For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

July 29, 2012

Classics Die Hard

The sun is making my eyes squint, the air stands still. I hear people laughing; talking about how we should enjoy the nice weather while it last – very Finnish. I’m about to walk into the marketplace in my little hometown, Porvoo. I can’t remeber the last time I’ve been here. It was probably years ago when I used to sweat my ass of selling ice cream in a tiny kiosk that felt like an over-heated sauna. All that feels light years away now, but everything has remained the same somehow. The same Thai-food tent, the same fisherman, the same jolly old woman selling strawberries, home baked bread and pastry… Some things are better just the way they’ve always been. It’s kind of soothing in a way.

As I make my way through what seems like a crowd on a Finnish-scale, I find myself overwhelmed with nostalgia. In some unexplainable way everything smells and tastes so perfect. I can’t tell whether it’s the sun, the heath or the simple fact of being so close to my roots that make me so utterly sentimental. As I try to interpret and make sense of my emotional roller coaster, I suddenly understand the elderly people’s ritual of sitting at the torikahvila – the market place café – even better .

As a matter of fact, the torikahvila is something special to me too.  The fondest memory related to it is that of me being 19 years old, newly enrolled at Helsinki University and commuting every darn day between Porvoo and Helsinki (1h car ride) with my Dad. My Dad worked in the capital region at that time so it was pretty convenient to ride back and forth with him. The only down side to it was that my Dad is a funny creature, who starts his day even before the birds start singing. He had nothing against dropping me of at the campus, but I was obligated to abide with his daily routine. There are only a few things that I love more than lazy, slow paced mornings, so my Dad and I had to come up with a tempting enough carrot to make me get out of bed in time.

My Dad had a suggestion that suited both parties like a glove. Not horribly off track of his normal route to the office and a reasonably short walk to Helsinki University’s main campus there’s a very nice torikahvila. According to my Dad, this market café offers the best sweet (possumunkki) and savory  (lihapiirakka) Finnish style doughnuts in Helsinki. The coffee itself is nothing to brag about, but it’s more about the ritual, the location and the idea than about the actual quality of the "sock juice" a.k.a Finnish filtered coffee. Sitting there in a cozy tent, having it together with a delicious possumunkki when the majority of the inhabitants of the hectic city are still sound asleep. The possumunkki – literally "pig monk" – is a typically Finnish, slightly pig shaped sweet yeast dough fritter, most often filled with apple jam and topped with sugar. In my opinion, it’s at open-air markets that you get the freshest and the best possumunkki.

At first, seeing the legendary torikahvila or more truthfully, an old bus turned into a torikahvila on Porvoo Market Square made me extremely happy. In a minute though, a deep sadness tore me apart. I realized that there was no way I could relive those sweet memories of going in and buying the best possumunkki I know, eating it like a pig and washing it down with "sock juice". It made me realize that it had been a while since I had been there the last time – I haven’t had wheat or sugar in almost five years now. Luckily, I was accompanied by a loyal friend and my eager doughnut eating Dad, both of whom wouldn’t protest me making them eat a couple for me. Problem solved!

Maybe you think I’m lying, but I’ve seriously learned to enjoy food through others, watching them relish something my intolerances prevent me from eating. So I sat back, relaxed and indulged myself with the Finnish coffee. It actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I had recalled. And with the fresh possumunkki smell softly tingling my appetite, I could – after all – relive the grand torikahvila classics.

Long live "sock juice",possumunkki and Porvoo Market Square's bus café!

July 23, 2012

Catch the Whiff

Summer time is the time when the air is filled with special vibes. Love is in the air, sex is in the air, people are smiling and radiant, it smells of sunscreen and sunburned skin. My personal favorite and probably the number one most obvious sign of summer is the luring, finger-licking smell of grilled food. Barbecues are everywhere. And people get amazingly creative fixing one up. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a huge terrace by a lake or whether you live in a studio apartment in the very core of a city, there’s a barbecue solution for everyone and every circumstance.

For Finns, barbecues are a real summer time must. Even if pours, Finns will stubbornly light up a barbecue and stand there in the rain with rubber boots and an umbrella. Anything for a delicious grilled sausage! I think I’ve already expressed my love for sausages very explicitly, so I don’t need to tell you how much I enjoy them grilled in the summer. However, I’m very open for new grilled treats. Veggies-wise I’d say that only your imagination is the limit. Grilled summer vegetables is something so simple and so delicious that there are no words to describe it. Enjoyed with or without some nice grilled meat – doesn't matter, I love them either way.

This summer I was introduced to a very interesting and quite funny way to grill chicken. In Finland a whole grilled chicken is usually something you buy at your local super market. It’s perfect for a quick fix summer picnic or alternatively, the best remedy for a summery Sunday hangover. The greasy crispy skin just does the trick better than anything else! It was a happy surprise that my American friend and housemate Sean suggested to grill a whole chicken at home unrelated to either of the two aforementioned situations.

Two hours to go until dinnertime and I nervously walked in and out of the kitchen glancing at the whole chicken that was resting in salt brine. My inner child took over me and I found myself playing with the wings, making silly sounds. Sean stepped in to the kitchen and told me to not play with food. I apologized for my silly manners and curiously asked him how he had planned to prepare the bird. He gave me an answer that didn’t really make me any wiser: trailer park grilled chicken. I guess he was able to tell from my facial expression that what he just said made no sense to me at all, so he kindly explained that he would sit the chicken on a beer can; literally cramming a beer can up the bird’s butt. Nice! I got the trailer park association. I had to look away when he performed the procedure, not out of disgust but out of courtesy to the birdie.

A few minutes later the chicken sat perfectly upright on the grill with the beer can up the booty. What a funny sight, I have to say! I was very eager to try the juicy meat. The beer keeps the otherwise dryish grilled chicken nice and moist I learned. Pretty straightforward, no rocket science there. The lovely smell of grilled chicken filled the air. The neighbor dogs seemed to enjoy it too. They started frenetically running around barking at the fence. Barbecuing is the perfect way to make the whole neighborhood hungry. I bet no one can just walk by without wishing they could pop by for a little grilled snack.

I sure was happy to have an American in the house when Sean started cutting the sizzling grilled chicken. I had to give it to him, Yankees seriously know how to barbecue! The bird was grilled to perfection. I also felt better when the can finally was removed. Boiling grilled beer anyone? I expected Sean to tell me about some outrageous custom of drinking the nasty thing, but he had nothing of the sort to tell. Maybe for the better.

Of course the meat tasted divine and it seriously was the juiciest grilled chicken I’ve ever tasted! I couldn’t wait to introduce the trailer park grilled chicken to my fellow countrymen. I’m sure Finns will enjoy it and crack some suitable jokes about the poor chicken with a beer can up its rectum. Sounds very Finnish indeed.

July 14, 2012

White Hearted Divas

In a country like Finland where seasonality dictates nature’s supply to the highest degree, some raw materials become very rare and special visitors. For three quarters of the year there’s no sign of them, and then suddenly, they’re everywhere. But they only enchant us with their presence for a very short while. Finnish strawberries are like that. True divas, what can I say.

The first strawberries can be spotted at open-air markets usually as early as May. The overly big and hard, suspiciously shiny and red, often Spanish antecedents are nothing but phony wannabes compared to the real thing.

My birthday is in the beginning or July and my Mum used to always make me a strawberry cream cake for my birthday. In July, these luscious fruits reach climax in Finland. This year, like the year before, I was away on my birthday and grieving. I missed my Mum’s special birthday delight. Luckily, I wasn’t that far from my native country this year, no further that on the other side of the Baltic Sea where my dear friend Julia took care of my strawberry needs on my birthday.

After a tiresome day at work, she took me to an exquisite location, an old manor by the sea and ordered us a bottle of perfectly chilled Riesling. Two glasses of Riesling later, I had almost forgot about my red cravings. We were lost in bubbly laughter and utter joy, as Julia suddenly excused herself. She was a way for a while and I got a bit worried. But knowing her, I simple poured myself another glass of the heavenly wine, sat back and relaxed. She would return eventually.

Julia returned all right, but not alone. With her hands behind her back she told my to close my eyes, open my mouth and promise to not peak. I couldn't help but obey her commands.

What a sensational oral explosion! I cried out of exuberance and all the while Julia was taking my picture. She knew my expression would be priceless! She couldn’t have possibly made me happier in that very moment.

A week later, I was back in Finland busy around another strawberry related activity. Like every year until this day, approximately one week after my birthday, my Mum and I go to an organic strawberry farm to pick a stash for the upcoming fall and winter. Sure, there’s nothing better than the freshest of the freshest strawberries eaten only seconds after picking, but boy does home made strawberry mash taste divine on oatmeal porridge on a rainy October morning… the stash is a must.

This time though, I couldn’t join her picking, so I promised to do the cleaning, sorting, cutting, mashing etc. The strawberry massacre, as I like to call it. Old habits die hard, mash a few, eat a few, one in my mouth, one into a Tupperware. No wonder I end up feeling sick if half of the 7-10 kg of strawberries we pick each summer end up in my stomach…

As I was doing my job, I realized how special each single strawberry is, even on the outside, but most of all on the inside. I found myself utterly mesmerized by their beauty. As I cut the fruit in half, I realized that I cut into something very delicate.  Each diva had its own distinctively shaped white heart on the inside. Sure, I already knew exactly how strawberries look on the inside, but never had I really studied them to detail.

This epiphany simply proved an important point I often wish to highlight: When you take the time to stop for those crucial couple of seconds while doing something that you’ve done a million times, you almost always surprise yourself sensing something completely new. It’s so worth it and it make you so happy. A simple everyday thing revealing it’s special potential.

July 6, 2012

Yeah Baby I like it Raw

A beloved child has many names as we say in Finland. Raw beef meat eaten as such  – raw – is called in various ways depending on the country and the way of preparation, the cutting and the way of serving. Whether you eat beef carpaccio, tartar steak, råbiff, carne cruda, crudos kibbe nayyeh or çiğ köfte, you’ll find yourself lusting for beautiful, red, raw meat. I don’t know about you but it sure awakes the barbarian in me.

Raw meat is one of those things that people usually either have a mad obsession for or then avoid totally. I’ve never really understood the ones who spoil perfectly good meat by overcooking it into a hard and dry gum-like thing. I belong to the ones who order a steak as raw as possible. As a matter of fact, my obsession for raw meat is quite compelling from time to time. However, I haven’t always enjoyed sinking my teeth into raw, bloody meat. It’s a love that hit me only four five years ago but has since then only grown on me.

I started thinking about my lust for raw meat. Sometimes, I swear that I can feel that my body needs just that. Probably some of you have already heard about the blood group diets. It’s nothing new and I’m sure some scientists have already proven it completely bogus. But still, in a nutshell, what your system needs, craves for and digests the best depends on your blood type. It’s pretty straightforward and follows the general course of human evolution. Why this is connected to raw meat and red meat especially, is because according to the philosophy behind this diet, the most ancient blood group – the 0 blood – is most adapted to red (raw) meat and least adapted to agrarian products, such as cereals and white sugar for example.  My blood type is 0. No wonder I like my steak “blue” like they call it in France.

On a warm and sunny day not so long ago, my Belgian friend Caroline hosted me for a few days. Caroline is one of those people who don’t think much of their cooking skills, even though they manage to make perfectly tasty food. She might not be an enthusiastic foodie, but she sure knows how to please my stomach. Any way, I had heard her talk about one of her favorite Belgian dishes, fillet Américan. This was something she missed while studying abroad, this and real Belgian fries, of course. Not necessarily eaten together though. I wasn’t familiar with the dish so I asked her to enlighten me. She started by explaining that it’s some type of marinated meat and that it’s usually eaten in the summer time. A special mixture of spices and some sauce is used in preparation. Of some reason she left out the part of it being uncooked meat. Or maybe she mentioned it, but this essential detail just slipped my mind completely. She was happy explaining it because she had just received a package containing all the needed ingredients (minus the meat of course) from her boyfriend in Belgium.

A couple of days later Caroline invited me for lunch. She was going to make fillet Américan! Finally I’d get to try this mystery dish. I arrived to her house and she started cooking. All ingredients were set on the table: Capers, mustard, onion, Worchester sauce and egg yoke. It looked awfully familiar and I got excited immediately. There might just be raw meat on the menu for lunch! I asked Caroline whether this Belgian dish could possibly be anything like tartar steak. “That’s the other name for it that I was looking for the other day!” she answered. Yes! Caroline told me that in Belgium it’s also common to eat fillet Américan as a spread on bread. Gotta try that sometime.

A thing that I love about raw meat dishes what ever you want to call it, is that it’s super easy to make and it always tastes amazing. The only thing that can go wrong is that you buy crappy meat. What comes to seasoning and serving, you can basically do whatever you feel like. Use lemon, lime, onion, mustard, mustard seeds, salt, pepper, paprika, cinnamon, herbs… simply listen to your taste and trust your imagination.

The Belgian version was delicious indeed. The Worchester sauce was a first one for me. I usually call my raw meat dish “carne cruda”, literally “raw meat”. It’s the (north) Italian version most often made of minced beef meat and seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon, chopped celery and topped with parmiggiano cheese. That’s the version that I fell for five years ago and it’s still the one I prefer.

Some of you might have guessed which song inspired me for the title of this post. Shimmy Shimmy Ya by Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Good memories, thanks to both the dish and the song.

P.S. Forget about getting sick or catching a nasty worm when eating raw beef meat. As long as the meat is fresh, you’re good to go!