Originally created 02/22/06

Chefs' visit revives family memories of Finnish food tradition



NEW YORK - When France's president, Jacques Chirac, called Finland's cuisine the worst in Europe, I took it personally.

I have fond memories of my Finnish grandmother's spicy herring and beet salad, and her cabbage rolls, not to mention the heady aroma of pulla, a cardamom-flavored coffee bread she baked each Christmas.

So when I learned that a couple of Finnish chefs were coming to cook at the James Beard House in downtown Manhattan, I was understandably thrilled - and my memories revived.

Pulla (sounds like boola) was not on the menu, but there were other traditional Finnish dishes, including herring caviar, cream of cauliflower soup with cold smoked whitefish and truffles, lightly smoked venison fillet with berries, and other good things.

Despite Chirac's comments, Finland is becoming a presence on the wider culinary scene. Its capital city, Helsinki, hosted its first weeklong international food festival in the summer of 2005.

But traditional Finnish dishes like the pulla my grandmother made hold their own. It is still the key ingredient on the Finnish coffee table, which is set for every occasion: after sauna, after church, holidays, birthdays, weddings and funerals. The table is elaborately laid with baked items ranging from yeast coffee breads to fancy filled cakes.

My grandmother used no recipe for her pulla. But I already felt this magic process would be lost forever if I didn't write it down, so one day, when I was 9 or 10 and she was pushing 80, I remember sitting down at the old brown metal table in her Brooklyn kitchen, with a notepad and pencil.

My grandmother, whose name was Maria Hyvarinen, wore a white butcher apron over her printed crepe dress with the white collar. Her strong, brown hands flitted like powdery birds, touching and tossing, more flour, a dash of sugar, into the heavy ceramic bowl.

She stirred with a very long-handled spoon carved from a tree branch from the mystical Karelian forest, then on the Russian border. (I still have the spoon.)

What about measurements? My grandmother only laughed, flattered that I wanted to write down the recipe, but offering no help in the process.

I soon put my pencil down and joined her in rolling out strands of the fragrant dough and gently forming braids much like our own - I wore the standard set of schoolgirl pigtails, and my grandmother coiled a single long braid around the back of her head.

Although most Finns brush the tops of the yeasty loaves with egg wash, my grandmother used creamed coffee. Then she sprinkled sugar over them and put them into the oven. The aroma that filled that tiny Brooklyn apartment will be held captive in my memory for the rest of my life.

As we sat at the table waiting for the loaves to bake, my grandmother poured herself a cup of coffee, which she had made in the traditional way by adding egg shells to the pot to make the coffee clear.

I remember only a few words of my grandmother's multisyllabic native tongue, but fortunately chef Jani Lehtinen, one of the visitors cooking at the Beard House, spoke flawless English.

Lehtinen, 33, is executive chef and owner of Bucco, a trattoria-type restaurant in Pori on Finland's west coast. Bucco's chef de cuisine, Jari Seppala, 42, was also on hand. Lehtinen, who grew up cooking with six aunts, prefers simple food, perfectly presented. "You remember the taste for a long time," he said.

Finland, a land of forests and lakes extending from the Arctic Circle into the Baltic Sea, is known for its fish, wild game, and fresh berries and vegetables that get an extra boost of flavor and size during the long summer days of the midnight sun.

Fish is prominent in the cuisine of all Nordic countries, but because Finland has thousands of lakes, freshwater fish plays a more important role. Whitefish is so popular that Lehtinen's first cookbook, written with two other Finnish chefs, is devoted to it. He told me he likes to cold-smoke whitefish, and layer it with a fish mousse. He also likes it with crawfish sauce.

Because of U.S. food import restrictions, Lehtinen and Seppala were unable to bring food with them from Finland to cook in New York. But they did bring a small smoking box, which is standard equipment in most Finnish kitchens for use with fish or game.

Back home in Finland, Lehtinen smokes food with leppa wood from trees that grows near the sea. He told me he enjoys using local ingredients, including wild game, especially venison, which a hunter friend brings him regularly. He says he likes to smoke deer fillet and serve it with rosemary glaze, "although glaze is not really used in Finnish cooking," he said.

The abundant wild berries of Finland are used in desserts such as fruit soups, whipped berry puddings, and porridges.

"Juniper is classic in Finland," Lehtinen said, but he told me his favorite is the seabuckthorn berry called tyrni (deerr-nee) in Finland. These deep orange berries smell rather like pineapple and have so many vitamins and antioxidants that oil from the berries is sold in health-food stores. The berries grow wild on thorny bushes near the sea, but are now farmed as well.

Lehtinen uses the fruit for desserts. "It does well with ice cream, sorbets, syrups and parfaits," he said. "We also make cocktails with seabuckthorn berry juice. It takes care of your vitamin C level for the rest of the year," he quipped.

Like the wild berries, mushrooms, too, are abundant in the forests of Finland and more than 100 varieties grow wild. Finnish citizens, who take great pride in their forests, and have some of the most advanced environmental protection laws in the world, are permitted to pick wild berries and mushrooms freely.

"It's fun to fall in love with something new every week," Lehtinen said. "In the summer the first new potatoes make people crazy. You eat them with butter, dill and herring."

The first mushrooms are picked soon after the snow has melted in April or May and the last in autumn. The demand from other countries for Finnish porcini (also known as cepes, Boletus edulis) is far greater than the supply.

The Flavors of Finland dinner at the Beard House was devoured with enthusiasm by the 80 or so guests. The herring made me remember my grandmother's herring salad, which I called "silly salad," because I could not pronounce the Finnish name, sillikasalaatti. My personal favorite was the creamy and smoky cauliflower soup.

Coffee is still the national drink in Finland, drunk many times during the day. "Ten in the morning is the classic time for coffee," Lehtinen told me. "We sit down at the restaurant and work on the day's plans."

Of course, to go with coffee, Lehtinen and Seppala make pulla all the time, so for them it is easy. Here is their recipe along with a few others from the Beard House dinner.

Finnish Coffee Bread (Pulla)

2½ cups whole milk

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cardamom seeds crushed into a powder

1 ounce package of dry yeast

7¼ cups flour

7½ ounces butter at room temperature

1 egg, beaten, and sugar for glaze

Warm the milk to 107 F and pour into a large bowl. Add the egg, salt, sugar, cardamom, yeast and half of the flour. Mix with large wooden spoon until well blended. Continue adding the flour cup by cup, gradually mixing it together. Add the butter last.

Place a towel on top of the dough and keep in a warm place for 30 minutes while it rises and doubles in size. Sprinkle some flour on a board or table and on your hands while working with the dough. Punch down the dough, turn it onto a board, and shape it into small buns, or roll out long strands and braid three together to form loaves. Cover buns or loaves with a towel and let rise for 15 minutes.

Glaze top of each bun or loaf with beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a 400 F oven 12 to 15 minutes for buns, and 25 minutes for loaves, until golden brown. Serve with cold milk or coffee.

Makes 40 buns or 3 loaves.

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Cured Salmon With Lime Vodka, Tomato-Caviar Vinaigrette and Rye Croutons

1 fillet of salmon weighing about 2½ pounds

½ cup sea salt

¼ cup sugar

1 cup lime-flavored vodka

To prepare the salmon:

Pack salt all over the salmon, using additional salt if necessary. Place fillet in a shallow dish or pan and sprinkle sugar on top. Pour the vodka over the salmon and refrigerate overnight.

For the Vinaigrette:

3 large tomatoes, not too ripe

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 ounce caviar or other fish roe

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

Handful of fresh chives, chopped

½ teaspoon salt

Pepper to taste

To prepare the Vinaigrette:

Put tomatoes into boiling water for 20 seconds and then instantly into ice water to loosen the skin. Peel tomatoes and cut each into four pieces and remove seeds. Make small dice from the tomato and put them into a bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mix together gently.

For the Croutons:

1 cup bread cubes of dark rye bread

1 tablespoon butter

¼ teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Melt butter in a saute pan and fry the bread cubes until they are crispy on the surface. Season with salt, to taste.

To serve:

Place 4 or 5 thin slices of salmon on each plate. Pour vinaigrette over and toss a few croutons on each serving. Note: This can also be garnished with creme fraiche, chives, dill and caviar or fish roe.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as an appetizer.

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Cauliflower, used in the following soup, is a popular vegetable with Finns and they prepare it in many ways. They grate it and roast it, and it's often served as a main dish.

Most Finnish kitchens have smoking boxes, so it is easy for the Finnish to smoke their fish. In the United States you can find cold smoked whitefish for this recipe in many gourmet and fish stores. The white truffles are optional.

Cauliflower Soup With Cold-Smoked Whitefish and Truffles

(Kukkakaalikeitto ja kylmasavusiikaa)

1 head cauliflower, cut up into small chunks

2 shallots, roughly chopped

6¼ cups whole milk

2¼ cups heavy cream

About 1 teaspoon salt

White pepper to taste

5- or 6-ounce fillet cold-smoked whitefish, cut into 16 to 24 thin slices

Optional garnish of shaved white truffle (see note)

Put cauliflower and onions into large pot and cook them slowly in the milk for 20 minutes until tender. Pour the mixture into a blender, small amounts at a time, and process until smooth. Return to the pot; add cream, salt and pepper, and heat until warm.

To serve:

Place 2 or 3 thin slices of fish in the bottom of each soup bowl. Pour soup over the fish and if desired garnish with shaved white truffles.

Makes 8 servings.

Note: Other garnish options are fresh chives, dill, or caviar or other fish roe.

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This herring caviar recipe makes about two cups for a dip or sandwich spread. Herring caviar is a traditional part of the bread-and-butter table, a variation on the Finnish coffee table. Similar to the Swedish smorgasbord, the bread-and-butter table includes all things that go well on or with bread, including cold and pickled fish, cold cuts, cheeses, salads, meatballs and vegetables.

Herring Caviar (Sillikaviarri)

2 hard boiled eggs, chopped

1 cup mayonnaise

2 fillets of salted herring, weighing about ¾ to 1 pound, chopped (see note)

1 shallot, chopped

2 handfuls fresh dill, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix everything together in a bowl and add salt and pepper to taste. Remember, the fish is already salty. Serve with thin potato chips for dipping or spread on dark rye bread slices.

This recipe makes about 2 cups for a dip or sandwich spread.

Note: Fresh salted herring in brine is imported from Europe and is often available during the Christmas holiday season in specialty grocery stores that stock Scandinavian ingredients. Many fish retailers can special-order it. If the herring is straight from the barrel, soak it in cold water for 1 hour to eliminate some of the salt. Most herring is sold already prepared this way.

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At the Beard House dinner, the following salad was served with venison carpaccio as an hors d'oeuvre, but it is traditionally served with any meat. Finns make it with cinnamon apples, a variety that has grown in their country for a long time. The closest match for apples available in the U.S. would be Gala apples.

Finnish Apple Celery Salad (Kevatsalaatti)

1/3 cup pine nuts

4 Gala apples cut into thin matchsticks

1 celery stalk, sliced

1 lemon, juiced

1 cup mayonnaise

Salt and white pepper, to taste

Toast pine nuts lightly in a dry frying pan over medium heat until pale gold; set aside. Cook sliced celery 2 minutes in boiling water, then plunge it into ice water; drain and pat dry with a towel. Mix toasted pine nuts, apples and celery in a bowl with the mayonnaise and lemon juice. Season with salt and white pepper to taste.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

(Recipes from chef Jani Lehtinen, Trattoria Bucco, Pori, Finland.

On the Web:

http://www.bucco.fi