Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Boxing Day

As I was satisfying my curiosities about Boxing Day and its origins, I learned that today is also recognized around the world as St. Stephen's Day, the Day of Goodwill, the first day of Kwanzaa and Junkanoo, Wren's Day, and the Second Day of Christmas -- undoubtedly among other things. So whether you're boxing up food for your servants, cleaning up yesterday's packages, dancing in the street, being kind to strangers, visiting family, beating late risers with holly branches, feasting, looking for birds, or just playing with your toys, please have a festive day.

Happy Boxing Day, from our couch to yours!

Until 2008!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Special holiday feeture

Was it the eggnog, the Christmas movie marathon, or simply the stylish slippers themselves?

[Camera and production: Swiss Mr.]

May your own holiday be full of joy and happy jigs!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Vigilia di Natale

Feeling a bit sluggish today on this sunny Christmas Eve.  After growling at Swiss Mr. for turning on the lights, in an animal way that disturbed even myself, I have been drinking coffee and puttering the house with puffy eyes that won't wake up.  Can't seem to get much traction doing anything but aimlessly clicking things on my computer.

Since it is not technically a holiday here, people in our building are moving in, drilling, dragging -- performing basically any noisy activity they can find the resources to make. Somehow this has made me feel more like taking photos of the neighbor moving in across the hall through the peephole (which did not work) and looking out the window than cutting up bread cubes or frying up sausage.  

In case you, too, are feeling more voyeuristic than festive, please view a few shots of our home, made cheery by the thoughtfulness of mothers and friends, Christmas cards, and an expensive pine tree we hope lives until next year.  (We do not claim to compete with Oijoy.)

Hoping Babbo Natale likes catnip cookies.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Restaurant Review: Saslik (Helsinki)

Knowing that Finland had not so long ago declared independence from Russia, I had some low grade but not necessarily well-founded qualms about eating at a Russian restaurant while in Helsinki. It seemed vaguely unpatriotic? But because the restaurant was so enthusiastically recommended, these concerns were more or less eclipsed by eager anticipation.

Unlike the sad little Russian restaurant in St. Paul which was a bit too USSR for our tastes, Saslik was virtually layered in plush tsar-style Russianness.  Upon fabric wallpaper hung portraits of grim mustachioed men with good posture, ornate clocks, and hand-painted trim; even the ceiling was lushly decorated with fabric and moulding.  (Yes, lushly!)  The stained glass windows and big wooden door pleasantly sealed us into a time warp.

We started with an appetizer sampler which included: many kinds of herring, make-your-own-pickle-salad, make-your-own-lamb-and-potato-salad, salmon, lamb, bear sausage, pork, and another kind of meat I've forgotten.  All of this reminded me of our last meatiful visit to China Grill in Chicago, which, though tasty, had a tragic ending, if you know what I mean.   But I ate them all anyway; how could I not?  This assemblage of foods before me was not likely to be repeated any time soon.  I advise future diners to guard against eating too much marinated garlic.  Though it may seem a necessary palate-cleanser, you may find yourself regretting (and reliving) that choice for the rest of the evening.  

For the main course we had the popular "Ivan's Sword" - a skewer of more meats (bacon, beef, and lamb) brought to the table on an actual sword.  Lest you think that this restaurant was all gimmick and no ginger, I assure you that this food was quite savory -- mildly spicy, even! The lingonberries were a perfect complement to the smoky meats and obligatory root vegetables.  I'm happy to say that this very good food has taken the place of that grayish St. Paul meat pastie in my mind's mental image of Russian food.   Since I'm no expert on how Russian food is supposed to taste, I suppose this is the best review I can give it.  

Price: €€€€
Rating: ★★★★

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hei Hei, Helsinki

Today I am in that wistful period of post-vacation nostalgia.  The late breakfasts of moulded salmon and soft wheat bread, the 2:00 p.m. sunsets, the long hours of walking and contemplating and drinking hot beverages -- they all grow on you after a while, like pickles.  In just a few days, both Lorkbk and I came to love this unassuming nordic city and its fishy foods, boiled wool crafts, warm coffee shops, and ambiguously located design district.  

I'm not sure why Helsinki isn't more of a tourist destination.  Perhaps the extremely short winter days and the extremely long summer ones seem unnatural to people.  But I will testify that, at least for a few days, they were an interesting novelty.   There's no snow and it's not even very cold yet.  I was much crankier tourist walking around freezing Luzern a few weeks ago than I was at any time in Helsinki.  Anyway, locals felt it was warm enough to leave their babies outside stores and restaurants while they went inside. (Unsure which is a better index.)

Food summary: I didn't get the opportunity to eat reindeer (though considering the season, this may have been for the best), but I did sample bear sausage, vari-flavored herring, and an interesting pickle-vodka drink at a Russian restaurant. Perhaps necessarily Finnish cuisine is packed with root vegetables, which, needless to say, is not so very exotic.  I found the cardamon bread and it of course did not compete with Grandma's; admittedly, however, it wasn't really a fair fight, since I just picked up a pre-packaged loaf for 2 euros at the local grocery.  

Lutheran Cathedral; Sidewalk baby; Russian-influenced architecture

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Unknown

As I prepare for my Helsinki getaway, questions abound. Will it be painfully cold? Will I eat reindeer meat? Can I still hold my vodka? During breaks from the sauna, will I roll in the snow or will I prefer to swat myself with birch branches?  Will I be able to find that cardamom bread and will it compete with Grandma's?  Could Finland possibly be more expensive than Switzerland?

Ah, the unknown... sometimes it's what gets you up in the morning, sometimes it makes you want to hide.  I'll be sure to report on my experiences when I return next week.  Now, some poetic reflection:

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Donald Rumsfeld, 2/12/02

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

La mia prima vittima

I killed my first and only plant here. After a tragically drawn-out struggle, it is today officially dead. My brown thumb struck early and hard, leaving in its wake parched, wasted earth.  

The kalanchchoe declined to be photographed prior to expiration.  Services private.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We're officially Swiss foreign nationals

I am feeling very accomplished today, having finally mailed the Christmas gifts and announced ourselves at our local government. Despite our fears, the latter was actually much less painful than the former (Oijoy knows what I'm talking about).

Other than the exchange in which we told the local official we have a 23-room house, we understood and were understood during the whole conversation. There was no scowling or jeering, no blood tests, no black sheep propaganda. Only smiles and a pamphlet on recycling.

We're official.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Apertivi alla Milanese

I am pleased to make the following happy announcement: This weekend we found our first good deal. (n.b., I am not counting the toothpaste we stocked up on in Germany or the deodorant purchased at our local "Tutti 2CHF" store because I do not consider paying a normal price instead of an exorbitant one to be a good deal.) Dinner and two large drinks (each) for a mere 32 euros!

Of course we could not have found this good deal in Milan without the help of locals (we could in fact hardly procure any dinner at all for ourselves upon last visit). Swiss Mr.'s kindly Italian labmates showed us how the unrich in Milan manage a night out: expensive drinks at bars with free food. The quality of this food can vary greatly, we found. In the best case you're eating eating nicely displayed food cooked by a chef with a long gray mustache; in the worst case you're eating potato chips and ham on a bun from plastic plates. But I imagine with a bit of effort a sophisticated bar-hopper could avoid tailgating food altogether.

I also feel compelled to point out that this was an "all-you-can-eat" arrangement. After spending too much time with a cheeky Brit this weekend, I'm still on the defensive about American eating habits. So I would just like to note that, though all-you-can-eat and free refills may have originated in the US, we are not the only country to enjoy constraint-free dining.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Babbo Natale รจ qui!

Babbo Natale, taking a break from his workshop this week to sell candy in Lugano, kindly indulged our broken Italian request for a photo and gave us choccolate.

Babbo Natale strikes a benevolent pose with the hearty American

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Peperoncini piccanti

Mistakenly operating on the "smaller is spicier" model, I picked up a pack of five of these red guys yesterday for some Asian chicken noodle soup.

Feeling frustrated by my limited culinary options, I testily predicted to myself that they would be pathetically mild. With definite arrogance I thought something like, let us see what the Italians think is spicy!

My pepper chauvinism was short-lived, however: one conservative test-bite in my kitchen a short time later had me running for the sink in that panicked face-first way that one seeks water when trying to eliminate unwelcome food from one's mouth as quickly as possible. Half a liter later I could feel my tongue; a whole liter later I could also breathe normally. For the rest of the evening, my lips and nose skin felt puffy and prickly. I can only begin to imagine how tender fifth grade Eric Sandberg must have felt after eating an entire habanero pepper straight from our math teacher's pepper plant (the humiliation of thereafter emptying your stomach in front of the class aside).

Our dinner survived because of my antecedent suffering, however. I cautiously used a small (10 centimeter) cube of pepper cut into the tiniest bits possible. The resulting soup, though pleasant, was still warm enough to reactivate my burning membranes. I compare it to drinking whiskey.

Despite repeated washings, my hands burned a little even today, serving as a quiet reminder of my hubris throughout Italian class.

If anyone has suggestions on how to use the remaining 4.9 peppers in a non-health-threatening way, please let me know.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Buon appetito!

I made this pizza especially for you! Now I will go play stunt double for Jim Carrey.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


I just started an Italian class this week, but I don't have many interesting things to say about it. The class materials make me cranky -- I resent paying 60 CHF for word finds and matching -- but I can't complain about much else at the moment. The teacher is fairly entertaining and, excitingly, George Clooney's neighbor. Despite coming from four different continents, our class gets on well enough, usefully engaged in butchering the Italian language and in being aimless "trailing spouses" together.

Though the class (mind-numbingly) favors the practical, I did learn one interesting etymological tidbit: the word "ciao" derives from the Venetian phrase "I am your slave." It was used ironically among the lower classes, which is reflected in the Italian usage today, primarily among friends and equals. That is really the only amusing thing I have learned so far.

With luck, more tidbits and Clooney trivia to come!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Given the uncertainty of the conditions, ingredients, and tools, I was vociferously skeptical of this weekend's chocolate chip cookie attempt. Because, in addition to being a gentleman, Swiss Mr. is also a chocolate chip cookie expert, he responded to my concerns with polite confidence. Then -- undauntedly, carefully, scientifically -- he proceeded with his beloved recipe. The cat and I observed agnostically from our post on the couch.

Indeed, just a few minutes later I was eating both my words and a nearly perfect cookie. The texture came out perfect and the flavor was just about right. And it was a welcome change to the chocolate dairy diet we've been on lately. I believe I was more pleased than the chef.

Swiss Mr. gazes lovingly upon his creation

In case you, too, would like to make these marvelously adaptable cookies at your home, following please find the time-tested recipe, complete with annotations from the master himself.

2 cups + 2 T flour
½ t baking soda
½ t salt
12 T (1½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled until just warm*
1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk
2 t vanilla extract
1 - 1½ cups semisweet chocolate chips

1. Adjust the oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or spray them with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl; set aside.
3. Either by hand or with an electric mixer, mix the butter and sugars until thoroughly blended.** Beat in the egg, yolk and vanilla until combined. Add the dry ingredients and beat at low speed just until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips to taste.
4. Roll a scant ¼ cup of the dough into a ball. Hold the dough ball with the fingertips of your both hands and pull into 2 equal halves. Rotate the halves 90 degrees and, with jagged surfaces facing up, join the halves together at the base, again forming a single ball, being careful not to smooth the dough’s uneven surface. Place the formed dough balls on the prepared baking sheets, jagged surface up, spacing them 2½ inches apart.
5. Bake until the cookies are light golden brown, the outer edges start to harden, and the centers are still soft and puffy, 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the baking sheets front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time. Cool the cookies on the sheets. [the cookies come out really soft and sort of jiggly but they finish cooking on the cookie sheets]
6. Put as many cookies as possible in your mouth at the same time.

* It is important to use unsalted butter and really melt it and cool it until just warm. If you don't do this the cookies can be really bad.
** If you do it by hand you should mix for at least 5 minutes.