Monday, February 28, 2011

Curried cabbage

This is an entry for Reeni's Saturday Side Dishes. You can check it out here:
  • Cabbage is another one of those ingredients, like cauliflower and broccoli, that I have discovered and incorporated in my life embarrassingly late. And when I say "late" I'm not talking about the 7th grade or my teen years. I'm talking about one or two years ago. I know, right? What the hell is wrong with me? What makes this even worse is that, unlike beets, I don't have any childhood trauma that explains my cabbage loathing. Nobody ever forced me to eat the stuff. My mother never cooked it, therefore I cannot even bitch about the house smelling like cabbage. I just assumed that cabbage —raw or cooked didn't matter— was bad. It had to be bad because it kind of looked like salad to me and, in case I haven't mentioned this before, I don't eat salad. None of it. No exceptions. 

  • And then one day I was at a friend's house and she had made homemade slaw and wanted my opinion. I tried to tell her that I knew nothing about slaw and that my opinion didn't really count on the subject, but she had people coming over for dinner and was a nervous wreck so I gave in. The slaw was fine. And what was even finer was the fact that raw cabbage didn't taste like salad at all. It was quite an epiphany, I tell you. The next time I went to the grocery store I made another amazing discovery: cabbage was dirt cheap. From that day on I've been making it in a zillion different ways, both raw and cooked. This particular recipe I have found on Cooking Light's website, tweaked it a little bit to my liking and bookmarked under my favorites.

  • Adapted from Cooking Light
  • 1  tablespoon  vegetable oil
  • 1/2  cup  minced shallots
  • 2  garlic cloves, minced
  • 3  tablespoons  whole-grain Dijon mustard
  • 2  tablespoons  curry powder
  • 1  teaspoon  ground turmeric
  • 12  cups  thinly sliced green cabbage (about 3 pounds)
  • 1/4  cup  fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4  cup  apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2  teaspoon  salt
  • 1/4  teaspoon  black pepper
  • Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic; sauté 2 minutes. Add mustard, curry, and turmeric; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in cabbage and remaining ingredients; cook 5 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Barley and bean soup

So I guess that winter is almost over. Or at least it is over here in Southern Switzerland. I was so looking forward to be spending a "real" winter —with snow, fireplaces and the likes— that the longer and colder part of it flew by without me even noticing. Back in October, I can admit this now, I was a little concerned with the approaching season. After ten years in Florida I wasn't 100% convinced I could make it through without missing a beat, the way I used to go through it when I was a kid or a teenager. Well, I guess I was underestimating myself. November, December and January went by a flash and just like that the snow, the Northern winds and the fog quickly became a thing of the past. It is now almost March —can you believe that?— and, regardless of what old, pessimistic village drones say, the worst is over. Every day the sun shines and high temps are in the low 60s. Excuse me if I'm optimistic and I call it early spring... but it just feels that way.

So with that in mind, I've decided to get wintery food out of my system by cooking a few more wintery dishes before the new month starts. Because March, my friends, means spring and spring means asparagus and broccoli and baby spinach and all that good, green, fresh stuff. So while the temperatures still dip into the 30s at night I've made a big, steaming batch of one of my favorite soups: barley and cannellini beans. It's hearty, but it's not 100% wintery if you ask me. Why? Because it's damn good even cold, that's why.

Adapted from Cooking Light
  • 1  cup  dried cannellini beans
  • 1  tablespoon  olive oil
  • 2  cups  finely chopped red onion
  • 1/4  cup  finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2  cup  finely chopped celery
  • 1/2  cup  finely chopped carrot
  • 1/2  cup  chopped fresh basil
  • 9  cups  water
  • 2  cups  organic vegetable broth (such as Swanson Certified Organic)
  • 2  bay leaves
  • 1/3  cup  uncooked pearl barley
  • 1/2  teaspoon  salt
  • 1/2  teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2  teaspoon  hot sauce
  • 2  tablespoons  grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Sort and wash beans; place in a large saucepan. Cover with water to 2 inches above beans; bring to a boil. Cook 2 minutes; remove from heat. Cover and let stand 1 hour. Drain beans. Wipe pan dry with a paper towel.
Heat oil in pan over medium-high heat. Add onion, parsley, celery, carrot, and basil; cook 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add beans, 9 cups water, vegetable broth, and bay leaves; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 1 hour and 15 minutes or until beans are tender. Discard bay leaves.
Place 3/4 cup beans and 3/4 cup cooking liquid in a blender; process until smooth. Return pureed bean mixture to pan. Stir in barley, salt, pepper, and hot sauce; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes or until barley is done. Ladle soup into individual bowls; sprinkle with cheese.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

All-American brunch at California Bakery

When I worked as a food critic at the Naples Daily News my least favorite assignment was writing about Italian restaurants. Being Italian and all, my expectations were so high I easily ended up disappointed. And it wasn't the chefs' fault, most of the time. It was just the ingredients. It was the produce. The water. Even the salt was different. The chefs —the smart and the worldly ones at least— knew it too. Many times, as I was chatting with them while we were both off the clock they would say "I know this dish doesn't taste the same in Italy." And I would nod, because it didn't. And I would feel for them because I encountered that same problem when I cooked the dishes of my childhood in my Southwest Florida kitchen. Nothing tasted exactly the same.

I felt kind of the same way while I was lazily walking downtown Milano towards California Bakery, where my best friend and I were headed for brunch. And it wasn't just a brunch. It was my first "Made in Italy" brunch. I wanted brunch to be good, but I would lie if I said that I wasn't a little apprehensive. Would brunch live up to my very American expectations? Would it be worth the trip and the price tag? I'm happy to say that the answer to both questions is yes. Brunch at California Bakery is enjoyable, tasty and definitely worth a trip downtown.

Brunch is served on Saturdays, Sundays and festivities from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., so there's no need to rush out of bed on the weekend to get served. Which, if you ask me, is really nice. A six hour brunch also dilutes the people throughout the afternoon, so there's never too much to wait for a table which is also a perk. California Bakery has several locations but, beware, they only serve brunch in three of them: Via Larga 19, Piazza Sant'Eustorgio 4 and Viale Premuda 44, so don't show up at the Largo Augusto store or you'll be disappointed (although you can still sit down and have lunch!) The Via larga store, the one we went to, is not very big, but the two story windows make it airy and bright, the white wooden floors and the green walls infuse the dining room with that peculiar calmness that just screams 'relaxing weekend brunch'.

Back to the food, though. California Bakery offers menu selections that are the closest you''ll  ever get to a true American brunch in Milano, so if you are looking for that all-American experience, this is the place for you. I know because I've looked at more than 20 menus around town and, ladies and gentlemen, I cringed. A lot. What's so difficult about brunch, one might ask? It's a good question. The answer is nothing, if restaurants owners knew what brunch is. Most of them don't and it shows. What they think brunch is, is an aperitivo buffet you serve at noon instead of during cocktail hour.

But that's not the case at California Bakery. No Sir. They know what brunch is and, for the most part, they stay true to American tradition and recipes. Now this will make many of you smile, but tell me that someone in Italy has bagels on their menu and you can bet I'll be practically running to give the place a try. What can I say? Bagels are delicious. Italian love bagels. And yet, they are not readily available, which of course makes them even more delicious in our minds. Because we can't get them.

So as soon as I saw that they had something called the University Plate (about 15 Euros, depending on what bagel or sandwich you choose), a big smile spread on my face. Although the offerings on the menu were plentiful I knew what I was going to have, and it had something to do with bagels and smoked salmon. Predictable? Usually I'm not like that at all, but after ten long months of bagel abstinence I was not going to turn down my favorite breakfast dish.

Because, let's face it, there's a lot to choose from at California Bakery. There's the Healthy Plate, featuring yogurt, granola and a homemade muffin; there's the Chelsea Plate, showcasing a generous slice of the quiche of the day served with mixed greens; and of course there's the more classic East Side Plate —scrambled eggs with bacon, hash browns and either a bagel or multigrain bread. Really, it all comes down to, there's something for everyone at California Bakery, including a Kosher Plate for those who need it. All brunch dishes come with complimentary sides —potatoes either roasted or fried and, a little oddly spinach— a basket of just-out-of-the-oven mixed breads with aromatic butters, a mug of American style coffee and a one liter pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Food quality is above average, especially when you look at other restaurants in town that have the nerve to call themselves American. Take it from someone who has lived and eaten enthusiastically in the Unites States for ten years: skip the others and go directly to California Bakery. The Club sandwich will make a big grin spread on your face, and so will the BLAT sandwich —a classic BLT with the addition of avocado.

My bagel was huge. Huge and delicious, stuffed with cream cheese, capers, slices of tomatoes and, of course, smoked salmon. Only one thing would have made it better: not having sesame seeds on it. I'm not a big sesame seed fan, especially when it comes to my bagel, and it would have been nice to know ahead of time —on the menu perhaps?— that tat's the way the bagel was going to be. The pancakes my friend ordered were fluffy and delicious and her eggs over easy were cooked just to perfection, as were the potatoes.

My only complain with California Bakery? The service. Don't go there in a rush because, although there's more than 10 waiters and waitresses working at every given time, they are slow, both to take orders and to deliver them . It's a small price to pay but trust me, if you really want a true American-style brunch head down to California Bakery this weekend. For an hour or so you will feel as if you are sitting somewhere along the Golden State.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Not your usual, canned chicken noodle soup

I was going to call this post "Not your mother's chicken noodle soup", but then I figured that most of you probably have mothers that make theirs from scratch, so I had to abandon the idea. Because this is what this post is about: about being sick and longing for good, comforting soup. And it's also about being too sick to go to Amsterdam with your best friend and realizing how much it sucks to be sick and be by your self. If I had a tag called "pity party" I would definitely file this recipe under it, but I like to think that this is the first and last time I'll need it so, I guess I'll classify it under soup and low fat and call it a day. 

Last Monday when I came home from Stockholm, as I was driving home from the airport, I started feeling a little weird, as in not hungry at all although it was 10 p.m. and I hadn't had anything since lunch. I thought it just had to be the tiredness from all that walking in the cold wind, so when I went home I went straight to bed thinking that would make me feel better. Wrong. It wasn't that I was tired. It wasn't the walking or the wind or all those other things. It was a stomach flu that kept me up most of the night. Last time I had one of those I was traveling through California with my parents and I was 11, so I had no recollection of what kind of medicine and remedies one has to use in these cases. After going through the medicine cabinet, though, I realized that even if I had known everything in that stupid drawer had expired around 1999. My mother calls it "being a healthy family". I called it something else at 5 a.m. while sweating cold sweat and feeling too nauseous to stand, but I won't repeat it here because there might be kids reading this. So Tuesday I still felt under the weather. No more nausea, but my stomach still felt weird. And the weirdest thing of all was that I still wasn't hungry. At all. I sipped on herbal tea and nibble on saltines. I spent the whole day on the couch desperately trying to make myself feel better. The next day at 7 a.m. I had to be on a plane to Amsterdam with Francesca, dammit. So I went to bed at 8 p.m., confident that when the alarm would go off at 5 a.m. on Wednesday I would wake up feeling like my normal self again.

It didn't happen. 

What did happen, instead, is that Francesca called me at 5 a.m. to tell me that she was also feeling lousy, describing me the same symptoms I had had Monday night. We knew right away our trip to Amsterdam was not going to happen. I mean, what's the point in going to visit a new, wonderful city when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and die? We decided to stay home and spent the next three days talking to each other over Skype, both laying on the couch too weak to even sit up. We were miserable. So miserable that we were dreaming about having someone show up at our doorstep with some kind of comfort soup. On the third day I was so desperate I was dreaming of Campbell's chicken noodle soup. Which is when I realized that I actually had all the ingredients —except for the celery— to make chicken noodle soup. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I dragged myself to the kitchen, drank some herbal tea with lots of sugar in it for energy, and put together the soup. Now I don't know id it was the flu that had simply ran its course or it was my soup, but the next day I woke up feeling great. And as for Amsterdam, I swear I'm going to go in the spring.

Adapted from Cooking Light

  • 48 oz. chicken broth
    1  tablespoon  olive oil
    1/2  cup  chopped onion
    1/2  cup  green peas
    1/2  teaspoon  salt
    1/2  teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper
    1  medium carrot, chopped
    6  ounces  fusilli pasta
    2 1/2  cups  shredded skinless, boneless rotisserie chicken breast (I didn’t have any, so I cooked and shredded my own chicken)
    2  tablespoons  chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

    Warm up broth in a large sauce pan.
    While broth heats, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add onion, green peas, salt, pepper, and carrot; sauté 3 minutes or until almost tender, stirring frequently. Add to hot broth and stir in pasta; bring to a boil. Cook 7 minutes or until pasta is almost al dente. Stir in chicken; cook 1 minute or until thoroughly heated. Stir in parsley

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stockholm, day 4... and, finally, Swedish meatballs!

On day 4, aka my last day in Stockholm, I was by myself. My friend the architect had to catch a very early flight back to Milano, while mine wasn't departing until 7 p.m. so I had a day alone in the city, although if you ask me, you are never really alone in a city. It's not because of the crowds —Stockholm is one of the least crowded places I've been on Earth— it's because if you feel lonely and you are desperate to talk to another human being, you'll always find someone (usually a bartender who can't run for his life and has to listen to you blabber) to talk to. This isn't true everywhere. It isn't true in woods, deserts, on the ocean, on top of the mountains. I love being alone, don't get me wrong. I'm not a true loner, but I immensely enjoy solitude for long stretches of time. But there's one activity that I love that one can't do if they are alone. And that's people watching.

During the first three days in Stockholm we had focused on many things. The elegance of the buildings, the bright colors of the facades, the statues and the spires and the bricks that make the city unique. The peculiar way the sun never really rises above you, even at noon, which makes the whole day look like it's 4 in the afternoon and makes the snow shine like it does in the movies. Design, architecture and fashion. We had focused on all those things, but I had forgotten to focus on the people —the ones that live there, not the whiny Italians at breakfast or the lunatics standing for hours and hours in line, in the shade, in 15 F degrees to see the Terracotta Army exhibit. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's fascinating. But if you are in Stockholm for the weekend, why not experience Stockholm instead of China? Just a thought.

On my last day I was resolved to look at the people, to get a feel of how Swedes go about their life, how they interact with each other (I'm talking about non-verbally here since Swedish is not my forte), how they interact with tourists. When I travel I usually automatically get a feel of how locals do all these things, no matter if I'm in Mexico, Japan or if I'm just in some tiny Italian town I've never been to before. In Stockholm, though, I hadn't. As I was making my way towards downtown, still looking for those elusive Swedish meatballs with lingonberry jam, I realized why I hadn't. It was because unlike, say, Americans or Italians or Spaniards, Swedes are not in your face all the time. Not at all. There's a quiet politeness in their manners that is truly enjoyable. They always smile when they greet you, and they always greet you, but they never ask too many questions or linger on too long when a conversation is over. They are friendly without invading your privacy. They seem genuinely happy, although a little bewildered, to see people visiting their city in the coldest month of the year. Most of all, they seem like happy people. When you walk down the street and look at them, they have a content, often smily expression on their face, even if they are walking alone in the cold wind. They always seem to be thinking of something great they are going to do later on and looking forward to it. 

So that's another thing to be enjoyed when in Sweden: interacting with locals. And, of course, eating Swedish meatballs. You didn't think I was going to give up, right? Oh, no. Before walking to the bus station and going to the airport I stopped at a restaurant that I will define "old school", but keep in mind that that's the understatement of the year. It was called Guldpumpen Restaurang and it served just what I wanted: traditional Swedish meatballs, smothered in a cream sauce, served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam. And let me tell you, I'm glad I had the chance to try them before leaving. Again, Ikea's rendition wasn't exactly up to par. Those Guldpumpen meatballs were tender, juicy, and flavorful —black pepper and nutmeg gave a pleasant spiciness to the dish. And the lingonberry jam, sweet but not too sugary, was as perfect with meatballs as I had imagined for the past three days. I walked out of the restaurant so fulfilled and happy that I had to run back in because I had left my purse under the table. As I walked towards the bus station with the sun setting to my left and the moon rising to my right, I realized I was ready to leave Stockholm. But I was also ready to go back there many, many other times.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Stockholm, day 3

Incredibly enough, on our third day our roommates woke up smiling and telling us they didn’t even know we had come in at some wee hour in the morning. Either they were being incredibly polite or they are completely deaf, because I can assure you that those nautical themed bunk beds cease to be charming when you are trying to climb on one in the dark, at about 3 a.m., with several shots of vodka in you. But they hadn’t heard us, which was great, and we felt like a million dollars, which was also great —and here I'm giving credit to the freezing night temps of Stockholm which, apparently, make you burn off alcohol like you’re freshman in college again. 
Since the day before we had done nothing but seeing random stuff for free and bar hopping, we decided it was high time to nourishing our vodka pickled brains with a good dose of culture. We woke up half way early in order to catch a ferry to another one of Stockholm’s islands, Djurganden, home of the world’s first open-air museum, a magical place called Skansen
Built in 1891 by historian and anthropologist Artur Hazelius, the museum is a big park where people can still see how Swedes used to live in the past, how they farmed their land, raised their kettle and farm animals and generally went on with their everyday life, from making and selling bread to building their tools. It also features a sort of a zoo, and here I say "sort of" because it only features animals that are native to Scandinavia, who live outside in their natural habitat. And then, because the park is on top if a hill, there are views of the city that are to die for, which to me is always a plus. So Skansen is truly a magical place. Here's an insider tip, though: it's a magical place best enjoyed in the summer, when most of the attractions in the park are open and most of the Scandinavian animals that live there are nor going through their hibernation period. 
Nevertheless, we enjoyed a quiet late morning walk with the always white, always glistening snow all around us, the sun shining so bright it almost hurt our eyes, and a few uniformed tourists pointing at a moose and calling it a reindeer. All in all it was a roaring success, one that put us in such a great mood we decided to take the world’s longest walk to coast the bank of the sea by Ostermalm all the way back to the island where our hostel —and the museums we wanted to see— are located. For a random stroke of luck, as we entered the Arkitekturmuseet (Architecture Museum) we found out that that day it was 'free entry Sunday', an initiative that takes place once a month to promote interest for the museum. Saving money in Stockholm is no easy task, so we were so happy —and so hungry— we decided to celebrate by having a sandwich and a Carlsberg beer at the museum café, Café Blom. Very uncharacteristically, the girl behind the counter didn’t speak English very well so while ordering the beer was easy, ordering the food proved to be a little trickier. The only word we could both understand was ‘toast’ —which was a good start I guess since a toasted piece of bread with some type of meat filling in it sounded just about right at that time. So I ordered it. She heated it up for me and served it to me with my bottle of Carlsberg. It looked like ham salad, so I took a bite. I have to say, it was the tastier ham salad I’d ever had in my life. It was rich in flavor and had a light but stil perceptible smokiness to it. It was better than any ham salad I had had before. And the reason might be that it wasn’t ham salad at all. It was smoked reindeer salad. So yes, I’ve eaten Rudolph. But, hey, he tasted great on toasted country bread. And you know what they say? When in Stockholm... We spent the rest of the afternoon roaming around the Arkitekturmuseet first and the Moderna Museet (Modern Art Museum) afterward. The former was obviously more interesting to my friend the architect, who studied and ohhhed and ahhhd over some 2000 years of Swedish house building history, from mere places to shield men from the elements to state of the art eco homes of the 2000s. The Moderna Museet, on the other hand, was immensely captivating for anyone like me who likes bizarre modern art installations that include splattered Heinz ketchup on a museum floor or a panel that tells you that Andy Warhol has indeed walked those same corridors we were straying through. Because there, my friends, is where Warhol has coined is famous '15 minutes of fame' quote back in February 1968 when the Museum was hosting one of his exhibitions. And although I no longer find the quote particularly witty nor inspiring, I have to admit that it’s always exciting to stand in a place where some kind of history was made.

Tired from all the walking we had been doing all day, and clearly in some sort of delirious status,  we decided to walk to bumfuck nowhere in the Ostermalm quarter. After long deliberation, we had decided to try an eclectic fusion brasserie located in an Ostermalm ex electrical plant, where we were pretty sure we would find overprized small portions of nouvelle fusion cuisine —aka the food I loathe the most in the world. But up to that point I had singlehandedly decided every restaurant we had gone to and my friend the architect was seriously excited about observing how they had turned the plant into a restaurant, so I thought, why not?  Thanks to the usual 15 F weather, en route to Ostermalm we stopped at a place called B.A.R. for a cocktail, a modern, hyper hip restaurant and bar curiously located in a side street no one every takes, except people like us who insisted on roaming the city without a map. 
It was packed with young, good looking people, the music wasn't too bad, they made martinis and they served oysters. I was in heaven. We had some of the freshest smoked salmon I’ve ever had the pleasure to sink my teeth in —so buttery the extra pound of butter that they gave us to spread on bread was superfluos and so tasty it was almost a shame to cover it up with the powdered horseradish they served with it. I also ordered a sample of four oysters on the half shell —a fine de Normandie, a fine de moiselle d'Agon, a speciale de claire marenne and a Danish flat oyster— served over ice with the usual lemon slices, horseradish and Tabasco, plus the addition of an onion vinaigrette  which turned out to be a great accompaniment to oysters. It was tangy enough to compliment the natural brineness of the oysters, yet delicate enough to let the oyster flavor shine through. It was a revelation, and a very good one, because once we left B.A.R. and finally made it to bumfuck nowhere in Ostermalm we found out the stupid brasserie is closed on Sundays. Thanks Lonely Planet for not pointing that out, by the way.

This little incident brought us to Sabai Soong, the most incredibly kitch Thai restaurant ever known to men. And you know how Asian restaurants in Europe can be tacky. Well, this one took the cake, and then some. Christmas lights, Buddha statues, royal family posters, Abba tunes… you name it. It was a clusterfuck of tackiness. But the food was divine. And cheap. And just as spicy as I wanted it to be. My chicken basil with string beans and fried egg (they like to put a fried everywhere in Sweden, even in Thai restaurants) kept me warm and happy all the way back to out hostel, which wasn't exactly around the corner. So thanks Sabai Soong for saving our last night in Stockholm. Your food made my belly so happy that for a few hours I even forgot about my unhealthy obsession to find perfect Swedish meatballs with lingonberry compote. Although I have to admit that I drifted to sleep that night promising to myself that the next day I would have for lunch before catching my plane back to Milano.

To be continued...


Thursday, February 17, 2011

An interlude: the fried herring experience

This is a story about how something truly incredible happened while I was in Stockholm: I said out loud "Wow, herring is good!!!". And I meant it. It wasn't one of those "Wow, I really love this sweater Aunt Mary," sort of things. I meant it. From the bottom of my stomach. It all begun on Saturday morning, as my friend the architect and I were strolling through the streets of Stockholm. Going to Stockholm and not eating herring, he said, was just plain crazy. Like going to Philadelphia and not eating a cheesesteak crazy? Yes. Like going Milano and not ordering risotto? Yes. You get the idea. He shamed me into thinking that had I not tried the damn herring my Stockholm experience would have been sort of flawed and meaningless. I cringed inside, but looked up what the best place for herring is in Stockholm. We were in luck. It's a small street side cart called Nystekt Strömming, which literally means 'freshly fried herring', an unassuming tin box located right after the bridge that connects Gamla Stan (the Old Town) to Sodermalm (the 'hip' part of town) right outside the Slossen metro station. I cringed even more because that was exactly where we were headed anyway, so my chances of escaping the dreaded herring were slim to none. "Weren't you a food writer? Aren't you supposed to like everything?" Sure I was a food writer for years. As for the liking everything part, there are very few things I don't like, herring being one of them, and since I worked in Florida I could always safely assume that herring would not show up on my plate unexpected. 

The thing is I don't hate herring just because. I wasn't being a 
child about it. I had tried herring before. Twice. And hated it both times. The first time was in 1991, while traveling with sled dogs a hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle in Finland. Everything was magical about that vacation. Everything except breakfast which was, you guessed, smoked herring. I was ten and I was horrified. 
The second time a few years later, around 2000 I would say, when my palate had greatly improved and so had my open mind-ness. That time I picked the wrong the place, so it was entirely my fault. I was in the outskirts of Milano, looking like a madwoman for a new desk lamp at Ikea. You can imagine the rest. They had one of those tasting stations where some lady from Southern Italy, dressed in a ridiculous Viking costume and sporting and even more ridiculous fake Swedish accent, was giving away bites of brown bread topped with fried herring , onion and dilled mustard. I was famished —I was 19, I was always famished— so I grabbed a bite, chewed on it and here I have to give credit to my mother who taught me some manners, I swallowed it. It was bad. It was gross. Everything about it was wrong. The bread was hard on the edges and soggy in the middle. The herring was chewy and fishy. Even the dilled mustard, which is one of my favorite dressings in the world, was... bland. How do you make bland mustard, I ask you? Maybe it was diluted. Maybe it was old. Still, it let all the fishy flavor of the herring shine through. At that moment, while holding my $9 lamp in one hand and with a disgusted look on my face, I swore herring off my list of things to try again forever. Or so I thought.
Saturday afternoon in 18 degree weather and a fast approaching sunset, I found myself at Nystekt, facing my archenemy, the herring. The place had no menu, just a list of six or seven different fried herring sandwiches, all written in Swedish, so we observed what locals were doing for a couple of minutes and, other than a guy ordering a giant herring burger, everyone else seemed to go for something called skaning, an open-face sandwich that didn't look too intimidating. At this point, I must confess, I still wasn't sure I was going to try it. But once I saw the sandwich and once I realized the sun had gone behind the building and I was freezing, i decided it was time to give herring another try. And I am so glad I did. That sandwich, that herring, were heavenly. The rye bread was toasted just right, not too hard nor to soggy, he herring itself was crisp fried and, well, not fishy at all. It tasted like freshly caught, well seasoned, flesh fried fish. The red onions, spicy mustard and abundant fresh dill on top gave the sandwich that extra kick, bringing it from being a good sandwich to an amazing one. So I have to thank Stockholm, and my friend the architect of course, for making me get over my irrational hatred for herring. Now, will I eat it at Ikea next time I'm looking for a couch? No freaking way. But next time I'm traveling through Scandinavia I'll definitely look for another herring sandwich.      

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stockholm, day 2

There’s something to be said about sleeping on the water. No matter if it’s a small lake or a great big ocean. And no matter if I’m on a row boat or a gigantic cruise ship. The gentle rocking and the general coziness that only a boat cabin can convey are enough to make me fall in the deepest, most peaceful of sleeps. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that several hostels in Stockholm are located on ships, barges and boats of all kinds. I ended up picking the Chapman for several reasons. The first one was the location: thus ship is anchored on one of the city’s coolest islands, which is also home to the Modern Art and the Architecture museums, with sweeping views of the old town Gamla Stan and the East Bank. The second reason was that the Chapman, unlike many other ships, has some serious history, a history you can feel as you walk down the long white corridors with their old wooden floors and military looks. The cabins themselves are as cozy as they come, with comfy and modern wooden bunk beds, plush comforters and a porthole overlooking the bay. 

All this to say that waking up in cabin 27 of the Chapman on Saturday was pretty damn cool. Breakfast was cool too, in a Nordic kind of way. As my friend and I scarfed down hard boiled eggs, smoked ham, salted butter and fresh brown bread we couldn’t help but overhear the horrified (and embarrassing) comments of some other Italians, who were practically crying because there was nothing “sweet” to eat for breakfast. Which, by the way, wasn’t entirely true. Hadn’t they been too busy looking for a cappuccino and a croissant they would have noticed that there was raw honey and lingonberry jam —both sweet and both absolutely delicious with smoked ham. But enough about annoying fellow Italians acting like babies while traveling abroad. We had some sightseeing —and of course some eating— to do. As much as we would have loved to check out every museum and gallery in town, we are both pretty broke and at about $12 a pop to get into most attractions we tried to do as many “free” things as we could on our first whole day in the city. 

A great way to do so is crossing the bridge to Gamla Stan, the old town, and get lost in its narrow streets, checking out the architecture, the churches and the streets themselves, which are a work of art. Nordic cities and towns have a particular charm, especially for Southerns, not only because they are impeccably clean, but also because the bright yellow, orange and red buildings really pop out when surrounded by several feet of amazingly white snow. I have no idea how they keep their snow clean around there. I mean, everywhere else I’ve been the snow turns into a nasty, smog infested mess within hours. In Stockholm it's so white, you start wondering if it’s real. Then you start feeling your feet going from warm to cold to frozen within minutes and all doubts fly out of the window. It’s the real stuff. While wandering around the old town we accidentally bumped into the change of the guard, which happens in front of the Royal Palace every day at 12:15. I can’t say it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen —to be honest it was pretty dull, and the crowd was so thick we had to climb on top of a snow bank to take pictures, which resulted into some very cold snow getting into my boots and, incidentally, a pit-stop at a bar to warm ourselves up with some beer and acquavit (vodka). 

Much cooler was to see Stockholm’s narrowest street, which is less than a meter (3 feet) wide. As you might notice from the picture the beer and acquavit had already worked their magic, as I for some reason thought it would be a good idea to walk around with no hat on in 15 F degree weather. In the afternoon it was time to visit the hip neighborhood of Sodermalm, which my friend the architect wrongly assumed to be the furniture design neighborhood of the city. Turns out it’s the fashion quarter of Stockholm, where all the young and the good looking locals go buy their clothes. Needless to say I couldn’t resist the temptation and scored a couple of shirts and a skirt that I absolutely could(n’t) live without, while my friend ogled the cute girls that worked in the stores. 

Frozen to the bone and starving because we had skipped lunch, we decided that a traditional Swedish dinner was in order and dragged our tired asses to Zum Franziskaner, one of Stockholm’s signature restaurants. The place was so dark inside I could barely take pictures of it. Our waiter had a no-nonsense attitude that immediately made us feel touristy and naïve, which is why we ended up ordering a ridiculous amount of food, lots of Swedish draft beer for my friend and, here’s the kicker, vodka on the rocks for me. Mr. Waiter suggested, with a smirk, that that’s what a real Swede would have drunk with my meal back in the good ol’ days. And of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show him that, even if I don’t have a drop of Swedish blood in me, I can drink some vodka. He was impressed, I think. We were impressed too, both because the food was flawless and because the portions were outlandishly big. We shared gravlax for an appetizer —fennel marinated fresh salmon served with dill mustard and onions— then ordered the two most incredibly hearty, heavy dishes we could find on the menu. 

One was Swedish country sausage deep fried and served over boiled potatoes smothered in a sauce that reminded me of what the lovechild of béchamel sauce and country gravy would taste like. The other dish was a sort of pork, onion and potato hash topped with a fried egg. What can I say? It was very cold outside, and we felt we needed the extra calories. Filled with food and vodka we went for yet another evening stroll down the streets of Gamla Stan, which turned into a Key West-style pub crawl. We never bumped into the White Rabbit again, but I bumped my head on a very low ceiling beam and we definitely bumped glasses and said ‘cheers’ in several different languages —Swedish unfortunately wasn’t one of them— with several different characters in several different bars. Scratch that. Several different Irish pubs. Because that’s where the Italian soccer games where being aired and, of course, that’s where my friend the architect and soccer fan had to be. But in the end, it’s sort of a guilty pleasure for me to do something absolutely stupid while I’m out of the country. Like going to Irish pubs in Barcelona or Stockholm. As for my friend, he won the stupid competition by ordering a weird concoction of Guinness and Baileys, which of course curdled and looked like ten day old coffee in a mug. But the girl bartender who suggested the drink, he said, was very cute. And sometimes cute is just what does the trick.  

To be continued...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Stockholm, day 1

Vordnadsbjudande. That means "awesome" in Swedish —or at least that's what the girl at the hostel reception told me. I sincerely hope she hasn't pulled one of those funny pranks you see in movies when someone asks a local how to say 'I love you' and they tell them something that means 'you smell like rotten eggs'. But Reception Girl seemed nice enough not to do such a thing, so here it is: Stockholm är bra, which means Stockholm is great. Although it's Sweden's largest city —and Scandinavia's most populated city— not even one million people call the city center home, which gives it an incredibly quiet and relaxed feeling. It was a strange feeling I couldn't pinpoint right away as my friend and I arrived at Centralstation with the airport bus. It was about 8 o'clock on a Friday night and... well, everything was quiet. No traffic. No hoards of party goers. No packed sidewalks. It did help, of course, that the city was covered in snow and the temperature was falling fast towards the teens. That of course didn't stop us from setting off in search of our first great Swedish meal even before we bothered to check into our hostel. 

Thanks to the good guys at Lonely Planet, we bumped into a cool little bistro hidden right behind the Opera House. It seemed like the whole town had decided to dine there, but luckily enough we snatched the last two available seats. The place is called Bakfickan (telephone number +46 8 6765800) and it's just the type of restaurant you would imagine to find close to a theater or a opera house: it's small, crowded and stylish in that "time stopped in the 30s" kind of way. The walls were covered in black and white pictures of unknown —to us, that is— Swedish celebrities from the past. The menu wasn't very large, but it had the right balance of traditional Swedish fare like marinated salmon and meatballs in sauce, and more modern dishes, like the steak tartare I ordered. I'm somewhat obsessed with tartare and it's very hard for me to see it on the menu and not order it. I was in luck. I have to say that Bakfickan's rendition was one of the best I've ever had both because of the quality of the meat and because of the way it was presented. It was sort of a fun "do it yourself" tartare where you get the ingredients on the plate, the sauces on the side and you mix it to your liking. 

I have to admit I was slightly perplexed when I found a pile of minced beets alongside the beef, red onion and capers, but since it was there I decided to give it a try. See, I've had a childhood trauma that involved beets, which led to my swearing them off my life forever and ever. I'm happy to report that, as of Friday February 11th 2011, I am officially over this ridiculous beet hatred. Not only that, but I also have to say that beets and raw steak go very well together, as the beet adds a certain sweetness to a dish that is otherwise characterized by the very strong flavors of capers, onions, Tabasco and the likes. We finished off our meal with a glass of chilled vodka (what else?) before setting off into the cold and towards the hostel.

Needless to say, as we were wandering around the old quarter of Gamla Stan we were "too cold not to stop for a drink", as my friend put it. And since beggars can't be choosers, we practically ran into the first place that looked like a bar, but was in fact a club, one of those place that are too hip to even have a name. At 30 I suspect I was by far the oldest person in there, but we played it cool, called ourselves "students" whenever someone asked what we did in life and drank Falcon beer, because that's what all the cool kids were doing there. Just to make a point —the point being that we are still young enough to party like there's no tomorrow— we closed the bar at 2 a.m. 

Before we left, though, we bumped into the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. I'm not joking. look at the picture. That's me, hugging the White Rabbit in a bizarre Swedish disco. I had only been in Stockholm for a few hours, but somehow I knew the place was right for me.

To be continued....

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My top 5 pasta dishes

Excitement is in the air. After spending two months into what can only be described as a slump —a psychological one, mind you— here I am ready to leave for a new adventure. Two short ones, actually. Tomorrow morning I'm flying to Stockholm, Sweden, to meet up with a friend who's at a conference there. I'm thrilled beyond belief, not only because Stockholm is said to be one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world, but also because salmon is one of my all time favorite ingredients, so you know what I' will be doing from tomorrow until Monday. Yes. Salmon, salmon, salmon, in all its glorious forms, and especially in its most glorious one: Gravlax. Now, of course I make my own rendition and you can find the recipe here, but eating it at the source, surrounded by frozen lakes and people eating herring for breakfast will add a certain something to it, I'm positive. 

Then, after only one brief day of relax spent at home and running herrands, on Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. (gotta love those cheap Easy Jet flights), my best friend and I will leave for Amsterdam to celebrate her birthday. I've never been there either, so I'm equally stocked... although I am aware that Dutch food isn't necessarily famous for being exciting or flavorful. Which is why I already have my eye on a couple of Indonesian and Sumatran restaurants that serve exactly what I like: spicy, savory concoctions of meats, vegetables, rice and noodles.  
Because I'll be gone for a week, I want to leave you with yet one more of my "best of" posts, one that is 100% Italian: pasta dishes. I've cooked tons of pasta in my life and I've posted many different recipes on this blog, but I think the following five are my all time favorites. At least for now. 

If you ask any of my American friends what is my best loved, most famous recipes, you'll hear one answer only: vodka pasta! Creamy, spicy, boozy, this pasta dish is sophisticated yet fairly simple to make. The ultimate decadence? Eating it while sipping an ice cold vodka martini. You can find the recipe here.

Ever since watching "Julie and Julia", every time I hear the word lobster I find myself singing to myself "Lobster killer" to the same tune as the Talking Heads "Psycho Killer". That said, when I lived in Florida I used to catch my own lobster while scuba diving so no, I don't feel bad for killing lobsters. There are plenty of them in the Atlantic, as there are plenty of them in Sardinia, where this recipe hails from.

This recipe is relatively new to me, mostly because I grew up thinking I loathed anchovies. And although I still won;t gorge on them, I've reached a point in my life where if anchovies are few and only one of many ingredients I actually enjoy their natural saltiness. This Sicilian dish is the perfect example. Try it ones and you won;t get enough of it. Click here for the recipe. 

I've learned to make this dish last summer, on a torrid July evening during 2010's only heat wave. The lake was still. The air was humid and felt heavy. There was no way in hell I would even consider leaving my a/c. So I had shrimp and zucchini blossoms in the fridge and thought, why not? The result, even if I do say so myself, was amazing. A star was born. Here's the recipe, and I can assure you that's worth making regardless the outside temperature. 

If you are wondering what is up with me and saffron, the answer is easy. First, I find it to be one of the most satisfying and fragrant spices in the world. Second, believe it or not, saffron is not that expensive in Italy. So when I found both littleneck clams and cherry tomatoes on sale on the same day I just knew I had to whip up some type of pasta concoction. With saffron of course. Because, just like butter, it makes everything better. 


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