Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tall Ships Race--Stavanger 2011

For the past four days, Stavanger has hosted the annual Tall Ships Race.  This regatta involves dozens of old, stately, and extremely tall-masted wooden sail boats in one leg of a multi-part race around Northern Europe.  We were lucky to catch it this year, as it has not graced Stavanger's port since 2004.  We may never see the likes of it again! 
On Thursday evening, we went down to the waterfront to check out the boats that had docked in the inner harbor.  The atmosphere was buzzing and the amount of food and drink stalls nearly rivaled last weeks' Good Food festival itself.  A large Russian navy boat, dating back to 1795, was available for boarding so we walked around the deck and got to poke around.  I was amused that a small exhibition of photos proudly displayed Putin handing a framed photo of the ship to Hugo Chavez.  Anyway, we capped off the stroll by meeting up with the Shell Young Professionals group for a drink with a view.

Today was the day when all the ships sailed away from Stavanger.  One of Connor's colleagues very kindly invited us along on his friend's boat to watch the departure from the sea.  So we set sail (well, set motor, I should say; we got to hoist the sail later once the winds picked up) from the port at a nearby island and headed out with hundreds of other boaters with the same idea to see the tall ships off.  Our goal was to get near the 'saluting boat,' the boat that made noise each time one of the Tall Ships passed by.  The saluting boat this year was a steam boat that tooted three times and whose passengers cheered 'hip hip hooray' for each racer that left Stavanger's waters.
We were told that the end-of-race celebrations would not be as elaborate as normal due to Norway's continued period of mourning, but they were certainly cheerful enough. 

some of the cute kids in the background
Accompanying the adults on board were six adorable and largely well-behaved children ranging in age from 3-12.  There was one incidence of soup spillage, but we'll just blame that on a passing wake, shall we?  The three year old was scrambling around the deck (having donned a life preserver, like everyone else on board) with the best of  them.   We were also lucky to have the company of a 9-week-old Portuguese water dog, who was so precious he nearly sold me on canines single-handedly.  Nearly, I say. 

For the return trip, we put up our sail and floated peacefully back towards town.  We feel so lucky for the privilege to see the gorgeous boats sail away as we bobbed on the North Sea, taking in the sun, the lush green coastline, and the company of friendly, generous folk.  What a treat.  Enjoy more pictures below.
the day started out cloudy--big surprise

here's the Russian ship we boarded in the harbor
ahoy, matey!

crowds gathered on the bank near the 'saluting' zone

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Use-up-the-Buttermilk flan/pudding

I had over a cup of buttermilk (syrnet melk in Norwegian, rayeb in Arabic) leftover from the weekend's waffles.  I don't like wasting food these days, especially here where prices are high.  I decided to have it on my bowl of cereal on Monday morning (not recommended) but after that incident, I still had quite a bit to go.  I thought about baking some muffins, but we have a glut of them in the freezer right now and limited space.  Then I thought about buttermilk pies, a treat from the American South, that I have yet to try.  I comparison shopped a few recipes and decided to make a crustless version, so it would be like a flan or panna cotta.

I had my pie plate all sprayed and ready to go when I realized I only had two eggs, not the requisite three.  At this point I knew I would have less pudding to go around, so I switched to three small ramekins and eyeballed a little less of each of the other ingredients.  I know I know, that is not really chemically acceptable in baking, but sometimes I do it--shh.  Even though I have never sampled a buttermilk pie before, I decided for good measure to throw in a dash and a half of cloves and a few grates of nutmeg, too, since I hold the belief that all non-chocolate baked goods are better with the addition of warm spices.  45 minutes later, I had these puddingy things, flanddings, if you will, to show for it.

Here's a link to the original recipe and my impromptu version follows below:

Buttermilk flandding
serves 3

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbs flour
1 cup buttermilk or cultured milk
2/3 cup melted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp cloves (optional)
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg (optional)

Heat oven to 325 degrees F/160 degrees C.  Beat eggs in a large bowl.  Add the flour and sugar and mix to combine.  Pour in the butter, vanilla, and spices (if including).  Pour in the buttermilk and stir until combined thoroughly.  Ladle into three small greased ramekins.  Bake about 45 minutes or until the mixture is set.  To make sure I tuck a knife tip in the center to see if it came out cleanly or not.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Ever-Changing View

We've gone from serious domestic extremes in the last couple of months.  In Egypt we lived in a semi-underground, grotto-like apartment with no windows to speak of.  Now we find ourselves perched on a hill with floor-to-ceiling windows that gaze out at the magnificent Hafjrsfjord and the surrounding countryside.  Everyday the scene is fresh and new.  It can go from sunny...

to sunset

to cloudy
to foggy 

Nature is really cool.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sad Day for Norway

I made Norwegian cardamom waffles this morning to honor those affected by the horrific attacks yesterday.  To read the lovely post, written by a proud Norwegian American, about these waffles and celebrating Norwegian National Day (May 17), check out Five and Spice.  Meanwhile, I've scaled the recipe down by half here.

Cardamom Waffles (clover-shaped or otherwise)

2 eggs
3 Tbs sugar
1.25 cups flour
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
3 Tbs butter, melted

Stir together the first six ingredients.  Now slowly pour in the buttermilk and stir to combine.  Let the batter rest for 30 minutes.  With five minutes left, heat up your waffle iron.  Stir in the melted and cooled butter.  Ladle 3/4 cup of batter into your iron and cook approximately 3 minutes or until your iron says it is done.  To go the traditional route, serve topped with either plain yogurt/sour cream/creme fraiche and berry jam.

Monday, July 18, 2011

This muffin is *spelt* G-O-O-D

One of the most delightful aspects of daily life in Norway is the bread.  At every supermarket, there are huge, freshly-baked whole loaves of every possible variety.  I've seen white, farmer's bread, omega-3, rye, oat, whole wheat, stone-baked, etc.  You can take it home and slice off a nice chunky piece of your choice or you can pop it into a whizz-bang machine in the bakery aisle that creates factory-perfect slices for you (although I had a tough time stuffing the now floppy slices back into the bread bag the one time I've tried this so far).  Any meal at a cafe is accompanied with a basket of the day's freshly-baked offerings as well.  
A grain that I'm particularly excited about working with is spelt.  Spelt is an ancient ancestor of our modern wheat and has very little gluten.  I first heard about spelt when a friend's mom, who was lactose and gluten intolerant, told me how much she appreciated the proliferation of spelt goods cropping up in UK markets a few years back.  Now, as explained in the 'Stuff You Should Know' podcast on gluten, if you aren't sensitive to gluten, you don't have to worry about your intake levels.  I still like to mix up my grains a bit, however, for the nutritional benefit.  Spelt has more fiber and vitamins to offer than plain white flour.  
In Norway, spelt flour is located right next to the all-purpose and whole wheat varieties in any supermarket baking aisle, but abroad you may need to acquire it from a health food shop or online.  Spelt muffins are particularly great to bake if you are low on cooking fats, since it takes only a tablespoon of oil to create twelve muffins.  Below is a standard spelt recipe from the King Arthur Flour website that I have adapted with additional spices and fruit.  

some of the muffin tops reminded me of smurf hats when they baked up

Spicy Spelt Muffins with Cranberries and Pumpkin Seeds
makes 11-12 regular-sized muffins

2.25 cups spelt flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon and/or ginger (optional)
1/4 tsp nutmeg or ground cardamom (optional)
1.25 cups milk
3 eggs
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1/2 cup dried cranberries or any chopped up dried fruit
2 Tbs pumpkin seeds, for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F/180 degrees C.  Whisk together the dry ingredients in one bowl.  In a slightly smaller bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients.  Pour the wet into the dry.  Add fruit or whatever mix-ins you desire.  Fold ingredients together until just combined (do not overstir).  Fill greased or lined muffin tins with the batter and sprinkle each with pumpkin seeds.  Bake for about 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffins comes out cleanly.  Cool on a wire rack.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

bites in the Baltics

peas 'n' crackling
We ate a lot of pork in Vilnius.  There were about five different types on the breakfast buffet alone, of which one appeared to be raw bacon.  The aroma inside a local supermarket was decidedly ham.  I even read that the one restaurant that still serves traditional Jewish fare puts pig on the menu.  Pork + mushrooms or pork + cream seemed to be the top two pairings.
 We couldn't help trying the intriguingly named 'peas with crackling' from a list of bar snacks at an outdoor cafe.  What came was a bowl full of lukewarm, sprouted chickpeas with bits of soft pork rind.  I wouldn't say that this snack was too moreish, but it grew on me and is probably the healthiest tasting food I've had that was simultaneously covered in pork grease.
black bean ice cream with fig vinegar caviar
  For our first dinner, we did one of the classics when you are in a foreign city and want to make the most of your evening meals: we wandered around semi-aimlessly, perking up at every outdoor menu that is posted, only to move on because it doesn't seem authentic, or the road next to the patio is busy, or it just doesn't seem quite...perfect enoughEventually it gets to be 8 pm, you're hungry, and you dive into someplace really random and nearly the opposite of what you were trying to achieve, food-wise, on one of three precious international dinners.  Yeah, we ended up at an Asian fusion place called Briusly--get it, Bruce.Lee.  Sigh, I know.  The food was fine and the menu was actually fairly inventive on the fusion front.  I was pleased to see that it included some dishes from the Philippines, since it is often the forgotten southeast Asian cuisine.  For dessert, I ordered black bean ice cream (really just vanilla with copious amounts of bean flecks) topped with fig vinegar caviar, which I was telling myself must be an eastern European flourish.  Who knows, but the bursts of tart-sour acidity were intriguing, but perhaps would have been tastier atop a fruit sorbet.

I also had a super-traditional bowl of 'boiled and baked buckwheat with sour cream-crackling sauce.'  Regretfully I didn't take a picture of it, although it wasn't exactly a beaut.  It tasted like a porcine mound of quinoa or farro and it felt very nourishing.  It might be the second most healthy thing I ate drenched in pigness during the weekend.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Viva Lietuva

We have been really fortunate to have the option to convert the price of two business class tickets Cairo--Denver into a travel budget where we can buy our own flights and get them reimbursed.  We had a little left to spend before the year was up and we had our sights set on Helsinki.  We weren't organized enough to book anywhere in Scandinavia in time, however, but I managed to nab us tickets to Vilnius.  Now I must admit that if the quiz question, 'Of what country is Vilnius the capital' came up before this trip, I might not have known the answer.  But I'll shout it loud and proud now: LITHUANIA!

Lithuania has had the ridiculously tragic geographical positioning of being wedged between Poland and Russia, both of whom subsumed the country (Russia twice) over the past two centuries.  Under the iron fist of the USSR, Lithuania saw mass deportations of its citizens to the Siberian hinterlands as part of the Soviet Union's plan for a cheap (i.e., slave) labor force, whose rule the country fought for over a decade with its well-organized rebel forces that hid in the forests.  When the USSR dissolved in 1991, Lithuania sloughed off Communism extremely quickly and has been a member of the EU for several years now.  Vilnius is a vibrant and prosperous city with a gorgeous Old Town, squeaky clean cobblestone streets, interesting museums and restored churches, and lush wooded countryside nearby.  The public transit is straightforward and prices for everything (except the dang City Card--there's no need for 25 euros' worth of access to buses and museums when each cost about $1 and $3, respectively) were incredibly reasonable.  We stayed at the Domus Maria, which is a large guest house on the grounds of a monastery, right inside the Old Town gate.  It was very pleasant and always feels good to give a local place our business instead of a multi-national hotel (of which there are many in Vilnius, too).  We were amazed at the amount of tour groups filtering through the main sites.  I knew that, with the advent of budget airlines, Riga and Tallinn were booming, but I just did not realize that Vilnius was getting its fair share of travel, too.

This trip made us really intrigued to visit the rest of Lithuania and the other Baltic nations (Latvia and Estonia) as well.  I think we have our new vacation focus.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

no free lunch and restaurant impressions

Soon after we arrived in Norway, I happened upon an article in a local English-language news site announcing that two Norwegian cities are among the most expensive in the world.  Oslo took the top spot but I was startled to read that Stavanger was not far behind, in fourth position.  The rankings were based upon the cost of food and other essentials.  The study found that a 'light lunch' for one in Stavanger will set the diner back over $30.  Unfortunately, this is the case.  To grab a sandwich from a cafe will leave you approximately $18 poorer and if you want to sip a smoothie alongside, get ready to fork over another $10.  A salad alone is at least $25.  During dinner time, appetizers in a casually upscale restaurant, which most of the restaurants seem to be around here, will set you back $22 and the main courses hover around the $45 mark.  This accounts for the fact that restaurants can feel eerily quiet at night; Norwegians don't tend to make a regular habit of eating out and the ones I have spotted dining seem to be on a business dinner and charging it to an expense account.  So in our first few weeks here, armed with a generous per diem, we have been working our way through the downtown dining scene while we can.  Here are our thoughts on the places we've tried:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lekker reker

It was not long ago that I counted myself amongst the seafood haters of the world.  Sure, I ate my fair share of fish sticks and ketchup as a little kid, but by the time I was old enough to make conscious culinary decisions, I swore off the category altogether.  The taste of fish really put me off, for some reason.  Maybe the innate salinity of the flesh reminded me too much of its origins as a living creature.  Although it's much more pleasant to think of a silvery salmon darting through blue waters than what the chicken breast has gone through to end up on your dinner menu.  Besides a few nibbles of crab cake or the odd swordfish (this was the '80s) steak at the beach, fish never breached my palate and shellfish even less seldomly; bivalves are just plain weird.

By my twenties, I had acceded to the occasional joy of a well-marinated piece of grilled tuna and actively enjoyed the fresh sardines threaded amidst pasta on a trip to Sicily.  Call it what you will, either the numbing of my taste buds or growing up, but I was sufficiently proud of myself.  The last couple of years I have sought out fish dinners whenever I am in a coastal town and enjoyed the offerings in Oman in particular.

Shrimp was still a hold out for me.  The texture is satisfyingly al dente, but I just could not get past the flavor.  That is, until I discovered the sweet shrimp of the North Sea.

Dotted around the Stavanger area waterfronts are small fishing boats with signs offering fersk reker, or 'fresh shrimp.'  The fisherman have boiled the shrimp lightly on the boat and sell them by the kilo.  Since I have been pleased with the fish we dined on here so far, I decided to be brave and head to the docks to score some scampi, having in mind a recipe for Vietnamese-style cabbage and shrimp salad that recently popped up in The Washington Post.  I even rehearsed what I would say: 'Ti reker, vennligst!'--ten shrimp, please!  When I got down to the boat, however, the per kilo price was quite reasonable, so I just squeaked out a 'half kilo' in English, which of course the fisherman understood perfectly.  I'm doubly glad that I didn't go for only ti, since these shrimp were, well, pretty shrimpy.  Next up was the task of beheading and de-shelling.  As I plucked each heavily-armored crustacean out of the bag and ripped his head, complete with beady little black eyes, straight off, I got more and more into it; it started to feel like snapping green beans, which for some reason I have always enjoyed.  Here is the aftermath of my destruction:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sunday on the Pulpit (Rock)

I've actually been to Norway before, for a quick trip to Bergen in the summer of 2006.  I remember seeing photographs of this dramatic outcropping in every pro-fjord sightseeing pamphlet.  Little did I know that five years later, I would be living in the same county as this lofty crag.  Needless to say, Connor and I decided to seize a sunny Sunday only a week after our arrival and hike up to it ourselves.

We leafed through a brochure for the bus-ferry combo ticket out to Preikestolen, or 'Pulpit Rock' in English.  There were several daily departures and, although not inexpensive, we figured that all we had to do was show up at the bus stop and the various modes of transportation would take care of the rest of the details.  Although the ticket price was ultimately the same as advertised, the journey to the trail involved a 4 minute [unnecessary] charter bus ride, then a ferry for which we bought separate tickets, and then a local island bus, onto which every other carless ferry passenger had to pack.  Luckily we grabbed seats, but many stood for the half hour ride that wrapped around sharp switchbacks.  So the transit ended up being more proactive than we were expecting.  A brief finger wag is due the company for misrepresenting what the ride entailed.  But anyway, back to the rock.
descending a steep, rocky section
For being one of the county of Rogaland's premier tourist attractions, the hike was surprisingly challenging!  I thought back to all the smooth-soled converses and clogs that folks at the bus stop were wearing with no small amount of pity.  The hike was 90 minutes of altitude-climbing, punctuated by slippery rocks and sheer drops.  Our fellow hikers were from a vast array of countries; I could tell by the languages they panted out to each other as they stopped for breath.  The Norwegians on the trail, however, even the more elderly ones, were zipping along just fine. 
The views of the entire expanse of the Lysefjord at the top were stunning.  We munched our sandwiches in one of the most unquestionably beautiful spots on earth.  We look forward to scaling the pulpit again soon, although next time we might just make our own way there.

someone's in the kitchen with rabarbra

We were lucky enough to move into a furnished apartment smack dab in the middle of downtown only a few days after we arrived.  Shell normally keeps the flat for the drilling employees who work rotationally here in Norway, but umm, the department offered us the keys and we snatched them right up.

This means that we not only have more space to stretch ourselves out (read: let our luggage explode), but also that I have access to a kitchen.  I even have a full-sized refrigerator this time; during our transition to Cairo we had to stuff yogurts in the back of the minibar and hope they didn't spoil before we got to them.  Since this pad is by its very nature temporary, it's not fully stocked with every gadget/gizmo I might like at my disposal, but curiously it does have a full set of springform cake pans, which were just looking sort of sad in the drawer and in need of a baked good.

So I headed to the small farmer's market, really just a gathering of tables, a few blocks away.  Now I am a tad suspicious of these farm stands, since each time I visit them I spot a few rogue non-Norwegian, non-seasonal produce amongst the local turnips, rutebegas, and lettuces, but I did pick up some gloriously scarlet rhubarb (or rabarbra, in Norwegian) stalks.  I developed an appreciation for rhubarb while living in England and it was impossible to find in Egypt.  I was well up for a bit of baking but I didn't feel like buying extra ingredients at the supermarket, which left me eggless.  No matter, though, this just gave me the opportunity/laziness to make a crumble.

Below is the outline of the recipe I used, including some points where I took a bit of license.

Rhubarb Crumble
serves 4-5

--8-10 stalks of rhubarb, sliced in semi-circles like celery
--2 cups sugar
--zest of one orange
--1 cup flour
--1/2 cup oats (I used a sprinkling of fruit muesli, actually, and it was totally fine)
--1/4 cup cold butter, in small cubes (I used heart-healthy margarine and again, fine)

Place the rhubarb hemispheres in the bottom of a 8 or 9" pie/cake tin.  Distribute the sugar and orange zest evenly above it.  In a small bowl, mix the oats, flour, and butter together with your fingers until there are little floury nubs left.  Sprinkle over the rhubarb and sugar.  Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 40-45 minutes, or until crust is turning golden and the fruit is soft and bubbly.  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or custard.

Norway's Best Kebab?

This kebab shop caught my eye right away as we took our first walk in our new hometown of Stavanger, Norway.  We had flown in from Cairo less than twelve hours earlier, my nose still tinged pink from walking around in 100 degree heat the previous afternoon.  The sight of this restaurant gave me a brief, charming pinch of nostalgia.  Honestly, though, it's about the only thing that our home of two years, home to 20 million other people too, has in common with this modest town in Scandinavia.  The green rolling hills that unfolded as we landed--and being summer, it was 9.30 pm as the plane descended but still quite light--drew me in immediately.  The sheer lushness of the landscape is intoxicating and one month on, I still can't believe it's real and my eyes drink it up in case it might disappear.  Where there isn't a verdant meadow, there's the sea.  Stavanger envelopes you in water; Cairo surrounds you with sand.  Below are some of my initial moments of, if not culture shock, certainly culture 'surprise,' if you will...

 --At first I had to remind myself that the squawking of sea birds was not the sound of a street cat in distress.

--Unlike the Norwegians, who run blithely into the center of the street knowing that all vehicles will stop for them, I wait at the crosswalk until the approaching car creeps nearly to a complete stop before setting foot in the street.  If Cairo traffic teaches you anything, it is to not take any assumed normal automobile behaviors for granted.  I think my hesitancy annoys the drivers here, though.

--I nearly said ma'salaama to a Somali or Eritrean store clerk from whom I bought an umbrella.

 --Walking down by the harbor, I saw a taxi approaching.  Inside my head I started to get huffy and thought, 'no, I am NOT in need of a cab just because I happen to be walking down the street.'  To my chagrin, the guy was just pulling into a taxi rank to wait for passengers.

--Related realization: the world no longer kowtows to me because I'm Western.  This is both a relief and humbling.

--Cairo can smell like trash (or, arguably, tomato paste + fried onions), but Stavanger's occasional stench is of Thai fish sauce, a product of the sardine canneries

--The wealth of the country itself, not just individuals, crops up all the time.  One example is the fact that most driving schools use late-model BMWs and Mercedes.  Seriously!  Here's proof:

One thing remains the same, however: tortilla chips still cost about $8.  Sigh.