Monday, December 31, 2012

shepherd's pie

Have you ever had a favorite dish that you absolutely love but are afraid of cooking because you're sure it won't taste as good as all those times you have ordered it in a restaurant or someone else made it for you? Maybe it's a dish you have always assumed to take hours to cook (and maybe it actually does take hours to make). Maybe it's a dish that has many parts to it, complicated all. Or maybe the dish has an ingredient you have never cooked with before.

There are surprisingly many of those dishes I am somewhat terrified of trying to make. Shepherd's pie used to be one of them. But then I really wanted to eat shepherd's pie. After learning the basics of it, I made a version that was easy and simple enough for me. Now, it is one of my favorites to cook and to eat.

Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's pie has long been a favorite of my father. As long as I can remember, whenever we have been travelling in a bigger city somewhere abroad, my father has always wanted to eat at an Irish pub if there was a chance. Can you guess the reason? Yes, shepherd's pie. It's always when we are already too hungry, when we rather argue and whine than actually try to look for a restaurant. Dad checks if there is an Irish pub near-by. If there is, we'll be there. Eating shepherd's pie or fish and chips. Maybe broccoli and cheddar soup with Irish brown bread. There would be no more arguing or whining.

There's something to those two layers; one of meat, the other of potatoes. The tomatoes give a fragrant undertone to the meat mixture, and the meat is seasoned with thyme and a little basil to bring out the best of both the meat and tomatoes. The mashed potato layer is creamy and slightly buttery, and it is the perfect accompaniment to the meat. Making the meat mixture first and letting it simmer while the potatoes are cooking, allows the meat to take on the flavors. Honestly, if any dish ever was comforting, it's this.

Shepherd's Pie

While making shepherd's pie does take some time, I find it more than worth all the time spent on making it. It is also relatively easy to make, and the finished result is oh, so cozy and tasty and comforting. There's not much better, really. And if you happen to have a relative who likes his meat and potatoes, well, all the more better. My father had to walk out of the kitchen after three helpings because the temptation to eat more was almost too much.

Shepherd's Pie
serves 8

* For an easy, everyday meal I use ground beef. This version was, though, made with 1/2 pound each of beef, pork, and moose. I love it either way. Lamb could also be used (it is shepherd's pie, after all.)

2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion
3 to 4 garlic cloves
4 to 5 medium carrots
700g (1 1/2 lbs) ground meat (beef) *

2/3 cup beef or vegetable stock
1 (400g / 14 oz.) can peeled tomatoes
150g (5 oz.) frozen peas
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp dried basil
salt to taste

1.4 kg (3 lbs) all-purpose potatoes like Yukon Gold
4 tbsp butter
1/3 to 1/2 cup milk (not fat-free)
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 175C.

Peel the potatoes and set them in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside. Peel and dice the onion and carrots. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. In a large skillet, sauté the onion, garlic, and carrots in oil on medium-high for a few minutes. Add the meat and sauté on high heat until the meat is browned and cooked through. Season with spices, then add the stock, tomatoes, and peas. Cover and let simmer until the mashed potatoes are ready. Season to taste with salt.

Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to a boil. In the meanwhile, cut the potatoes into quarters or sixths to reduce the cooking time. When the water boils, add the potatoes and cook until tender and done, about 15 minutes. Drain the water from potatoes. Heat up the milk and add all of the butter and about a half of the milk and mash the potatoes with potato masher, adding milk a tablespoon or two at a time until desired consistency. Season to taste with salt.

Pour the meat mixture into a large baking dish (about 13 x 9 inch). Spoon the mashed potatoes on top, spreading until the mashed potatoes cover all of the meat mixture. Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and nicely browned on top. Let the casserole sit for about 15 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

wednesday writings: thoughts on newtown, connecticut

The terrible news of Newtown, Connecticut, it breaks my heart. New England, as I experienced it when I lived in Boston, was always sensible and systematic, more peaceful and judicious than other regions of the States. Picturesque and charming, inviting though still reserved. Which is exactly why none of this makes sense. Why all those children? My heart is breaking, the unspeakable pain is taking over. The tragedy of the shooting; the precious lives of those children. How did the world ever get like this?

A day off from work today has given me time to think over these things. To pray over all the emotions inside of me, to ask all the questions I have.

With silent cries, my prayers go out to the families who lost a precious child. To all the people who lost a loved one, to the town that will never be the same. As people are looking for someone to blame; as they are asking where God was in all this, because there is always someone to ask that -- I pray that they would truly come to know Him. To know the One who heals our hurting, who offers comfort and peace, who is Love. In this world we live in, we feel we must earn everything; yet when a tragedy strikes, we find we never earned it. We try to make sense of it all and when we can't, we give up and create a world suiting our own views. A place where all that matters is ourselves; a place where we must come first and be served the way we like.

Yet there is a hope, in a world that is so hopeless. It still doesn't make sense, to be able to have everything without having to earn it. To have hope and love, comfort and peace. It doesn't make sense that there would be One who loves us with immeasurable, unconditional love that doesn't have to be earned. So I pray that in the midst of the tragedy that does not make sense, people would find the One who eventually makes sense of all of it. There will be years of unspeakable pain and hurting; of missing  the lost ones; of gripping grief and heartache. So I pray He would be found in the midst of all of this.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is Your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in Him."
-- Lamentations 3:22-24

Because His heart is breaking so much more.

Monday, December 10, 2012

whipped cranberry vanilla porridge

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge

Even though winter comes faithfully every year, it always catches me by a surprise. We have had snow for over a week but I keep being amazed at the winter wonderland I seem to be living in right now. Snow is very welcome in the wintertime, as everything is so much brighter when there is snow. Freshly fallen snow, untouched, also paints such a beautiful picture of peace and purity.

Winter is not my favourite season - somehow, fingers and toes frozen numb, only a few hours of daylight in December, and the coldness that is hard to shake off, do not make it a favourite of mine. Still, many of my favourite memories from my childhood set in the wintertime.

The best days have always been the ones with snow but the temperature only a few degrees below 0C (32F).  Those days you get the best out of the winter activities without completely freezing. Whether sledding or ice skating, we would put on about 17 layers of clothing to protect us from the cold, and Mom would prepare for us a thermos bottle containing hot beverage of sorts, like glögg or hot chocolate. When finally done, our fingers would be numb, noses red, and the thermos empty. Mom would meet us at the door, trying to keep the snow outside and control the chaos caused by the clothes; yet we would all end up with wet socks from the melted snow.

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge

Something about the winter makes me go back to the traditional Finnish dishes. Whipped porridge is something so very traditional Finnish and I find it fits the winter. Maybe it's the tartness of the berries, or the fact that it is eaten cold. Maybe it is the bright pink colour that is rather welcome in the dark season.

Whipped porridge is made of berries - usually lingonberries - and semolina, cooked into this pink porridge that is cooled down and then whipped until light in colour and fluffy in consistency. Once whipped, the porridge is eaten with cold milk, and a sprinkling of sugar if the tartness is too much. This porridge makes a great breakfast or a snack, although we Finns are also known for eating this for dessert.

Cranberries make the porridge fit for the season, though other berries such as lingonberries, red currants, or even raspberries could be used. I definitely recommend the addition of vanilla, though it could be left out for an even more traditional version of whipped porridge. I find the vanilla cuts nicely through the tartness, bringing out the sweetness just enough to enhance the flavour of the berries.

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge
serves 4 to 6

500 ml frozen cranberries
1 litre water

3/4 tsp salt
100g sugar (adjust to taste)
150g semolina
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Combine the cranberries and water in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, then strain the juice into a mixing bowl or a 4-cup measuring cup. Add enough water to make 1 litre and pour the cranberry juice back into a saucepan. Add sugar and salt; bring to a boil. Whisk in the semolina and simmer, stirring often, for 10 minutes.

Once the porridge is done, put the saucepan into a sink and fill the sink with cold water until it reaches halfway up the saucepan. Stirring occasionally, cool the porridge to room temperature. Pour it into a mixing bowl and add the vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on high for 3 to 5 minutes, until lighter in colour and fluffy in consistency. Serve room temperature or cold with cold milk and sugar, if desired. Store in the refrigerator.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

spiced sour cream bundt cake

Spiced Sour Cream Bundt Cake

December has arrived and along with it came snow. In just a few days time, everything has changed from dark and depressing to this magical, white wonderland. Now, piles and piles of pillowy snow decorate the nature, inviting to go out and play in the snow. (Although it's freezing right now, so you might want to think about that.) When there is snow, everything seems so much more enjoyable and it's easier to give in to the mood of the joyful season.

In our household, the Christmas season is restricted to December. While the rule applies to everything related to Christmas, Christmas songs are the biggest no-no. For years, this rule did not make any sense to me but I am starting to see the reasoning behind it. Waiting for the first of December makes the Christmas songs and decorations seem just so much more precious, and my heart is fully embracing the season through the days of December leading up to Christmas.

When December finally comes, Christmas baking takes over in the kitchen. Spices are prominent in the baking, and the comforting fragrance drifting from the kitchen makes everything better. There is always an overload of sweets; yet it fits so nicely the season that can be described as sweet as well. All those hours spent in the kitchen, surrounded by snow and darkness in the evenings, make me feel like I am capturing a moment of time, a stillness in the midst of the rush and the stress of the holidays.

Spiced Sour Cream Bundt Cake 2

This spiced cake is a traditional one in the Christmas time here in Finland. The spices come together wonderfully in this sweet, light cake. The cake tastes like gingerbread cookies (the Finnish ones, at least); so if you're feeling like eating some gingerbread cookies but don't feel like making a batch, this easy cake is a good option. I have yet to try but I think a simple powdered sugar glaze would work really well on this.

Spiced Sour Cream Bundt Cake
makes one cake

* Bitter orange peel is a traditional ingredient in Christmas foods in Finland and Sweden. It is used in, for example, gingerbread cookies and Glögg (mulled wine). I imagine bitter orange is difficult to find anywhere outside the Nordic countries so feel free to leave it out.

150g salted butter

200g plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground bitter orange peel (optional) *
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cardamom
a good pinch of nutmeg

2 large eggs
225g sugar
200g sour cream or Crème fraîche

Preheat oven to 175C. Grease and flour a 6-cup Bundt Cake pan. In a small saucepan or microwave, melt the butter and set aside to cool.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and spices. In another bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Stir in the melted butter and sour cream. Fold in the flour mixture in a few batches, taking care not to overmix. Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared pan. (The batter is rather thick, that's why it's better to spoon it.) Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool to room temperature before inverting. The cake tastes better the next day.