Scandinavian Cooking Class in Olympia, WA, July 14

Grilled Salmon and Cucumber Salad

The sun is shining more often than not around here right now, and the gentle warmth and the lushness of this season have me dreaming of Scandinavia. This time of year is when I start to think of the similarities between the food of Scandinavia and what’s available here in the Pacific Northwest: salmon from local waters, berries picked at the peak of perfection, mushrooms and herbs–the list goes on. With that in mind, I’m excited to announce that I’m teaching a cooking class at the Bayview School of Cooking in Olympia, Washington, on Tuesday, July 14. The theme is Dinner in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and I’m going to be demonstrating how to make an assortment of classic Scandinavian and Nordic-inspired dishes, including salmon with lemon-horseradish cream, cucumber salad, potatoes with dill, and Norwegian bløtkake, a layer cake loaded with cream and strawberries. To see the full menu and to register, visit the Bayview School of Cooking’s website. I hope to see some of you in class!

Nordic Whipped Porridge & The Writing Life

Whipped Porridge

We find our own way, sometimes.

I started my career on the serious journalism track, my days played out to the soundtrack of police scanners and competing top-of-the-hour headlines.

“You have to love news,” the golden-haired anchor told me over coffees outside a cafe not far from the TV station one day. She had once been where I was, a beginning journalist, and she was there to share her knowledge.

Of course I love news, I told myself, wanting to believe that my drive–which would soon motivate me enough to flip my schedule upside down for work–was enough to count. But in reality, the truth that I didn’t want to acknowledge was that I didn’t understand what she meant. How could anyone love car wrecks and politics?

I went on to spend several years working nights, writing and producing for the morning newscast. Until 2007, when I realized it was time for a change. Waking up to a full life after leaving the newsroom for the real world, I soon discovered a different pace. Daylight was for living, darkness for sleep. Resolute in my quest to find a 9-to-5 job that would put me on the same shift as my husband (we had spent the first two years of our marriage on opposite schedules, but that’s another story), I found myself working for a great theatre in the neighborhood next door while building a clip file of freelance articles. And then in 2009 I started this blog.

Whipped Porridge

Whipped Porridge Diptych with Coconut

Scandinavian food is as normal to me as hot dogs and burgers. Though I’ve grown up in the Seattle area, I’m the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, and because of the Nordics’ tendencies to settle in tight-knit communities, I managed to be born entirely of Norwegian blood. But it’s one thing to know something intrinsically, another to understand and be able to describe it. While I was eating spiced medisterkaker sausages and surkål (very loosely a Norwegian sauerkraut) at holiday meals and tucking into tins of any number of Scandinavian Christmas cookies throughout my childhood, I was obliviously and blissfully taking part in traditions that generations on both sides of my family had brought with them from Norway to Seattle, from Norway to small-town North Dakota. When Grandma Agny died in 2009, I found myself taking it to the next level, seeking out Scandinavian cookbooks as a way to soothe my grieving heart. It didn’t take long for me to discover a cuisine much more varied than the flavors of pickled herring, dill, salmon, and almond that I had long associated with Scandinavia.

Over the years, I’ve traded breaking news for baked goods, and I couldn’t be happier. Today I’m a food writer specializing in Nordic cooking, and I love learning about dishes and desserts from each of the Nordic countries and sharing them with others. (I make a distinction between “Scandinavian” and “Nordic,” the former made up of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and the latter including Iceland and Finland.)

Whipped Porridge Whipped Porridge Diptych with Cream

When I started my career cocooned in the newsroom in the early morning hours, I didn’t know what lay ahead. I didn’t know that I would end up trading the conventional 40-plus hour week for the freelance life. I knew I would eventually have a family, but I was unsure of how I’d be able to realize my career dreams while giving my future kids the experience my mother had given me as a stay-at-home mom, something I had always been thankful for. With my youngest currently a baby, I’m still figuring out the logistics. But I’m getting there, slowly but surely, embracing motherhood to the fullest while finding room in my life for the writing that’s always been there, in some form or another, the writing that must always be there. I’m getting the hang of it again.

Yes, we find our own way, sometimes. As much as I’ve always wanted to have the perfect plan, to know what comes next, to map it all out, I’ve also discovered that sometimes what lies ahead looks even better than what I could have imagined.

Whipped Porridge

Grape Nordic Whipped Porridge with Coconut and Honey
Whipped porridge, also known as air porridge, is one of those Nordic dishes that I’ve only recently discovered. But I think I might be hooked. Open to any number of variations, it’s fluffy and light, nothing like the oatmeal-type dish I had always associated with “porridge.” In a nutshell, you cook farina in water with a bit of berries or juice until it thickens, then let it cool and whip it until it fluffs up into a pale cloud. Traditionally made with tart lingonberries and just a touch of sugar, you can substitute just about any sort of berry or fruit juice. My version is lightly flavored with grape juice. It’s simple and subtle on its own but really becomes something special when drizzled with honey and cream and given a light dusting of coconut. Go ahead–give it a try.

2 cups water
1 cup grape juice
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup farina
Cream, for serving
Honey, for serving
Unsweetened coconut flakes, for serving

Bring water and grape juice to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan with a pinch of salt. Pour in the farina at a steady pace, whisking constantly. Lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until thickened, then remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer to a mixing bowl and whip until fluffy, ideally using a stand mixer. Serve with cream, honey, and coconut.

Serves 4.

Norwegian Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143116

When we bake with love, that’s when beauty comes into our creations, I told a sold-out crowd of students at the Nordic Heritage Museum on a recent Saturday. They were there to learn how to make a variety of Norwegian coffee treats, each one of the recipes beautiful or intricate in its own right. My objective in teaching is for students to leave a class with the confidence and ability to recreate the dishes at home. Teaching the steps of a recipe is only part of the equation. One of the most important parts, I believe, is the heart.

But until that Saturday in January, I hadn’t been able to fully articulate what makes a recipe work. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs–I had been playing around with that mix of ingredients in the weeks leading up to the class, making heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. I had studied how a handful of simple ingredients could yield such dramatically different results with just a few variations of ingredients.

In class I kept encouraging the students to just give it a try. Just put the batter in the waffle iron and practice–you’ll soon get a feel for how much to spoon in and how long to cook the waffle. Just make sandbakkel after sandbakkel, getting used to the feeling of pressing the dough into the crevices of the little tins until it’s as thin as you think it can be. Then when it was time to talk about the fyrstekake–an almond cake with a shortbread crust baked in a tart pan–I assured everyone that it really is easy.

Don’t stress out, I told students time and time again as they oohed and ahhed over the cake. Baking isn’t fun if you do. When it comes to crafting the crisscross or lattice topping that gives the fyrstekake a hint of elegance, you can get frustrated when the soft dough warms up too much and sticks to your work surface as you cut it into strips. Or you can roll with it, doing the best you can, and putting your heart into what you’re doing. Nothing about Norwegian cooking is fussy, as far as I’m concerned. Even the beautiful fyrstekake allows for grace, the filling puffing up into the top layer and rounding out the rough edges.

When you bake with love, that impacts the way you approach the food. It works its way into each cup of flour measured, the care taken in beating sugar into eggs, the way the dough is manipulated into something of beauty. I’m as much of a perfectionist as the next person–it was my downfall as a child trying to strike a balance between booksmart and just being a kid–but when it comes to baking, I do it because I love it, because I love people. I do it because I love watching how a few simple ingredients can be transformed into something that feeds and nourishes others–their stomaches and their souls. Sure, care and precision are important. But love is essential.

Thanks to each of you who attended the class last month–it was a joy to teach you to make some of my favorite Norwegian treats. I enjoyed meeting each and every one of you, and I hope I inspired you to work some of these recipes into your own homes.

If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in learning more about Nordic baking, be sure to check out the rest of the Nordic Heritage Museum’s coffee treats series. I kicked it off last month with Norwegian coffee treats, and the museum continues with recipes from the other Nordic countries in the months to come.

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_155350 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_154300 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_144811 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143906 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_142931

 Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ehrlich / Nordic Heritage Museum

Starting Again, with Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled BeetsTime goes quickly here, sometimes too quickly. I know it’s something we all experience, the subject of small talk and of catching up with old acquaintances at big events, but it’s true. The time really does fly. As I sit here at my desk on this 14th of January, the sun forces its way through the shades, reminding me that it’s a new year, that winter will soon give way to spring, that though the calendar might point to a season of stillness, new life–from the maple trees outside my home to the bulbs nestled in soil–is getting ready to burst forth in full bloom. It’s hard to believe that it’s already mid-January, that I have been sick–cold after cold and now bronchitis–for over a month. Has it really been almost a year since Grandma suffered her strokes? Almost a year since I drove my toddler son to the hospital to visit his great-grandma one blindingly sunny winter day after another? Soon it will have been a year since we gathered at the rehabilitation center for the makeshift 95th birthday party my dear Grandma couldn’t even comprehend.

I’ve shied away from this space lately for a variety of reasons: a sense of perfectionism that’s creeping in due to my other forms of writing; being uninspired by the formula that food blogs are falling prey to, getting duller and duller even as their photos and graphics get shinier and shinier (tell me, please, that you know what I mean?); and being in a season of life that I want to write about but find too personal to approach quite yet in such an informal place as a blog.

But I miss it, too, miss the way it feels to have a place to write quickly and without the gloss of perfection that some other forms of writing require. While there’s a permanence to blogs–content lives out there unless deleted–one post is replaced by another and then another in a fleeting way, almost like a journal entry that gets buried deeper and deeper into a collection of notebooks that the keeper fills and collects just in case there might be a time, somewhere down the road, when she might want to remember.

For a long time I’ve wrestled with the purpose of this blog. Sure, it’s a Nordic food blog, and its food sticks to that theme for the most part. But who is it for? Am I trying to create content for the reader? Or for myself? Maybe it’s just weariness from a seemingly-endless illness talking (right now my ribcage hurts each time I take a deep breath or dare to cough), but I think I want to care less and write more. There was a time when I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was a journalist, writing story after story, day after day, focusing my brain on the words at hand even as scanners scratched and top-of-the-hour headlines blared on the competing networks. Deadlines didn’t wait for inspiration. Writer’s block was a luxury I couldn’t afford. These days–though I’m beginning to step up my freelance writing and other projects again–I have more of that luxury. And I’m afraid I’m giving in to it too often. Oh, I don’t feel like writing today. I can wait until tomorrow. Or this one (if you’re a writer, too, I’m sure you know it too): I should clear my desk. Or better yet embark on a massive organizing spree before I start writing! Yeah, the writing life can be full of excuses.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions or strict goal-setting. I find those too restrictive. But I do like to have intentions and a system to make them happen. So I’m not promising to blog here on any sort of predictable schedule. But I do want to do it more frequently. There will be recipes, sure, because that’s what a food blog is all about. But I’m going to care less about the format, the glossy veneer, the oneupmanship that’s so common, and care more about the practice, the experience of getting those words to flow more freely, and getting comfortable again with sharing those words online rather than obsessively editing myself.

And so I’m starting again today, with pickled beets.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled Beets with Star Anise
After baking a bunch of cookies (krumkaker, pepperkaker, sirupsnipper and more) while at home, sick, over the Christmas season, it seems appropriate to trade sweet for savory today on the blog. Pickled beets are a classic Scandinavian condiment, something to serve with everything from the Swedish hash pytt i panna to sjömans biff, or sailor’s beef stew. Though coming from no single source, this recipe takes cues from The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann, a 1964 recipe found on Epicurious.com, and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler; the addition of star anise comes from Hahnemann, a Danish chef.

3-4 medium beets
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoons pepper
1 star anise

To cook the beets, I like to use Tamar Adler’s method from An Everlasting Meal: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the beets snugly in a shallow pan, she instructs, then with the water running and the pan tipped to the side, wash the beets under its stream, leaving a little of the water pooled in the pan once it runs clear. Cover the pan tightly with foil, then roast until the beets are cooked through, about 40 minutes for medium-sized beets. Adler’s method steams the beets and allows the skins to be easily rubbed off once the beets are cooled. After rubbing off the skins, cut the beets into quarter-inch slices and place in a shallow, heat-safe dish.

Place vinegar in a medium-sized pot along with sugar, salt, pepper, and star anise. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the beets. Let cool, the refrigerate overnight before serving.

For the sake of transparency I should let you know that I’ve received review copies of some of Hahnemann’s books. I love them, regardless, and they hold prime spots in my Nordic cookbook collection.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Easy Holiday Appetizer: Gravlax

Gravlax Finished

Oh friends, how does one even start after having been silent for so long? Life is full in the real world, even if it seems quiet in the virtual one. I’ll get to the gravlax you see here in the photos soon enough, but first I just need to reflect a little out loud, to cast some light on the events happening between the lines of this blog.

I think 2014 will go down in my memory as a year of heartache and blessings. There’s tension as those two intermingle, so close and simultaneous. I’ve only alluded to it on the blog until now, but early in the year my dear grandma suffered a stroke and it’s been a long road of recovery. She’s closer to 100 than most people will ever be and she knows her time is coming. She’s ready. But still. Still.

During Grandma’s first stages of recovery at the hospital and then at a rehabilitation center, I was pregnant and getting ready to welcome my daughter into the family, all the while preparing my son for his new role as a big brother and helping him to create space his his heart and home for a new little one. Grandma hung on long enough to meet my daughter–who’s named in part for her–and hold that little baby in her frail, thinning arms. Now, each time I take my son and my daughter to visit Grandma, I know that it’s significant. There might be another time–maybe years’ worth, I don’t know. But it also might be the last.

These events have been the defining parts of this past year. Writing has helped me to process the emotions swelling in my heart–so, yes, I have been writing even if things have been pretty quiet around here–but it’s been too personal to publish on such an immediate, informal format as a blog. There’s a story there, many stories. I’ll share them someday. But in the meantime I’ve been working them out, creating a narrative around my experiences, and trying to just embrace and enjoy life and to savor the moments big and small. Tuesday night was one of them.

Book Club Holiday Party

As a dozen friends gathered in my kitchen for our book club holiday party, I didn’t have any idea I’d be sitting down over the next days to write about it. I took some photos of the food with my phone for the purpose of posting them on Instagram, but I didn’t plan on sharing a recipe or any sort of story here on the blog. But a comment one of you left on Facebook the other day prompted me to write again. And a fellow blogger at book club reminded me how much fun this can be.

So today I’m writing about gravlax, with photos taken with iPhones for the purpose of social media. Salmon, salt, sugar, dill–that’s it. Our book club is all about food. Italian for Under the Tuscan Sun, French for On Rue Tatin and The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. There have been Caribbean dishes (An Embarrassment of Mangoes), Indian (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Chinese (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), and pizza (Delancey). I work in a little bit of a Scandinavian touch whenever I can, so for our holiday party this week I served gravlax.

Gravlax in Salt "Snow"As with any traditional recipe, there are plenty of variations out there for gravlax, ranging from the simplest list of ingredients to ones that get fancy with fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits that lend varying essences and hues to the salmon. I’m sure that orange, horseradish, aquavit, and beetroot–all things that I’ve spotted in recipes–yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax pure, the flavor of the salmon concentrated and accented only with a hint of dill.

Gravlax is, by definition, cured salmon. It’s typically a Nordic preparation, and the parts of the word–grav for pit or grave, lax or laks for salmon–hint at the days of preserving fish by burying it in the ground.

Gravlax Cure

My husband and I use Mark Bittman’s recipe as our base. We read about in the New York Times some years ago and have always had great results. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of frozen salmon (frozen to kill the parasites), then defrost it, cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. We generally leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. For the specific recipe, I’m going to point you to Bittman’s article (it includes several recipes–we use The Minimalist’s Gravlax). Making gravlax is so simple, but perhaps because of that, I find it helpful to refer to Bittman’s guidance. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

For serving gravlax, it’s as easy as lemon wedges, mustard sauce (such as this one from Ina Garten), capers, maybe some chopped red onion, and crackers or crispbread of some sort.

Gravlax-Platter

It’s been one of my goals this holiday season to keep our schedule light, the to-do list to a minimum. It’s far too easy to become swept up in the bustle and busyness of this time of year, and perhaps because of the time in life, I’m just trying to minimize as much stress as possible. But my book club holiday party was one of the events that I happily did write down–in pen–in my calendar. And gravlax was something special I could serve my friends–while being simple and easy to make at the same time. If you’re still looking for the perfect appetizer for a holiday party, go ahead and give it a try. With just a little planning ahead, you’ll find yourself with a gorgeous, delicious dish that took almost no hands-on time to prepare.

Thanks, E, for the photo of the gravlax platter.

Note: This fall I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’m taking cues from Shauna James Ahern‘s session on professional recipe development. She emphasized authenticity and living a full, rich life–plus not worrying about using iPhone cameras for food blog photography. Thanks, Shauna. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. If I had had to pull out the DSLR for this post, it never would have happened.

Reflecting on a Milestone

Nordic in the Northwest Oregonian ArticleWow. I’d like to thank you all for your encouragement and celebration when I announced that my Nordic food article was featured as the centerpiece food story last week in The Oregonian. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many likes on the Facebook page! You are the best. I still get excited every time I walk by the various copies of the newspaper at my home, and I’d to try to explain this story’s significance to me.

As a lifetime writer who studied journalism in college and has made a career out of telling stories through the written word, getting published in The Oregonian marks a significant point in my writing life. With a reputation as one of the biggest and best newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper has fostered and trained many excellent journalists; its former managing editor in his book “A Writer’s Coach” called it a “writer’s newspaper, a place where words matter.”

Daytona with Oregonian Article

Six years ago this summer I traveled down to Portland, Oregon, for a writers’ conference organized by The Oregonian and the Poynter Institute. Being surrounded by all of that integrity, creativity, and passion stirred something in me, and that weekend I decided, without a doubt, to leave broadcast news and pursue a job in print.

Even in 2007 that was a daring decision; as I took a communications and marketing job while doing freelance writing on the side, I watched as print editions of newspapers and magazines continued to decline.

As my family and I drove north from Portland last Tuesday after picking up a few copies of my article in that day’s paper, we passed the conference site and it occurred to me how momentous the article was. Six years after that influential experience I was back in Portland holding a copy of that respected paper–a “writer’s newspaper”–with my own article in it. Even though my stories about food have been published nationally, a byline in The Oregonian–especially on the topic of Nordic food, my specialty–is perhaps the one I’m most proud of.

Thanks again for all of your enthusiasm. Even without knowing the full significance of this article for me, you’ve written kind words, shared the article with your friends, and celebrated with me. I’ll say it again: You are the best.

“Nordic in the Northwest”: My Article and Recipes in The Oregonian

Daytona with Oregonian Article

So, here it is: the article I have been longing to tell you about! Published yesterday as the centerpiece food piece in The Oregonian (with a front-page teaser!), “Nordic in the Northwest” examines the similarities between the way of eating in the Nordic countries and the Pacific Northwest, especially each region’s emphasis on local, seasonal foods.

I started working on this piece earlier in the summer, interviewing experts on Nordic cuisine, researching immigration to the Pacific Northwest from Scandinavia, and developing five original recipes. If that weren’t exciting enough, I got to do all the photography, with three images used in the package.

I designed the recipes to work together as an entire late-summer menu, though you can certainly pick and choose which ones to make. They honor traditional Scandinavian cooking while reflecting modern influences. With salmon, blueberries, and an assortment of produce figuring heavily in the menu, the recipes also emphasize eating local and seasonal as much as possible and in such a way that is relevant in the Pacific Northwest and the Nordic countries this time of year.

I’ve included some outtakes from the photo shoot here in this post. Please do feel free to pin them on Pinterest–in fact, I’d be honored if you did!

Grilled Salmon with Lemon Horseradish Cream

Seasonal Greens Salad with Cucumber

Rye Berry Salad with Mushrooms and Goat Cheese

Blueberry Fruit Soup

Nordic Blueberry Tart with Rye

Rye and Blueberry Tart with Berries

June 25, 3:45 p.m. – The velvety smell of melted butter mingling with oozing blueberries permeates my kitchen right now as a rye and berry tart bakes. The aroma lures me from the sofa where I am opening a new book I am eager to read. I set the book down and walk over to the oven, opening the door and beholding what I see inside. The crust, made from organic all-purpose flour mixed with dark rye flour, has turned a golden brown. The sour cream-based filling has puffed up, transforming from a thin coating at the bottom of the shell into a plump, luscious filling that cradles the glistening purple berries. In just a few minutes, the tart will be ready to remove from the oven. I will set it down on a wire rack and wait, resisting the urge to slide a knife through the hot filling and take a bite while it is still warm. Such is the discipline of a baker. The pastry still warm from the oven is one of the greatest temptations. Waiting must sometimes be accompanied by diversions. So I will return to the sofa, pick up my book, and begin to read.

Blueberries

Rye and Blueberry Tart

Nordic Blueberry Tart with Rye
This attractive and delicious tart, adapted (barely) from the Nordic Bakery Cookbook, features a crust made from a combination of all-purpose flour and dark rye flour. The proportions mentioned below come from the original recipe and produce results that are sure to please. Since I enjoy the taste of rye, I’ll try increasing the amount of rye flour next time and might even try substituting the all-purpose flour with some other types.

For the crust:

6 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dark rye flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the filling:

2/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
10 ounces blueberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 10-inch fluted tart pan with removable base. Prepare the crust by beating butter and sugar until well mixed, then gradually beating in the egg. Add the flours and baking powder and mix to create a dough. Press the dough into the tart pan, evenly covering the bottom and sides.

Make the filling by mixing together the sour cream, heavy cream, egg, sugar, and almond extract, then pour into the crust. Evenly distribute the blueberries over the filling and bake until the filling has set and the crust is golden, about 25 minutes.

Serves 6-8.

Blueberries

Tart Dough Ingredients

Pouring Filling into Shell

Filling Tart with Blueberries

Rye and Blueberry Tart

Tart with Berries

Cucumber Salad for Your Scandinavian Midsummer Menu

Sliced CucumbersIn the beginning of my career as a journalist, I was paying my dues as a television news writer working in the middle of the night to prepare the morning newscast. Back then I would pull into the parking lot at the TV station located across the street from Seattle’s Lake Union and walk the two dozen feet from my car to the main entrance, swipe my badge at the door, wave hello to the graveyard security guard and settle in at my desk in the empty newsroom, the florescent lights mocking my tired eyes and the police and fire scanners blaring at the assignment desk and reminding me of the inability to fall asleep at my desk even if I tried.

Sliced Cucumbers

Back in those days, there was little time for a social life. I’d leave the newsroom around 9:30 or 10 in the morning, after most people have gone to work. I’d crawl into bed below windows covered with towels to block out the midday sun, and I’d sleep until that sun had gone to bed and it was time for me to repeat the process.

Cucumber and Dill Salad

I kept at it month after month, year after year. Six years ago, however, I made a change. No longer committed to a career in TV news, I found myself inspired to make a switch. I left a writers’ conference in Portland, Oregon, that June inspired to steer my skills toward print journalism. I gave it some time before making the move, and then later in the summer I gave my notice.

I spent the rest of the summer adjusting to a normal life, getting used to sleeping in the same bed as my husband for more than two times a week and getting used to sleeping–get this!–at night. I spent those August and September days sleeping late, talking walks to process things, and taking steps toward finding another job. If I picture that time in a snapshot, I think of my old neighborhood street illuminated by the gentle, warming rays of the sun. The sun! That bright object I had spent so many years covering up!

Sweet-and-Sour Cucumber Salad

I wonder if my experience reflects what Scandinavians feel this time of year when the sun stays out most of the day in contrast to the winter when it barely makes an appearance. Traveling to Bergen in the summer in 2008, I got my first taste of the Nordic summer sun. Going back to the hotel, closing the blinds, and going to sleep while the sun had not yet set wasn’t easy.

My family will be marking the summer solstice and Midsummer with a Scandinavian-inspired picnic this year. Simply prepared with salmon, pickled herring, a selection of Scandinavian cheeses, crispbread, dilled potatoes, and cucumber salad, all the components are chilling in the fridge right now, waiting to be enjoyed.

As I was preparing the menu, a cucumber salad was a necessity, but I found two that caught my eye. One, with cucumbers sliced thinly, was more of a quick pickle while the the other retained the watery crunch of the cucumbers but dressed them with dill. Both recipes are adapted from The Scandinavian Kitchen by Camilla Plum. Though the ingredients are similar, the results are quite different. Try one or both–or improvise and take cues from the second recipe and add dill to the first. In any case, these salads are distinctly Nordic, and they’ll add a fresh flavor to your Scandinavian Midsummer menu.

Sweet-and-Sour Cucumber Salad

Sweet-and-Sour Cucumber Salad

1 large (15.5 ounce) cucumber
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup cider vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Thinly slice the cucumber with a mandoline and place it in a heat-proof bowl. Bring water, vinegar, and seasonings to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring frequently. Pour over the sliced cucumbers and stir to coat. Cool, stirring occasionally. Serve right away or store in the refrigerator.

Serves 4-6.

Cucumber Salad with Dill

1 large (12.5 ounce) cucumber
1 small bunch of dill, stems and leaves, chopped finely (about 1 generous tablespoon)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Peel the cucumber and cut it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Cut it into 1/4-inch slices at a slat. Stir remaining ingredients together in a medium bowl. Toss the cucumbers with the dressing and marinate in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving.

Serves 2-4.

Nordic Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam

Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam with Bread

Mornings are slow, quiet times in our house most days. I sip my coffee in slow minuscule amounts at first, drinking a little more quickly as it cools. Still, I rarely find myself finishing an entire cup before it’s gone tepid and I must either reheat it in the microwave (which never yields satisfying results), drink it quickly so I can refill my mug with hot coffee from the machine (an approach requires mentally turning off my tastebuds for a moment), or simply drain out the cool remnants and start fresh (which is my preferred, yet slightly wasteful, method).

For most of my adult life I’ve treated breakfast as optional, but coffee has always been a necessity: something warm and bitter to savor as I ease into the day. Until I became a parent, brunch was reserved for a rare weekend, making it somewhat of a special occasion. These days, though, with a child, breakfast is a daily event, whether I take part in it or not. So with that in mind, I’m trying to find new ways to elevate the meal into something enjoyable and delicious, something that feels almost a little decadent while remaining nutritious and balanced. One way is by spreading a hearty slice of toasted organic whole-grain or rye bread with a special preserve or jam, perhaps one brought back from a trip or something homemade.

Rhubarb, Strawberries, and Vanilla

Rhubarb, Strawberries, and Vanilla in Pan

With my seasonal fascination with rhubarb, I got to work one recent day, chopping the stalks into pieces an inch or so long, then placing them in a saucepan with some strawberries, sugar, and a whole vanilla bean. The recipe–adapted from The Nordic Diet–was about as easy as could be, requiring only a little bit of patience as I stirred the fruit over medium heat. The fruit quickly began to release its juices, helping to dissolve the sugar. As it cooked, the fruit filled my kitchen with a warm, strawberry-rhubarb scent, as though I were baking a pie.

The fruit broke down as it cooked, and in 15 minutes or so I had a luscious, warm sauce that was equally appropriate to treat as a jam for toast or a compote to spoon over rich, creamy, plain yogurt.

I’ll keep sharing more of my breakfast treats here in the future. In the meantime, what do you enjoy eating as you start the day?

Rhubarb, Strawberries, and Sugar

Rhubarb and Strawberry with Bread for Breakfast

Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam
Adapted just barely from The Nordic Diet by Trina Hahnemann, this recipe is good just the way it is. However, next time I will use only an inch-long piece of vanilla bean, splitting it open before adding it to the fruit. The original recipe calls for an entire bean, left whole, which lends just the slightest hint of flavor to the jam and seems extravant for such a precious ingredient.

11 ounces rhubarb, cut into inch-long pieces
2 cups strawberries, halved or quartered
1 vanilla bean
1/2 cup raw organic sugar

Place rhubarb, strawberries, and vanilla bean in a 3 quart saucepan and toss with the sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently as you bring the fruit to a boil. The fruit will release its juices as it cooks, so you shouldn’t have any problems with it drying out; however, Hahnemann says adding a little water would be fine if that should happen. Boil for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, then cool. Store in the fridge.

Yields about 1.5 to 2 cups.

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