Umeå, Sweden: A Darn Good Place for Lunch

We had no particular plan to stop in Umeå. It was like Vaasa on the Finland side: we needed to stop somewhere, and Umeå was there. But when we got there, it was a beautiful, an utterly gorgeous, northern city: large, fast-moving river as so many of them have*, buildings that were charming and interesting wherever you looked. Very walkable. The people were outstandingly friendly and helpful even for the far north.

(I have no idea where this idea that northerners are taciturn comes from. They talk my ear off. They did not appear to talk to Tim in the same way. But to me? Chatterboxes. You cannot get them to shut up. It’s as though they’ve met their long-lost cousin and…oh. Oh. Well. Never mind, that explains that. Seriously, in Umeå alone I saw three people who looked like specific Lingens I know.)

We didn’t have a great chance to explore Umeå; we did not, for example, stay in the hotel in the same building as the library. (See? SEE? Umeå is great.) But one of the reasons I am writing these blog posts is because there are not always English language restaurant reviews of things, and while one visit is not enough to do a proper review, an improper review is better than nothing if you’re searching your phone frantically for “restaurants Umeå.”

So: Rex Umeå. Rex is in a charming brick building–we poked our heads in because the brickwork was lovely and I could read that they had squid for supper that looked like it would be amazing, so it seemed worth finding out what lunch was. The waitress helped me finish puzzling out the lunch menu, and it all sounded great. And it was. It was so great. Transcendently awesome.

At this point in the trip it had been something like a week and a half since I had eaten meat, and something in my little anemic brain said: BEEF RYDBERG. If you have never had beef Rydberg: it is a classic Swedish dish. Here is what you do. You sauté up some onions and put them on a plate. Separately, you fine dice some potatoes and fry them crispy. Put them on the plate also. Separately, you chop up your beef and cook it in a lovely red wine sauce. Put this on the plate also. Fine. This is well enough and I thought it was grand. And then the waitress also brought me an egg yolk, freshly grated horseradish, and some Dijon mustard to mix into the hot red wine sauce to my personal taste, to make it all zippy and creamy and perfectly grand. And at Rex in Umeå, everything was utterly top quality, the horseradish absolutely fresh, perfect, perfect. They also had a little buffet of salad things and bread to go to with this, with plenty of gluten-free options if you needed that, all clearly marked, very meticulous.

Tim had some steak dish in a lovely gravy also. His would have been very nice if I had not been wallowing in beef Rydberg. Then he ate the end of my beef Rydberg because when do I finish anything in a restaurant I mean really. But if I did! This would have been a candidate! Because the polite, friendly people of Umeå are also people who can cook, there at Rex restaurant. So go throw money at them.

There is a ferry that goes from Vaasa to Umeå. I can’t think why you would want that, because the Arctic is so lovely, so very lovely. And this is not quite the Arctic. On the other hand, Vaasa and Umeå are both so great. So I can imagine wanting to bounce back and forth between them. It’s just that the stuff between them is lovely too. I would like more time in Umeå. Next time. Next time. If I’m not firmly installed in the Norwegian Arctic or something.

*This is what the -å means in Swedish cities.

Cookie Day Two: The Re-Cookenating

I had a list. We ignored the list. We burned the list to the ground.

You see, Mom and Grandma and I: we are experienced in the ways of Cookie Day. But having already done one, we had a lot of our usual tricks kind of…handled. One of the ways that you keep three experienced bakers working all day with only one oven is to make things on the stove. Well, we’d already made two kinds of fudge and caramels. That was on Gluten-Free Cookie Day. But! We are versatile! We are fierce! We are determined! So onwards. Onwards to glory and lots and lots of treats.

We made: pepparkakor, brun brod, pretzel hugs, strawberry shortbreads, blueberry shortbreads, pecan penuche, hazelnut toffee, blueberry meringues (bluemeringues! they are boomerang shaped!), and strawberry jam filled amaretti (pink, to distinguish them from the raspberry jam or frosting filled lavender ones on Sunday). We would have also made lemon curd, but I ran out of butter and have to run out to the KwikTrip today to get butter for that and the yams. (Because I am I going to brave a grocery store the day before Thanksgiving when the gas station sells perfectly cromulent butter? Hahaha I am not.)

Note: some of the linked recipes are old recipes in which I reference using oleo. I don’t really bake with oleo any more unless I’m baking for someone who needs non-dairy treats. You can; most of those recipes were passed down from relatives who grew up with butter rationing if they weren’t still on the farm. But I pretty much always bake with butter.

The amaretti are the great discovery of this year. They’re really not hard if you’re comfortable with a pastry bag (which includes being comfortable with a Ziploc with the end snipped off), and we totally didn’t do the thing she talks about with switching the racks of the oven, and it worked fine–my cookie sheets are large, so we can only bake a sheet at a time because they block air flow from each other. But fifteen minutes in the middle of a 300 degree oven, no fooling around, they do exactly what they’re supposed to do, they’re an easy gluten-free dairy-free cookie, go team.

You notice that some of the things yesterday were still gluten-free, even though the gluten-free focused Cookie Day was Sunday. Here’s the thing. There is so much out there that’s good that doesn’t have to have gluten in it in the first place. Penuche, toffee, meringues. These things are just–they’re just treats. They’re just goodies. They aren’t funny-smelling pseudo-treats. Life as part of a family that contains allergies can be rich and festive and joyful. And it should.

Pretty tired, actually, but TINY PLUMS

I was going to have a post here called “Beware of People” about generalities that give me hives, about generalizing what People Want and Readers Expect and Editors Demand and how this is really not a good reason to do things in a manuscript, like, ever. (“So-and-so wants this and it really works in this story” can be a great reason. That’s an important difference.)

I’m really tired, though, and it just wasn’t congealing. And so instead, hey, I went to the farmer’s market and came back with something like my body weight in produce. Every week I forget something on the list and get two or three more things that weren’t on the list because I didn’t know they’d come into season yet. This time I forgot the corn (oops–corn stand time maybe) and got golden raspberries, pears, and tiny plums (TINY PLUMS) that I didn’t know would be there. (TINY PLUMS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS TINY PLUMS.)

So here is the thing about tiny plums: this year has been pretty rough for food for me, due to the vertigo and related meds. And tiny plums do not require a commitment. Four bites and you’re done, that’s all the plum there is. No preparation, and no feeling that, ugh, what if I start eating the plum and my body says HAHAHA NO NO MORE FOOD FOREVER? It will not matter. Because there is hardly any plum there to waste. It’s almost like deciding to eat a single strawberry. Except that it is an entire plum! It is a self-contained plum-based experience! What if it’s sour and not that great? You can have another one! Because they are tiny!

Boy, when they say sometimes it’s the little things, they really mean plums. I never knew that before.

I always think, “Maybe this time I will make the Hungarian plum dumplings out of them, with the potato dough and like that!” And then I laugh and say, “Maybe!” And then I eat another one and don’t. Because plenty of things take cooking. Long beans take cooking, and the round green eggplants, and you don’t have to cook the carrots but a lot of the things I put them in are cooking, and the salsa I make for Mark with his garden jalapenos and tomatoes takes cooking, and…yeah. There is no shortage of cooking. But the tiny plums can just be eaten, and that is really, really okay.

The Prodea Cookbook, by Steven Posch and Magenta Griffith

Review copy provided by author (Magenta Griffith).

The full title of this book, which would have made for a very long blog post title, is The Prodea Cookbook: Good Food and Traditions from Paganistan’s Oldest Coven. I am not a pagan, but I am a cook, and when Magenta heard me talking about doing book reviews at Minicon, she asked if I only review science fiction and fantasy. “Not at all,” I said. She already knew that I was not a pagan from previous conversations, and so this interfaith collaboration/book review was born.

And thus the other night found me staring at the hockey game saying dreamily, “Those pagans sure know how to cook an eggplant.” (The key is that the recipes for eggplant dips in this cookbook call for the eggplant to be roasted longer and hotter than what I’m used to, which is entirely a good idea. Also cayenne is the other thing my previous eggplant dips were missing. This stray observation did, however, confuse Timprov as to what, exactly, I knew about Dany Heatley that he did not, or what metaphor I was using for the Colorado Avalanche’s maroon uniform, or something.)

Also in the highly useful category: the lentil and spinach soup. I keep trying to get the internet to tell me something to do with lentils that isn’t in the dal suite of flavors for when I don’t want that, and the internet was not being optimally useful. Basil in lo, great abundance. Thank you, Prodea. The other thing that I greeted with cries of joy: the oat-flour banana bread that looks like I will be able to make my cousin a gluten-free banana bread that is still made out of food and not artificial food-like products. Hurrah.

There are essays and stories interspersed with the recipes that will probably be of limited practical use to the non-pagan cook, but on the other hand I can’t see why they should upset the non-pagan cook either. If being exposed to someone else’s faith traditions and stories while finding out how to make a pretty tasty barley mushroom dish is going to be a problem, I suspect it’s a problem with you and not with this cookbook.

It should be noted that I am nearly physically incapable of following a recipe, but that’s not a slur on any one cookbook, that’s a personality trait. So if you pick up a cookbook I liked and say, “I looked at that recipe, but it had carrots and I don’t like carrots,” I am likely to look at you in bafflement and say, “Don’t make it with carrots, then; what are parsnips for?” and so on down the list.

The cookie day report

(Since Tili asked so nicely!)

We did thirteen kinds of treat yesterday: chocolate comfort cookies, pepparkakor, strawberry shortbread, lime shortbread, blueberry shortbread, pretzel hugs, sea salt caramels, peanut butter/chocolate fudge, chocolate hazelnut fudge, chocolate-dipped apricots, hazelnut toffee, [redacted as it is a surprise for someone who reads this], and cashew clusters. It is the year of hazelnut; one of the things I didn’t manage to do yesterday was make the chocolate sandwich cookies which will be filled with hazelnut cream, and one of the things my mom did not manage to do yesterday was to make chocolate-dipped hazelnut fingers to go with her usual chocolate-dipped almond fingers. Also there will be hazelnuts in the apple bread when I get around to making that. Also “[redacted…]” actually contains hazelnuts.

Filllllberrrrrrt.

And why, you might ask, did we not get around to making these lovely things yesterday? Well. (Those of you who follow me on Twitter already know this.) Did you ever hear the expression that it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that ain’t so? Um. So I was very sure that I knew how to make the fruit shortbreads from years past. Ten tablespoons of jam, I was sure, ten. I remembered measuring in ten tablespoons of jam. So for the intended single batch of lime shortbreads, I measured in ten. For the intended double batch of blueberry shortbreads, I measured in twenty. The blueberry was really moist and sticky when we pulled it out of the fridge to roll first, so we put it back in the fridge and did the chocolate comfort cookies then instead. And for some reason I glanced at the recipe card when I was stirring up the triple batch of strawberry, and…oh. Five tablespoons. Um. I remembered ten so clearly because a single batch is really hardly enough to be worth it. So…five tablespoons. Um. Okay then.

So we used up literally the rest of the butter in the house making up enough of the rest of the recipe to mix in with the over-jammed recipes. And then my mother rolled and cut out fruit shortbreads. And rolled. And cut out. And rolled. And cut out. Oh mercy, so many shortbreads. Grandma and I made a great many of the stove-top candy items while Mom kept on at the mountain of shortbread dough.

It’s not like they will go to waste. I have several parties in mind who would appreciate shortbreads, and at least one of them lives in this very house. We keep the cookies out on the shelf in the garage, right outside the door for easy access, so they are frozen and will keep. (I have no idea how people in warm climates do Cookie Day. With only a fridge and freezer to chill things! Who could work in such conditions!) Also Timprov went and got us more butter, so we could get on with the toffee and like that.

One of the big successes this cookie day was that the oven was almost never empty. There has been a tendency in years past to have to scramble for what goes in the oven next while we’ve been doing other things, and I think having some of the doughs already mixed up when Mom and Grandma arrived really helped with that.

Am I done with the holiday baking? Hahaha no. Did not expect to be. I still have to do the aforementioned sandwich cookies, and I have promised Mark cashew toffee as well as hazelnut (and possibly almond as well, if we have the time and are running short of toffee), and there are the breads (Cookie Day is not for bread, and there are four breads to be done), and then there are possibly some additional experiments. But the point of Cookie Day is not to get all the everythings done, it’s to spend time together and get a lot of the everythings done, together. And it was a great success at that.

Even if my poor mother is not likely to want to look at jammy shortbread dough for, oh, let’s call it a year.

The making of stuff.

Cookie Day is at my house on Friday, and I am…oh, what’s the phrase I’m looking for? Ah yes: mad with power.

It’s an entire day devoted to baked goods. An entire day. And I get minions assistance from Mom and Grandma. And so it feels, today, before I am actually neck-deep in butter and sugar, like the sky’s the limit. I am marshaling my recipes, inventorying the pantry, making one last shopping list, although nobody is fooled, if we run out of things, we will just go get more. Because Cookie Day is implacable. Cookie Day cannot be stopped by a mere insufficiency of jam. What kind of filling will the chocolate sandwich cookies have this year? What shapes will we make the fruit shortbreads? Anything might happen, people. And we’ve got to be ready for it. Dough chilled. Cutters poised. This is it, this is what we practice for with random brownies and loaves of banana bread all year. This is the big time.

Okay, so yes, I’m ridiculous. And yes, I try stunt-baking other times of the year. But other times of the year, I do it alone. I don’t have two even more experienced bakers saying things like, “We can try that if you want, honey,” or just making the Grandma eyebrow of skeptical amusement.

The secret I keep telling people, the secret they keep forgetting, is that I don’t actually like eating cookies all that much. Most baked goods receive from me a hearty and heartfelt meh. But making cookies! Making candy, making bread! I love making things. Making things is the best.

Produce trio: carrots

I almost didn’t do carrots, because really, carrots! They go in things! There they are, in things! Almost nobody ever says, “Carrots, oh how I need more ways to eat them,” because raw will do, or in most salads, and there you have that: carrots! And you can put them in lemony chicken soup, and you can put them in lamb stew, and you can put them in all the soups I haven’t written down, more or less, and in potpie with or without actual pie crust, with or without meat…carrots!

But the other night I made a new carrot thing that felt lovely and festive, so I thought I would write it down here. It even looks mostly like a recipe, with quantities and everything!

5-Spiced Maple Glazed Carrots
1#ish of carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal–you might do this with what the store attempts to pass off as “baby carrots,” but really the full-size ones mostly have more complex flavor, so I recommend bothering
2 T butter
1/4 c. maple syrup
1/3 c. water
1 T 5-spice powder
chopped chives if they’re still in season

Melt the butter in a pan with a cover. Throw the carrots in and toss them around a bit. Add the rest of the ingredients except the chives. Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer, covering. Check every 5 minutes or so and stir; should take 10-20 minutes depending on how high your simmer is. When the sauce has almost reduced itself to a glaze, throw the chives in and cook a tiny bit more. Hurrah carrots.

Produce trio: beets

1. Roasted beets with walnuts and goat cheese. Heat oven to 400 F. Wash beets and cut the ends off. Make a little packet with foil and put the beets and a little drizzle of olive oil in. Throw on a cookie sheet or other baking dish (or bare in the oven if you trust your foil-packet-sealing abilities). Bake for 40 minutes or until the beets are fork tender. Peel when cool enough to peel. Toss with crumbles of mild sweet goat cheese (Celebrity Goat with honey is awfully good for this purpose) and toasted walnuts or pecans.

2. Beet yogurt with herbs. There is a restaurant called Byblos in Montreal, and it is a Persian restaurant with very little overlap in foods with most Persian restaurants I’ve been to. They serve a trio of veg-yogurts, beet and spinach and eggplant. It is very colorful as well as delicious. In this recipe I used rice vinegar instead of the recommended red wine vinegar because my family is fairly particular about vinegars. And it was lovely, just perfect. (My attempt at the spinach version: less perfect. Stay tuned.) You can eat it with a spoon, or with pieces of pita, or you can use it as a condiment on a sandwich with shredded chicken or whatever other things you like. It is so pink. Also, as I noted on other social media earlier, very handy for demonstrating that you have a crack in your tupperware.

3. Sesame beets. This was my dinner, along with a peanut butter apple. (My food gets a little eccentric when I’m only feeding myself.) I substituted lemon juice in for the lime juice listed, because my lime betrayed me, and I used a sesame oil that was infused with chilis. I also didn’t boil the beets on the stove, because I’m using the limited stove as little as possible until we get it fixed next week, so instead I cooked them as above, but for slightly less time because I didn’t want them to be completely soft. It’s important to toss them thoroughly, or you’ll just get the taste of mild roasted beets with a little aftertaste of the sesame seeds (which is fine but not, y’know, notable) and not the happy tangy dressing.

Produce trio: cauliflower

I love cauliflower. Love love love LOVE cauliflower. I particularly love the purple kind. Also the orange, but deep, royal purple cauliflower from the farmer’s market is one of the best treats in the history of treats. For being one of my favorite veg, however, cauliflower has an ugly temper. The revenge it seeks when you ignore it for too long is epic. I have very vivid memories of one New Year’s Eve at my grandparents’…anyway. Ways to make cauliflower so that you eat it right up and avoid that fate.

1. Brassica (and stuff) salad. This is how I eat cauliflower the most. In fact, this is how I eat cauliflower at least three times a week and often more like six. This is a little thing I like to call “lunch.” I combine cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, and some other sturdy salad veg: rounds of real carrot if I’ve got some, cherry tomatoes, chunks of sweet bell pepper. I douse the whole thing in Ranch, Caesar, blue cheese, or some other creamy dressing, and top liberally with roasted non-salted pistachios. OM AND ALSO NOM.

2. Lebanese roasted cauliflower. This recipe, to be exact. We had it at the very restaurant the person mentions in Vancouver, and it was amazing, and I have successfully recreated the amazing back home. You don’t have to spice it exactly the same way each time, but the lemon-cumin-sumac combo is really nice.

3. Listen to Deb. I like cauliflower gratin and cauliflower soup from Smitten Kitchen, although I use less onion in the soup (“Use Less Onion” would be my kitchen’s motto were it not for Mark, but it is for Mark, and therefore we have to stick with “Basil Is A Vegetable”). Also I use a lot more paprika. A lot. Actually the soup is also good if you throw in mushrooms with the paprika and make it the love child of SK Cauliflower Soup and Random Hungarian Mushroom Soup. That is a great goodness. If I wasn’t going to Montreal, I’d make some for myself this week. Mmmm, paprika. (Note: whenever I say paprika, I mean real Hungarian paprika, not the food coloring they sell as American paprika. Szeged is the brand I use. Szeged is the brand most paprika lovers I know use. Mmmm, Szeged. They did not pay me to do a commercial for them, but I totally would. “When I want to get away from my Scandinavian Blonde-And-Bland Roots, I use Szeged spices….”)