Meal 61: Finland

Note: this post is a few weeks delayed, because in the meantime we've moved! Thanks for your patience, and for keeping the faith. We promised we'd continue Noshing! Midsummer is a big deal in Nordic countries. The nearly endless sun that the Solstice brings not only cheers the soul and makes the air warmer, but it also brings forth a variety of fresh foods that provide welcome respite from the over-wintered larder. So for this Finnish meal, despite being technically about three weeks early, I seized the opportunity to make a menu with several Midsummer-y elements, along with a few distinctive dishes that you'd find year-round.

You may remember Lars, the half-Dane, from our Denmark meal; well, turns out he's also half-Finn, and brought his sister Anneli too. Plus, our guest Sofia's also of Finnish heritage; while none of these three have lived there, they've all spent many summers in the Finnish woods. Thanks to all the Finns for their help in planning and explaining! And thanks, too, to our other guests, Betsy, Dada, Laura, Carolyn, Rachel, Marcy, and Nathan!

Karjalanpiirakka | Karelian pasties | Recipe

While most of the region of Karelia is now part of Russia, these very practical pies have spread across all of Finland. The crust is a simple and quite dry dough of rye flour, which is good because with any more water in the dough it would be too sticky to roll out. (I used a little chapati-roller I bought from an antique store in Mumbai; I think the little horizontal ridges reduced sticking.) While you can fill these rye-dough ovals with all sorts of things, including leftover carrots as the linked recipe suggests, the most common is an unsweetened rice pudding, though apparently this was a relatively recent 19th-century invention. Whatever your filling, once it's plopped in, just pull up the sides, pinch 'em together, bake for a little bit on super-high heat, and you've got a snack!

Ruisleipä | Sourdough rye bread | Recipe

Compared to the five-day rye of Estonia, this loaf was a cinch. While it didn't have quite the same depth, and definitely is rather (and apparently ought to be) drier, it still had great tang and a solid crumb. Definitely one to slather with butter!

Kesäkeitto | Summer vegetable soup | Recipe

"This dish is like meatloaf," Lars said, "in that every mother makes it in her own special way." That's the only resemblance to this very light and delicate soup, made to highlight the fresh flavors and delicate textures of new vegetables. I took it one step further by making a vegetable broth from scratch -- I used onion, carrot tops, some dill stems, and peppercorns, plus one cube of porcini mushroom bouillon for depth and, of course, salt. After straining the broth, I just plopped in the veggies in small pieces, simmered until just before al dente, and threw in a splash of milk because that's what Lars and Anneli's mom always did. This soup is far from filling, but it was really lovely and a neat way to get back to veggie basics.

Poronkäristys | Sauteed reindeer | Recipe

Game is quite popular, and abundant, in Finland. This is the best-known dish from Lapland, in the far north. While we couldn't find one of Rudolph's cousins, and the local butcher's exotic meat collection was temporarily out of the very similar caribou, we did end up with the still-quite-related venison. Such bold meat doesn't need a whole lot of spices to support it -- as you see, it's just wild mushrooms, beer, and butter, plus several hours of super slow stewing, long enough to break the slices of deer down into mere strands. The result is a really rich, straightforward, and truly meaty stew. With the great (and super fatty) broth it produces, I can see why the serving suggestion is for mashed potatoes, but given the season we had to stick with whole little ones. (See below for why!)

Sillisalaatti | Herring salad | Recipe

When the guy at the appetizing store asked if I wanted him to put cream sauce on the pickled herring I'd just bought, I almost shrieked "no!" Because I had my own plans to slather this preserved fish with dairy, in this case a sour cream sauce with accents like mustard and sugar. With layers of chopped dill and chive, it was pretty attractive and tasty, but I do think the recipe was quite parsimonious with the fish. I imagine this recipe was invented to make the fish stretch farther, but if you've got the budget, get more fish and treat yourself!

Varhaisperunat | New potatoes | Recipe

Scandinavians take their potatoes really seriously, especially for Midsummer. All the people I talked to (OK, it was like three people) about what I should make rattled off some thoughts of you-could-do-this or my-family-did-that, but it was made clear that it wouldn't be Midsummer without herring (see above) and even more importantly, new potatoes to accompany. These spuds are picked prematurely, with skins so thin and delicate that they slip off when subjected to moderate friction, and a delicate and sweet flavor. So they say.

Unfortunately, there was nary a new potato to be found in Brooklyn. The folks at the farmer's market said they were a few weeks out, and the closest I could find at Fairway was "creamer potatoes," which were the right size but had to be laboriously peeled. I don't quite know how exactly what we were missing (I'll pay a lot more attention to new potatoes from now on!), but what we made turned out quite nice, after a gentle boiling and a very generous dousing in plucked dill -- rather than indiscriminate chopping, Lars recommended keeping the leafy bits more or less intact and just removing the stems by hand.

Viili | Cultured milk

Viili is a fermented milk product, which is very similar to yogurt except that it's both easier and fussier. Easier, in that to make it the only special thing you need is viili -- to get started, Finns would go to a friend or the supermarket; I was lucky enough to have a coworker give me some, though you can also buy it on Etsy. Once you've got it, put a dollop in little serving-size dishes, add milk that you've heated and cooled (non-homogenized is preferable but not necessary), give it a stir, and let it sit on the counter for the better part of a day. Presto-changeo, viili + milk + time = more viili! It's important to make it in the little dishes, because the texture is very sensitive. You can't scoop it or it gets weird and ropy, the most you can do is sprinkle on some sugar or berries or other flavor before chowing down. And remember, if you want to make more viili, don't eat the last bite!

Pulla | Cardamom bread | Recipe

In the rich European tradition of sweet, buttery yeasted breads, the Finnish version is probably the richest I've ever made -- a whole stick of butter in this recipe! In fact, the dough was so slippery that I wonder if I mismeasured the flour. Anyway, what makes this one a treat is the freshly crushed insides of cardamom pods. (Scandinavians still use white cardamom, which is apparently just what happens to green cardamom on a long sea voyage!) It's a perfect foil for coffee, which apparently the Finns drink copiously, though in our case we closed out the evening with one last Finnish treat: fresh, tiny, incredibly sweet strawberries! That, and Minttu, the Finnish equivalent of peppermint schnapps, but much cleaner and stronger and less sweet.

And that's it for the F's! Gabon is coming next, from our new apartment.