Thursday, 26 February 2015

Dining at 1800's Paris in 2014 Helsinki

A while back I got an invite for a dinner at G.W.Sundmans, bastion of fine fining that not so long ago still had a Michelin star. The expectations wan understandably high: surely with culinary finesse such as theirs along with the glorious settings that the historic building lends to the restaurant I were in for a memorable evening?

And sure enough I was. Though for completely different reasons. 

The recession has hit the restaurant industry particularly bad and especially fine dining has taken a massive blow. Some Michelin-starred restaurants have even resorted to bowing out while some, such as Sipuli, have felt the need to totally reinvent themselves in order to stay in the business. 

Sundmans has chosen this path too and at least for the coming months is trying out a new, more laid-back approach (and pricing). One of the new ideas they're trying out are different pop up- venues. 

The last Friday of each month this magnificent venue is taken over by a bar squat going by the names of Son of a Punch (or Soap Bar Squat). The series were kicked off by La Fee Verte concept in collaboration with one of the best cocktail bars in Helsinki, Liberty or Death.

Inspireb by Paris nightlife of late 1800s, the evening was a lot of fun, though a very confusing experience for someone who literally didn't know where she'd just walked into. Strangely dressed men at the door, lurking in the shadows of thick velvet curtains were enough to make one's head buzz.

The drinks they welcomed us with are perhaps also the reason for some of the things we witnessed later on in the evening, such as tiny green fairies... (?)

As one would expect from Liberty or Death, the cocktail menu was great. But, there was dinner, too!

If the whole ambiance was absurd, so was the dinner. Most of the time I didn't even know what I was eating. The menu wasn't much help either - mostly it just offered quirky anecdotes.

It was strangely exhilarating an experience though (oh no - is this now an example of those performances I criticized earlier where the food is relegated to a mere footnote?) and really challenged us to explore the dishes in a whole new way. Though all the while also inspiring us to start conversations about what we (thought) we were eating! 

To start with a decadence dish of sublimely succulent foie gras and wonderfully rich and buttery brioche. Washed down with some Champagne, no less.

The wines (gotta love those subtexts) came from Les Vignerons in France. One was white, the other red. No fuss there. Then again, same went with the pricing.

Next dish was such a treat it drew gasps of admiration all over the table. Wonderfully light.

What I did learn of the main course was that it was "Napoleon's favourite. Without herring" (?). Corn-fed chicken, apparently. Well executed, as was everything else on the menu.

Dessert proved to be the star of the whole dinner and at this point the debate on the ingredients reached rather lively proportions. In the end I think we agreed we'd definitely discovered beetroot in it (?). A great finish for a great night.

Service was outstanding, as was food. Bizarre, yes, but memorable, definitely. And what's in store for tomorrow? Nobody knows yet. The whole event is so very hip and underground the only way to be sure is to turn up. With an open mind (and an empty stomach)!




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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Italian meatballs

Spaghetti with meatballs is an American Italian classic. And, thanks to Lady and The Tramps, it's cemented its position as one of the most romantic dishes out there, too. Though for the life of me I don't know why.

I can't imagine igniting flames of passion by the slurping sound I made when sucking on those strands, nor the sight of me with half of the tomato sauce all over my face (and, inevitably, all over my white shirt). 

Then again, the said couple's concept of a perfectly acceptable dating etiquette without a doubt also included snooping around each others' pee and sniffing each other bums. So, go figure. 

Somehow still this is what we had on Valentine's Day. And yes, I wore white. Not a whole lot of bum-sniffing went on, though...

Serves 4-5

Italian meatballs:

500 gr mince (pork, beef or their mixture)

1/2 dl breadcrumbs
1/2 dl Parmesan, finely grated
1 generous dl milk
1/2 onion
3 large cloves of garlic
3/4 dl finely chopped sun-dried tomatos in basil oil, drained 
(use the oil for sautéing onion and garlic!)
3/4 dl finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
salt, black pepper

Combine breadcrumbs and Parmesan with milk and leave to soak. You want the mixture to be soggy, so if they've soaked up too much of the liquid, add some more. Finely mince (or puré) the sun-dried tomatos.

Finely chop onion and garlic and sauté in oil (from sun-dried tomatos) until very soft and translucent. Add into the Parmesan mixture along with the rest of the seasoning. Work into the mince so you'll have a smooth mixture. Chill for half an hour and in the meanwhile get the tomato sauce going.

Tomato sauce:

1/2 onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 generous tbsp butter
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1 tbsp tomato pure
1 dl red wine
1 tbsp sugar
500 g passata (or 400 g tin finely crushed tomatos) 
salt, black pepper

to serve: fresh basil, fresh Parmesan

Finely chop onion and garlic and sauté in butter. Take your time and realy let them get soft. Then add chilliflakes, sugar and red wine. Bring to boil and cook for 5 minutes. Then add the remaining ingredients. Season and let simmer for half an hour. Check the taste and season as needed.

Cook a little tasting meatball to see if the seasoning's in check. Then roll the mixture into 25 meatballs. Drop into the tomato sauce and leave to cook for about 20 minutes. In the meanwhile cook the pasta.

Scatter some fresh basil leaves on top of the meatballs and serve with pasta and some freshly grated Parmesan. 

If you'be been following us for a while now, you've probably gpt the hang of our taste in wine and already guess, what's our wine pairing for this dish. Yep, you guessed it: Planeta Etna Rosso. The light, mineral acidity of the grape (Nerello Mascalese) and this - now those two are a real match made in heaven. Primitivo (or its American cousin Zinfandel) is another Italian that would go well with this. 




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Saturday, 21 February 2015

Almejas en vino blanco - clams in white wine, parsley and garlic sauce

This recipe reminds me of summer (and my beloved Spain!) and is, as many of the tapas recipes featured on the blog are, quick and easy. It only takes 6 ingredients and less than 15 minutes. 

If you want a thicker sauce, add flour into the mix after sauteing the garlic and cook (over low heat) for 10 or so minutes. Traditionally the recipe uses olive oil but hey, I like my butter and the richness it lends the dish (and anyway - butter is what my favourite tapas bar in Benalmadena uses, too!) If you want, you can add a pinch of saffron into the sauce too after adding garlic.

Different almejas-dishes are found on the menu in Spanish tapas bars all year round, but they are particularly popular at Christmas. Especially on the Northern coast, which also produces clams commonly considered the best in Spain. And I can tell you, their size is quite a lot bigger than the ones I found for this dish...

For me these are a summer dish: to be enjoyed in Andalusian sun, at a paper table cloth-covered wonky table balancing on the pavement (have you noticed how that one leg always seems to be shorter than the others?) as chilled Albariño refreshes your body and the chatter and laughter from the surrounding tables lulls your mind into the blissful serenity of the siesta to follow...

(In our case sunshine was replaced by the monstrous-sized daylight lamp I had to get for shooting in the winter and the chatter came in the form of El Mercado's people who came over for lunch. There was plenty of Albariño though, even more laughter and I'm not sure we ever made it to siesta...!)

As tapas this serves 4-6 (depending on the size of the clams)

1 kg clams, cleaned
75 g butter
1 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic
(1 tbsp all purpose flour)
2 dl dry white wine
handful of parsley, finely chopped

salt, pepper

Melt butter on a pan. Add bay leaf to infuse it for a couple of minutes. Then add finely chopped garlic and sauté until soft. Keep the heat fairly low so it doesn't burn. Then add white wine and bring to boil. After 5 minutes, add clams and half of the  parsley. Cover and cook for 5 minutes until clams have opened. Check the taste and season as needed. 

Scatter the remaining parsley on top and serve. With chilled white wine, lemon slices and wonderful crusty bread.




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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Growing pains

My love affair with food has not been without its hurdles. Though, majority of them are (as tends to be the case with self-obsessed, spoiled Westerners...) my own doing.

I grew up in a small town at the Arctic Circle and the culinary atmosphere during my formative years was almost as freezing as the climate itself. I, a difficult child grew up to be one difficult teenager and naturally went through the meat is murder- phase (I did go to art school so being a vegetarian was sort of mandatory way of showing the world just how conscious and intelligent were).

Later on I worked my way through an eating disorder. Food was categorically not something to be enjoyed - it was the necessary evil; the fuel my body against all my wishes required in order to get through the 3-hour workouts. My #1 culinary feast at the time? Steamed carrot strips which I convinced myself were as good as pasta (though I was shocked to learn they too contained, like, 4 carbs). That phase put a strain on my social life too; I'd refuse meeting my friends as I couldn't allow myself to eat anywhere outside my home as I could never be sure if food cooked by somebody else contained something off my endless list of forbidden ingredients.

Some of my friends though, after not seeing me in a while refused to go anywhere with me as I looked so horrid (the way I heard that? They envied my willpower). My sisters (subtlety clearly runs in our genes!) pointed out how I looked like a concentration camp escapee (my reaction? I congratulated myself. As sane people do...)

Later on I was hell-bent on keeping kosher. Oy vey. Not the most logical thing to do if your favourite foods are made of either pork or shellfish...

Yet some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around my Dad's cooking. I suppose that is what managed to plant the seed of my love of food that later on flourished to this. My first ever recipes are scribbled down round about the the same time; with round, childish hand-writing of a 9-year-old, i's dotted with heart-shapes. This bread is one of the first recipes on that notebook, though over time the amount of oat has steadily crept up as I've grown to think white flour as the enemy...

makes 2 breads

25 g fresh yeast

1/2 l milk or water (at 37º temperature)
1 tbsp honey/ syrup
1/2 dl oil
2.5 dl rolled oats
1/2 tbsp salt
2.5 dl oat flour (finely ground rolled oats)
5- 6 dl all purpose flour

Dissolve yeast into your chosen liquid and mix well. Cover and leave for 5 minutes until it bubbles a bit. Then add oil, rolled oats and salt. Start adding oat flour and all purpose flour 1 dl at a time until you've got yourself an elastic dough that no longer sticks to your hands. Cover and leave to rise in a draft-free place for an hour or until it has doubled. 

Divide the dough in two, punch the air out and roll into two round loaves. Place on parchment-lined trays and flatten the loaves a bit. Using a glass, cut a hole in the middle and with a fork prick lines into the loaves dividing the loaf into 6 segments. Cover and leave to rise for half and hour. 

Brush with milk (or combination of milk and honey/ syrup), sprinkle some rolled oats on top (optional) and bake at 225º until golden; 20-25 minutes.

Cut the still steaming hot bread in two, spread some butter on it and pour yourself a glass of cold milk. Ah, how the world instantly feels a better place!




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Sunday, 15 February 2015

Latvian culinary feast

Tallinn, that charming capital of our Southern neighbour has for a long time been one of my go-to destinations for a food and culture-filled minibreak - not least because of their exciting restaurant scene. Culinary expertize, pride over their heritage, creative use of new ingredients, innovative way of incorporating the trends... and all for very affordable prices. 

But while no-one was looking their southern neighbour Latvia became a culinary force to be reckoned with on their own right, and is now such a hot ticket Estonians flock there in search of inspiration. We got to sample a culinary masterpiece that is 3 Pavaru Restaurant as part of the Experience Latvia theme month that ends today. For the past two years the restaurant has been ranked #3 in Latvia, and it swiftly became #1 meal we've had in a while. 

Modern Latvian cuisine sources its inspiration from country's culinary traditions, and its ingredients from local producers. There is an abundance of dairy products and the production has long-standing traditions. Cuisine lives according to season though much like in Finland, climate doesn't make that easy. "We do have winter for 9 months of the year after all", one of the cooks laughed.

So, making the most of seasonal, fresh produce is important, and has resulted in creative ways of preserving it for the not so fruitful winter months. 

Eastern European cuisine has a reputation for producing sturdy, fatty and meaty dishes designed to keep its fur-clad people warm during those horrid winter months, when temperatures drop to -40 and metres of snow barricade people into their homes with nothing but a dream or better days to come, right?

Wrong. 3 Pavaru's culinary fireworks showed just how phenomenally fresh their take on those traditions and ingredients is. 

The restaurant ("3 chefs") got its name from its - well - 3 chefs. The head chef Juris Dukalskis has many letters that my keyboard fails to produce to his name, but also extensive experience from variety of international competitions and top restaurants. One of them Michelin-starred Texture in London

And sure enough textures, salt, tastes and components were in perfect harmony throughout each dish. 

The first surprise of the day was this. Though Latvian latitude is challenging (to say the least) for wine-making, they haven't let this defeat them. In addition to grapes, wine is also made of local berries and fruits. This delicate and elegant sparkling wine from Abavas for instance, was made entirely out of rhubarb (I didn't believe it until I'd triple checked it)! Great texture, wonderful small bubbles. The Boy Next Door loved it and is probably starting movement aiming at getting it into the shops in Finland, too.

3 Pavaru's open kitchen concept was right at home in Kellohalli and accompanied by sinfully delicious smells, we got to watch the dishes being prepared and assembled. To some it might seem perverse, but man, do I get a kick out of watching something like that! It's like... Formula One. Only so much better!

First we feasted on fish: pike perch like we've never had before. Sheer perfection, every step of the way. 

Next dish paid homage to all things pork.

By the time I snatched The Boy Next Door's plate, it was fairly safe to conclude my aversion to blood pudding (so efficiently instilled in me by English cooking) had finally vanished. Melt-in-your-mouth moreish magnificence. 

Next stop was an enigmatic experience. Something familiar, yet with something I couldn't quite get the hang of... The answer behind the mystery? Cuttlefish ink. Delish.

The main course featured freekeh, which is something we, too, have at home, waiting for the inspiration to strike. I think it just did.  

This dish featured the grain both cooked and fried until crisp and puffed up. The result was another marvelous marriage of textures and tastes. 

Both meat courses utilized cheaper cuts such as cheeks, traditionally associated with the humble dishes of the lower classes. There was, however, nothing low-class about the way the chefs cheekily celebrated these humble cuts - a feast fit for a king, they were!

The dessert was a fine ending for a truly fine meal: another creative play on textures and different degrees of sweetness. Masterpiece. For both the eyes and stomach.

The wine pairings worked well. Chardonnay (never my fave) was in balance with the dishes it was served with, and while the Pinot Noir surprised with its dryness, it worked well with the veal. 

The dessert wine was a triumph and summarized the meal perfectly: not to sweet, not too anything. Everything was just right.  

Pure foodie bliss. For digestive we were spoiled with another Latvian treat: Abavas' black chokeberry port. At this point my date melted.

Between each course (and wine glass!) we still managed to find time for interesting conversations about Latvian foodie scene, and (owing to the continuously escalating bad behaviour of one Vladimir) history.

Both Estonia and Latvia share the way they've managed to reinvent themselves in such a short time. The Soviet occupation has only been over for a couple of decades, yet both of the countries have proven to be proud nations, fearlessly looking ahead; combining their rich histories and dynamic attitude to the future in a very enticing way.

Compared to that it's sad to see how Finland, after decades and decades of so called independence, still seems to be stuck in the drab mentality that prevailed in the post war society; still bowing to the Big bully in the East, who keeps going through life like a petulant 3-year-old.

One lunch isn't quite enough to fix the entire world, but we did find an answer to a question that's been riddling us for a while: our next travel destination. 

Latvia, we're coming over. Are you home?




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Friday, 13 February 2015

Superfood truffles for a superhero of a man

"Well, then. That's another 10-hour-day you've just clocked in," The Boy Next Door informed me as I finally emerged from the kitchen after the day's cooking and shooting last Sunday; on a day that one Lord and several treaties have sanctioned as the day of rest. For some, anyway.

There's a chance that was just a friendly notification and a proof he can count all his fingers. But there is also a chance that was meant as a subtle hint, suggesting the tripod isn't the only three-legged creature in need of some attention. No, it's not always fun being Mr. Food Blogger.

His contribution to this blog is so crucial though that he deserves to be spoiled every now and then. And can you think of a better day for that than Valentine's Day?

Yeah, yeah, I know it's a bunch of well marketed madness mainly consisting of tacky crap made in China... but love! And chocolate! And love of chocolate! And love of man with a love of chocolate! Surely they deserve to be celebrated? He sure does, somehow managing to muster the patience to put up with me...

I found the recipe for these truffles with roasted white chocolate ganache on Food & Wine. In the original recipe the white chocolate gets slow-roasted in the oven for 3 hours, but I didn't have time for that as I had some pizzas to bake too (no, no starving to death happening in our house...!) and turned out that half an hour does the trick too!

White chocolate, rich in itself, acquires a fantastic toffee-like depth but it is so rich, it benefits from something refreshing, such as lemon or lime zest. Cardamom is another good pairing: always a hit with blueberries. If you're into herbs, you might want to try rosemary or thyme. Since The Boy Next Door is crazy about blueberries, I hid a blueberry inside each truffle too. And hey, they're superfood! Can you think of anything more fitting for a superhero like him?

The original recipe coats the chocolate-dipped truffles in cocoa powder, but I got giddy and bought a jar of powder made of dried blueberries though crikey - even cocaine would probably be cheaper! He is worth it though. And in the end the recipe only called for a couple of tablespoons of it.

makes 12 truffles

130 g white chocolate
0,625 dl heavy cream
1 tsp grated lemon zest and/ or 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
a pinch of salt

12 blueberries

100 g dark chocolate 

unsweetened cocoa powder or blueberry powder

Chop white chocolate into a steel bowl and roast at 130° for 25-35 minutes until golden. Heat cream over moderate heat until it barely simmers, add lemon zest and/ or cardamom. Let the cream infuse for 5 minutes and then pour into the chocolate through a sieve. Using an electric mixer beat until smooth. Pour into a shallow dish and cover with a cling film pressing it against the surface.Chill until firm, at least a couple of hours. 

Using a small scoop or a spoon, scoop out small balls (1 inch diameter). If using, sink a blueberry inside it and with hands, moistened with ice water smooth the surface into a ball. Line a tray with parchment and place the balls onto it. Cover and chill for an hour.

In a medium bowl set above a pot of simmering water, melt the dark chocolate. Using a fork or a skewer, dip the truffles into the chocolate and dust with cocoa or blueberry powder. Chill for at least 15 minutes to allow the shell to set. 

These can be made and chilled up to 3 day in advance.

Have a wonderful weekend and a joyous Valentine's Day, you all!




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