Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tastecation: Helsinki

I am currently on a business trip in Finland. I've been here a number of times, but this is definitely my favorite time of year. If you look at the trees, it seems that they're all still naked.

But look a little closer and you can see the leaves starting to push their way out toward the bright sun and blue skies.

Like Boston, the people of Helsinki have endured months of cold weather and little sunlight. Now, for the first time in months, the sun is out and is warming everything around. When this happens, the Finns do what we do in Boston - celebrate! It's not necessarily a formal celebration, but more of an extreme mood adjustment accompanied with lying about with as little clothing as possible on any surface with even the least amount of grass.

In addition to the palpable happiness throughout the country, the Finns also celebrate asparagus for a few weeks each May. During "Parsaviikot" each restaurant has various dishes added to its regular menu featuring either green or white varieties of this delectable vegetable.

However, as I perused Kauppatori, the main central market in Helsinki, I noticed that the asparagus for sale was not from Finland, but from Holland or Spain. Surprisingly, there were a number of vegetables that were from Finland ("Suomalainen" items included radishes, parsnips, peppers, and even tomatoes), but the things everyone craved, asparagus and strawberries were from other countries.

So what's the fuss with asparagus? I have to believe that this is related to everything turning green for the first time in months. It's time to celebrate life, and the asparagus is the first green thing to come out of the earth, even if it is earth that's almost a thousand miles away.

From a locavore perspective, it's a little off. But from a seasonal perspective I totally get it and I appreciate celebrating food that is in season rather than forced into season.

While asparagus seems like a national obsession from the menus in all the restaurants, there is still a lot of local food. For example, I noticed that a good deal of cheeses and meats served at the breakfast buffet at my hotel are from Finland. In addition, there are the amazing false morels.

These guys are the first on the scene in spring in Finland. Only problem, they are deadly poisonous if not cooked properly and illegal in many countries. Yikes! Okay, maybe THAT is why they celebrate with asparagus.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mushroom ragout with arugula and poached egg

So for my last post, I was trying to take a picture of some eggs and accidentally cracked an egg. Uh oh. Well, when life hands you a cracked egg, you poach it! I took the opportunity to do my spin on one of my favorite dishes at Craigie on Main. If doing this for guests, prepare most everything ahead so that you can focus on the poached eggs. I usually make this for myself, so I only have to poach one egg. If you have an egg poacher gizmo, it will probably be a lot easier.

Ingredients (for four servings):
  • Mix of mushrooms (bag of dried morels, 2 portobello, 8 shitake)
  • 1 - 2 C baby arugula
  • 1 C whole basil leaves
  • 2 C cooked pasta
  • 1 C white wine
  • 1/4 C butter
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 oz shaved or grated Parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper
A few words on mushrooms. I try to do local and in season with mushrooms, but splurged on the morels. I also had to extend my "local" reach out of New England and down to Pennsylvania for the portobellos and shitakes. If you're using reconstituted dried mushrooms like morels or chanterelles wait till the raw mushrooms are fully cooked before adding them. Also reserve the water you use to reconstitute them. Sure, it's a little stinky but it makes the most amazing broth. If you don't reconstitute any of your mushrooms just add a cup of water where the recipe calls for the mushroom juice and cook a little longer.

In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil over medium high flame. Add sliced raw mushrooms. When the mushrooms are fully softened and browned on both sides, add the garlic and about a teaspoon of salt (less if you're not a fan of salt). Stir frequently to avoid burning the garlic. When the garlic is cooked through add any reconstituted shrooms, their juice, and the white wine.

While you're doing this, cook the pasta. I had just made some ricotta cavatelli, so used that. I think gnocchi would also be a nice choice. Make sure to reserve about 2 C of the pasta water.

Add the butter and a cup of the pasta water to the mushroom mix. The starch in the water will help make a bit of a gravy for the mushrooms.

Now comes the fun part... poaching the eggs. Now that I know the vinegar trick, I really love poached eggs and have used them in other recipes. Add about a tablespoon of white vinegar to the poaching water. Bring the water to a full boil. Crack the eggs into separate ramekins (or other small container) so that you can drop one in all at once. Have your spoon ready so that you can quickly coax the white of the egg back to the yolk. Repeat with the other eggs.

Add the cooked pasta in with the mushrooms. Check that there's still a broth. Add a little more water if it has dried up. Spoon the mushroom and pasta mix into bowls. Sprinkle generously with cheese. Add a mix of arugula and basil on top.

This meal was the only use I made of my winter garden of arugula. Growing salad greens in a window in winter is difficult. But this was so worth it. While I usually use thyme and rosemary with mushrooms, the spicy and tangy flavors of the arugula and basil really balanced the richness of the mushrooms and the yolk of the egg.

You want the yolks to be pretty runny, so try to cook them for about 2 - 3 minutes max. Then scoop them out with a slotted spoon and put on top of the mound of mushrooms, cheese, and greens. Sprinkle with a little more salt and pepper and serve.

To eat, pierce the egg and mix the yolk in with the sauce of the ragout. You will likely want to eat this with a spoon or at least have some bread on hand to sop up the rest of the sauce.