Finnish blazing salmon and Demon’s Gate

Last weekend we went to visit Mr. No Onion Please parents. They live in North Karelia region of Finland, a truly beautiful land that I find so peaceful and relaxing. One evening we enjoyed blazing salmon (scroll down for the recipe), a Finnish way of preparing fish, where it is part cooked part smoked in indirect heat from the open fire. It is a really simple dish, just fish and salt, but the flavour is really superb. But, before we shoveled those delicious calories down, we “worked” hard to deserve them 😉 We went for 21km hike through the Finnish wilderness.

On Saturday we travelled roughly 80km North to another region called Kainuu, which i have always thought of as the Kingdom of Bear (I have no idea why, though, but I think they really have a huge bear population there). Just next to the border with North Karelia there is an area where 3 nature protected areas merge and several hiking paths are established. We decided to visit two of those places – the Teerisuo-Luososuo reserve and Hiidenportti National Park. We set off with 11km trail in Teerisuo.

The trail winds through spruce forest, an area where the forest transforms to mire and the open mire.  The forest is plentiful in mushrooms, billberries (wild blueberries) and crowberries (anyone of you collecting those?). In the transition area we found quite many cloudberries. I’ve mentioned already HERE how difficult it is to collect those, and actually this year is the first time since I live here that I’ve found them on several occasions! Once the path enters the open mire, there is nothing to forage on, but the views are really pretty.

What I really admire about Finnish hiking paths is that basically there is always a set place to barbecue or even a small shelter to sleep. Look, they even prepare and store chopped wood for you!!! One just needs to take the sausages and matches 🙂

Once we came back, we jumped into our car and drove around 20km further to hike on a 10km trail in the Hiidenportti National Park. Hiidenportti means Demon’s Gate and the name comes from an old folks tale. Basically, the gorge, which is a centrepiece of the park, was supposed to be a retrieval of Hiisi demon. The gorge isn’t big, it’s only 20m deep, but it’s quite picturesque.

The path follows the edge of the gorge occasionally passing through spruce forest or small mires. Once the gorge ends, there is a bridge, a bbq place and then the path follows back on the other side of the gorge. We had a really great time, but got back to Mr. No Onion’s Please parents quite tired and hungry. Fortunately they planned sauna and bbq for the evening, so our Saturday was really fabulous.

Now back to the blazing salmon. The preparation is quite simple. You need a piece of the fish, wooden plank, wooden pegs (ehem, or nails if pegs can’t be found around 😉 ), some salt, water and open fire. You place the fish filee on the plank and attach it with the pegs.  Dissolve some salt in a glass of water and brush the fish with it. Then attach the plank vertically, 30-50cm from the open fire. Brush the fish with salty water every now and then. It is important that the heat isn’t direct, the fish is supposed to cook very slowly, just as the warm smoky air passes next to it. It took us around 40 min before the fish was ready. Best to check with a toothpick if it’s ready.

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Finnish delicacy – leipäjuusto with cloudberries

Today I’d like to tell you a bit about two very typical Finnish products – leipäjuusto and cloudberries that can be married into a really fast and delicious dessert. Leipäjuusto is a kind of fresh cheese made of cow’s milk, or traditionally from cow’s beestings. Direct translation of the name means bread cheese and I guess the name comes from it’s looks – dark brown spots that appear after the cheese is baked. Or maybe from the simple, yet  unusual fact that it is put into stoves just like bread is. The texture is very firm, a bit rubbery, maybe somewhat reminiscent to halloumi in this sence, yet totally different. Because of it’s texture it is also sometimes called squeaky cheese as it makes really funny noises when you eat it warm. I love it’s texture and the sound it makes, it’s simply a part of the fun when eating this dessert, but I know many people, particularly foreigners might be a bit discouraged by it. The cheese is very mild in taste, milky with a hint of sweetness and it can be used in desserts but also appears often in salads.

Cloudberries are another very typical Finnish ingredient. I know, I know, I should put here a picture of a real fruit not just jam, but you see… I somehow never really went to pick them up 😉 It’s a tricky business (or so I keep telling myself 😉 ). The fruit might look a tiny bit like a yellow raspberry, but unfortunately it doesn’t grow like one. The raspberries grow on a tall bush, and they are lots, making it easy to pick them up. Cloudberries, are more like wild strawberry bushes and sadly one plant forms only one berry! What a job to fill in a basket with them! Even worse, they grow sparse, only in separated places (known to the avid cloudberry foragers, not lame couch potatoes like me 😉 ) and preferentially in wetlands among hordes of mosquitos. Phew… does it sound like a good excuse? 😉 Anyway, they are really delicious and both the leipäjuusto and cloudberries are a must try when you’re visiting Finland.

INGREDIENTS:

leipäjuusto

muscovado sugar

double cream

cloudberry jam

Cut the cheese into small pieces, sprinkle muscovado sugar on top of them. Pour double cream, not too much, it shouldn’t cover cheese. Put to oven under grill and heat up till the sugar is caramelised. Serve with cloudberry jam.

Vappu

The first of May (Vappu) is a widely celebrated fest in Finland. Apart from being the Labour Day it is also students’ day, doughnut day but most of all drinking day ;). The streets are really colourful with people wearing ylioppilaslakki – graduation hats as well as students wearing their traditional overalls. The balloon sellers are on every corner and atmosphere is soaked with joy and anxiety for the most frolic night of the year.

It all begins on Vappu’s Eve with traditional student’s parade and washing the statue of Havis Amanda (in every city the celebrations look a bit different). The statue wears the ylioppilaslakki through the day and in the late afternoon everyone gathers to watch as students wash it off with the water from old firemen’s car hoes and then polish the statue with brushes and brooms. When Amanda is all shiny confetti and balloons are thrown to the air and that’s the time when one should head in search of a good place where to hook up for all-night partying.

The 1st of May starts pretty quietly as majority of people try to recover from hangover and prepare for picnic. By noon most of the green spots in the city centre are already taken over by families munching their lunch. The most popular place in Helsinki to set your blanket is Kaivopuisto park that overlooks the sea. It’s always full of people, colourful and noisy as tipsy students cheer every time the sun reappears from behind the clouds.

This year the weather was really bad. Fortunately it wasn’t raining but the wind was extremely strong and it was so cold that we basically just ate the food really fast and escaped to one of the warm, cosy pubs to continue the celebrations ;). One of the very fast to prepare nibbles that I nearly always make on such occasions are pieces of puff pastry with various fillings. The one below is our all-time favourite. You just assemble the things together and throw to the oven, bake in 200C till golden brown. No fuss at all and so easy to prepare after a tiring night 😉

INGREDIENTS

puff pastry cut into squares

firm pears, sliced

mature goat cheese, sliced

pine nuts

rose pepper

BTW as this time the weather wasn’t really good, the pictures from Vappu celebrations are from last year (anyway it always looks the same 😉 )

Tampere

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So it’s supposed to be spring, right? So I hear and see on various blogs enjoying the harvest of spring veggies and sunny weather. We had a great weather for last five days but today I woke up and instead of admiring bright, crispy sunlight I was shocked seeing rain and snow on the other side of the window. Fortunately its warm and it only rains right now, but it made me pretty scared as we plan to have picnic with friends on weekend. Well it’s not that easy here, thought its the end of April snow can still happen and I remember two or three years ago we had a snowstorm on the May Day. One just have to get used to. Anyway,  just over a week ago we were trying to enjoy our weekend in another city – Tampere. Hoped for great springtime weather, as several previous days were forecasting forthcoming spring. Unfortunately for us… it was snowing and bloody cold. Well not much to sight-see in such weather, we just went to a view tower and had a short walk in the city center, and as we were just heading the railway station the clouds disappeared … So much to talk about our luck. You can see on the pictures that the lake was still covered with ice and in some points you may spot the marks of cars  and snowmobiles that were driving there in the winter. The ice always stays pretty long on the lakes but once it starts to melt, it disappears in a glance. I can bet that right now there is no trace of it there.

Mökki

A bit over a week ago we were enjoying a wonderful Finnish custom – spending some free time in mökki. Mökki means summer cottage. I know it’s not summer yet, but… we were suddenly stroke with a wave of warm air (only -2C for several days) and according to some optimists the summer is nearly here! So why not to hang around in the woods?

I love the time spent there. It’s so simple, and I believe that’s where the beauty of those moments comes from. We sleep a lot, eat a lot and all the rest of the time is basically spent in sauna. In the evening we set fire in the chimney and sit in front of it reading books or just staring into the fire (occasionally grilling some sausages too). Nothing more, nothing less. Simplicity, it makes you forget everyday worries.

It always makes me wonder how slow the time goes there. It’s like with a touch of magic wound the time suddenly slows down. You literally sense it oozing through the windows into the cottage. We have so unexpectedly much time there. It feels like acting in a slowed motion movie. The atmosphere is so dense with time that you consider taking a handful of it and putting to your pocket to store for some busy days.

Mökki is just 60km away from the hectic capital, but whenever we go there, it seems like we move back in time. The cottage itself is made of huge wooden logs. It sits on the granite rock which descends into the Baltic Sea bay. And silence… It’s actually THE SILENCE, with capital letters. Don’t know how it’s possible but the silence is so great that it hurts. Living in the city, we are so used to the background noise, that our cochlear cells are really in shock once there. I suspect that they try to do their job well and try to grasp tiniest sound vibes, then after several hours finally give up and allow themselves small holidays as well.

I like to think that indeed it is a kind of magical place, that mökki is somehow able to bend the spacetime. Yes, it is wishful thinking and deep down I know the reason why spending free time feels so different there. The answer is simple – no TV, no Internet. I always realise there how much time we waste on senseless staring into screens. And I always try to tell myself that from now on I will use my free time more wisely. But just as soon as we close the doors and start our car to leave mökki I know I won’t keep to those promises. I just can’t, no matter how much I try. And this moment, when you realise you will again let the precious time go through your fingers instead of grabbing it and not letting it go, is always the saddest part.

Porkkanalaatikko – finnish baked carrot puree

While living in Finland I’ve heard many foreigners complaining how terrible the food is here and how they hate Finnish cuisine. Well, what I hate are generalizations. Yes it’s true there are very few spices used and the food is usually made bland. It’s also true it often looks grayish, not appealing at all and yeah not that great choice of ingredients available in the shops either (at least out of the Helsinki area). But what makes the cuisine of a given country is not how the food tastes in the cheap lunch places but what people including YOU can make out of it. First, think a bit about country itself. Finland…. well it sits somewhere on the North of Europe right? Have you ever thought how north it actually is? Remember your last Discovery program about Alaska? Those huuuge icicles and snow caps covering all the state, made you probably curl into your comfortable sofa even more. The truth is that Helsinki, that happens to be as well one of the southernmost cities in Finland, is on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. Not to mention the rest of the country that spreads still roughly 1300km to the freezing north. So I guess, you get my point – not so much of produce here. Thats why Finnish cuisine will never be similar to bursting with sunny flavors Italian one. Add still isolation of the country and you’ll understand why it’s not Indian either. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth of even a glance to check what it has to offer. Think a bit more and you’ll find yourself wonder how people could live here just like 100 years ago. What is there to eat if the winter lasts half a year and last summer according to Finns themselves was on Tuesday? First of all berries and mushrooms – the country’s treasure lays in its forests. Add to it the wide selection of game (reindeer and moose are delightful) or fish from the lakes untouched by pollution, some root veggies as a side and you can make a truly Finnish gourmet dish that would make Ramsay proud. Well, basically what I want to say is that the true cuisine of a given country is made by people, it is made by you. Never underestimate what it has to offer, adjust it to your palate and well…. don’t complain so much, it gives you wrinkles 😉

So here’s a short story how instead of complaining I made one of the boring staple Finnish Christmas foods a winner. Traditionally, on the Christmas table there are three laatikkos – baked vegetable purees made of potatoes, swedes and carrots. No one will deny that two first ones disappear at a glance, while the carrot one sits there neglected like an ugly duckling. But…. how can that be? I mean we DO love carrots. They are so versatile, no matter if used raw, cooked or roasted. Now when I think of it, we actually always have a bag of them ready to be used. And so I’ve challenged myself – can I improve it enough to transform porkkanalaatikko from just another dish that has to simply appear on Christmas table to something we actually await?

And…. YEEAAASSS!!! I won’t be humble here and will say that my take on the traditional recipe transformed it totally. Definitely I’m gonna make this one for next Christmas. And I can bet that thanks to this metamorphosis, porkkanalaatikko will become a family favorite.

I’ve found a basic traditional recipe in one of the Finnish magazines and decided to change several things. First of all porkkanalaatikko as the only one of the other laatikkos has rice in it. I believe that takes much of delightful carrot sweetness away. So change number one – no rice in here. I have also increased the amount of spices, I believe thought that everyone should adjust it according to their palate, particularly if one is not keen on star anise. But the biggest improvement was making puree itself. Originally it is done simply by boiling and blending the carrots. But don’t you think that boiling actually washes away quite much of the root vegetable’s taste? Well at least I do.  That’s why I’ve decided to make it in a bit more tedious, but oh so delicious way – I roasted the carrots and only then pureed them. This way, I managed to preserve all the sweet carroty taste that I adore. I admit though, such way of preparation takes much more time. The slower, the better it seems, but the final choice how to make puree I leave up to you.

Ingredients:

– 2kg carrots

– 1tsp salt

– 1 egg

– 2-3 tsp cinnamon

– 1-2 tsp grated star anise

– 2 tbsp honey – preferably from honeydew, not your regular nectar flower honey. you can use  golden syrup instead

– 150ml double cream

– 20g melted butter

– bread crumbs

– butter

1. Wash, peel and chop the carrots, make puree. Either simply boil the carrots and blend them or preferably sprinkle them with olive oil and roast in the oven till soft. You can cover the baking dish so that the carrots won’t dry out or burn.

2. Fold the spices, egg, honey, cream and butter into pure.

3. Transfer the mixture into greased baking dish. Sprinkle densly bread crumbs, so that they cover all of the laatikko and put on top very thinly cut pieces of butter. Bake in 180C for 45-60min.

Enjoy