xers these losses meant saying goodbye to many of our childhood icons. As we go screeching forward toward god knows what, many of us are scrambling to figure out how to face the unknown without the comfort of those icons.

Gen Xers are defined as the group of Americans born between 1965 and 1981. The term and definition came from marketers so they could target us for advertisements, but we embraced the definition and characteristics probably because we were so excited that someone - anyone - was paying attention to us. An appropriate response considering our most significant babysitter was the television.

Gen Xers are known for our independence, resilience, and adaptability (we are also known for our skepticism and slacker-tendencies). We earned those characteristics in part because our childhood was all about upheaval: energy crisis, Watergate, the crack and AIDS epidemics, lots of divorce, and moms who went to work. Don't even start me on the entire Reagan era (Gen Xers remember he was not a saint, and in fact many of us regard him as a criminal). We consoled ourselves with the aforementioned TV (from Pong to cable channels and music videos), 80's pop and 90's grunge music, and computers.

Entertainment was our escape, then and now.

Plunked down in the front of the boob tube (as Dad used to call it) on weekend nights, many of us gravitated toward "The Brady Bunch" and the effervescent Florence Henderson. Mrs. Brady was almost as beautiful as my own mom, so hip in her mod clothing and endless cups of (pre-Starbucks) coffee.

The show "One Day at a Time" prepared many of us for the experience of life with a single mom and apartment dwelling. We learned that apartment life came with a super like Schneider, played by Pat Harrington, who meddled in plumbing and the private lives of the residents. We took comfort in that.

"Growing Pains" was more like a fantasy, with a happy family made up of successful parents and lovable kids. Alan Thicke played an understanding dad you could talk to about anything.

Ask us about the music of our youth and we'll tell you about the importance of David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael. They are the soundtrack of our adolescence. Ask any Gen X male who his first crush was, and 9 times out of 10 he'll answer "Princess Leia." (Some of my Gen X guy friends might answer "Han Solo," which demonstrates another Gen X characteristic - we were the first generation to collectively embrace sexual, gender, racial, and religious diversity, possibly because we saw those differences on TV and in our music, and we understood that diversity makes us stronger.).

In the late 80's we flocked to the theater to cheer Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempt to escape public execution via a reality show ("The Running Man"), then scratched our heads when in reality he married a Kennedy and became governor of California. Later Arnold cheated on the Kennedy with their maid and had a secret child, and yet he managed to escape public humiliation and now he's replacing America's so-called president-elect as host of a reality show. And so the world spins.

In the early 90's we viewed television's first reality show "Real World," entranced during the initial seasons only to discover the people who gravitated toward such a life eventually generated reality into a scripted sham.

In school we were assigned to read "1984" and learned about Newspeak, never dreaming that the danger of a totalitarian state would be ushered in by none other than a failed business mogul and reality television star with terrible hair and tiny hands. Rest assured, his reality show is in manly hands now with Arnold. There is no longer room in our culture for girlie-men, right?

The icons of Gen X's youth have died. They've been replaced with the ridiculous and the terrifying. Modern Newspeak has the nation investing in reality programming, the normalizing of alarming events and people, and a new presidential cabinet filled with antagonistic oxymorons,

Gen X no longer has our icons for escapism. We must figure out a way to rise without them, but we can still look to the examples they set to fight the wrongs.

This is not America, (sha la la la la)
A little piece of you
The little peace in me
Will die (This is not a miracle)
For this is not America
Blossom fails to bloom this season
Promise not to stare
Too long (This is not America)
For this is not the miracle
There was a time
A storm that blew so pure
For this could be the biggest sky
And I could have the faintest idea
For this is not America
(Sha la la la la, sha la la la la, sha la la la la)
This is not America, no
This is not, (sha la la la la)
Snowman melting from the inside
Falcon spirals to the ground
(This could be the biggest sky)
So bloody red, tomorrow's clouds
A little piece of you
The little peace in me
Will die (This could be a miracle)
For this is not America

- David Bowie

Monday, December 26, 2016

Sourdough starter is the new black

My friend M is a bread master. I've tasted a few of her loaves and each one sends me reeling with lust for another bite. Her stuff is absolute perfection. M says her bread is amazing because of her twelve year old starter which she received from a baker up north. 

While preparing to test a Christmas bread recipe that provided instructions for making a starter from scratch, I asked M for advice. The recipe is an old one and calls for a baker to combine water and flour and let the stuff alone for a few weeks, after which you sniff the starter to decide whether is is bread-worthy or destined for the garbage.

M generously offered to give me a part of her starter so I could test the recipe in style. I agreed, with trepidation. A starter is a lot of responsibility, like caring for another living being without understanding what it needs, when it needs it, and why. Would I be able to keep the baby alive long enough to test the recipe over the long holiday weekend? The whole experience reminded me of the Amish Friendship Bread starter a well meaning neighbor gifted us when we moved into our home. It took a few days before I finally, without guilt, tossed the thing and never looked back. But this time my starter was planned for, a wanted child.

Meanwhile, M sent me an article published in the NYT last March. Sam Sifton wrote about the popularity of starters and equipping those of us interested (and terrified) of the bubbly concoction living on our counters or refrigerators with an owner's manual synopsis. Starters are, apparently, the Pet Rocks of our time. I was relieved to learn I am not the first to name my starter. (My starter is named Baby.) 

To keep starter alive, you must nurture it: feed it, water it, give it air, and watch it closely to make sure you are doing it right. I am told that the care of a starter gets easier once you learn to read its cues. Apparently, as your relationship with the starter develops, you know instinctively what to feed it and when. For now, you may want to say a prayer for the yeasty Baby living in my kitchen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Love and winter from a snow bunny

Everyone loves a snow day! When temps dip and the white stuff falls, I can’t wipe the grin off my face, until I hear that collective whine, “This weather is terrible.” When did Minnesotans start hating winter? Aren’t we the hockey state? Don’t we relish our winter carnivals and teach our children to make snow people? Aren’t we the region of champion skiers and snow bunnies alike? 

With the first hint of snow I run outside and make snow angels and shovel the driveway and hear the clean fresh crunch underneath my warm winter boots. I roll snowballs and drink hot chocolate. I make plans to go skating and snow shoeing and cross country skiing. I fill up with the silent, calm, cold. It forces me to just be. 

I wait all year for this scene.

Until the sad sacks give me a full report on why they hate winter and remind me to be careful, I might slip on the ice. Cue the sad trombones. The dissatisfaction of these hapless haters rubs all the bloom off my excitement.

Eric Dayton (yes, those Daytons) recently began a mission to end the weather hating hysteria all too common with our local media. As forecasters  repeatedly describe winter as bad, the entire state starts to chant the anti-winter mantra. Enough already! I am on board with Dayton (and not just because he happens to own one of my favorite restaurants) and am hoping to change the weather rhetoric. 

If you are one of those people who declares our Minnesota weather is too cold, I gently remind you that this is winter. Stop spoiling my fun! We are lucky to have seasons. I encourage you to embrace all that is chilly, and if you are cold when you go outside it is probably because you aren't dressed for it. A wise Scandinavian once said, "There is no bad weather, just bad clothing."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Adventures in lutfisk

This fall I was lucky to spend some time with Scandinavian baker and cookbook author (and creator of pizza rolls!) Beatrice Ojakangas. During her class at American Swedish Institute, she invited us to Duluth where her church has its annual Lutefisk, Salmon, and Meatballs lunch/dinner service each December. Yesterday, a few of us made the trek to First Lutheran to partake in the noon feast, and it was amazing.   

Five hundred pounds of lutefisk, a few thousand meatballs, and salmon fished by a member of the church feed about 1,200 to 1,300 diners during the day-long meal. Volunteers run the kitchen, stand at each station along the buffet, and scurry about the dining room making sure guests are happy and coffee pots are full. I've been to plenty of lutefisk (we Swedes say lutfisk) dinners, and this one was tops. (Lutfisk: dried white fish, usually cod, treated with lye. After a good long soak in water to remove the lye, the fish is cooked and typically served with either a cream sauce or melted butter. The resulting fish is gelatinous and if cooked correctly it has a flaky quality.)

Up in Duluth it is common to serve the plate of food with coleslaw; a nice addition that cuts through the richness of a full white plate. I was pleased to see a shaker of allspice at every table for those of us who indulge in flavored fish. The church also serves boiled potatoes, a cream sauce we raved about the entire drive back to the Cities, melted butter, pickled herring and beets, tartar sauce, lefse, rye bread, and julkake (Christmas bread). Dessert, if you've got room, is ice cream topped with berries.

My only complaint: the rye and the lefse were made using Beatrice's recipes and we were only allowed one piece of the lefse (too many mouths to feed and the church volunteers make just enough lefse to feed each guest one). I'd pay a little extra for another bite of that luscious potato flatbread.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Comfort from Denmark: Trine Hahnemann

A friend contacted me through social media, asking if I planned to attend a book signing with Chef and cookbook author Trine Hahnemann. Attend?! I hadn't even heard about it. Seems that was the common reaction last week when we Scandinavian food lovers learned that Chef Trine made a quick stop in Minneapolis to promote her latest cookbook, "Scandinavian Comfort Food."

I've got all but one of Hahnemann's books on my shelf, and gleefully headed to Uptown on Monday where she was speaking and signing at Magers & Quinn Booksellers. Five of us (did I mention no one knew she was coming to town?) sat in the stacks and lapped up every word as Hahnemann generously spoke to us about the art of hygge (Danish concept of coziness) and how cooking plays into our health and wellness.

"Hygge is our culture, part of our daily life," Hahnemann explained. Now hygge is becoming a trend that is marketed. Hahnemann shook her head and told us, "That is just weird. To be hygge comes with expectations about atmosphere. It is not a concept, not a commodity." Similar to Swedish fika, hygge is now used a a verb, defining an event that was nice, pleasant, with an atmosphere where everyone feels good, calm, in sync. And, most importantly, drinking coffee and snacking on cake. "That party was so hyggly."

Hahnemann grew up with "hippy parents" on a commune, and while at the time Denmark generally cultivated a homogenized food culture, on the commune Hahnemann learned about the foods and cultures from Palestinian and Latin American refuges. Every night dinner included very non-Danish flavors such as hummus and eggplant.

When visiting her traditional grandparents, Hahnemann learned berry picking, jam making, and the importance of coffee breaks. "We have three meals and three fika each day!" she told us. When guests arrive, "Always offer coffee and cake." The Danish baking culture comes from the practice of welcoming neighbors to a slow, relaxed conversation while enjoying fika.

"I received this gift from my grandmother: to understand seasonality; what and when to cook." Hahnemann pointed out the similarities between Danish and Minnesota lifestyles: living in a northern climate defines the way we eat. The cold and the light (should) guide our food choices. "There is always something to look forward to with the seasons." As for diets, Hahnemann prefers common sense eating. "Eat things that taste good and you will eat less."

While we can define what we eat as local, that doesn't necessarily mean we should eat only things that are indigenous to our region. We should eat food that make sense, such as imported spices (and bananas, the number one fruit eaten in Scandinavia). When you purchase food from other regions, reach for those that make sense (such as organic, fair trade bananas that come by ship). Just as she learned from her time living in a commune, Hahnemann reminded us that when we eat flavors from other regions, we learn about the people who live there. "Trading with each other means we know each other. If we know each other we are not afraid of one another."

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

2016 Friends Thanksgiving

Another year and another Friends Thanksgiving spent with friends I've had since we were kids. This post election party was a change to breath again, and remind ourselves that we are in this thing called America together. There is great comfort in that knowledge.

2016 Friends Thanksgiving
Assorted cheeses, tampenade,bread, olives, crackers, dried fruit
Main course
Bitter greens, croutons, almonds
Root vegetable and chestnut stuffed squash
Brussels sprouts
Cranberry walnut bread

Coconut ice cream with Cointreau cranberries swirl
Ginger caramel
Spicy pepparkakor
Assorted desserts from Lunds & Byerly's

I found the base of the ice cream recipe online at several sites. We topped the ice cream with warm ginger caramel, and paired with a spicy pepparkakor.

Coconut Ice Cream with Cointreau Cranberries
for the ice cream;
2 cans coconut milk
1/3 cup corn syrup
1 tablespoon Cointreau
1 teaspoon each ground ginger and vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Process ice cream batter in ice cream machine according to manufacture's instructions.
for the swirl;
1 1/2 cup raw cranberries
1/4 cup orange juice
zest from 1 orange
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons Cointreau

In saucepan add all swirl ingredients and bring to boil over medium high heat. Reduce to low and simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Chill 30 minutes.

In ice cream storage tub, stagger layers of ice cream and cranberry swirl. Freeze at least 2 hours before serving.

Ginger Caramel
1 cup plus 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice

In saucepan simmer 1 cup cream with ginger for 5 minutes, stirring often and making sure cream does not boil over. Add sugar and lemon, continuing to cook an additional 10 minutes or until mixture is thick. Stir in remaining 1/4 cup cream.