Tag Archives: #Baltics

Extreme chocolates in the Baltic States

Didn’t the Baltic series end a few weeks ago? you may be wondering if you saw the title. If you haven’t checked out my series on the cuisine of the Baltic States, please do so. Tabling a discussion on Baltic chocolates felt appropriate to include in Chocolate Month.

The Baltic States certainly are not world-renowned for chocolate. I’m not going to make the claim that Baltic chocolate is the next Belgian or Swiss chocolate either, but I want to share my finds in hopes that anyone who happens to make the Baltics a vacation or business destination knows exactly where to go and what to try to satisfy those chocolate cravings! Overall, as throughout Europe, chocolate shops – from in-house chocolatiers to manufactured retail – are a fixture on the streets of the three capitals. Supermarkets, too, prominently feature a wide variety of local and imported chocolate products from elsewhere in Europe (and yes, European-made American classics like M&Ms are easy to spot). I found the quality and variety of local products to be pretty great, and unique flavor combinations typically were well executed.

Chocolate bars: The local brands Kalev (Estonian) and Laima (Latvian) are ubiquitous in their own countries, but you can find Kalev chocolate in Finland and Laima in Lithuania fairly easily as well. Grocery stores are a good place to get their chocolates – whether for your own cravings or for a gift for a chocolate loving friend back home! Marzipan covered in chocolate also falls within this category; what I found unique was the range of flavors infused in the marzipan, including actual liqueur. Kalev’s Vana Tallinn and Irish Whiskey flavored marzipan were both addictive (yes, you could taste the liqueur clearly), but Laima’s cranberry marzipan tasted like bitter cough syrup loaded with alcohol. Skip that one!

Estonian brand Kalev offers a variety of bar chocolate, some with decorative packaging (a reasonably priced gift!). My first try was a dark chocolate with cherry. Scarred by a recent experience of terrible, medicinal “raspberry” fruit flavor in Bolivian chocolate, I was pleasantly surprised to find a real concentration of what appeared to be natural cherry flavor. Though Kalev substitutes dried apples with cherry flavor for actual cherries, it weaves true cherry flavor throughout. Yum. Their dark chocolate with apricot also was pleasant. It wasn’t the richest quality chocolate, but its price point did not intend it to be so. A white chocolate bar studded with blueberries is great for those who prefer sweet white chocolate.

Latvia’s Laima sells its products throughout supermarkets in Latvia and Lithuania, but its retail stores offer more variety and higher-quality chocolates. My favorite was a seasonal (autumn) very large dark chocolate bar with dried cranberries and crumbled gingerbread pieces. It was an absolutely outstanding holiday treat, especially nibbled with a cup of hot tea or coffee. Another seasonal offering was a gingerbread-flavored wafer kuka (cake), along with a variant that more resembled a square gingerbread Kit Kat – crispier, individual portioned squares covered in dark chocolate. I would take that over a Kit-Kat any day. I was slightly disappointed with a chalky dark chocolate bar with pomegranate and hazelnut; it was 70% cacao but did not have the creamy, soft mouth feel of a better quality chocolate with the same cacao content. Laima’s mass-marketed Serenade chocolates are very good with an unexpected hint of apricot.

AJ’s Sokoladas is a chain of chocolate shops that more resembles a Belgian chocolatier or confisserie, as its focus is more on its selection of individual chocolates and truffles and less on pre-packaged goods (though one of the items in the featured photo, above, is a packaged chocolate-cherry biscuit/cookie from AJ’s). I dearly miss florentine cookies topped with a dollop of chocolate mousse and enrobed in dark chocolate with spicy chilies. It was sweet, spicy, nutty, and rich simultaneously. Their tangy bleu cheese-filled chocolate cups, topped with a single walnut, were a unique marriage of sweet and savory.

When in Estonia, trying a hot chocolate or coffee with local Vana Tallinn licquer is a must! It complements the chocolate quite well, surprisingly.

But THE best hot chocolate I’ve had outside of Brussels is also a wonderful destination for anything chocolate. Chocolats de Pierre claims to have been in business since 1937 here in Tallinn. It is the perfect bohemian hideaway, tucked back in the Master’s Courtyard off of Vene Street in Old Town Tallinn. Its chocolate offerings are much wider and more delicious than the well-advertised Bonaparte, also located in Old Town Tallinn. I sampled a Dusseldorf torte on my second visit – rich, ganache-like torte with a thin layer of almond-accented cherry and walnut with a thin, somewhat forgettable chocolate cake base. Never mind the base, the rich ganache had me at the first bite! An Irish Coffee torte had the consistency but not bite of cream cheese, deadly dark chocolate, and just hint of Irish whiskey. Their white chocolate cheesecake is light and really does melt in one’s mouth. Their homemade chocolates and an array of cheesecakes, quiches, and deadly-sinful chocolate concoctions were as good as anything in Belgium or France. But the creme de la creme was the kuum sokolaad (hot chocolate). No matter how one orders it, it is fantastic. Made with homemade chocolate sauce, cocoa, and steamed milk, describing it as drinking a melted chocolate bar doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Just fabulous!

And don’t even think about those calories. In my opinion, calories in the Magical Kingdom (Republic of Estonia) don’t count!

This winter, try nature’s cure-alls: Sea Buckthorn and Chaga from our northern neighbors

What do the fruit of a shrub that grows in frozen desert (tundra) and a hard, ugly black fungus that thrives on birch trees have in common?

Aside from growing in northern latitudes, altitude, and their cold climates, both sea buckthorn and chaga are natural, homeopathic remedies well known throughout Russia and eastern Europe, and, increasingly, in Canada but are little known in the U.S. Read just a bit about the purported health benefits and symptoms these two plants are used to treat, and you will be as intrigued as I was when I discovered them.

Sea buckthorn in your dessert keeps the doctor away

During my trip to the Baltics, my group and I frequently noticed sea buckthorn was an ingredient in dishes, particularly desserts.  We finally Googled in our curiosity and were instantly hooked. The Interwebs are full of sites touting the amazing medicinal uses of sea buckthorn.  Sea buckthorn even has its own WebMD page.  Sea buckthorn grows in high-altitude, arid and cold climates, such as Russia, central Asia, and eastern Europe, historically, but in the past century, it was successfully transplanted to Saskatchewan, Canada. The woody plants have been planted to help control soil erosion, but it is the uses of bright yellow-orange fruit and seeds of the sea buckthorn fruit that excited me.  I found that it resembled somewhat persimmons or kumquats, but its skin is comparable to that of a tomato.  It is exceedingly tart – not the sort of fruit easily eaten without the addition of sugar or other complementary flavors.

Why the hype?

Sea buckthorn has a high concentration of flavonoids, vitamins (such as C and E), minerals and other nutrients.  It is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.  Its fruit pulp, oils, and seed oils have been used to treat a wide range of gastrointestinal issues, ulcers, and acid reflux, as well as high blood pressure and cholesterol, countering the side effects of chemotherapy, and various skin rashes and disorders (ingested or applied topically as an ointment).  While in Estonia, one of my fellow travelers had a chronic case of acid reflux for six months; he had tried a number of medications and doctors’ visits in the U.S., but nothing seemed to work. He began taking a supplement of sea buckthorn daily, and within a week, he had a noticeable reduction in his symptoms.  Was it the placebo effect, or the sea buckthorn?  Long-term studies of the impact of sea buckthorn are scant, but short-term studies showed positive results.  Read a few summaries to get you started here.

Chaga – the fungus among us that cures

Chaga-rose hip cough syrup from The Farmer's Daughter in central Maine

Chaga-rose hip cough syrup from The Farmer’s Daughter in central Maine

During a trip to central Maine, I recently had my first encounter with chaga, a tough, dense, charcoal-colored fungus found on birch trees, throughout Russia, eastern Europe, Canada, and New England. After an unexpected coughing fit (hey, it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit/-18 Celsius – apparently entirely too cold for my already cold blood!),  a good friend suggested I try a locally made chaga cough syrup that also is used to boost immunity during the harsh winter months.  Within 30 minutes, I had stopped coughing.  I was so impressed I had to order it from The Farmer’s Daughter, the local business responsible for this great concoction – even better because it is homemade from whole ingredients, rather than manufactured commercially.  When I returned home, I did a little chaga research.  Like sea buckthorn, chaga is considered to possess anti-inflammatory properties has been a homeopathic remedy for a number of ailments, such as psoriasis; it allegedly inhibits cancer cell growth, and it can be used to treat allergies.  This article is an easy read that summarizes the immune-boosting properties of chaga.  Watch out; you may be hooked.

Where to buy them

If you live in Europe (yes, you probably wouldn’t need to read this post), then you can find sea buckthorn oil as a supplement at a standard pharmacy or Bio (natural/organic products store) or even as a featured ingredient on a restaurant menu.  If you’re in the USA, check out your local natural foods store, vitamin shop, or online supplier.  Chaga is a bit of an easier find than sea buckthorn, as several teas and supplement pills contain chaga or extractives of chaga, or Betulin, a key active ingredient in chaga.

Various  forms of chaga as an immune-boosting supplement in a standard American natural foods grocery.

Various forms of chaga as an immune-boosting supplement in a standard American natural foods grocery.

 

*Disclaimer: please consult with your qualified health professional before introducing these or any other supplement into your health regimen. Learn about potential side effects, including sea buckthorn’s anti-clotting properties (not unlike aspirin).

Olde Hansa – Medieval times in Tallinn, Estonia

Every now and then, one finds a tourist spot that more than lives up to the hype.

In this case, I was pleasantly surprised by the cuisine and ambience of Olde Hansa, perhaps Tallinn’s most well-known restaurant catering to tourists. I expected a heavy hand of kitsch and cheesiness, but my experience was more understated than I ever expected. Yes, your servers will greet you in costume, you will be serenaded by a minstrel-like trio or quartet, dine in candlelight dim enough to cause a major accident if you don’t watch your footing (!), and have the option of choosing medieval-sounding options such as wild boar, elk, or bear – but everything was surprisingly delicious. Unlike a Medieval Times in the USA, the experience felt much less contrived and campy. It seemed to be the sort of place a local might take foreign guests – and actually enjoy the experience him or herself, time after time.

The berry schnapps aperitif was a great start to the meal. Try the cinnamon or honey beer – lightly sweet but not overwhelmingly so. The herb bread with homemade herbed cream cheese was delicious; this cream cheese – which I found in other versions – is much less salty and lacked the tanginess Americans are used to tasting with the traditional bagel spread.

For my entree, I chose a food adventure of game sausages that supposedly contained elk, wild boar, and bear. I’m not much of a sausage or game fan, but these sausage links tasted like…sausage. I questioned whether they legitimately contained those exotic meats because the taste was so, well, normal! I really enjoyed them, along with the onion jam (if a bit cloyingly sweet, certainly it did not lack in flavor), horseradish cream, ginger turnips, and crushed, mixed berries. While quite full at the end of the meal, I felt much less disgusted with myself than after a typical overprocessed chain restaurant meal back home in the U.S.A. I’d definitely recommend Olde Hansa as a must-try in Tallinn.

This experience inspired me to create my own hearty sausage dinner when hosting friends for dinner soon after my return. Instead of game sausage, I used Trader Joe’s uncured, uncooked Turkey-Cranberry Sausage, which I paired with a cranberry relish. I made a wonderful, garlicky pureed cauliflower in lieu of potatoes or turnips, and roasted, truffled Brussels sprouts. While my meal had a slightly more American, food-trend heavy slant to it, my friends and I enjoyed the wintry, rustic flavors, inspired by Olde Hansa and the flavors of days gone by in Estonia.

Stockpot Riga: The Latvian spirit of The Culinary Diplomat

There are moments when I’m reminded why I started this blog. Moments that inspire me to share the joys of food – from the exotic to seemingly mundane Americana – with everyone. The first experience – well, ok, let’s be honest; all four visits – made me positively giddy with excitement to be able to share the joy of Riga’s Stockpot with the rest of the world. I originally wrote this post a few months ago, but re-reading and editing it even with the passage of time and hindsight, I am no less excited to share it with you

If one restaurant embodies my own goal of inspiring others to venture out of their culinary comfort zones to try new flavors from around the world, making them accessible to everyone, it absolutely is Stockpot. Owned and lovingly managed by a British expat, Richard, and his energetic Latvian wife, Linda and staffed by young Latvians eager to learn and create new flavor combinations, Stockpot serves up a wide range of dishes from around the world.

First of all, I take no credit for discovering Stockpot. Walk inside and you will see what Riga’s hipster scene has known for years. One of Stockpot’s many loyal, regular customers recommended it to a colleague, and I jumped at the chance to tag along. Nevertheless, the place had me at Facebook. Their simple menus change daily, but with the week’s menus posted on Facebook, one can plan ahead accordingly. Trying to label Stockpot is difficult, but a quick look at a typical menu announces its flare for international, exotic dishes – curries, soups, stews, and chilis cooked in stockpots for hours, and, most importantly, spice. Why is spice most important? If you’ve followed my blog posts thus far, you probably have picked up on the tendency of Baltic cuisine to be uncomplicated and relatively lightly seasoned (which does not equate to bland). Spicy curries and chilis appear to be exactly what the doctor would order to counter the dreary winters in dour Riga. To see an otherwise stoic Latvian happily sweating over a spicy Malaysian curry made me smile each time.

The restaurant itself is small and unassuming, brightly lit, small, with communal tables and window counter seating. It is the perfect place for trendy locals – including those on a tight budget – to drop in for a quick, easy, and reasonably priced exotic bite. The entire Stockpot team were friendly and approachable, but owners Richard and Linda reported that their customers often have difficulty with the concept of sharing their dining experience with their table-mates. Latvians tend to keep to themselves, minding their own business, so it was rare that our own table-mates were comfortable carrying on a conversation with us – with the exception of two expat medical students from Switzerland and Austria, who told us how much they enjoy their once weekly (sometimes more often) visits or take-out from Stockpot.

I realize that I’m a bit slow to get to the actual food. The food is the reason for frequent lines well outside of the front door. Though each day’s menu consists of only about 6 dishes, supplemented by a few consistent staples (Caesar salad and wrap, garden salad, smoothies, and hummus and tabouleh, choosing just one was incredibly difficult each time. Richard and Linda told us that they rotate about 200 dishes in their repertoire, and each day’s menu must include 50% vegetarian soups and two vegan dishes, while also accommodating a range of spice levels. Stockpot uses a scale of 1 to 10 to warn – I mean, advertise – the heat quotient to its patrons. They have found that they sell the most dishes with either high (8-10) or mild (1-3) spice contents, which I found pretty funny. The high spice levels draw the spice crazies out of the woodwork, while the mild levels may be more palatable to newbies to spicy food. British-Indian butter chicken is their most popular dish, served every Friday and requiring 40 kilograms (90 lbs.) of chicken to be marinated each Thursday. Endless variations on chili (Linda loves Mexican food) are part of the rotation, using varying types of meat or meat substitutes and beans, and, of course, spice levels rotate through their menus.

I felt so lucky to have the chance to eat at Stockpot on four separate occasions and to sample several dishes each time. On my first visit, the three of us in our dining party all ordered a half order of Thai red chicken curry after watching a local customer sweating. I decided a smoothie and side salad were in order to counteract this heat and fill my lunch-less stomach. Ultimately, the curry had a very nice, balanced heat and hint of coconut without being cloyingly sweet or oddly complex. Basmati rice was a nice accompaniment. The Chilean Carminere wine (3 EUR for a glass!) and complementary cheese plate – with a fitting assortment of English cheddar, Brie, and Lithuanian bleu cheese – were much more refined than the price point would suggest.
A nightcap of golden, French Chartreuse liqueur was a new adventure for the three of us. I still swear it tastes like Chamomile tea mixed with Sambuca – in the best way possible!

Malaysian chicken curry with salad, the Happy Hour cheese plate, and a glass of rich Chilean carminere make for one amazing meal.

Malaysian chicken curry with salad, the Happy Hour cheese plate, and a glass of rich Chilean carminere make for one amazing meal.

On my subsequent visits, I tried a lovely vegetarian yellow curry with cashews, a Malaysian chicken curry, spicy sun-dried tomato soup and their hummus and tabouleh platter (in the featured photo), and, of course, more rounds of the Carminere and cheese platter. I also sampled a chili con carne with a spice level of 8 or 9 (surprisingly slow-burning, the heat did not overpower other flavors) and Moroccan beef dish. I would recommend everything without hesitation.

We all admired Richard and Linda’s simplicity of vision for their restaurant. After years in the casino industry and with a love of good food (and spice!), Richard wanted to build a place to be able to cook what he wanted, without pretention and intervention. Richard noted that the absence of good food in Riga also motivated him. When asked for a chef’s restaurant recommendation in this city, he paused for a long while before recommending…an Uzbek restaurant (we tried it; it was delicious and had an otherworldly ambiance)! Richard, regaled us with stories of their trial-and-error journeys to find and procure the components for their exotic dishes in Latvia and with a limited budget – from the best values on basmati rice, to venturing to the Caribbean to find increasingly hotter chili peppers (chiles), to stumbling upon the wines they ultimately chose for their restaurant. These two are clearly driven by both a desire to innovate and introduce new and fresh flavors to Riga and keeping such dishes affordable to the average Latvian.

Unconcerned with the implication of a tax system that, strangely, penalizes businesses for charitable actions (donations are taxed to the donator) Richard and Linda, through a customer and the Red Cross, donate each night’s leftovers to seven local families in need, two of whom have handicapped children. In fact, neighboring restaurants and bakeries, afraid to flout the tax system on their own, join Richard and Linda’s donation pool. Strength in numbers is real.

Having grown to a team of nine, Richard’s criteria for hiring new staff was that prospective employees needed to love food but they should not be educated. What the what? Culinary students need not apply; purists do. This philosophy shows in their food. The team knows they are good and take pride in their contributions. One female staffer couldn’t withhold a rare Latvian smile when Richard informed her that she would be making two of Wednesday night’s soups herself. Why wouldn’t she? I’d be excited to cook here too!

It’s all about beets in the Baltics – and beyond

Beets are by far my favorite root vegetable – and that’s even with stiff competition from sweet potatoes. It is one food trend in recent years that I will stand behind, yet I am one of those weirdos that has loved beets long before the beet salad became a given (next to Brussels sprouts and kale) in farm to table restaurants. Beets, along with broccoli and canned peas, were probably the only ‘vegetables’ I would touch as a very picky child. I’m pretty sure I inherited my odd affinity for beets from my father, though my maternal grandmother often served them at Sunday dinners. As a kid, I clamored for canned beets, and especially for Ukrop’s (a now sadly defunct local supermarket chain that few, if any of you, will know) marinated beet salad. Molly’s beet salad, a Whole Foods salad bar staple, can’t touch that!

Beets, beetroot, or “peet” in Estonian – is omnipresent in Estonia and, to a slightly lesser extent, throughout the Baltic region. So you can imagine my delight to find beets on almost every menu in Estonia: Pickled beets at my breakfast buffet! Beets in my Vapiano fast casual salad. Roasted beets in my vegetable side dish at more dinners than I can count.

I even found paleo-friendly, vegan “peeditoorleib” (raw beetroot bread/crisps) in a local grocery store – a bit stale/chewier than I might prefer and slightly bland, but with the unmistakeable earthy sweetness of beets (below).

Estonian paleo-friendly "peet leib" - beetroot bread made with seeds and a touch of seasoning.

Estonian paleo-friendly “peet leib” – beetroot bread made with seeds and a touch of seasoning.

So, for the beet-shy, what’s in it for you? Acquiring a taste for beets might enhance more than your palate; the nutritional benefits are many. A 2012 study found that consuming beet juice 75 minutes before a 5K run increased runners’ performance, particularly their pace the last kilometer.

Beets – especially their bitter salad greens – contain naturally occurring nitrates (yes, the same compound found in fertilizer, not the processed preservative nitrite), but, more importantly, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds called betalains, which give beets their characteristic red-purple color and may inhibit growth of some types of cancer cells, including colon cancer. So detox away with beets – but make sure not to overcook them, as the betalains break down quickly with heat.

My favorite way to enjoy beets is pickled; the vinegar balances the beets’ sweetness and breaks down their tough flesh. Many of you have probably seen the typical fad beet salad – red and often yellow beets, thinly sliced, served with goat cheese and a light salad green, such as watercress or arugula. I will never turn down a beet salad, but they often seem a bit tired or unoriginal. I did recently try a wonderful ginger-marinated beet salad with scallion creme fraiche at, of all places, a ski resort in Maine (Sugarloaf’s 45 North) that made me a bit less of a beet snob.

Sugarloaf Mountain's 45 North marinates beets in ginger and serves them with arugula, toasted pistachos, and literally the creme de la creme, scallion creme fraiche

Sugarloaf Mountain’s 45 North marinates beets in ginger and serves them with arugula, toasted pistachos, and literally the creme de la creme, scallion creme fraiche

Of course, one can always go traditional Russian with some borscht. The most authentic versions are full of meat, creating a dish substantial enough for a full meal, such as the one served at Riga, Latvia’s Uncle Vanya.

Perhaps the most innovative — and unexpectedly delicious — use of beets was a cousin of the veggie burger composed of pureed beets, chickpeas, and carrots at Estonia’s Kohvik Komeet – think a slightly less over-the-top Cheesecake Factory, served over a warm lentil and sun-dried tomato salad and topped with hummus (photo at the top of the post). I attempted to recreate this dish for this blog, but attempt #1 fell far short of Komeet’s and is not ready for a recipe posting yet. How did I fail?  I attempted to puree the ingredients with an immersion blender, which did not leave it smooth and light enough in texture; I was trying to keep it vegan but believe egg would make a good binder; and pomegranate vinegar was a horrible touch.  It wasn’t terrible, but not ready for prime time.  I know, I know, you were really looking forward to a recipe for a bright red-purple,vegan veggie patty, right?

My first attempt to recreate Kohvik Komeet's beet, carrot, and chickpea patty, served over arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and lentils and topped with my homemade tzatziki. At least it looked pretty!

My first attempt to recreate Kohvik Komeet’s beet, carrot, and chickpea patty, served over arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and lentils and topped with my homemade tzatziki. At least it looked pretty!

Rustic mushroom soup: Bring home the flavors of Estonia

Soup is the quintessential winter food. Nothing can get rid of bone-chilling cold better than a hearty bowl of steaming soup.

In the Baltics, where winter and darkness try to dampen the soul, I imagine soup is all but a necessity. At least in my experience there, I found no shortage of amazing soups – from pumpkin to borscht to the amazing cepe (mushroom) soup I mentioned in my last post about Neh, an amazing seasonal restaurant in coastal Tallinn, Estonia. In that soup, earthy cepe and chanterelle mushrooms are made foamy and light with a touch of cream and elegant garnishes.

That perfect winter balance inspired me to adapt an old recipe from my Williams-Sonoma Soup cookbook into something a touch more exotic.

One reason I love to cook soups is how difficult it is to ruin them. For anyone terrified of cooking, unless you burn key ingredients, you can constantly undo, tweak, and refine your own culinary recovery into something worthy of serving to yourself and others.

In this case, I was forced to improvise when unable to find dried mushrooms of any type (my goal was chanterelles, but I could not find so much as dried porcini or shiitake). Fresh mushrooms alone lack the intensity I wanted. If you are able to find dried mushrooms, by all means, use them! They add an entire other level of flavor. Also, I sometimes find fresh mushrooms to be a bit soapy both in taste and texture, and I needed a contrast. I turned to a secret weapon – Balsamic vinegar – to brighten the flavors with nice acidity.

The addition of liqueur really enhanced the meatiness of the mushrooms.  I used Vana Tallinn, Estonia’s signature, potent rum-based liqueur, but most of us may be unable to come by Vana Tallinn, so cognac in its place adds a touch of delicate sweetness that is almost undetectable (particularly if serving to kids). though this soup may be better suited for adult palates. No way would I have touched this dish as a child! Touches of heavy cream, truffle-flavored olive oil, and rosemary round out this rich, yet rustic, dish.

I accidentally used only 4 cups of liquid in my own version, but I prefer a thicker soup, and I enjoyed the result. Use 6 cups of broth (or 5 of broth and 1 of water if soaking dried mushrooms) for a lighter soup, but make no exceptions for pureeing the soup. That is one step you must not omit.

Liqueur, Balsamic vinegar, rosemary, and cream add a touch of sophistication to this earthy, hearty mushroom soup

Liqueur, Balsamic vinegar, rosemary, and cream add a touch of sophistication to this earthy, hearty mushroom soup.

One last tip: this soup keeps very well. In fact, I thought the flavors intensified with time, leaving this soup the perfect dinner party candidate to make ahead of time.

Baltic-inspired mushroom soup

  • Servings: 4
  • Print

Inspired by and adapted from Williams-Sonoma Soup cookbook, 2001 and the blog Melangery – http://www.melangery.com/2011/12/creamy-mushroom-soup.html

Ingredients:

  • 1  lbs. (500 g.) fresh cremini mushrooms, diced
  • 1/2 lb. (250 g.) fresh shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 oz. dried chanterelles or other dried mushroom variety (shiitake or porchini) if available
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. black truffle infused oil OR olive oil
  • 1 cup minced shallots
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
  • 4 cups (32 fluid oz. or 1 Liter) chicken, beef, or vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. flour (can be omitted)
  • 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz. or 125 mL) whipping (heavy) cream
  • 1/3 cup (80 mL) Vana Tallinn liqueur or cognac
  • 2 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp. rosemary, ground
  • 1 tsp. salt adjusted to taste
  • Pepper to taste
  • Greek yogurt or sour cream for garnish

Tools:

  • Large pot
  • Smaller pot
  • Immersion blender, blender, or food processor
  • Whisk

Bring stock to a boil. If dried mushrooms are available, rinse and then soak them one cup of the boiling water or stock for 20-30 minutes.  Drain and reserve the liquid if desired.  Briefly soak the fresh mushrooms in water for about 5 minutes to remove grit.  Rinse, drain, and pat dry.  Set aside.

In the large (separate) pot, melt butter and heat oil over medium heat.  Add garlic and shallots and saute until translucent but not browned.  Add the fresh mushrooms (both varieties)  and toss to coat.  Saute until softened (5-7 minutes). Add a small amount of broth if needed to prevent sticking.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour and about 1/4 cup of the heated broth to make a roux.  Gradually add this roux to the mushroom mixture. This step can be omitted to keep the dish gluten-free, though the result will be slightly thinner.

Add the broth to the mushrooms.  Whisk together and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat.  Puree either using an immersion blender in the pot or in batches in a standard blender or food processor.  Return to the pot.

Over the medium low heat, whisk in the liqueur or cognac, vinegar, cream, rosemary,salt, and pepper to taste (I use cayenne). Simmer for another 10 minutes or until it reaches the desired thickness and flavor.

Serve with yogurt or sour cream and additional Balsamic vinegar.  For a more intense flavor counterpoint to the meaty mushrooms, reduce 3/4 cup of Balsamic vinegar until half of the liquid has evaporated. Add a small amount of butter (1/2 tbsp.) of butter and whisk to make velvety.

What is Baltic cuisine?

Just what really is Baltic cuisine, you ask?

Um…what and where are the Baltics? That’s what secretly you’re asking, right?  Isn’t that where they had that war in the ’90s? Like Serbia or Bosnia?

Nope.  But it’s an honest mistake.  Don’t feel stupid; we’ve all had those moments. And I totally was that kid who read maps for fun, which is just not normal.

Anyway, the Baltic States are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania:  three tiny countries best known in the West for being the first countries to declare their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 (and whose names sound, not so wrongly, like charming fantasy kingdoms). They are located west of Russia and north of Poland, strategically on and across the Baltic sea from Finland and Sweden.

baltic states map

Their history is a not-so-charming series of occupations by foreign powers – Denmark, Sweden, German states, Prussia, Russia, Germany, and most recently, Russia (the USSR) again.  Since their independence, the three countries worked to establish themselves as legitimate nations and part of the European Union.  Today, their three capitals – Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius – are striking combinations of old and new, from their medieval old towns to early 20th century architectural marvels to sleek, modern skyscrapers – all highly wired – even more so than the U.S. and western Europe.

I thought this was a food blog, you’re wondering.  I know, I know, geography and history lesson here (and I’m not doing it justice, I realize) does not equal food.  I’m getting there; this stuff is relevant, I promise. Because you can’t view Baltic food as something uniform or completely indigenous.  In the Baltics’ dishes and restaurants, you will recognize the influence of geography and history, and now, also globalization:  the invaders and the traders.

I had the pleasure of spending a nice stretch of time in the Baltics. I hate to do each country the disservice of overgeneralizing or simplifying, but I’d just like to summarize to start you in your culinary journey to these three countries.

I found the food scene in this region to be completely underrated.  Each capital has so many hidden culinary gems that the world hasn’t quite caught onto.  Perhaps it is because its foods bear similarities or hybridize in some way dishes made famous by other countries or cultures, or perhaps it is because it is hard to generalize in these rapidly globalizing countries.  Or perhaps everyone that visits is so distracted by the three capitals’ charming old town centers that they haven’t ventured far in their food adventures.

Though I definitely will go into more detail in future posts, I’ll sum up traditional Baltic cuisine:  more meats and less fish than I expected – beef, duck, and venison are menu staples in the nicest restaurants; black bread so addictive I can’t say enough about it; mushrooms; pumpkin; beets; and sour cream.  Enter the influences of European and global trade, and you get wonderful fusion dishes.

 

As they definitely are not isolated destinations, all three capitals also add their flare to cuisines from around the world – continental European, Italian, Chinese, Turkish, Russian, Armenian, Uzbek, Asian, and even Tex-mex for starters.  Texans are everywhere!  Additionally, I found a surprisingly wide availability of vegetarian, vegan, and even paleo-friendly grocery products and restaurants, particularly in comparison to western Europe.

I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity to learn more about the many food finds and adventures to be had in the Baltics.  Join me on a trip over the next few weeks to the Baltic region!