Friday, February 26, 2010

Resurrecting Blueberries

I pulled an oldish container of blueberries out of the fridge the other day and wondered what to do with them.  Even when I brought them home "fresh," they didn't taste like much.  But I didn't want to waste them, so I decided to try throwing them in a pan with a splash of maple syrup and cooking on medium for 10 or so minutes.  Hallelujah. The flavor returned and they were sheer perfection atop a dish of plain yogurt.

I have some cut up mango in the fridge that's been sitting there a couple of days too long for the same reason as the blueberries.  I'll have to see if it works with mango as well, but I have my doubts.

Moral of the story:  eat local.  But I'm afraid I wouldn't find any fruit in season in Denmark if I went that route.  And I love bananas and oranges, but aren't we all getting a little tired of them by this point in the season?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Crystallized Ginger

I'm in the middle of the best read:  A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.  Molly is the genius behind the food blog Orangette, and oh is her book a page turner.  That might sound strange for a book about food, but I really enjoy the way she presents an interesting, thought provoking story with a related recipe.  And the recipes are terrific!  It's the kind of book that I'm reading way too quickly and would rather slow down so that I can read it forever.  A sentence a day perhaps?  Nah. Impossible.

There is a recipe for banana bread with chocolate chips and crystallized ginger that I'm dying to try.  Having never seen crystallized ginger in my local market, I decided to make my own.  It was a very simple affair, although it does take a bit of time to cook down the slices of spice and get them to the translucent phase.

While I am not head over heels for the stuff, I am excited to use it in various recipes...and it keeps in a jar for up to three months.  Plus, there is something lovely about each granular-sugar-coated slice.

To make a batch yourself, simply get a hunk of fresh ginger root, peel and slice very thinly.  Place in a small saucepan and cover with water. Simmer (but don't boil) for 30-40 minutes.  Drain the water and weigh the cooked ginger.  Add it back to the saucepan with an equal amount of sugar (same weight as the ginger) and 1 to 3 tablespoons of water depending on how much ginger you have.  Bring to a boil and stir every few minutes; cook until the mix is syrupy and the liquid begins to evaporate.  When most of the liquid is evaporated and the ginger is translucent, reduce the heat and cook for another 8 to 10 minutes until the contents are nearly dry (they will be sticky but you don't want them floating in syrup - drain if necessary).

Let mixture cool for 10 or so minutes (you want it slightly warm so it will stick to the sugar).  Dredge slices in a plate of sugar, set aside to dry (for 20 or 30 minutes) and then place in a jar and seal.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Peanut Butter Cookies

There are plenty of recipes I'd like to share of things on my menu lately, and I'd even planned to write about them before the cookies, but I can't hold out on you any longer.  What I am about to give you did not originate with me but is perhaps the greatest peanut butter cookie recipe of all time. Thank you Heidi Swanson and 101 Cookbooks!

I love peanut butter.  It brings out the crazy in me, not like that's very hard.  If you haven't heard me mention it before, I have access to two brands here in Denmark.  TWO!  This is practically unthinkable when you come from the U.S., land of not only massive numbers of different brands, but peanut butter with jelly mixed in, chocolate, honey roasted nuts, unsalted, salted, and more.  And then there are all the other nut butters available that I could never dream of finding in Denmark.

It's no secret that Danes are not the peanut butter fans that we Americans are.  They eat rugbrød, a strong, dense rye bread that perhaps just isn't the best match for heavy peanut butter (although I happen to like the two together very much). Also, Danes are known to eat butter on their bread and top it with cheese and jam or cheese and meats and/or sliced veggies.  It's that whole smorgasbord thing.

But the best part is that among these lone two brands of peanut butter is an exceptional selection.  It's both natural and organic and comes in creamy and chunky.  I pay $6 for a smallish jar, but it's worth every kroner.  Alan detests peanut butter (but will easily inhale a dozen peanut butter, so I share my supply with me, myself, and I...and Anatole when he's in the mood.  Once in awhile I'll give him a teaspoon full right from the jar and he thinks that's pretty fun.

Recently I started day dreaming about peanut butter cookies.  I began my quest for the recipe by looking in cookbooks and online.  The recipe on 101 Cookbooks really caught my attention because it contains no butter, eggs, or refined sugar.  I'm not Anti any of these items, but why not go for a natural cookie if you can.  And this one totally delivers:  it's sweet (but not cloyingly so), soft, crumbly, and pure goodness in every bite.

I sprinkled sea salt on top of some and thought it was a delicious combination (but not one my family is crazy about).  On my last batch of dough I threw in a handful of chocolate chips thinking of the never fail peanut butter-chocolate chip combo, but frankly, I like the plain version better.  The cookie stands on it's own beautifully.  My other favorite part: the glossy dough is pretty, easy to work with, and makes such lovely pre-baked cookies. Baked, the cookies take on a more matte, dull finish.  But never mind because the taste more than makes up for it. So, my friends, make these cookies!

Peanut Butter Cookies

2c flour
1t baking soda
3/4t salt
1c peanut butter
1c maple syrup
1/3c olive oil
1.5t vanilla extract

350F for 8-9 minutes

Please see instructions on 101 Cookbooks

My notes:

Heidi says to use whole wheat pastry flour, spelt or all purpose.  I went with the latter because it's all I had in the house.  She also says to use finely ground sea salt, which I did, but I think table salt would do just fine.  I used natural, crunchy peanut butter.  I found that the 10-11 minute baking time in Heidi's instructions to be a minute or two too long and fared better with 8-9 minutes.  But of course ovens vary, so check yours at the 8 minute mark.  Like Heidi says, you don't want to overbake these as the result will be a dry cookie and what you're after is a slightly moist center that's just a tad darker than the outside.

Finally, in spite of the tip to refrigerate the dough for one hour for a mix to which it's easier to apply fork crosshatch marks, my dough didn't need this step.  It was so glossy and pliable that the crosshatched marks set in with no problem.  Perhaps it's because I used all purpose flour which is less dry than whole wheat.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lebanese Meatballs and Lentil Bulgar Stew

Tired of the same old same old, I pulled out the Lebanese cookbook that my friend Kira gave me for my birthday last year.  I was looking for something exotic or at least a new set of flavors to excite my palate and awaken my winter-filled soul.  There are many inspiring recipes in the book but I settled on two:  meatballs with lemon yogurt sauce and lentil, bulgar, and spinach stew.

It's funny, I sort of thought I knew what Lebanese cooking was like, but I think I was simply mixing it up with Greek and other Mediterranean food.  Granted, I'm basing this on two recipes, but it seems different. The meatballs are a mixture of ground lamb,* mint, parsley, onion and garlic.  They taste good no doubt about it, but they wouldn't be half as good without the tangy yogurt sauce.  The sauce really made this dish for me.  With lots of lemon, it makes the meat come alive and is the perfect complement to the spices.  

I served it with whole grain couscous and steamed green beans.  The couscous soaks up the sauce beautifully, but I imagine rice or quinoa might also do the job.  

The next day for lunch I diced a tomato and chunk of cucumber and mixed it with two leftover meatballs, the couscous, and yogurt sauce. Delicious.

*Ground lamb is difficult to come by in Denmark, at least in my town, so I substituted ground beef.  I realize that lamb would impart an entirely different taste to the dish, but the beef had to do. I wasn't disappointed.

Adapted from The Australian Women's World Lebanese Cooking

1kg minced lamb (or ground beef)
1 large onion, chopped finely
1 egg
1/4c finely chopped mint leaves
2T finely chopped parsley
2T grated lemon zest
1.5T ground cumin
3 cloves garlic (grated or finely chopped)
1t salt
1t pepper

1.  Using hands, combine all ingredients in large bowl.  Roll level tablespoons of mixture into balls.  Place on a tray, cover, and refrigerate 30 minutes.  

2.  Cook meatballs, in batches, on heated grill or skillet until browned all over and cooked through.  

Lemon Yogurt Sauce

1c plain yogurt
2T finely chopped mint leaves
1.5T fresh lemon juice
1/2t sugar

1.  Combine ingredients in small bowl and serve with meatballs.

I'd call the stew a work in progress.  It's a very basic recipe with few ingredients but made as is, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing with every bite I took.  And that's after I dressed it up a bit.  I added fresh lemon juice, a splash of plain yogurt, and sea salt.  I was amazed that the recipe calls for no salt.  Lentils, spinach, and bulgar are wonderful foods, but to my mind, they need salt and are too bland without it.  This is an earthy stew and if I were Oprah Winfrey I might say that it tastes like eating a piece of of the earth, but I'm not so sure that this is what I'm after in a stew.  (If you haven't heard, Oprah is a big fan of rugbrød, Denmark's ubiquitous rye bread).

Nevertheless, I like and recommend this recipe.  Perhaps adding some chicken stock in place of all or part of the water would do the trick. Other ideas: red pepper flakes; sauteed mushrooms with a bit of celery and carrot added to the pot with the dry lentils and bulgar (step 2).

The first time I served it, I added a topping that was a simple mix of tahini, plain yogurt, and a squeeze of lemon juice.  I'm the only one in my family who likes tahini, but it's just as well since Alan said he thought it looked like a bird pooped on my stew.  Well be that as it may, it was tasty and added a lot of flavor to the dish.  By the way, my photo simply gives credence to Alan's bird poop comment, so you'll have to trust me on this one.

Finally, on my last attempt to get it where I wanted flavor-wise, I heated a bowl of leftover stew for lunch and stirred a couple spoons of yogurt and a spoon of tahini directly in to the sauce pan.  Mixed together and heated through, I thought, Now we're talking.  It was rich with flavor but still healthy and light.

Lentil, Bulgar, and Spinach Soup
Adapted from The Australian Women's World Lebanese Cooking

2 liters water
1c brown lentils
1c bulgar
1/4c olive oil
2 medium white onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, grated
6 cups fresh baby spinach or 3 cups frozen spinach
2T coarsely chopped parsley
2T fresh lemon juice
1.5t salt

1.  Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan or dutch oven. (This is where you can add some stock).

2.  Add lentils and bulgar.  Cook on medium-low for 45 to 55 minutes until tender.

3.  While lentils and bulgar are cooking, heat oil in frying pan and cook onion and garlic until golden (approx. 10 minutes on med- low heat).

4.  Add spinach.  Cover and remove from heat.

5.  Incorporate spinach and onion mix into stew and heat until well combined.  Add 1.5t salt or more to taste.

6.  Stir in generous 1/2 cup plain yogurt, 1/4 cup tahini, and 2T lemon juice.

7.  Serve with fresh parsley on top.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Challenging my notion of Flexibility

The other night we Skyped with our friend Kurt who's been living in Vietnam for six months and trying to make a go of a new business venture there.  I asked him what food he misses most from the U.S. and, with no hesitation, he said cheese.  Apparently the Vietnamese are not much into dairy products in general and the only cheese he can get is gummy in texture and tasteless.  So imagine his delight when a friend visited recently and brought along a two pound brick of Tillamook cheddar.

The conversation with Kurt got me thinking.  Not so much any more, but when I moved to Denmark I found grocery shopping incredibly challenging and sometimes anxiety-inducing.  First there was the fact that I had to insert a refundable deposit coin into a slot on the shopping cart and remove a chain on the next cart and stick it into my cart.  I thought, Let me get this straight, you want me to come in to your store and spend a bunch of money but you can't even loan me the cart, for free?  Nope, it takes either (the equivalent of) a $2 or $4 coin to use a cart.  Yes, you get the money back, but still, it takes some extra planning.  Fortunately it didn't take long before I was accustomed to this ritual and made sure never to leave home without coins.

Then there was the small size of the markets and just not the variety of products that I'm used to (I've since realized that this is not such a bad thing).  But it was trying to find items that I relied heavily on in the U.S., such as canned black beans, steel cut oats, and really good tortillas and salsa that really sent me reeling.  Yes, if you can't tell, I MISS MEXICAN FOOD!  But that's another story.

Finally, I remember going to the checkout with my cart full of items, putting them on the belt and having the checker hold up a flimsy bag of potatoes and ask me a question in a language that sounded like gibberish (at that point I understood ZERO Danish).  Turns out, I was supposed to weigh the potatoes on a scale in the produce section, print a sticker with the weight and price, and apply it to the bag, before taking it to the checkout.  Oops.  Instead of laughing it off and going with the flow, I was flustered, sweating, and swearing I would never go grocery shopping again.

It's actually quite amusing to look back and see how far I've come over the last 18 months.  While I can't have an in-depth conversation with a checker (never see the locals do that anyway), I can ask for a bag, say that I don't want cash back on my ATM card, and tell them thanks and have a good day/ Danish.  Progress!

But my point really is that I live in a Western European country, not Asia, where shopping for food must take on a totally different meaning. Kurt said that he simply can't ask a question to someone working in the market because there are no English speaking employees.  This is where I am spoiled.  In Denmark, if I really can't find the words in Danish or don't understand something, 99 percent of the time Danes speak English.  Good English.  I'm impressed when I ask a Dane for directions or help and they answer perfectly, and then casually mention that they haven't spoken English in 10 years (it's happened more than once).  Danes are extremely humble people, and when I remark about their gift for English, they usually give credit to a) learning it in school b) American or British TV shows with Danish subtitles and c) radio music with English lyrics.  While this may be true, they are still a population that excels beautifully at a language that is not their mother tongue.

Kurt's everyday experiences in the grocery store make mine look like a walk in the park.  Deciphering labels and trying to figure out what a vessel's contents are is the worst, he said. This can be an adventure, but it can also be highly annoying when all you want is a jar of jam or a can of chopped tomatoes.  Also making things difficult is the almost complete lack of western products like mayonnaise and cereal, whereas in Denmark these items are a given.

Kurt does not seem to be bothered much by these daily road blocks, and why should he?  While we sit here in Denmark with minus temps and snow everywhere, he enjoys sunny 80 degree days and the adventure of a life time.  I might also add that Vietnamese food is delicious, and I'm sure if he wanted he could eat take out every day for mere pennies.  But that still doesn't take away the sting of going without a morning bowl of Cap'n Crunch.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Sunday marks not only Valentine's Day but Fastelavn, a far more important holiday in Denmark.  In fact, according to Danish media, less than 20 percent of Danes celebrate Valentine's Day.  Fastelavn is like the Scandinavian Halloween.  Kids dress up in costumes, have parties, swing a stick at a barrel filled with candy, and pretend to flog their parents for fun. In one family we know the son is dressing up as Indiana Jones and the daughter will be a flower.  Pirates are popular and so is Spiderman.  Anatole had a fastelavn party at daycare last week and donned a tiger costume--although he refused to keep the tiger's head on.

A traditional fastelavn treat is a cream or custard filled pastry.  I originally planned to make a batch but frankly do not need 20 pastries staring me in the face.  It's bad enough that I consumed the entirety of the two I bought for "research purposes."  (And that was after I told myself "Just a bite of each!") But I decided it was safer than being tempted by a multitude of fastelavn buns laying about.  I picked up two because there is the old fashioned (gammels dag boller) pastry made from a yeast dough and a more modern, fancy version with cream stuffed between a sliced flaky pastry bun.  The old fashioned bun with the chocolate on top has a little bit of yellow custard inside; the flaky rendition is filled with lightly sweetened raspberry cream and a small dollop of regular whipped cream.

I haven't tried it, but there is another version of fastelavnsboller with marzipan cream inside.  The bottom line is that these are indeed a treat and you cannot help but smile when you dig into one.  It's food fun at its best.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sweet and Salty Granola

Long ago I had a fixation with granola, but it ended abruptly from eating too much of the stuff.  I couldn't look at it for years.  Then I was in Oregon last Thanksgiving and my mom had a jar of homemade granola from The Village Baker in Bend.  It looked too good to pass up and--after just one bite--reminded me of all the things I love about the chewy, crunchy, earthy concoction. 

As long as it's not too sweet, granola is one of my favorite things for breakfast or a quick and healthy snack.  So when I prepared a batch the other day I decided to sprinkle sea salt over the wet mix before baking.  For me, the combination of the sweetness from the honey/maple syrup/molasses along with the saltiness (that somehow seems to stick to the nuts) is pure bliss.  But then I am naturally inclined to gobble up practically anything with sweet and salty components, such as this salt-kissed buttermilk cake.  If you are not such a fan, simply skip that step.

The other thing that is great about granola is that when you make your own you can put in whatever you like.  Not so much into walnuts?  Use almonds or cashews instead.  What's more, if you want to go really crazy with the nuts, add a combination of several kinds.  And in terms of dried fruit and seeds, nearly anything goes.  I used boring old raisins because it's all I had on hand (and I like them), but chopped apricots, figs, dates, cherries, cranberries, and apples would all be good.  So would sesame seeds.  This one might be out there for some--and I've never personally tried it--but I've heard that hemp seeds are available at most U.S. health food stores and are reportedly very nutritious.  Why not give it a try.

Sweet and Salty Granola

3c       rolled oats
1/2c     unsweetened, shredded coconut
1c        coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2c     sliced almonds
1/4c     raw pumkin seeds
1/4c     sunflower seeds
1/4c     flax seeds
2T        honey
2T        maple syrup
2T        molasses  (if you don't have molasses just use more honey or maple syrup)
2T        vegetable oil
1.5t      sea salt
1/2c     raisins

Preheat oven to 325F/160C

1.  Mix oats through flax seeds. 

2.  Combine honey through oil in a small sauce pan (or in a bowl in the microwave) and heat until just warm - 2-3 minutes on medium heat (60 seconds in the microwave).

3.  Pour wet mix over dry ingredients and stir well until combined.

4.  Sprinkle sea salt over the wet mixture and stir again until thoroughly combined.

5.  Spread evenly over a parchment lined baking sheet.

6.  Bake for 5 minutes, stir, and then do this two more times for a total of 15 minutes in the oven.  The mixture will be light golden brown.

7.  Remove from oven.  Stir in raisins (or other dried fruit).  Using another piece of parchment, press on top of the mix and leave to cool completely.  Remove parchment and break into chunks.  If you prefer a non-chunky granola, simply skip the parchment step.

8.  Store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Peep Hearts

Have I told you about my friend Ann in New Jersey who sends me Peeps at every holiday?  She's been doing it for years.  I've received every shape and flavor of Peeps imaginable, all thanks to my good friend who I've nicknamed the Queen of Care Packages.  She rocks.  Just look at what I got for Valentine's Day this year.  Am I lucky or what?  I guarantee you these are NOT items available in Denmark.  By the way, the gummy hearts are incredible, so if you have a Trader Joe's nearby, pick up a bag.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Postcard: Mariager, Denmark

Note:  our MacBook is being shipped off today for a couple of minor repairs.  I will do my best to post on my Dell although it's definitely become my use-only-in-case-of-emergency computer.  Alan and I have been PC users for so many years, but just about this time last year we welcomed a Mac into our lives and have been head over heels ever since.

Last October we took a short drive to a nearby town known for its picturesque, cobble stone streets, vintage train, and colorful old buildings.  Mariager is a lovely little locale with as many layers as an onion.  Street after street reveals unparalleled charm and beauty.  Although the photos are terribly out of season at this point--and we did not eat anything on our visit (sorry food fans)--, I thought some of you might enjoy a peek at the non-food side of old, historic Denmark. Personally, I find it exquisite.  In case you are wondering what the sign says, the handmade wood garden frame is on sale for the equivalent of $100.  But first and foremost, I thought the first sign translated to "Be careful of the train."  But when I just double checked the translation it's saying "Passport on the train."  Dear Danish friends: help!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Recommended Book: Food Matters

When I was in Portland during the holidays I spent hours at Powell's Books.  I challenge anyone to find a cooler bookstore.  Apart from the hundreds of thousands of new and used selections, it has a funky vibe with shoppers from every spectrum of the social and economic ladder.  I was just about to say if you can't find it at Powell's you won't find it anywhere, and while usually true, I was disappointed for the first time because they were out of a cookbook called The Family Chef.  But I forgive easily.

Aside from a book on quilting, new French dictionary, and some novels, I picked up the most interesting find:  Food Matters by Mark Bittman.

In addition to over 70 healthy recipes, Bittman tells how to get healthier by eating less meat and dairy and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and really just more whole foods in general.  What's more, he describes why we must do this in order to protect our health, the environment, and the global climate.  I'm not finished reading yet, but a few worthwhile tidbits:

"Cheap Soy and Corn Yield Cheap Meat...America no longer grows enough edible fruits and vegetables for everyone to eat our own government's recommended five servings a day.  Were we all to do so, we'd be dependent on imported vegetables!"

"1 billion people in the world are chronically hungry.  1 billion are overweight."

"Livestock produce more greenhouse gas than the emissions caused by transportation or anything else except energy production."

"Per calorie cooked spinach has more than twice as much protein as a cheeseburger; lentils have a third more protein than meat loaf with gravy."

Excerpts from Food Matters : A Guide to Conscious Eating by Mark Bittman

While Bittman is not a vegetarian nor an advocate for a vegetarian lifestyle, he is a strong proponent of eating less meat and dairy and more plants.  While he admits to allowing himself a cheeseburger, fries, and coke every couple of months, he eschews junk food and highly refined carbohydrates.  He tends to eat a wide variety of plant foods (fruits and veggies), whole grains, legumes, and nuts all day long and then at night, he allows himself to eat a normal dinner that may or may not include a small portion of meat or fish.  Typically it's something relatively healthy but might include pasta or crusty white bread and wine.  This system works for him and not only has he lost weight, he feels terrific and says while it's a big change to eat this way, it doesn't deprive him in any way. 

I highly recommend this book.  You will find plenty of life-altering information, and the recipes alone are worth it.

Thus far I've sampled three recipes and have been thrilled with each.  One is for cookies--that I took the liberty of tweaking a bit--and the others are a Thai Beef Salad and Curry Lentil Soup.  I love the cookie recipe because it can be varied in different ways depending on the ingredients you have on hand.  For example, if you don't have any eggs in the house, you can simply substitute applesauce.  When I made a batch yesterday I only had one egg in the fridge and a few apples.  I used the egg and then made a quick batch of homemade applesauce, and voila, the two together worked beautifully.  Also, there are lots of different fun add ins you can play with such as various dried fruits, shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened), nuts, chocolate covered nuts, chocolate chips, and so on.  I've made the cookies twice and liked the second batch more than the first in part because I chose to use half butter and half oil for a more delicate texture.  I stuck to oil in the first batch and found the cookies slightly too heavy for my liking.

Fruit and Nut Cookies
Adapted from Nutty Oatmeal Cookies in Food Matters by Mark Bittman

1/4c   oil
1/4c   butter
1/2c   maple syrup
1/4c   packed brown sugar
1/4c   applesauce
1        egg
1.5c   flour (unbleached white, whole wheat, or a combo)
1.5c   oats (not instant)
1/2c   unsweetened, shredded coconut
1c.     chopped dried fruit (I like unsulphured apricots but raisins work well, too--or again, a combo)
1/2c   chopped nuts (I used walnuts)
1/2c   dark chocolate chips or chopped chocolate pieces (optional)
2t       baking powder
1/4t    salt
1/4c   milk (cow, soy, rice, or nut milk)
1/2t    vanilla
1/2t    maple syrup extract

1.  Heat the oven to 375F.  Cream the fats with the sugars until well combined (with a mixer or by hand).  Add the egg and applesauce and egg and mix until blended.

2.  Combine the flour, oats, fruit, nuts, chocolate (if using), baking powder and salt.  I noticed with the dried apricots it helped if I ran my hands through the flour to evenly distribute and coat the fruit.

3.  Alternating with the milk, add the dry ingredients to the wet, a little at a time, and stir to blend.  Stir in the extracts.

4.  Put scant tablespoon-size mounds of dough about an inch or so apart on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Bake 10-12 minutes.

Yield:  approx. 3 dozen

Monday, February 1, 2010

Let there be light

You may or may not recall that my son and husband were sick recently. Well, as much as I hoped and prayed that it would skip me (I even thought I was out of the woods up until a few days ago), it didn't.  I've been laid up since Friday and while things today are looking up slightly, I won't be preparing anything in the kitchen unless it's a jug of hot tea with lemon.

This photo was taken from our deck at 8:00 a.m.  It is getting dark now at approximately 5:00 p.m.  Yes, that's right we are up to NINE hours of daylight.  Yippee.

I have some great recipes to share from a really good book I'm reading, so hope to be back in tip top shape asap.  I also hope this finds you in good health.