Saturday, March 28, 2009

Alex Sushi - Best Sushi in Oslo

Sushi is Boyfriend’s favorite food. For his birthday, I took him to the best sushi restaurant in Oslo. Sushi in Oslo? Can it really be good? Of course! If you think about it, what makes high quality sushi? Fresh fish and the rice. Given that Norway has some of the best seafood in the world, it’s not a stretch that they would have good sushi. Sushi restaurants are super abundant in Norway and most of them are not run by Japanese people. I won’t go into my theory on that now. However, given the freshness of the fish the sushi is usually pretty good, if pedestrian. You can always get the usual assortment of nigiri – hamachi, toro, tuna, and of course salmon. Most restaurants even have whale sashimi and nigiri. In summary, pedestrian sushi is easy to find; stellar sushi is quite rare.

Which brings me to the topic of this post – Alex Sushi. For months, I have been hearing about Alex Sushi and how it was the best sushi restaurant in Oslo. In fact, my new boss sat me down and wrote out a detailed list of restaurants in my area and Alex Sushi was his #1 choice. I’m not sure why we never went before. I think it’s because we’re not really reservation-making people and any place that requires advance notice from us is usually last on our list. But being that it was Boyfriend’s birthday, I made the effort to call ahead of time to secure us 2 seats at the sushi bar.

The restaurant itself is very small and most of its space is consumed by the large, oblong sushi bar where the sushi chefs work. Chairs line the outside of the bar so the patrons get very cozy. For larger groups, there are about 4 larger tables set up at the end of the room. The waiters, trendy yet polite, squeeze their svelte black-clad figures through the tight fitting spaces between patrons’ chairs and the walls. They explain the dishes that arrive at your table and then quietly disappear to let you enjoy your food. The menu displays an impressive array of sashimi, nigiri, maki, and hand rolls. I didn’t go into the menu in depth because I knew I would be ordering the Black Menu. Alex sushi has some preset menu themes that allow the chef to create the best sushi based upon the freshest ingredients available that day. The Black Menu had an assortment of sashimi and nigiri plus lobster and soft shelled crab. Count me in!

Dinner started with a substantial mound of seaweed salad. I love seaweed salad – it is crisp in flavor with a lot of different textures all rounded out by the sweet pungent flavor of roasted sesame oil. The second course was a sampler of sashimi sitting in a pool of ponzu. There was hamachi (yellow-tail), salmon, and halibut with a little bit of salmon roe sitting on top. The fish was very fresh and ample though it was overpowered by the ponzu sauce. Ponzu is a mix of soy and lemon juice and is refreshing when used in moderation. This ponzu was a bit too abundant and too salty. Another complaint was the extra salty salmon roe that also overpowered the delicate flavor of the sashimi. The third course was our nigiri course. Nigiri are the balls of rice with a piece of fish laid on top. We had hamachi, tuna, salmon, halibut, scallop, toro (fatty tuna), crab (oh my god this was delicious), and shrimp. We also had two additional nigiri – one was a cold salad made of halibut fat and the second was salmon roe topped with a raw quail egg. The nigiri were the best I’ve ever had. The rice was delicate and sweet, drawing out the subtle sweetness of the raw fish. There was also a small dab of real wasabi inside the nigiri. Normally, I hate when the chefs include the wasabi in the nigiri because the wasabi is overpowering and rushes up my nose. This wasabi was very subtle and oddly enough, also a little sweet. It was perfectly complementary to the sweetness of the rice and fish. Hamachi is my favorite and this one did not disappoint. The toro was unctuous and soft. The halibut fat was also fatty but it was seasoned with green onion and sesame oil, adding additional notes to the fattiness. The salmon roe, though salty, was lovely with the richness of the quail egg yolk. This nigiri was beautiful. The final course was our plate of maki. On the plate, we had a whole small lobster, lightly sauced and sitting on a bed of seaweed salad. The maki plate also had a soft shell crab roll wrapped in avocado. The roll, as compared to most sushi restaurants, was small and could be eaten in one dainty, delicious bite. The final maki was a shrimp tempura roll. This one looked large and unwieldy and could not be eaten in one bite. When I bit into it, the bite was easy. If you’ve been to any other sushi restaurant, you’ve likely encountered a situation where you bite into the roll and the nori (seaweed) is rubbery and you can’t bite through it so you end up using your hands or shoving the whole thing into your mouth. This nori broke easily. The chefs made the rolls and let it sit for a few minutes before bringing it to our table, allowing the moisture from the rice to soften the nori enabling clean bites from the rather large maki. This small attention to detail and this consideration for the guest’s overall enjoyment of the dish is the type of service and professionalism that makes my heart sing. I was terribly impressed by the forethought and care taken to ensure a stellar dining experience.

So – still surprised we can get good sushi in Oslo? Well – try this on for size. Alex sushi is not only the best sushi restaurants in Oslo, it is also one of the best sushi restaurants I’ve ever been to. Here’s our maki plate. We named our lobster Barney because he came with a couple of barnacles on his head.

Friday, March 27, 2009

It's a Morse Code Birthday

Decadent, Decadent, Decadent

Those are the 3 words I would use to sum up this brownie. It is mostly made of butter, chocolate, eggs and sugar and has very little flour in it. It is very rich. As I handed out the pieces, I instructed everyone to “be careful with those – they’re dangerous.”

I really made this batch for Boyfriend’s birthday but after having 2 bites and almost suffering a heart attack, I decided it would be smart to share. The pieces that stayed at home were meant to be cut into small, dainty pieces with “happy birthday” written on them. But as it always happens, several snafus occurred to prevent this from happening. First , I purchased food color gel instead of the gel-based cake decorating pens. I don’t think they sell them here in Norway. The packaging on the food color was in German so I stood no chance. I went home with food color but no frosting or frosting ingredients to color. Of course, I don’t figure this out until 11 at night when I’m still up baking the brownies. Being the Kitchen MacGyver that I am, I decided to thin out a little of the leftover marscapone cheese with cream to make the frosting. Then I added some powdered sugar so it wouldn’t taste like ass. A funny thing started to happen – the more powdered sugar I put into the frosting, the more liquidy the frosting got until it turned into a glaze. A blue, liquidy glaze that did not hold a shape. The “happy B-day” letters on Boyfriend’s Birthday Brownies gathered into dots. When Boyfriend saw them on his birthday morning, he thought they were in Morse Code.

None the less, these brownies are PACKED with chocolate. Decadent, rich, thick and so chocolatey it will blow your socks off. For me, personally, it was a bit too rich. I could only eat one piece of this maybe once a year. I did, however, go all the way and use a very high quality chocolate. I felt that since the dessert was made almost entirely of chocolate, I would spring for the Valrhona and I am so glad I did. High quality chocolate is essential in my book so when possible – use the good stuff. You can definitely taste the difference between this and something made using Hershey’s (or even Freia) chocolate.

Chocolate Marscapone Brownies
Adapted from Confession of a Tart
3 oz. chocolate, chopped fine
1 ¼ c. sugar
1 tsp instant espresso powder
1 cup butter
3 eggs at room temperature
½ cup marscapone cheese
½ cup cocoa powder
2 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
½ cup flour

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, 160 degrees C. Butter an 8x8 inch baking pan.

Place the chopped chocolate into a large mixing bowl. Melt the butter in a pan until just boiling. Immediately pour the butter over the chocolate and let it sit for 30 seconds. Whisk the butter and the chocolate until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is glossy and smooth.

Sift the sugar, cocoa powder and espresso powder into the chocolate and butter mixture. Fold in the sugar and cocoa until it is well mixed.

Beat in the marcapone cheese, eggs, and vanilla until well mixed.

In a separate bowl, whisk the flour and the salt until well combined. Pour the flour into the wet mix and fold gently until the flour is mostly incorporated. Do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and set it in a rack in the middle of the oven. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes. Check the brownies at the 35 minute mark to make sure they are not cooking too fast and adjust the time as necessary. The brownie is done when a tester inserted into the middle of the brownie comes out clean. Let the brownies cool for 30 minutes before starting the ganache frosting.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
6 oz. finely chopped chocolate
6 Tbs heavy cream
3 Tbs unsalted butter
2 Tbs sugar

Place the chocolate into a medium sized mixing bowl. Combine the cream, butter, and sugar in a saucepan and melt on the stove. Bring the mixture to just under its boiling point and immediately pour over the chocolate. Let it stand for 30 seconds before stirring it. Stir until the chocolate has melted and the result is a thick, glossy and smooth mixture. Spread the mixture over the brownies while the mixture is still hot.

Let the ganache cool and stiffen before cutting. You can put it in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lime Coconut Marinade

What do you do when it’s sunny but 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside? You dream of warmer places. When planning our Easter holiday this year, I could not stomach the idea of staying around Scandinavia. The only direction I could provide was: South. That is how we ended up booking to tickets to Turkey. Still, that’s 3 weeks away and that means 3 more weeks of cold, crisp, and windy conditions. 3 more weeks of my big coat.

I guess if I can’t bring me to summer, then I will try and bring summer to me. Using my stovetop grill pan, I indoor-grilled these lime and coconut marinated shrimp. But there are no grill marks, you might notice? The grill pan wasn’t hot enough and so the shrimp just sort of sautéed. It would work better with larger shrimp and a real grill. None the less, the taste was spot on and that was due to the marinade. This would also be great with chicken or tofu.

Lime Coconut Marinade
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup coconut milk
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 quarter of an onion, thinly sliced
2 tbs honey
¼ tsp pepper
½ tsp salt
1 tbs sriracha
A few sprigs of cilantro (optional)

Whisk all the ingredients together and let them refrigerate for half an hour altogether. Pour the marinade over shrimp, chicken, pork or tofu and let it marinade for at least 30 more minutes before grilling or pan sautéing the meat.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Recipes are Made to be Broken?


I have read reviews on Julia Child’s recipe for Beef Bourguignon and they all have one thing in common: there are A LOT of steps! The recipe I found had about 40 different steps that included boiling the bacon strips for 5 minutes before rendering its fat for the stew, lightly flouring then searing the beef cubes, stewing the meat in a Dutch oven in the kitchen, straining the sauce, then stewing the vegetables separately before adding it to the final stew. That’s the Cliff’s notes version!

Me with my A.D.D did not make it all the way to the very end following each direction step by step. I didn’t even boil the bacon though I have heard raving reviews of the difference it made. I don’t think it would have made too much of a difference for me because I am pretty sure I misread the package and instead of having a fattier bacon, I purchased a bacon with reduced fat. I had to add fat to the pan when browning the beef cubes. I deviated from the recipe so much I can’t even recall what I did different from Julia.
The biggest mistakes, however were these: Using a lean bacon (really, I need to study my Norwegian better) and using a lean beef. I thought the meat would tenderize after all the gentle stewing in the oven but there was just not enough fat in the meat. The meat came out far too try.That said, the stew itself and the sauce were delicious! We had the stew with carrots, onions, and mashed potatoes and it was rich, hearty, and a big treat. Next time I’ll use meat with a bit more marbling. Despite the missing fat, isn’t this dish pretty?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Girl's First Ice Cream

What do you do when you’re bored on a Saturday? Some people go to work out, have a beer, grab coffee with girlfriends, or see a movie. I shop for kitchen appliances. This being Oslo and a few weeks ago still being winter, I made a trip downtown to Glas Magasinet’s basement where they sell their kitchen appliances, dishes, and all things food related. My boredom must have been severe because I bought 2 big things that I have been eyeing. I walked out of the store with a Le Creuset Dutch oven and an ice cream maker. Birthday came early for me this year.

After a week of admiring my new ice cream maker sitting on my counter, I decided to make my first ice cream ever. I settled on a very basic vanilla bean ice cream from David Lebovitz. The ingredients were simple and the steps seemed easy enough. The result was a very rich, buttery yellow vanilla ice cream speckled with the tiny seeds from a vanilla bean pod. This recipe and the machine were so easy to use that I was suddenly aflush with inspiration and flooded with new ideas for ice cream flavors. Move over Ben and Jerry, a little Chinese girl living in Oslo is about to bring you some competition!
I have always been intimidated by custards. All this talk of tempering eggs so the custard doesn’t turn into scrambled eggs when you cook the eggs and the cream over heat and getting the custard to the right level of thickness scares the bejesus out of me. That is why the custard for this ice cream was a little daunting at first but it’s not so scary after all! I will definitely remember the day I made my first custard and it did not turn into scrambled eggs. Instead, it turned into the rich base of a professional-tasting ice cream.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
1 cup whole milk
A pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 cups heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk with a paring knife, then add the bean pod to the milk. Cover, remove from heat, and infuse for one hour.

Set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart (2l) bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice and water. Put the cream into the smaller bowl and set a strainer over the top of the bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Rewarm the milk then gradually pour some of the milk into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Do this with about half of the warmed milk. Scrape the warmed yolks and milk back into the saucepan, whisking constantly. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heat-resistant spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the spatula.

Strain the custard into the heavy cream in the small bowl. Stir over the ice until cool, stir in the vanilla extract, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Preferably overnight.

Remove the vanilla bean and freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Strange Obsession with Grocery Stores

I’ve already discussed at length the sorry state of grocery stores in Norway you have all probably heard my squeals of joy to find Asian grocery stores stocked full of things I had assumed I would not find in Norway. But those were just the Asian stores. It doesn’t account for the fact that I can’t easily get chocolate chips, extracts, zip lock baggies, or anything in more than one brand. Variety, in about 97% of the stores near us, is a pipe dream. A French friend of mine in Norway tells it like this:

“You go to ze store and you want to buy zomesing and zhere eez only 2 brands, so you say do I buy zhees one or do I buy – Oh, merde! I guess I buy zhees one because zhat one eez sold out.”

Really, I’m not making fun of his French accent – it’s super charming, especially when he is telling the story. And it is so true. Mostly, I thank my lucky stars if I can find the item that I seek. I gave up on variety months ago. And then, when I thought variety and quality didn’t exist, I found 2 stores that restored my faith.

Centra , located in Majorstuen
This store reminds me of the gourmet grocery stores I used to go to in Southern California. It’s larger than most grocery stores but what sets this one apart is the quality and variety of the products that stock their shelves. Their meats were fresh and there were multiple cuts of multiple meats. The seafood looked fresh and copious just like their fruits and vegetables. They had gourmet crackers to pair with their wide variety of gourmet cheeses. Centra also had so many different types of jams, or syltetøy, to choose from. Their breads were artisan and laid out so prettily in wicker baskets. The best? I found chocolate chips in the big bag and not for an obscene amount of money. I never thought I’d be so grateful to see a bag of Hershey’s chocolate chips.

ICA Maxi, located in Skøyen
We found this little gem tucked away in an office and shopping park JUST ACROSS THE STREET FROM MY OFFICE. I could not believe a grocery store of this size was so close to the office where I spend the bulk of my time. I was not expecting all too much when we walked into this ICA Maxi. ICA is a grocery store chain that has small stores all over Norway. We have a “gourmet” ICA up the street from us but even they have been known to run short on items like eggs (no joke) so my expectations were cautiously optimistic at best. The sign over the door was modest but when those glass doors slid open, it was like being transported to a new world. It wasn’t gourmet, but it was larger than I thought I’d ever find near Oslo’s city center. This place was enormous. They had more variety of the everyday items you would normally expect to find in a grocery store and they were fully stocked. They even had pallets of food and drink to ensure they could feed the masses. Moreover, because this store had the space, they could focus on merchandising so that my shopping experience was pleasant. It didn’t help me in this trip because I stood for about 5 minutes in the middle of one of the aisles with my mouth agape. Due to the sensory overload, I could only manage to pull my little shopping basket around the store and stare. I will definitely be back.
Why my obsession with grocery stores? Well I have a lot of reasons. Firstly, I don’t grow my own products so I am heavily reliant on the quality of the produce and products available at the grocery store. But that’s the obvious reason. I also like to study grocery stores. It speaks a lot about the food culture of the city and its inhabitants. French grocery stores have a huge aisle dedicated to cheese and are generally large. There is great appreciation of food from all around the world and emphasis on variety and freshness. American grocery stores are heavily merchandised with a huge variety of goods. Emphasis is placed on convenience and marketed towards the busy American who is looking for something quick but still homemade, and more recently healthy. Norwegian grocery stores tend to be small, ill stocked and crowded. The bulk of the items at most small stores are foods that can be rehydrated, rewarmed, or brought back to life from the freezer. The emphasis is on food that is quick and filling if not tasty and fresh. But all of these are generalizations, of course. There are exceptions to the rule. The two grocery stores listed above are two examples that contradict my observation. There’s hope for me yet!

Denmark in the House

Last year, Boyfriend and I bought out half a grocery store when preparing for our Christmas holidays in the US. Boyfriend's father is Danish and since he couldn't travel to Denmark, we wanted to bring a bit of Scandinavia to him. We made a very traditional Scandinavian dinner for Boyfriend's family and my own. On the table was Norwegian smoked salmon, pickled herring in tomato sauce, and rok fiske (literally translated to rotten fish) garnished with finely diced red onion, capers, and creme fraiche. In addition to the fish, we had liverpate and cold cuts. For the cheese, we had a Danish blue cheese, a smoked Gouda (not Scandinavian but my mom liked it), and a Jarlsberg. All of this was served along good, fresh white bread (available at the local Safeway), boiled potatoes, and some crudite.

While preparing for this traditional meal in Oslo, I bought a packet of rådkal, or red cabbage. The red cabbage is stewed until tender and is flavored with vinegar and salt. The result is a mildly sweet, mildly sour dish of tender cabbage slices. It is very popular all around Scandinavia and Germany. When I bought this home from the store, Boyfriend informed me that his mother, who is of Germanic origin, makes it at home so there was no need for the instant, prepackaged kind. So, we've had this package of rådkal at home for quite some time. No worries - it's preserved and has a long shelf life.
When I found this recipe for Danish Pork Burgers, I found the perfect complement for the rådkal sitting in the cupboard. These pork burgers were flavorful, moist, and very lightly seasoned. The mild flavor of the pork patties went great with the slightly sweet vinegar seasoning of the rådkal. To round out the dinner, I roasted some Amandine fingerling potatoes. Dinner was delicious and was my take on an everyday Danish meal.

Danish Pork Burgers
Serves 4
Slightly adapted from
1 pound ground pork
1 small red onion, finely diced
2 slices of bread, torn into small pieces
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs finely chopped parsley
Vegetable oil for cooking

Dijon sauce
2 Tbs Dijon mustard
1/4 rømme or sour cream

Mix the pork, onion, bread, beaten eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and parsley in a large bowl. Roll your sleeves up and dive right in, mixing the meat with your hands. You want this very well combined until you can no longer see the chunks of bread.
Brush a fying pan with a little bit of the vegetable oil. Heat the pan to medium-high heat. Scoop quarter cup balls of the meat mixture onto the hot oil and press down to form a round patty. Cook on each side for about 2 minutes or until the patty is a golden brown. Flip the patty and repeat for the other side.
Mix the mustard and the rømme and serve with the pork burgers. The rømme or sour cream help to round out the sharpness of the mustard.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

So Good, You Won't Want to Share

At least Boyfriend didn't want to. He even left this nasty little note on the bag of cookies I made for him. Either this man is a pain in my ass or those cookies are that good. Or both.

I was inspired by a cookie my cousin, DEWBaker made ages ago. When I asked her for the recipe for these chewy, apricot, white chocolate oatmeal cookies, she couldn't find them. And so, I set out on a quest to develop the recipe on my own and this was the result. After this recipe, I think I will stop messing with the quantities. These cookies are hearty, chewy, and add a sweetness from the white chocolate chips. There is something that is lovely about the obvious sweetness of the white chocolate and the naturally mild sweetness of the dried apricots. These cookies are awesome. You won't want to share.

White Chocolate Apricot Oatmeal Cookies
1/2 cup + 2 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 Tbs cream cheese
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cup oats
3/4 cup diced apricots
3/4 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
In a medium bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar, and white sugar. Mix in the egg and vanilla.

Combine flour and baking soda in a separate bowl. Add the flour into creamed mixture and mix with the hand mixer until just combined. Stir in the rolled oats, dried apricot and white chocolate chips. Drop dough by rounded tablespoons (or a small ice cream scoop) onto ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until lightly browned and crispy around the edges. Cool on wire racks. If you have larger cookies, you will need to bake it for more time. If you have smaller cookies, guess what? You bake it for less. Check for the lightly browned edges.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pølse - Norsk Style

In Los Angeles, my memory of hot dogs came from the fancy hot dog carts at trendy LA nightclubs. Back in the day, when the Century Club was still popular, I would look forward to the obligatory night-end hot dog. These were polish sausages wrapped in bacon, grilled on an open griddle and served in a toasted bun. Added to this shrine to pork products were a variety of sauces, most of them Asian. There would be Thai sambals, Rooster Sauce (Sriracha), salsas, mayonnaise and of course the traditional ketchup, mustard, relish and diced onions. On occasion, I was more excited about those hot dogs than I was about the actual club.

New Yorkers love their dirty water hot dogs. These dogs are boiled in water and served off carts all around the city. The buns are cold, but usually fresh (out of the bag) and the hot dog is topped with mustard, ketchup, relish and maybe onions. I am not a fan of the New York hot dog. The dogs were small, the buns were cold and the toppings were not terribly exciting. New Yorkers are fiercely loyal to their dirty water dogs. They can keep them.
Moving back west, Chicago makes a mean dog. They are known for their Chicago Dog - an all beef hot dog that is topped with diced onion, sweet relish, a pickle spear, slices of tomato, pickled peppers, a dash of celery salt and mustard. Don't embarrass yourself by asking for ketchup. Just don't. This dog is the shit and perfect as it is served. This dog is why I say New Yorkers can keep their dirty water dog. This dog will fill you up and keep you full.

And now to Norway. The first time I saw a hot dog in Norway was at the omnipresent 7-11. The dog was wrapped in bacon, making me miss LA even more. What was odd was that instead of a bun, you had the option to have the dog wrapped in lefse, a tortilla like wrap made out of potato flour. I admit, I still haven't tried it. The other option for hot dogs, or pølse - the general term for sausage, is to eat it with mashed potatoes. I made them for dinner tonight and for some wholesomeness, I roasted a bit of cabbage. I browned the packaged pølse in a frying pan and used instant mashed potatoes. I was super insistent on using the instant stuff. I even went to 3 different stores in search of it. Why instant? It cooks up faster and the consistency is super smooth - just like what they serve in our office kantine! That's probably where I got the idea. Here's our dinner!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oatmeal, It's Not Just for Breakfast

I have eczema. Eczema is a dry skin condition that is itchy, red, inflamed and hurts/itches. It affects A LOT of people each year. I know what you’re wondering; I didn’t know I was so science minded either. Some people believe it’s brought on by food allergies, others by climate. I think mine is genetic. I also believe this as I do not want to curb my diet. I usually use a cream containing borage oil that I can find at Whole Foods. But since there is no Whole Foods in Norway and I can’t find that cream in the stores, I am giving the home remedies a try.
I read on the web that a mix of cooked oatmeal and honey is good. The honey is a natural disinfectant that will clean out the areas where I have scratched my skin raw. The oatmeal has properties that aid in soothing and relieving itchy skin. This same mix can also be used to make a nice facial mask if you are lucky enough to experience life without eczema.
Honey Oatmeal Mask
2 tsp dry oatmeal
1 tbs honey
3 tbs water

In a small pot or saucepan, bring the oatmeal and water up to a simmer. Add the honey and let the mixture cook over low/medium heat until it is thick and “cooked.” Let the mixture cool before applying it to your skin. If your skin has been scratched raw, you will feel a bit of a tingling or stinging after about 5 minutes. That’s just the honey doing its job.

My eczema has not gone away but I did experience relief for the next 12 hours. I didn’t feel the persistent itchiness and the raw patches started to heal very quickly. Repeat 2 times a day until you get some relief. The oatmeal for your face is a great way to hydrate your skin.

Stuffed Freedom Toast

NOOOO! I'm not one of THOSE Americans who insisted on renaming French Fries and French Toast to Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast when the French abstained from getting involved in our still dubious war on terror via Iraq. I just love making fun of those Americans that did. I still cannot believe our congress put time and effort into changing the names of food. Redonk. Fast foward to now, I have hope for my country's new leadership. I have to.

Another thing that gives me hope is good food. Good, wholesome food that is easy and that you can make at home to both save your hard earned money and know what you put inside your body. This dish, while not exactly healthy, is at least tasty good and you can identify the ingredients that go into it.

Boyfriend and I once went to a breakfast joint in the fringe of San Francisco's bad neighborhood, The Tenderloin. The place itself was tiny, filled with kitsch, and had an old diner charm about it. The food was nothing short of delicious. I remember Boyfriend got the stuffed French Toast and it was stuffed with a lot of cream cheese and fresh strawberries. This is my take on that French Toast. My take, however, is lighter, hopefully healthier, and definitely not as sweet.

Stuffed French Toast
Serves 2
4 slices of bread
1/3 cup light cream cheese
2 Tbs straberry jam (you can use any type of jam you have available as long as you like its flavor)
2 eggs
2 tbs milk
2 tsp sugar
1/8th tsp vanilla, just a splash
2 tbs canola or corn oil

Mix the cream cheese with the jam until well mixed. Divide the cheese/jam mixture between 2 slices of bread. Spread out the cheese unto an even layer. Cover each slice of bread+cheese with the remaining slices of bread. Set aside.

Whisk the eggs, milk, sugar, and vanilla in a shallow bowl or dish with sides. Whisk it until the sugar dissolves and it is well blended. Set aside.

Place the oil into a medium fying pan and heat it to medium/high. You want the oil to warm up but not be too hot. Take each cheese+jam sandwich and place it into the egg mixture, one at a time. Let the sandwich briefly soak up the egg on one side and then turn the sandwich over to repeat on the other side. Place the egg soaked sandwich into the hot oil. You want it to sizzle but not smoke so if the pan is too hot, turn down the heat. Let the sandwichs cook for about 2 -3 minutes on each side, looking for a deep golden brown color on each side. I made mine just a bit darker because I like the added crispy texture. Repeat for the remaining sandwich.

We had our Stuffed French Toasts with sausage but you can have it with some cottage cheese and fruit. The toasts aren't overpoweringly sweet so they will complement the fruit well. You can drizzle maple syrup over the toasts but honestly, you really don't need it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What You Read is Not Always What You Get - and Sometimes, It's Ok.

Dyre Vaa
A couple of nights ago, Boyfriend and I went out to dinner with some of his colleagues. The night was boisterous and a lot of fun. I knew the company would be good but what was more surprising was that the food was, too.

Dyre Vaa is set at the bottom of Grunerlokka, right next to the river. Which river? I have no clue but it’s just off the stop of Nybrua from the tram. The restaurant itself is small and cozy. The décor is modern and minimalist, much like the rest of Scandinavian design. The place is part bar, part restaurant with its small bar greeting you as you walk in. It can get loud in the restaurant whether it’s a gaggle of hens cackling over stories about boys or a group of businessmen after a long day at work so keep that in mind if you want to have a romantic date. The waitress was polite, attentive, and competent. She was obviously Swedish.

The atmosphere was nice but the food was great! Dyre Vaa has a small but balanced menu. They offer fresh raw oysters as their starters among other choices such as a crab salad and seared foie gras. My only complaint is that the description of the dishes did not match the dishes that were offered. For example, my foie gras appetizer was called a Terrine de Foie Gras. I was thinking of a molded terrine layered with the foie gras and this apple compote they described. What came was a seared piece of foie gras on a bed of cucumber salad with rounds of apple compote around – not quite the definition of a terrine. That said, the foie gras was delicious. It was very well seasoned and crisp on the outside. The inside was soft and fatty (as it should be) and the accompaniments of the salty cucumber salad and mildly sweet apple compote provided a really nice balance of flavors. For additional texture, the kitchen scattered roasted pistachios around the plate. It was delicious. My main course was a pork neck that had been deboned and braised. It was served atop “rotgrønnsaker” or root vegetables, except once again – it wasn’t. As far as I could tell, the pork neck sat atop some carrots, green beans and snow peas that had been boiled in the sauce and was a bit overdone. The pork itself was tender and flavorful and not too fatty, which I appreciated. I don’t think I’d order it again for I am a sides girl. I make my decisions on the entrée based upon the sides served alongside. The kitchen also sent out a bowl of roasted mandeler potatoes and a potato salad. The roasted potatoes were divine – I could eat them every day for the rest of my life and be happy. The skins were crisp and salty and the potato was soft and buttery. The potato salad was a very literal take on a potato salad – it was some boiled potatoes tossed with lettuce and other raw vegetables and lightly dressed with a vinaigrette. Not bad but not my favorite. I tried Boyfriend’s dish (he’s obligated to give me the first bite of his dinner) and his duck breast was very very very good. The breast was well seasoned and cooked to just the right amount of medium. I was far too stuffed with dinner for dessert but there were a few interesting options. What sounded most interesting to me was the Earl Grey Chocolate Mousse. But who knows? Maybe they use Darjeeling.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

International Women's Day Brunch Buffet

Bølgen og Moi – Take 2
After the last disaster pizza from Bølgen og Moi, we decided to give their brunch a try. The Italian Rabblerowser, my friend Nina (of A fame), SpicyDog, and I met up at the trendy bar/café/fancy sitdown for some much-needed girl time. What better way to celebrate girlfriends, on International Women’s Day no less, than with an all-you-can eat brunch buffet?

The brunch was spread out unceremoniously across the bar. The food, while ample, was light and traditional Scandinavian fare. What set this brunch a notch above the ordinary was the quality of the products served. It was obvious that the vegetables, meats, cheeses, and fish were very fresh. The spread had the basic cold cuts: ham, salami, leverpostei (liverpate), and sliced white meat (I didn’t have it so I don’t know if it was chicken or pork or what). In addition to the meat slices, they had an array of high quality smoked salmon and pickled herring. For their salad options, they made available a lightly dressed green salad, a tomato and red onion salad, and a cucumber and red pepper salad. They had cold roasted potatoes, a corkscrew pasta salad with bay shrimp and amazingly tasty smoked salmon, and a lightly dressed bowtie pasta salad. I don’t remember exactly what was in that bowtie salad as the 2 pasta salads eventually became one when my plate filled up. For the vegetarians in the group, they also had cold omelet squares filled with spinach and mushrooms. For hot options, there was rosemary roasted chicken, a roasted pork loin, and a creamy fish and shrimp soup. The soup was a disappointment. It was light on the cream and the flavors of the seafood came out strongly – perhaps a bit too strongly. Where it was strong in seafood flavor it lacked in basic seasonings such as salt and pepper. The other major disappointment was the dessert bar. It was a pretty site, with their row of yogurt shots and neat little squares of American style desserts. The bar featured cheesecake, brownie/chocolate cake, and carrot cake. The carrot cake was very dense and light on flavor, though the cream cheese frosting was great. The chocolate cake was dense and had the texture of a dried out brownie – I was not a fan. The cheesecake was the only dessert I enjoyed. It was dense and sweet with the only flaw being the soggy crust. Thankfully, I loaded up on the lovely brunch items and the soft, slightly sweet brown bread they served fresh so I did not miss dessert at all.

As with most restaurants in Oslo, it was more expensive than what I would like to pay for a brunch; especially considering this brunch did not include a complimentary glass of champagne or a mimosa. I suppose you don’t pay for the food, though. You pay for a relaxed ambience, a secluded corner to laugh and gossip, and the chance of a Norwegian celebrity sighting. I hear celebs frequent this establishment but considering all of us at the table were foreigners, none of us could appreciate that last point.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Time to Eat Like an Adult

Want a breakfast that is loaded in protein and fibre? Want this breakfast to taste good? Well I have the answer! This oatmeal is filling, lightly sweet, and has great texture from the almonds. After all of the cookies and cakes that I've been making, I feel like it's time to have something just a tad bit more healthy. However, just because I want to eat something healthy, it does not mean that I need to compromise on flavor. Harumph!

Honey Almond Oatmeal
Serves 1
1/2 cup oatmeal
1 cup non fat milk
1 tbs honey, or to taste
3 tbs slivered almonds (sliced can also be used)
1/8th tsp almond extract (optional) - really just a tiny splash
1 tbs ground flax seeds (optional)
tiny pinch of salt

Put the milk, oatmeal, flax seeds, and pinch of salt into a saucepan and bring it to a simmer. To the simmering oatmeal, add the almonds and the honey and mix well. Cook the oatmeal to your desired thickness. I like it not so thick so that the texture of the oatmeal comes through. When the oatmeal is done, turn off the heat, stir in the almond extract and serve it up.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Brown Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies of Love

Chocolate chip cookies are a decidedly American treat and I wanted to make them for some of my friends here in Oslo. When living in the US, I took for granted the ease and convenience of high-quality chocolate in chip form. Not only did it come in chip form, but they came in large bags. Morever, these bags were reasonably priced! Some even came in bulk. Those days are no more for me. Now, I'm relegated to choosing from 2 low quality chocolate balls that come in tiny packages that will cost me around 12 USD (80 kroner) for each recipe. I love my friends and my chocolate chip cookies and I love them too much to pay that much for low grade chocolate balls. The next best thing? Hand chop the high quality chocolate chunks myself. If these cookies don't spell love, I don't know what does.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies
2 cups flour
1 cup of dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups chocolate chunks (or chips if you are so lucky)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbs vanilla extract
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F, 175 degrees C. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or lightly grease with a spray or butter.

In a large saute pan, brown the butter on medium-high heat. The butter will foam and then start to turn a caramel brown color. The butter makes a nutty and rich smell as it browns. Using a heat-safe spatula, scrape the bottom of the pan as the butter browns to ensure even browning. Brown the butter until it is a deep brown color, keeping very close eye on it to ensure it does not burn. Once browned, set the pan aside to cool completely.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl until very well combined. Set aside. Add the 2 types of sugar to a large bowl. Break up the brown sugar to remove lumps and whisk it with the white sugar to combine thoroughly. Add the brown butter to the sugar and beat using an electric mixer. Cream the butter and sugar together until well blended. To the butter and sugar mixture, add the 2 eggs and the vanilla and blend with the mixer until it is light and frothy. Add the flour and blend lightly with the mixer until the flour and wet mix is just combined.

Stir the chocolate chunks into the dough by hand using a wooden spoon, taking care to mix in any remaining flour.

Scoop tablespoon sized balls of dough onto the prepared cookie baking sheet for small cookies. I used a small ice cream scoop, one of my favorite things. For extra large cookies, spoon the dough by the quarter cup-full. Space the cookies about 3 inches apart for they will spread. Bake for 10-12 minutes but check the cookies at the 10 minute mark. The cookies will be a bit darker than your normal chocolate chip cookies on account of the dark brown sugar and the browned butter but look for a brown, crisp edge. Let the cookies cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes then remove it to a wire rack to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

OR you could eat it still warm with a cup of milk.

Holy What the What?!?

Last night, I decided to make a quick dinner of Thai Green Curry, making use of leftover fresh baby corn, Thai eggplants, and Chinese long beans. I stopped by the little Thai food mart next to my Norwegian class and purchased a can of instant green curry. The can contained a paste of the typical spices and ingredients in a green curry. All I needed to do was add 2 cups of coconut milk and 2 cups of water and voila! I'd have Thai curry. I was super excited about this and made it for dinner on Friday.

A mistake, and bad habit, of mine is to get so excited over the food that I plate up without doing a final tasting. I have gotten a lot better but on Friday, I was so hungry and the curry smelled so good that I just plated it and served it up. When we settled down to dinner, I took a small, tentative sip of the curry sauce. The first second it hit my tongue, I could taste the coconut and some of the spices. The second and third second were spent reflecting on the authentic flavor. The fourth second, it started to register that my tongue hurt and blood was starting to rush to my face. This shit was hot!!! Boyfriend, who is more sensitive to heat than me, was a trooper and made it through the first 5 bites before admitting it was a tad bit spicy. 5 more bites and he was sweating. After an additional 5 bites, he put down his half eaten plate and conceded defeat. I was a bit more tenacious, but I paid for it this morning. I ate most of my dinner but I had to eat it in stages and I had to eat it cold. I just couldn't take the temperature and the spice heat at the same time. I am a naturally slow eater but dinner last night took me an hour and a half to complete...and I can only say that I got through most of it before I held up the white flag.

Here's a picture of the scorcher dinner from Hades.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Not My Mama's Banana Bread

My mom made the best banana bread when I was a kid. It was crusty on the outside and moist and buttery on the inside. I cannot remember the recipe except that it came from a beaten and battered Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, the paperback variety, and it used shortening. It is the only recipe I know of that uses shortening. Given how good that cake was, I always assumed it was the shortening that made it magic.

Since I don't have that pictureless cookbook filled with the spots and stains of banana breads past, I am stuck with what I can find on the internet. Only problem is I can't find that recipe on the internet. The book my mom used is at least 25 years old. 25 years ago, shortening wasn't considered the son of Beezlebub. The only recipes I could find online used butter or margarine. That's not the banana bread from my childhood! So I thought I'd sub out the half cup of butter with a half cup of smuggled shortening (trans fat free, thank you) and I thought I'd punch it up with a cup of chocolate chips.

The final result was ok. Not bad, but certainly not the banana bread from the rosy memories of my childhood. I've already called home begging my mom to find the old book and send me that old recipe. She swears she's found a better recipe on the new and hip and promised to send me that one as well. I will make that trip down memory lane.

Mom usually waited until the bananas were almost black before she mashed up the bananas for the cake/bread. It adds great sweetness and a wonderful aroma that fills the house. I couldn't wait that long this time and the final product reflected it. Bananas ripen a lot slower when it's near-freezing outside. However, the chocolate chips were a new and nice touch that I will be repeating.
Recipe coming soon...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Weekend in Review

This weekend we did a lot of eating out. The reason we chose to eat out as opposed to eat heartily at home is that I was afraid to walk up to the grocery store. The good store is up at the top of a hill. Getting up the hill is no problem – coming down, not so good. It has been snowing off and on for the last week in Oslo with temperatures hovering around freezing. Some days there is snow, some days there is sun. When there is snow, the snow gets packed down on the sidewalks and the streets. When there is sun, the ice and snow start to melt just a little bit and when it freezes again, it all freezes into a nice, smooth surface. This nice, smooth surface will kill me. I am not the steadiest person on my feet in the best weather conditions. With the sidewalks turned to ice cubes, I am a walking disaster. Old ladies with canes whiz past me, clucking their tongues and shaking their heads in disapproval. Children go sliding by, purposefully trying to slide on the slick surface and they laugh. To summarize, I can’t cook because I’m afraid to walk to the store.

Instead, we taxi. Saturday night, Boyfriend took me out on a date. I have recently been lamenting the absence of any spicy, tasty food in Oslo being tired of the endless parade of steamed fish filets and salads. Boyfriend found Nam Kang Sushi as my Korean food solution. Even then, it’s labeled as a Japanese restaurant with its menu predominately crowded by maki, sashimi, tempura and teppanyaki. But if you are patient, and you flip all the way to the back of the hovedretter (main courses), you will find 2 listings for bulgogi. You can have your bulgogi in chicken, pork, or beef form. Bulgogi is usually slices of beef that have been marinated in a blend of chilies, garlic, soy, and sugar. The bulgogi is sizzled on a hot plate placed at your table and you eat the bulgogi with steamed rice or rolled into fresh lettuce leaves with jalapenos and garlic slices. To complement the bulgogi, we got some pan-chan. Pan-chan are small dishes of various pickled vegetables, smoked fish, and other cold and tasty treats meant to be eaten with rice and as a complement to your meal. Pan-chan are the reason I eat Korean food. Depending on the restaurant’s supply that day, you can get lightly pickled cucumbers or radishes, potatoes in a soy and sesame oil marinade, sautéed bean sprouts, tiny silverfish that have been cooked in soy and sugar, and acorn jelly topped with soy, sesame oil and chilies. No matter what the daily selection, a restaurant always has kimchi in its array of pan-chan. Kimchi is a napa cabbage that has been pickled and preserved with a lot of crushed chilies, garlic, and other spices, sometimes fermented fish as well. I love it. It’s tangy, salty, sour, spicy, and on occasion fizzes slightly as it hits your tongue. Kimchi and hot, steamed white rice is one of my comfort foods. Dinner at Nam King Sushi gave my appetite and tongue the jumpstart it needed. If anyone knows of any other Korean restaurants in Oslo, please send it my way! I’m jonesing for a big bowl of bibim bap!

On Sunday, in another fit of nostalgia, we made our way down to Karl Johan where all the tourist action goes down and had lunch at TGI Friday’s. To be honest, I only went to Friday’s in the states to meet up with a girlfriend when our goals were to A) drink cheaply and B) eat massive amounts of junk food. Their drinks, which were loaded with sugar, came in huge glasses rimmed with more sugar. Their bar food was fried and covered in either cheese or sauce, or both. When you are in the mood for junk food, TGI Friday’s was the place to go. Sunday, I was in that mood. We each got burgers. I got the Jack Daniel’s burger. The burger patty was larger than and not as tasty as what I remember and Oslo TGI Friday’s served the sauce on the side instead of in the burger. The fries were too few but salty and crisp. It hit the spot but while browsing the menu, I found the Jack Daniel’s chicken strips. These are battered and deep fried chicken strips covered in that sweet Jack Daniel’s glaze. Calling all girlfriends – when you’re in the mood to eat junk food and drink sweet drinks in excess, give me a ring. Those chicken strips are calling my name.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Gorgeous, Just Gorgeous!!

A layered cake is a beautiful thing. I made carrot cake again this week, once as a gesture of appreciation to the admins at work who have been so patient with my unending questions and without whom, I probably would not have been able to deliver. I made 24 cupcakes, of which Boyfriend ate 5. He was reluctant to give up the remaining 18 (I had one too...for test purposes!). As such, I volunteered to make him his own, 2-layer cake.

Part of me really wanted to do it again because just like the first time I made this carrot cake, the second round had a great cake but a disastrous frosting. Americans tend to use package amounts in their recipes - 2 oz. packages of cream cheese, 1 package of Jello, 1/2 a container of sour cream and so forth. The packages in Europe are a lot smaller than what comes from the mega marts in the states. The first time I made the frosting, I definitely did not use enough cream cheese and the frosting was more of a glaze that dripped all over everything. The second time, I used almost enough cream cheese but with the amount of powdered sugar, the frosting curdled. I was able to save this one by mixing some of the curdled frosting with a smaller package of cream cheese that we had at home. It still wasn't quite right. So this time, for Boyfriend's Cake, I even went overboard and added just a little more creamed cheese than what the recipe called for. Yes, I realize I could do the conversion into grams and I did that for Attempt #2 but it still wasn't quite right. As they say, though, third time's the charm. The frosting for the 3rd carrot cake was perfection. It was creamy, tangy and sweet and it set perfectly. Tip: For those of us in Europe, you will need about 500 grams of cream cheese, or 2 1/2 packages of the Philadelphia Cream Cheese from the store. Also, I don't trust the light cream cheese found here in Europe - I think it also had something to do with how it didn't set properly in cake #2.

Tip: Use a triangle to make a circle. For the layered cake, I used my 2 new round cake pans that I privately imported into Norway (that's just the fancy way of saying "smuggled"). The directions called for lining the bottom with wax or parchment paper. A neat little trick that I learned for doing this is to roll out a sheet of parchment paper the width of your pan. Fold the paper in half and then in half once again, making the fold from the creased side of the paper. Now you will have a sheet of paper that has 4 creases that intersect, like a cross. With the paper folded, fold the paper again, this time in thirds to form a point. The paper should look like a long triangle, like so. Line the point of the triangle with the middle of the pan and make a rounded cut where the paper meets the edge of your baking pan. When you open the paper again, the circle should fit at the bottom of the baking pan. I had to trim mine just a little bit to fit so all I did was refold along my creases and trim the triangle a little bit more. Repeat for the second baking pan. Grease the pan and the paper before putting the batter into the cake pan.

Tip: Line the bottom of your cake platter with strips of paper. When frosting your cake, especially if you intend to frost all along the sides, line your serving plate with strips of wax or parchment paper. The strips should be about 2.5 to 3 inches wide. Line the plate so that the edges are completely covered. Place the cake on top of the strips and frost away. When you are done frosting, carefully slide the paper strips out from under the cake, revealing a clean and frosting-free plate underneath. This allows you to frost your cake all the way to the bottom while preserving the clean and neat presentation of your serving plate.
Tip: The bottom of your cake is actually prettier for presentation than the top. Uh -oh...has your cake baked unevenly? Have you found that it rose a bit more than you would like for a neat, layered cake? If so, place the topside of the cake upside down on the platter, thus using the bottom, and even side, up. The even surface of the bottom of the cake provides a flat layer onto which you can place a level amount of frosting. If you want a flat top to your cake, you can repeat the same for the second layer - simply flip the cake layer upside down so that the topside is facing down into the frosting. Boyfriend made this suggestion to me as I frosted our cake. Fortunately, this carrot cake baked up pretty evenly so I did not need to use it.

Lastly, I hope you end up with a lovely layered cake. To me, there is just something special about a layered and frosted cake. I come from a family who makes cake in one layered sheet pan and more often than not, my mom made different types of bars over cake. If she did make cake, it was in a loaf or bundt pan and with no frosting. Though very delicious, these cakes were very simply presented. Layered cakes with frosting in the middle, on the top, and around the sides, were very rare when I was a kid and still invokes a feeling of something special today. I mean, just look at it - a layered cake is a thing of beauty, don't you agree?

Some additional lessons learned:

Wrapping a towel around your hands and securing them with velcro wire organizers is a good way to protect your fingers when grating carrots, but it's a terrible way to actually grate carrots. The carrots slip, the towel restricts your fingers, and the wire organizers don't always hold the towel in place. Instead, I have purchased these. They are rough gloves that can be used to scrub dirt off potatoes and carrots. I have found another use for them. They are great for protecting your hands while still getting the job done.

When adding the powdered sugar to the frosting, add in a couple of tablespoons at a time. I'm not sure if they really avoid curdling but the frosting came out perfect so I'm going to roll with it. Be careful - it can get messy. Powedered sugar flies.