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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

I’m sure we’re not the only ones this happens to: we’re eating out somewhere (usually on vacation), something delicious crosses our lips, and we look at each other and say, “We should totally make this at home.” More often than not we realize that the components would be easy to find (and if not, then we immediately start thinking of reasonable substitutes that would be available in Estonia). Such was the case with poutine*, which J tried for the first time when we were in Montreal in September. I mean really, can it get any simpler? Traditional poutine has only three components– french fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds.

The poutine we shared in Montreal… delicious.

In our first-ever at-home poutine attempt, we decided not to go totally traditional. Although we could have found a reasonable substitute for squeaky cheese curds in Estonia, we found ourselves drawn to the smoked cheese corner of the dairy case and decided that a smoky-flavored cheese would suit poutine just fine (if the Canadians can create variations on the classic, then so can we!). I also must confess that we bought frozen french fries, which I am usually categorically against because potatoes are so much cheaper. But for the sake of texture and consistency we baked frozen french fries in the oven until crisp and they were perfect (though next time I may make my own oven fries).

Chopped smoky cheese

What I did make from scratch, however, was the gravy. I’d wanted to make a nice toasty roux ever since my New Orleans cooking class, so I combined my fat and flour and then stirred my little heart out. I was thrilled when the roux actually started taking on a nice brown/beige tint, but I didn’t push it too far after that since I was afraid of burning it. Still, it smelled delicious and definitely enhanced the flavor of the gravy.

Waiting for gravy to thicken…

I cooked the gravy for quite some time and it still didn’t get quite as thick as I’d hoped (I feel like this always happens to me! What’s the secret to thick gravy? Do I have to add starch?). I knew it would thicken up a bit when I took it off the heat, plus we were getting impatient, so we went ahead and dished up some (mostly) homemade poutine.

You can see from the picture how the gravy is lighter and more liquid-y than the gravy we had in Montreal, but the flavor was great! It was all there– crispy fries soaking up the salty gravy (I actually like it when the fries get soggy!), with creamy smoky cheese bits mixed in. Certainly not an everyday food, but so. very. good. I think this “recipe” could come in handy next time we have hangovers…

* J insists on calling it “Putin”. Does anybody else do this?

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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! đŸ˜¦ 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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Russian food

In my last posts I reflected on my two weeks in St. Petersburg, Russia a bit but didn’t say a whole lot about food. I’ll cram all that into this last post.

While in Russia I tended to eat a heavier lunch with my colleagues during the day and then eat simply (fruit, maybe a small salad or sandwich… and some candy) at night. Several times we made pelmeni, the little meat-stuffed dumplings that I adore. At home I usually pan-fry them but my colleague gave me some tips for boiling them: add salt, a bit of oil and a touch of plain white vinegar to the cooking water. It gives the dumpling casing a little extra flavor! And in general the pelmeni were very good there. While the filling in Estonian pelmeni is sometimes weirdly squishy, the Russian ones were always satisfying and meaty.

There was also a nearby market with a Korean stand that sold all different kinds of kimchi plus these amazing Russian eggplant rolls (I don’t have a picture of my own but they looked like this, photo courtesy of the previous link):

Oh my goodness, they were good. I love eggplant, and soft cool eggplant rolled around a nice rich cheese mixture? Amazing. I paired two of these with a salad for lunch.

Hm… a lot of the other local goods I tasted were sweets or beer.

My colleague recommended these cute walnut-shaped cookies (oreshki) to me. At first I didn’t love them, since the outer shell isn’t crispy, just sort of crumbly and bland. But the plain exterior combined with the caramel-like condensed milk filling was strangely addictive. I was a little embarrassed when I finished off the bag… and realized I had only purchased it the previous day. Oops.

I know Russia is mostly known for its vodka, but their beer is good too. Baltika 7 and 8 are also tasty.

On Sunday when I was walking around I escaped from the cold for a while with a latte and a slice of medovik honey cake. I like the Estonian version of this cake, but this particular slice was so sweet. I actually felt ill after finishing it. In general, I believe, the Russians like things very sweet. I encountered it with some of the chocolate candies I bought as well– some were so tooth-achingly sugary that after sampling one (or two…) I put the rest aside to bring home to J :).

Here’s a Russian kohuke, the chocolate-covered cheese curd snack I like to buy in Estonia as well.

I’ve compared the Estonian ones to cheesecake before, but the Russian one was even more so. It lacked the slightly grainy texture from the curd cheese and was so creamy and rich.

This last picture is for my friend who is learning Russian and requested more pictures of Russian text for her to decipher. Let me know how you do with this one!

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Some thoughts on Russia

I got a few comments yesterday on how St. Petersburg is (or seems) beautiful, and it truly is. Grand, ornate buildings line the streets, and you could spend days just walking around admiring the architecture. Not to mention all the incredible culture housed inside the buildings (art museums, history museums, ballet theaters, churches, swanky shopping malls…). And when darkness falls the buildings along the Neva River are lit so brightly and beautifully that the city’s almost prettier at night than in the daytime.

But after the trip, when people have asked me “How did you like St. Petersburg?”, my answer is that I had a good time but it’s not my favorite city. I think in my case the language issue will always keep me from being totally comfortable– I have this sense that things are going on but it’s all going over my head. Plus some things there are just so unfamiliar. Most grocery stores are tiny and cramped and in some of them everything is behind the counters and you have to ask for what you want– I avoided those! The post office I visited was also crowded and confusing– no shiny white walls and please-take-a-number like the Western post offices I’m used to. Russians aren’t the type to say “sorry” if they bump into you (neither are Estonians, but I prefer the British and American way).

Estonians seem to feel a certain nostalgia when they’re in Russia. They laugh about certain things and say, “It used to be like that in Estonia too.” But I never lived in that Estonia, the one that the Soviet powers tried to make as much like Mother Russia as possible, so that nostalgia is lost on me.

Tourism poster for Estonia

Metro station that looks like a UFO

Of course, that’s not to say that everything in Russia seems foreign and non-Western. As a a matter of fact, far from it.

I also saw McDonald’s, Baskin Robbins, KFC, and Carl’s Jr. But no, I didn’t eat at any of them. I’m not that much of an American ;).

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St. Petersburg

Don’t worry, I made it back from St. Petersburg alive! I didn’t have internet in the apartment I was staying in there and I’ve never felt right doing blog stuff at work, so I was forced to take a break. After that I got sucked into a whirlwind of pre-holiday madness, but now it’s time to get back to posting.

What to say? My time in Russia went better than I expected. I was truly anxious about going there– how could I possibly manage in a place where I don’t speak the language and I can’t even read street signs? And people may not necessarily speak English? Plus two weeks seemed like a pretty long time! Of course I’d traveled to places where I don’t speak the language before, but with Russia it was different. It has this aura around it. It’s big, and a little scary.

But everything was great. The work I was doing there was interesting so the days flew by (and also left me exhausted). I can’t say enough good things about my colleagues there– everyone was so helpful and understanding of the fact that when it comes to Russia and the Russian language I know pretty much nothing. (However, there were a few times they forgot to clue me in– like nobody told me that most Estonians stock up on groceries before crossing over the border into Russia! Especially milk and half-and-half. Estonians seriously don’t like Russian milk. So I didn’t have much food with me when I arrived, but I didn’t mind that much– I like to shop in local stores when I travel anyway).

Organic Russian yogurt– prune flavored.

This trip also pushed me out of my comfort zone because I have very little experience traveling alone. I’ve almost always had someone else with me to help figure things out in a new place. This time it was just me and I wanted to make the most of my weekend there– no way would I allow myself to just hang out in my room. Going to museums by myself isn’t such a big deal, but sitting in a cafe or bar alone is something I’ve never been too comfortable with. But I did it.

Saturday started off with a few hours at the massive Hermitage Museum…

… followed by a latte and Olivier salad (that’s just what they call potato salad in Russia)

There are a lot of bakeries in St. Petersburg with cases packed full of baked goods both sweet and savory, so by the end of my Saturday I knew I wanted to try something. I also knew that I’d have to ask for what I wanted, and the older ladies working in bakeries aren’t likely to speak English. But with some slow English and a lot of gestures, I got the job done.

A slice of a savory pastry with chicken and egg in the filling. It was well-seasoned and so good!

And a little chocolate, similar to the rum balls one can find in Estonia, but less rummy and very buttery.

I’ll share a few more foods and thoughts from my trip tomorrow, and after that I’ll get to those Restaurant Week posts I owe you!

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We actually did have one more day of fun after departing from Maryland on a Saturday evening. We landed in Copenhagen on Sunday morning and were faced with a painful 8-hour layover before our flight to Tallinn. We had considered going into the city, but after an 8-hour overnight flight during which we barely slept at all, the last thing we felt like doing was navigating a foreign subway and figuring out logistics. However, the woman we spoke to at the transfer desk was very convincing: “You know what you should do? Go into the city! It is the first sunny day in 12 days. Go.” Thanks to that gentle nudge plus the hand-drawn map she made showing exactly where the metro is and where we could get tickets, we decided to go. I’m so glad we did.

Taking the subway from the airport to the city center is ridiculously easy, and when you get off at the Kongens Nytorv stop you’re only steps away from Stroget, the main pedestrian street. Memories came flooding back to me, as I had visited Copenhagen once before when my sister was studying there in 2007.  The weather was sunny and surprisingly warm, so it was a great day for just walking around.

Our first mission was to find a cafe for our morning coffee.

My latte was lovely and delicious. Which is good, considering I paid 7 euros for that and a plain cup of coffee for J. Copenhagen is expensive!

After walking along Stroget for a while, seeing more and more Danish families emerge to enjoy a Sunday morning walk in the sunshine, we wanted a break. And a beer. International travel and jet lag are perfectly legitimate excuses for ordering beer at 10:30 in the morning.

Just so you know, we were actually not the only ones at the Irish pub drinking at that time of day! After our beers we walked around more and got an uninspired lunch from a 7-11. I was so tempted by the Danish pastries:

…but I had no local cash and many shops don’t allow you to pay for such a small purchase with a card. Bummer.

By early afternoon we were feeling truly zombie-like and headed back to the airport, but I think that spending time in the actual sunshine did wonders for helping our bodies clocks readjust to the time zone. After we returned home it didn’t take me long at all to recover from the jet lag. Not to mention J and I added another city to our list of European capitals we’ve visited together :). Next time we have a 4+ hour layover in Copenhagen, I definitely won’t hesitate to come enjoy the city again.

 

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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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