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Christmas 2011

I hope everybody’s new year is off to a good start! (Here in Estonia, people adhere to the rule that you can no longer say “Happy new year!” after January 6!). I didn’t post over Christmas 2011 since I was in Finland with J’s family for a week. This was my second Christmas at his house and my third together with his family, so I feel like I’m an old pro when it comes to Finnish Christmas traditions! Since they do pretty much the same thing every year, you can check out my recaps of past Finnish Christmases starting here and here.

Please note how the ground outside has some green and brown spots visible– that’s very rare; Finland usually has a thick layer of snow by Christmastime!

Christmas was a bit different this year thanks to a new addition to the guest list– J’s nephew, who was born just four weeks before Christmas :). I’ve never spent so much time around such a tiny human being! At that point he couldn’t even focus his eyes on you or smile, but he was still very very cute. I was thrilled when it was my turn to try holding him.

The fact that he’s asleep doesn’t have anything to do with me having superior baby-soothing skills, I just lucked out and got him when he was full and calm and ready for a nap :).

Christmas was wonderful and restful, but I also realized the last time I got to spend Christmas in my own parents’ living room was five years ago, and I am starting to miss it! 😦 If at all possible we’ll spend Christmas with my family next year, either in Tallinn or in Maryland.

I still need to put some thought into my resolutions for this year (and take a look at how I did with my promises for 2011), so I’ll get back to you on that soon, hopefully tomorrow!

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Best crab cakes in the world

Remember a few days ago when I was too busy sewing to write a post? This is what I was doing:

I sing in a choir and we just had uniforms made. The jacket and skirt were made by a professional but we opted not to have her put the detailing on, as the extra man-hours would have cost us a lot more. Therefore, you see that lovely red ribbon all along the edge, making pretty loopy designs? I did that! It took forever, but at the end of the day, I think I did a pretty good job :).

On the last night of our trip to the States my parents took us out to the dinner. They wanted us to experience this place they’d raved about that apparently has the best crab cakes (and being Maryland folk, we take crab cakes very seriously). The place itself is a little out of the way and the atmosphere is… have you ever been to a restaurant in a small town that’s trying to be fancy, but it’s still not? It’s one of those places :).

We started off with mussels in white wine sauce. They were very good, even slightly sweet if I remember correctly. The broth was good but not as good as the stuff we had in New York. We also got an unpictured side salad, and then came the star of the show:

Two fist-sized patties of huge crab chunks barely held together by a rich and creamy binding mixture, brown and shiny from the broiler. I can easily say this was the best crab cake I’d ever had. The size and quality of the crab meat used blew my mind and I savored every bite. We got sides too (cole slaw, onion rings, potato salad), but those were just OK. It was all about the crab cake.

The best part was that each of us ordered the 2-crab cake platter, but nobody could eat more than one crab cake that night, so the leftovers came home for lunch the next day! So not only was a transcendent crab cake our last dinner in the States, it was also our last lunch, just before we had to head off to the airport. It was the perfect way to bid adieu to Maryland.

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Since the party we hosted at my parents’ house last year was so much fun, we just had to do it again. Plus we were right between J and my birthdays and we realized that our combined age this year adds up to 60, plus my father’s birthday was that same week– those are reasons to celebrate, right?

My parents have a wonderful house for entertaining and an extra fridge in the basement for party supplies.

A full fridge is a beautiful sight, isn’t it? And to anyone who might say, “That’s a lot of beer!”, my response is hahahahaha… you clearly haven’t met our friends. Most of this beer actually wasn’t even intended for the party, since we had another plan.

A quarter keg of Yuengling and a cooler… maybe Guinness is checking for his namesake?

Then a dear family friend of ours contributed two small kegs of beer that he had made himself! It was awesome to try both of them (not to mention several others he brought in bottles for us to try), but my heart belonged to his peach weissbier— a white beer that wasn’t too sweet despite its fruity undertones. Loved it.

There was also food at the party, but honestly I think this sweetie got more attention than all the dishes combined:

Who can resist a 9-week-old Keeshond? She’s so cuddly and looks like an Ewok!

But back to the food:

The spread included black bean salad, two different potato salads, a delicious noodle salad, marinated shrimp that disappeared in minutes, and over on the right, a bacon explosion (an infamous concoction of sausage wrapped in a bacon lattice and smoked– a family fried was willing to prepare it for us and it was so good!). There was also grilled chicken and veggie burgers. I was happy to sit down to dinner because prior to that I’d been so busy greeting guests and chatting that I hadn’t eaten any of the appetizers set out at the start of the party.

Desserts were amazing— we had mini chocolate salted caramel cupcakes, two varieties of full-size cupcakes, a dense chocolate cake with raspberry coulis,  gorgeous fresh berries, and a Smith Island cake made by my sister.

As a special bonus, there was also two different varieties of chocolate chip cookies going head-to-head. A few weeks prior my sister and I had talked about our go-to chocolate chip cookie recipes, both of which get rave reviews, and decided to pit them against each other. I used the New York Times cookie recipe and my sister the one that comes on the back of the Crisco label.

We didn’t tell anyone who made which cookies and asked people to vote for their favorite. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with the way mine turned out. They didn’t get as brown in  my parents’ oven as they do in mine so I overbaked them a bit and they were crispy, not chewy how I like them to be. The flavor was still good but the texture was lacking. I honestly thought my sister’s nice soft cookies would win… but no, when the votes were tallied my cookies were triumphant! (My sister was a little pissed). But at the end of the day they’re both good recipes– as a matter of fact, I should try the Crisco one using Estonian shortening sometime soon.

My sister did forgive me eventually, and the party overall was definitely a success. It lasted late into the night (we had to kill the keg, of course) and then continued in the morning with brunch:

and perhaps also a few leftover beers… 😉

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As I mentioned when I left off, our next stop was to visit my sister in Philadelphia! She lives in the hilly neighborhood of Manayunk (I went for a run there and it was seriously so hard; I was always going up or down!). Since J and I have been to Philly many times before, we weren’t as focused on seeking out certain foods or experiences as we were on just relaxing and having fun with my sister.

But there was still some yummy stuff! J and I wandered down Main Street in Manayunk because we had time to kill before the train to center city. It was a hot day, so when I saw Whirled Peace, a self-serve frozen yogurt place, I knew it would be the perfect snack.

This was original tart yogurt and some chocolate yogurt with mini peanut butter cups, almonds, and I believe also some crunchy toffee candy. Mine looked so good that J decided to get some too (I was surprised, as he tends to prefer salty, more substantial snacks!). It’s so much fun getting to pick all your own flavors and toppings and I’m bummed that I only get this treat once a year :(.

Later that night, after my sister had gotten off work and we’d returned to Manayunk from center city, my two companions took me out to dinner as a belated birthday gift! Aww. We decided to go to a BYOB place– this was a great idea because it would be cheaper, but we did have to drive about 10 minutes to the nearest liquor store (and speaking of alcohol, did you know that you can’t sell liquor and beer in the same store in Pennsylvania? I went to college in PA and my sister lives there now, so we can attest to the fact that such an arrangement gets annoying really fast). After our detour for a bottle of wine and then parking back at my sister’s and walking down the hill to Main Street we were all famished… and then we discovered the Mediterranean BYOB we’d chosen was closed. FAIL. Luckily there was a Chinese BYOB about a block away, and that was open. Yay.

We started with potstickers– look at those lovely crispy bottoms! They were very good, as was the rest of our food:

J’s sesame chicken with chilies

My sister’s dan dan noodles

My eggplant in garlic sauce (I swear it’s eggplant, although it looks like chicken!)

The food was truly good, much better quality than the fast food-type Chinese food you find all over the place. We were having a great time enjoying our food and our 1.5-liter bottle of wine in the otherwise empty restaurant, right up until the waitress started hinting that it was time to leave. And by hinting I mean telling us straight out “We’re closing soon, and I don’t get paid extra if I stay late, so…” We also saw her making out with the guy behind the bar, so we have a pretty good idea of why the two of them wanted to close up shop and get home, if you know what I mean. The girl was nice and friendly but the way she hustled us out of there (forcing us to pretty much chug the last of our wine) was so incredibly unprofessional, I think we were all a little shocked. (She even said to us, “You guys are so nice! A lot of people give me a hard time when I tell them it’s time to go!” I just gave her a smile knowing that yes, we were being nice and polite to her face, but also talking about her in Estonian so she wouldn’t understand it. I’m passive-aggressive like that). Overall it was still a great night, though!

On our last day in Philly we visited the Mütter Museum, ate a cheesesteak (of which I have no photo… I really forgot about this blogging thing during the summer :P), and enjoyed happy hour at Public House.  It was all great, but after the final stop on our 4-city tour both J and I were happy to be heading back to Maryland and the relative peace and quiet (um, and free food!) of my parents’ house!

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After Boston, our next stop was New York City to visit my brother, who had just recently moved to Brooklyn. After taking forever to get into the city (traffic around New York can be such a nightmare!) we were incredibly happy to reach my brother’s surprisingly roomy Park Slope apartment and enjoy a Brooklyn beer. We went to a Peruvian restaurant for dinner (sorry, no pictures, but we weren’t that impressed by the place) and then visited some of my brother’s favorite neighborhood watering holes. It was nice to get to know his neighborhood– Park Slope is lovely and relaxed. Also, I have to say that instead of picking on me, my big brother was actually on his best behavior, so he was actually a pleasure to be around. 😀

The next morning my brother humored our idea to go check out Flushing, Queens. After breakfast at a diner (I wish we had diners in Estonia!) and quite a long subway ride. we were in Flushing.

Flushing is pretty cool– it’s almost like finding yourself in another country. Most of the signs on storefronts aren’t in English and the shops are filled with fascinating and mysterious items. According to my brother, the area seems bigger and much less commercial than the Manhattan Chinatown (but  Wikipedia says the one in Manhattan is currently still bigger). I loved walking through shops filled with dozens of varieties of dried mushrooms, barrels full of sesame seeds, and things like this:

When it was time for a snack, we stuck with things that were a bit more familiar to us. I bought a package of dried seaweed snack (tasted like salty nori, the stuff you wrap around sushi!) and convinced J he needed steamed pork buns from a little stand on the sidewalk.

They were so cheap— $1.25 for four hefty buns! Gotta love street food. I also got myself a bun filled with red bean paste.

This picture is too much me, not enough red bean bun.

When we’d had our fill of Flushing we headed to Manhattan. We walked through a street fair and I bought some sunglasses since the cloudy day had turned quite sunny.

That night we ate dinner at Casaville, a tapas-style Moroccan restaurant that came highly recommended by my brother and another friend who joined us. I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking:

The broth from the mussels was so delicious we didn’t stop dipping our bread in it until the bowl was wiped clean

Tuna tartare

Fried brie with toast, honey, and fried grapes (sweet, tart and crunchy!)

Avocado hummus on the left (that was my request and I think I ate most of it!) and chorizo bruschetta on the right

Really interesting little phyllo dough pockets stuffed with chicken and topped with powdered sugar

Most of the time I just get to read about how New York is the best food city in the world, but that night I got to experience it myself. It was a truly satisfying meal and thinking about it a few months later still makes me happy.

Since I still have a bunch of New York pictures to share, I’ll be posting a Part II tomorrow!

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When my mother was visiting Tallinn in June and July, we naturally went out a lot. Dinner at new restaurants, warm summer evenings of sipping drinks on terraces– all the kinds of things that people like to do when they’re on vacation. I like to go out to dinner as much as the next person, but by the time my mother’s birthday rolled around, just a few days before she was to leave, I was getting kind of tired of it. Going out again almost felt like a chore, so instead of heading out on the town for cocktails and a decadent dinner, I offered her a birthday dinner at our place, and she gladly accepted. And, luckily for us, she provided the beverages:

Fancy! Somebody had given her the bottle so none of us were sure of the exact retail price, but definitely out of the price range I generally look for :). While the mouthfeel and appearance were nice– lots of tiny bubbles!— we all agreed that flavor-wise it didn’t blow us away and we probably could not have differentiated between that and a more reasonably priced but still good-quality sparkling wine.

For the birthday dinner we kept it light and simple: cut-up vegetables with homemade hummus and baba ganoush, fluffy lavash bread, a Greek salad with black olives and feta, and chicken marinated in olive oil and lemon juice and “grilled” on the grill pan.

I don’t even remember exactly what went into the chicken marinade (other than oil and lemon juice), but the chicken was outstanding and you could really taste the lemon. The salad was also delicious and my mother appreciated the quiet night in and light homemade meal as much as we did.

Even without a birthday to celebrate, pretty much every time we have friends in town for more than a few days we’ll invite them for a dinner at our place. While people who are visiting like going out a lot, that doesn’t always fit into our budget, so inviting people over gives us a chance to still socialize without having to shell out as much money. In addition to being  so much cheaper for everyone involved, I think people also enjoy seeing where their friends live (don’t you get a little thrill when you see someone’s apartment for the first time? 🙂 Or is it just me?). And, as a final bonus, at home you can linger as long as you like, and you never have to worry about it getting too crowded or being pressured to order something else :). Definitely a win-win!

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Meet the parents

In this post, I’m going to hop back to June. Won’t you join me?

In June my mother came to visit, which is awesome in and of itself, but an even more awesome thing happened as well– she met J’s parents for the first time! (Just so you know, J and I have known each other since 2005 and been a couple since 2008). J and I flew up to visit his parents for a week right around the midsummer holiday (June 23-24) and my mother joined us there for the last few days. And everything went wonderfully!

We’d been a little concerned about the language situation, which was as follows: J could communicate easily with everyone, as he speaks Finnish, English and Estonian very well. I, of course, speak Estonian and English and passable Finnish, which I use with his parents. His parents speak Finnish and understand some English, and his mother also speaks German (she used to be a German teacher). My mother does not speak any Finnish but, as it happens, has a master’s degree in German, so the two of them were able to use that to communicate, but when they did then the rest of us couldn’t really understand :). But even with all of that in play, things went remarkably well and the conversation was always flowing, with me translating the Finnish spoken by J’s parents for my mother.  Apparently I earned some points for demonstrating how good my Finnish comprehension actually is, but my accomplishment felt less impressive when my mother, who is naturally gifted at languages, started to pick up Finnish after being there for only a few days (I can only dream that langauges would come that easily to me! Sigh).

As usual, the food J’s parents made for us was amazingly delicious, and remember how I’m always gushing over the beautiful salads his mother makes? My mother gushed over them too! So I’m not a weirdo for being in awe of her incredible food styling skills. Some of the other beautiful and delicious food they made for us included smoked salmon that I could not stop eating…

… skewers of every kind of meat imagineable (seriously, there was chicken, pork, beef, and lamb, all prepared in different marinades, not to mention mushrooms stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon, which, well, there are NO WORDS to describe how good they were)…

… and this charming roll cake we ate around 4 in the afternoon on Midsummer’s Eve (Juhannusaatto), since dinner was going to be late that day. You know I loved it.

 

J and I introduced my ema to some other fun stuff too. For example, drinking alcoholic beverages in the car while it’s in motion (you can do this in Estonia too, but of course not in the USA! :D).

 

 

We also took her to a cafe in the city of Oulu called Bisketti, which is famous (at least in J’s family) for its giant cinnamon rolls (korvapuustit).

The roll, which we split three ways, is about triple the size of that cup of coffee next to it, and irresistibly doughy and soft in the middle. Maybe next time I should try to make mine this big too :).

And, finally, I had to make sure my mother tried salt licorice (salmiakki) ice cream— this particular ice cream bar is actually vanilla ice cream with a soft salmiakki candy center and crunchy salmiakki coating. I love the contrast (both color and flavor) of the black salmiakki against the creamy vanilla! Next time we’ll be in Finland will be in December and I’m already looking forward to eating one of these again. Oh, and my mother liked it too!


Even though she’d been to Finland before, my mother was thrilled to see where J comes from and experience so many of the things I’ve told her about after my past trips there. We got to introduce her to J’s home, which is starting to feel more and more like home for me as well :).

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