Sunday, May 23, 2010

Too many choices; what to eat first. Not complaining in the Shetlands.

We've just arrived in the Shetland Islands well in the north of Scotland. It's our first stop in the UK, our first stop in Scotland, but Shetland cuisine has its own identity, so it made sense to stay as local as possible. Guidebooks helped me know what to look for when scouting out restaurants.

The posted menu at Monty's Bistro in Lerwick made us hungry mid-morning, and we rushed inside as soon as it opened officially at noon. It resides in a 130-year-old building nestled behind the main intersection of town, with a bar on the first floor and a restaurant on the second. The room sports the original stone walls and wooden floor, with friendly servers and fetching blackboard specials.

This lunch plate at Monty's Bistro sells for £7.50 and is billed as "Grilled undyed smoked haddock fishcake." It's served with an herb-dressed green grape and cucumber salad, and drizzled with a sweet mustard sauce. Smoked haddock on its own is a typical Shetlands dish, and the cake's body was subsidized by gobs of mashed potato, which provided a pleasant dilution to the smoky and oily attributes of the haddock.

Apparently undyed fish is a local point of pride; I've seen it lauded in several brochures for the Shetlands. I never realized before that smoked fish was dyed; I was never even sure that it was dead.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Truthiness: Challenge your consumption assumptions

Brilliant social observer Stephen Colbert coined the term "Truthiness" to describe concepts that have the ring of validity without the substance. I sometimes have to remind myself that I'm not in Kansas anymore (actually, I've never been in Kansas) and my general guidelines about finding food don't necessarily apply overseas.

Here's one example. I'm in Norway, which is a very expensive place to eat. Today, a Sunday, we selected the local Chinese restaurant for lunch. On the one hand, this is very wise, because many establishments are closed on Sundays, and immigrant-owned restaurants are often open whenever they might draw a customer. On the other hand, though, I've had to revise my expectation that ethnic food is comparatively inexpensive, as it is in the US. In America, you can get a giant plate of Mexican, Indian, or Chinese food for a relatively low price. It's been my experience in Europe that ethnic food is priced about the same as a similar local plate.

Here's my Sunday "special chop suey" plate, at $22.50. (Note, too, that the name of the restaurant is written in Chinese and English, but not Norwegian. The menu was in Norwegian and English.) This price is about what I'd pay in Norway for a pan-fried filet of fish with some boiled potatoes. During the week, the special lunch for $14.50 at this Chinese eatery includes a dish like this and a cup of soup. Similarly, the "dagens" daily plate here in town would cost somewhere in the same neighborhood. This is what I've found all over Europe, that ethnic food is an alternative to the local cuisine, but not a particularly cheap one.

So we eat at ethnic places overseas for the experience, and not for the price.

Apparently, my belief that ethnic food is cheap has "toothiness", rather than teeth.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Off to a rocky start

When you're on a short vacation, you're most likely in a hotel, or staying with friends, and the one chore you don't have to do is cook for yourself. We're staying overseas for about five months, starting in Sweden, living in our own quarters, and eating every meal out isn't an option. Even I could get sick of travel food if I had to eat every meal out for that long a time.

Cooking in my own kitchen while I'm away from home isn't a challenge, but sometimes grocery shopping can be. All of the slight or sharp differences in cuisines are reflected clearly in the supermarket. Meat is cut differently, so your cooking instincts might not work. Some foods are emphasized; others are hard to find. I spent weeks looking for mustard in Italy once. Maybe Italians just don't use it. For this reason, it's often fun to wander through a foreign supermarket, just to see what's important to people in the kitchen, even if I have no intention of cooking anything.

I'm in Sweden, a place that's very familiar to me, a place with large supermarkets, a place with people who speak perfect English even if all the signage is understandable only to the chef on Sesame Street. Normally this isn't a problem for me. Today it was.

We had our first big trip to fill the refrigerator and to set me up to make some recipes in advance of needing to eat them. My first official act when I arrive in a kitchen is to make scones. Today I decided to make four batches, 32 of them. We'll have lots of visitors this season and scones are what my guests wake up to.

I was out of salt. Table salt was out of the question; I use kosher salt exclusively for cooking. I have no idea what Swedes would call kosher salt, though I'm sure I've bought it in the past. The market had two sorts of salt, as far as I could tell, fine table salt and salt with grains larger than kosher salt but well smaller than the salt you'd grind in a grinder. Normally, I'd stop someone in the aisle and ask about it. In Sweden, if they can't answer my question, it's because they don't cook. It's never because they don't speak English. But I didn't bother doing the research. I bought the larger-grained salt.

Scones are baked goods, and they need a little salt to work. I was sure that either the food processor would break up the salt, or the 400-degree oven would melt the grains, just as it would with kosher salt. I was wrong. My husband tasted a scone (his official role in sconemaking) and said, unaware of my ingredient swap, "Gee, there's a large piece of salt in this one." Indeed, he later told me that the whole scone had a sort of salty bite to it. Thirty-two scones, none of which passes the quality control test. My husband promised to eat one every day until they are gone (the way you might eat a Hershey's kiss even if it included a little taste of salt.) I'll hold off on cooking anything else until I fix the salt situation.

Taking travel with a grain of salt isn't as fun as it sounds.