Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On the Eve of Spring, She Skied

“I would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot.”  ― Julia Child

Forget cooking; these are words to live by. Words I would even say that one could learn to ski by. Yes, for the first time in my life on Sunday, I was strapped into a pair of cross-country skis. Naturally, it was a bit strange at first; imagine suddenly not quite realizing the potential of your own body--your legs suddenly become much longer and unwieldy, your arms have to propel your body forward and you can't even necessarily trust the speed at which you're moving. You're essentially walking, but it's such a new kind of walking that you experience a flashback of what being a toddler was like. For women, it's not unlike putting on your first pair of high heels or pointy-toed shoes; it's just a lot more slippery. 




We set off from my friend's apartment, carrying the skis with us. Our goal was not only for me to try them out, but also to pick up the (currently unpacked though we leave early tomorrow morning) backpack I will be carrying with me to the Lapland. We cut across several snowless sidewalks, stumbled upon a group of young boys who were out with their skateboards and wondered if this was a fruitless mission in rapidly melting Helsinki. One phone call later to the friend to whose house we were heading, however, and "Mission Attempt Skiing" was back on. We found just the right kind of snow in the backyard of several apartment buildings that border the sea; this neighborhood is rapidly being developed and, in the gorgeous expanse of snowy white that seemed endless, the trucks provided traces of color.





And then, even if gingerly, I was moving.





But right around the time I was saying how maybe by the time we leave the Lapland, I'll be a pro at cross-country, I took one of several falls. Nothing like a tumble in the snow to keep you humble.





We entered the apartment complex through this magical looking purple gate and, when we went upstairs, the feeling of having entered an enchanted world continued. The friend, a puppet maker,  opened her door with a cheerful "Moi" (the friendly equivalent of "hey"/"hei") and invited us, if we were hungry, to join her, another friend and her son for pizza. After the skiing, my body was screaming for food and I was never so happy to see a thick dough covered with cheese and tomato sauce in my life.




And this was just the beginning of the week--a week that has already been much better than the last one. While having company certainly helps, it's also the fact that I have, in the midst of microfiche and library work, allowed myself a few pleasures. And what could be more pleasurable than an afternoon trip to Stockmann for both lunch and groceries for the evening meal?




I first ogled the display of Iittala dishes in the window, coveting them all, imagining the plating possibilities. And then I went upstairs for lunch. Much to my dismay, it was not a vegetable gratin day. But I made do with a salad of radishes, zucchini and glazed chicken, with a slice of multi-grain bread with whipped egg butter flecked with dill on the side. And this was just one of my two plates; the pork and rice with tomatoes and beans and roasted root vegetables was on the other side of the tray. I am truly enjoying these gluttonous lunches, although I always fear that since I never quite manage to finish them, there is still truth in the words my grandpap would often say about me when I was a child:  "her eyes are bigger than her belly."




After not quite finishing my radishes, I went downstairs to look for bulgur since, after spending so much time with Maria Speck last week, I wanted to try one of her recipes. It was only fair: the sound of Brie Cakes with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Acorn Squash Soup with a Spicy Yogurt Topping had offered me solace last week as I plotted against microfiche and ate cookies for dinner (just once!). I thought about what I could manage to cook here and the recipe most within my reach seemed to be the Bulgur with Butter-Roasted Almonds and Cinnamon. Best of all, I discovered that, much to my delight, bulgur, in Finnish, is still bulgur.




As the bulgur was boiling and I went in search of cinnamon in the cupboard, I already felt much better. I could feel the hair-pulling frustration of staring at page after page of "defect in the original" fading away. This was something that I could control (and maybe it really is all about control), that I could manage and that I understood. Here, I don't even have any measuring cups or measuring spoons; it's all done by sight, based on what feels right. I realize I've developed instincts.




I don't know if the real joy comes from the ritual or the finished product. But as I watched the butter brown and swirled in the cinnamon and the tiniest pinch of cayenne, I suddenly felt good about my day. I had, after all, accomplished something and even though I'm tempted to say, "whatever, it's just dinner," I know it's so much more than that. There was no sulking over the fate of a poor scholar trapped in an archive, no longing to be anywhere else. It was just me and my sweetly spiced, buttery bulgur. While I do love me some cookies, I'd take this any day instead.


P.S. I'll be back on Monday; my bags are packed, the skis are ready and my camera battery is fully charged!






Bulgur with Butter-Roasted Almonds and Cinnamon


As a side, yields 4 servings; as a main, 2 generous portions
Ever so slightly adapted from Maria Speck's Ancient Grains for Modern Meals


This dish, in terms of flavor combinations, reminded me of the Acem Pilavi that the Greek had made many months ago. And I do think that, when I make it again, I might add currants or raisins. Or perhaps even turn it into a pudding, leaving out the cayenne and letting it simmer with milk and dried figs. The potential for bulgur is endless.
    One change I made is that I added a little more cinnamon than the recipe called for--an extra 1/4 tsp. Another is that my nuts, which I had brought with me from California, were roasted in safflower oil. These, however, are minor.


1 3/4 cups water
1 cup medium-coarse bulgur
3/4 tsp. sea salt
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup toasted whole almonds (skin on), or roasted almonds
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
Pinch of cayenne


-Add the water to a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
-Stir in the bulgur and salt and let come to a boil.
-Reduce the heat, letting the bulgur simmer, and cover.
-Cook for about 15 minutes.
-Remove from heat, cover and let steam for about 5 minutes.
-In the meantime, melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet (preferably deep and stainless steel).
-Let the butter cook until the color changes to a golden brown and brown flecks decorate the sizzling butter. This should take about 5 minutes.
-Add the almonds, cinnamon and cayenne, mixing them until they are absorbed into the browned butter.
-Scoop the bulgar into the skillet (it will, as Maria says, probably splatter), stir and serve immediately.
-Reheats well and even, as I discovered the next day, tastes good cold. But it is best directly out of the skillet.

3 comments:

  1. What a wonderfully adventurous time! I love your updates from abroad... And really, is there anything better than browned butter?

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  2. Yum! I can't wait to get my hands on that book! Also, congrats on the skiing! I have never done it--you are a trailblazer!

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  3. -Thank you, Moriah! I have a lot of fun writing them, although, really, it's so hard to process these impressions in the moment. And I totally agree on the browned butter front; I made some brownies with it last year and they were well and truly the best brownies I'd ever eaten in my life.

    -A trailblazer or crazy, Cameron, who can really say? And, yes, I'd highly recommend the book; the recipes are great and the blurbs about the grains are really fascinating. I imagine you'd enjoy it a lot.

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