Tuesday, March 27, 2012

To the Lapland

The "kaamos"--sunless midwinter--has weighed upon nature for months now. And when the sun appears on the southern sky it is the first sign of new spring's coming, a spring which is still many frosts, weeks and months away. -Urpo Huhtanen

This past weekend, I traveled to the Lapland and back. I had imagined many times before going what it would be like--how would I manage with no running water? Would I be able to ski with a 15 pound bag on my back? What would a reindeer race be like? Did I really know what I, the girl who hates camping, was getting myself into?-- but, as it turns out, my vaguely formed ideas failed to live up to the reality. Truth be told, the most shocking moment for me happened before we even arrived, when my friend turned to me on the plane as we were discussing our grocery list and asked, "Do you eat blood?" Had a camera been trained on my face at that moment, I'm not quite sure what it would have looked like, but I think fear, disgust, confusion and surprise mingled together. And then, as I grasped at straws, thinking that something had been--must have been-- lost in translation, I asked if she meant "blood sausage." She said, "No, blood. Reindeer blood. For pancakes." For a brief moment, I was torn; on the one hand, it was pancakes, a word I certainly don't mind hearing. On the other hand, it was blood, and I have been known to pass out after giving it. I had to say no; such a culinary adventure was not to be in my future. We could talk reindeer burgers, but blood pancakes and I were not meant to be.





That minor horror aside, I can safely say that, from the moment we stepped off the plane at the tiny, nearly deserted airport in the middle of a snowy field, I was enchanted. It was so quiet, so white and grey; it's the kind of landscape that makes you think it's waiting for something and that, until it arrives, time stands still. But fortunately, in the midst of all that pristine whiteness, there was the occasional burst of color--brightly colored red and green buildings that stood out, providing relief from the stark scenery.





And, amazingly, despite my slight misgivings about my ability to manage without the conveniences of modern life, I did just fine. Of course, there was the small issue that I'm hopeless when it comes to lighting matches, that I've never chopped firewood in my life (to be fair, have you?) and that I panic at the sight of spiders (8 legs vs. 2; it's as simple as that). But I can wash dishes like a champion, I always carry snacks and I'm cheerful in the morning. Such things do, it turns out, count for something. While of course I can cook and bake, the menu in the cottage was traditionally Finnish, so I was just observing, busily taking notes and snapping pictures.


A small part of me even felt that I was finally fulfilling my childhood Little House on the Prairie fantasy, but Scandinavian-style. There was no churning butter, but there was Pasta Bolognese, a Finnish go-to meal. Similarly, there was no fireplace, but there was a gloriously steamy sauna and a kerosene heater, where I dried my hair one night.



And everywhere we went, we went by skis. It was a humbling experience and one that makes me ever so fond of my dear, trusty legs. I savored the coffee breaks at places like the Nature Center. I found a beautiful cookbook there, Lapland a la Carte, which I was tempted to buy for the gorgeous photography, but, ultimately, I just couldn't justify the purchase. When, after all, will I find myself with the ingredients to make a Reindeer Loin Stew? Or a Cloudberry Parfait? For practicality's sake, I'll just have to settle for the lovely Greek-Italian-Finnish book of Tessa Kiros, Falling Cloudberries, to explore from afar the country that I will have left in exactly one week's time.


I realize now that, by being in Helsinki, I've scratched only the surface of this country. Traveling to the north, it's a completely different world, a landscape dominated by the fells (or fjells/fjelds) that rise in the distance. My friend described them aptly when she said that they're like uneven bits of clay molded into the fields.


After climbing this steep and snowy hill, you could see how they encircle the landscape. Even on a cloudy day, it was such a majestic sight that I snapped many, many photos.





The days there took on a happy rhythm. After a busy day of skiing, we would head back to the cabin each evening to use the sauna and to have dinner. I was so pleased to see a real northern sunset that, without even giving it a second thought, I ran outside in a thin towel and with bare feet into the snow (keep in mind, this was after the sauna, so my overheated body barely registered the change in temperature) to get this shot. Considering I sat in the library last week with wet feet and boots for several hours on a slushy, sludgy day, this was a vast improvement.



One thing that I tried and really enjoyed in the Lapland was Reindeer with Mashed Potatoes, topped with Lingonberry Jam. The reindeer meat didn't necessarily have much of a flavor--it tasted like meat--but it did, while it was simmering on the stove, betray itself with its sweetly cloying smell.


Stuffed with this meal and feeling cozy after the sauna, I couldn't quite bear the thought of putting on my skis again and heading into the village. So, while my friend and our other Lapland companion, a friend from school with whom she had studied Russian, skied to a bar in the village, I stayed toasty with the kerosene heater and read about Julia and Avis. I did, after all, have to be ready for the next day's excitement: the long-awaited reindeer races and Sami Cultural Festival. The Sami are the Artic indigenous people that populate the northern regions of Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.



It was a festive day in the village with a Crafts Fair and an outside market. Although I would never ever buy the majority of this candy (don't be deceived by the beautiful colors; it's most likely licorice), I thought it made a pretty display.


And there was an even better one of Finnish desserts--cream buns and muffins galore, not to mention cloudberry cheesecake-- inside a local cafe, Cafe Silja. At night this place sheds its wholesome image and turns into a karaoke bar. It also makes a mean reindeer burger, which, although tasty, was essentially a hamburger with cubes of reindeer meat on top. This was a bit of a letdown since I had hoped for more of a "reindeer patty." Then again, considering I ate this burger to classic Whitney Houston and other 80's music, I was in a forgiving mood.



That night, in the village, there was the annual St. Mary's Festival party, which was quite the event, held in a fancy hotel. The alcohol flowed quite freely and, since most of my evening involved people watching, I can promise you that the fact that some of these men were still standing by the party's end was nothing short of a St. Mary's miracle. But the few Sami I interacted with were quite open and very friendly. In some cases, perhaps a little too friendly, but I think this stemmed only from their surprise at having an American attend their party. They were as curious as I was.


In the presence of Sami, you really can't help but be amazed by the brightness of their clothing. A small part of me imagines that the colors of their gakti (the clothes that they wear while reindeer herding or at festivals like this one) were a response to the landscape, a way of standing out and also of recognizing each other.



Okay, this little beagle has nothing to do with the Sami, but I photographed him for a solid few minutes because, with the snow covering his little black nose, he was nothing short of adorable. And, yes, I make no secret of the fact that I desperately covet such a four-legged creature of my very own.


Granted, this isn't to say that I thought it was a good idea to bring dogs to a reindeer race. It seemed perhaps like a recipe for disaster, but, fortunately, all the animals seemed to get along.


And, in a shocking turn of events, I also vacationed with the royals, specifically Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco. There had been word before we left for Hetta that they would stop by the festival en route to Norway, but it seemed a little up in the air. However, true to their royal word and much to the delight of the villagers and festival attendees (there were more people in attendance the day that Prince Albert was scheduled to show up than there were the day before. Nothing gets people moving quite like the royals), they showed up. I don't know what possessed me to photograph them like I did, but I see that the life of a paparazzo is a slippery slope. You are possessed by the thought of the perfect shot. Sure, they're just people, but, when the cameras flash around you, it's like you have no other choice but to snap.


They were in and out quite quickly, however. They watched a race or two and departed for Norway. Most of the locals then disappeared, having seen the highlight of the day. I would, however, disagree because what followed--the lasso competition--was more than a little impressive and certainly fascinating. This was the best photograph I had taken of the Sami; you can see why I said they brighten the landscape. And what I wouldn't have given for a pair of those elf-like shoes made of reindeer fur. Uggs, fur or not, just don't make the cut.


This was but a glimpse of the four days I spent there, but I came back to Helsinki feeling refreshed and happy. Maybe it was the skiing (endorphins), maybe it was the fresh air, or maybe it was just the recognition that grad school, despite my complaints, has brought a lot of interesting people and things into my life. Really, when I get right down to it, there's no reason to complain at all. I do, however, still hold to my belief that real life happens outside the archives, but that's a story for another day and post.

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.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Simultaneously Here and There

When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.” – D. H. Lawrence

The thing about traveling that has always been both a mystery and a great comfort to me is that one's mind is always both here--in the place where he/she has traveled to--and there--in the place he/she left. You almost can't help it; as you're walking down a busy street in the morning, dodging puddles and attempting to get around slow walkers, you maybe know that it's 10:30 a.m., but you also know that it's 1:30 a.m. in the land that you call home. And then, when the landscape becomes so foggy and grey that it looks like home, you almost forget where you are...that is, until you get to the supermarket and spend an inordinate amount of time selecting bread--so much so that the other shoppers start to look at you like you're either crazy or a thief. Or both. But as soon as you say "excuse me," the tension leaves the air; she's none of the above: she's just foreign!


It takes a while for a place to feel like home, for that feeling of foreignness to fade away. I remember that, even when I started graduate school in my home country, it was so different and far away from everything and everybody that I had known (keep in mind that I started grad school 3 weeks after arriving home from a year in Japan) that I spent a good six months of my life actively hating California. Jamba Juice? Organic this and organic that? Palm trees at Thanksgiving? I was having none of it. And the simple truth is that, here in Helsinki, I don't have that kind of time. 


As a scholar researching abroad, it's all so temporary and fleeting; do I enjoy Helsinki, going to museums and walking around the city with my camera, or do I sit in the library until 7 p.m., looking for needles in haystacks and trying to tame the antiquated beast that is microfiche? I kid you not when I say that on Friday evening I was so frustrated that I was thinking about how if time travel were possible, I would go back to the nineteenth century and, if not murder, at least seriously incapacitate the inventor of microfiche, whom I have now discovered to be (John) Benjamin Dancer. Perhaps all the images about war are rubbing off on me. 


And of course, there are the sweet moments when I abandon the library and escape off into the city, either for lunch at cute places like Zucchini, or into Stockmann for a quick look around at all the gorgeous Arabia porcelain. I've begun to think that, as a memento of my travels, I want to buy something for the kitchen--most likely, a soup tureen (every since I made the Pioneer Woman's creamy Cauliflower Soup and saw her beautiful soup tureen, the desire--no, need--to have a soup tureen has been strong. I do make a lot of soup...).


There are also the evenings when I come home and write postcards, while vegetables are roasting in the oven. I've been on a broccoli, beet and cauliflower kick since I got here. Partly, I think it's the simplicity--olive oil, salt and pepper, 30 minutes in the oven (I can't say what temperature I'm roasting them at since the oven is not labeled, but I'm assuming it's 350 or higher) and voila!--and also partly the fact that, before I left Berkeley, I was reading Tamar Adler's beautifully written, no-nonsense An Everlasting Meal. Never again will boiling a chicken and making soft-boiled eggs sound so appealing. 
 



I've also found myself taking respite from the cold in one of the many little hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurants, which you can find on almost every street. Over Saag Paneer, with my trusty little I "heart" Helsinki pen (when you want to write postcards and realize that you've left all of your pens in the library, you're more than willing to splurge 3 Euro on a cutesy pen), I polished off the first batch of cards. More are on their way!



But that niggling feeling of this being a temporary dream world persists. While organizing and labeling the images you took that day in the library, you stumble upon a picture taken from your summer travels: the pastry basket at NYC's VanDaag on the happy day of a college friend's wedding. 



Or the night that, back when we first moved into the new apartment, the Greek made a lovely dinner of Roasted Red Pepper Polenta and set the fire alarm off no less than 3 times. In his defense, the couple who had lived there before us did not clean the oven.


Or my Hershey tin full of coffee beans, purchased at the favorite Cole Coffee in Oakland.


Or how, inspired by the archives of Pink of Perfection, a favorite blog, you made a Butternut Squash, Red Lentil and Chickpea Stew. My favorite part was the yogurt, lime and peanut topping.


Or the apartment itself, with the shimmery curtains and the rocking chair right next to the never-quite- hot-enough radiator.


And the breakfast table,  ready for a stack of just made pancakes. Though 28, I love that "perfectly-perfect-in-every-way" Mary Poppins mug like no other. The only other mug that I like to use in the mornings is my "Katy, You're the Greatest" cup, which my mother bought for me back in 1984. A little dose of self-esteem in the mornings never hurts.


But don't get me wrong; I am savoring and enjoying my time here. If nothing else, this kind of distance helps you to see your life more clearly--to see how, maybe in writing those 68 pages, you were obsessing about all the wrong things, rather than striving for that oh so necessary healthy balance between life and work. It has also, incidentally, persuaded me to reopen the Twitter account (diningwithdusty) that I opened back in July and then almost promptly deleted because I couldn't get over the concept of "tweeting." Travel helps you to overcome your prejudices like nothing else. And this week my time in the library is going to be cut short by a trip to the Lapland, where I will ski for the first time in my life, as well as witness reindeer races. I will also probably have a reindeer burger--it may be a bit merciless, but it's true. And if nature is on my side, perhaps a glimpse of the northern lights will happen, too? 
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