Working full-time leaves far too little time left over to cook. In my utopia we’d all be working three hours a day, followed by two hours food shopping at a cheaper version of Borough market, before cooking all afternoon and eating all evening. But before that’s been turned into a workable economic model, we have to make do with simpler things, like Swedish rösti with caviar. Quite a light supper, it’s a perfect snack before going out (don’t worry, that kebab in the wee hours of the morning will keep you from starving).
Making rösti is very easy, and you can take it quite far from its humble origins if you top it with fresh Swedish ingredients like gräddfil (sour cream), dill, spring onion and caviar. What with IKEA’s food empire being spread all over the world, you can buy Swedish caviar very cheaply. This isn’t fancy caviar in any sense (it comes from the herring), but it’s still salty and delicious.
- 1 tub of sour cream (creme fraiche also cuts it, but best of all would be gräddfil)
- Fresh dill, finely chopped
- Fresh spring onion or chives, chopped
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 6 large potatoes, grated
- 1 egg
- A selection of caviar glasses – theses are about €1.50 in IKEA. They only have red, black and vegan caviar, so if you want nicer stuff find a Swedish shop where they will have Stenbitsrom or Kalixlöjrom.
Start by chopping and frying half of the onion on a low heat. Peel and grate the potatoes, and mix in the onion. Also add half of the dill, the egg and salt to taste. Form the mix into flat rounds, about half a centimeter thick, and carefully place in a non-stick pan, on a medium heat with plenty of oil and butter (a mix makes for the best flavour – it’s not meant to be a health meal). Flatten the cakes with a spatula once they are in the pan, as that makes them stick together better. Let them fry about 4 minutes on each side, until they are golden. Carefully lift them out of the pan onto kitchen roll, and keep frying these until you’ve used up all of the mix.
An easy way of eating them is to just place all the condiments on the table and let everyone make their own caviar creation. However, if you want it a bit nicer, place two rösti on each plate, add some of the chopped onion, a generous dollop of creme fraiche, the caviar of your choice, and top with chives, dill and spring onion. Serve with cold, light beer, and vodka if you are going out.
I detest dry chocolate cake. The sugary sponge desserts found in some supermarkets or school canteens would put anyone off it for life. Yet chocolate mousse and elegant souffles are difficult to make, and often require lots of equipment. I found this recipe to be a perfect middle ground: it incorporates some of the stickiness of a Swedish kladdkaka, yet with all the richness of French chocolate creations. For all this, it’s still very easy to make.
The ingredient list is rather simple, although the golden rule with chocolate-based desserts mustn’t be forgotten: the better the chocolate in the base, the richer the cake. Having the luxury of living in Brussels, I brought several slabs of almost smoky dark, as well as milk chocolate with me home to Sweden this winter (or, they were a gift for my stepmother, but she didn’t mind them being used this way… at least not once she got to try the result). I used light and nutty milk chocolate for the cake itself, and a dark, almost bitter chocolate for the topping.
For the cake, you’ll need:
- 6 eggs
- 250 g unsalted butter
- 2,5 dl Sugar
- 60 g flour
- 250 g milk or dark chocolate, depending on taste
For the dark chocolate cover:
- 100 g unsalted butter
- 50 g honey
- 100 g dark chocolate
And for the salted caramel topping:
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt flakes
- 1 dl Muscovado/brown sugar
- 100 ml double cream
- 50 g unsalted butter
Starting with the cake ingredients, melt the butter, and mix it with the chocolate until the chocolate has melted entirely and you have a smooth mix. Put the oven to 200 degrees, and use some of the butter to grease the spring form tin.
Pour the mixture into the spring form, and bake in the oven at 200 degrees for about 30 minutes, but be careful not to overbake it. The cake should have just started to settle when you take it out, and sway lightly if you move the tin around. Leave it to cool uncovered. Once it has cooled to room temperature, put it into the freezer for a couple of hours, but remember to remove it from the freezer at least two hours before you plan on serving it.
When the cake is in the freezer, you can start making the chocolate topping, which is pretty easy: melt the butter and pour it into the dark chocolate, and mix around until you have a smooth cream. Add the honey into the mix, and put to the side to cool.
Then start making the salted caramel.
Melt the muscovado sugar in a dash of water on the stove. Be careful: just swirl it with large sweeps of the pan, and don’t use any tools in the pan with the sugar. Add the butter, and let it melt, again just swirling the pan. Once the butter has melted, add the cream, and let it bubble away for 5 minutes until it has thickened slightly. It will thicken more once it cools down, so you don’t want to thin it down too much. Finish by adding half a teaspoon of sea salt into it. Put to the side to cool.
Just before serving, spread the dark chocolate sauce evenly across the cake. Then add the caramel in long streaks across the cake, spreading it as elegantly as you can (as you can see below, artistry is not my strong side). Top off with a small dusting of sea salt flakes. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. It will be dark, creamy and deliciously over-the-top, with a perfectly balanced saltiness in the topping.
I’m currently hiding away in a little cottage in the vast forests of Småland, after six consecutive nights of heavy Swedish Christmas dinners. The next few days I intend to eat only pizza and salad, and possibly a curry if I can be bothered making one. But it’s Christmas, so most likely I won’t. Since I’ve had the pleasure of being served food by everyone I’ve visited this Christmas, I will not present any recipes in this post, but rather a little run through of what Swedes eat at Christmas, and why it’s amazing despite its gluttonous repetitiveness (at Christmas, we tend to eat a variation of this for all too many nights).
The basis of Swedish Christmas food is our love for sandwiches – its basically sandwich food, just a bit over the top, and without much bread. Southern Christmas food (Skånskt julbord) tends to be the most over-the-top of them all, in line with the Southern tradition of exaggerating and bragging through food. You must start with the fish dishes (it’s always a buffet, all you can eat-style), and here the herring takes up most of the space. It’s normally eaten with eggs, caviar, boiled potato and dark bread. You will have several versions of home-made pickled herring (inlagd sill) and the guests are normally expected to contribute with a few kinds of their own. One of the tables I visited this year had ten different varieties, including the classics with mustard and onion. My undisputed favourite remains my stepdad’s curry herring with apple. It sounds weird, but it’s amazing.
The second staple of the fish table is gravlax. Ambitious people make this by themselves, by rubbing a salmon in sugar, salt, dill and pepper, and leaving it to ferment lightly under something very heavy in the fridge for a couple of days. The method of making gravlax actually stems back to VIking age, when people used to bury fish deep into in the salty banks of beaches, as a way of preserving it until they wanted to eat it. It tastes somewhat similar to smoked salmon, but with stronger hints of spices. The sauce that goes to it (gravlaxsås) is sweet, tart and full of dill.
However, the real star of the fish table is the smoked eel (rökt ål). It’s normally served with scrambled eggs, and its delicate smoky creaminess is simply sublime when done well. The conscious reader will know that due to over-fishing, fishing Baltic eel becomes illegal every now and then. However, stubborn traditionalists will still sneak it up on the table for Christmas with a sly smile to the general applause of other traditionalists. I’m not too bothered with tradition, but eel is one of my favourite kinds of food ever… and my aunt promised me that this year’s eel came legally, from a nearby lake.
Now, moving on to the meat table, the meatballs (köttbullar) are obviously a key feature, served with beetroot salad. The meatballs are so central that in some families, you will have several different batches of meatballs. One year my mother, gran, aunt and cousins had all set about making meatballs, with the obvious competition to go with it. Some opt for modern takes on meatballs, like putting thyme and parmesan in them. Others go with revival recipes from the 19th century which include sweet anchovy brine. My favourites remain my mothers: she makes them small, juicy and hot with white pepper. One thing is clear: never make them all beef, and never, ever, replace the butter with olive oil.
The Christmas ham (julskinka) is another central feature of the meat table, with different strong mustards (home-made, as seen in the background, makes for the strongest kind), cheeses and dark, sweet bread. One of Sweden’s most famous Christmas songs is about a julskinka that ran away. Julskinka is also the reason why you will be served so many home-made hawaii, capricciosa or other ham-based pizzas after New Years eve. No matter how much ham you eat, it just never ends. Adding to this equation, people tend to assume that the larger hams are tastier.
Danish paté (dansk leverpastej) with Cumberland sauce and cornichons is a sandwich-linked must-have on the Southern table. With home-made cumberland sauce it’s one of my favourites, as the aroma of the orange peel is delicious together with the creaminess of the paté and the salty pickle.
Janssons frestelse (The temptation of Jansson) is a creamy, potato based dish with onion, breadcrumbs and anchovies. Sometimes people sneak caviar into it for the perfect amount of saltiness. It’s eaten with the ham, meatballs or eel, or just about anything on the table. Beside the köttbullar and julskinka, Janssons is one of the most common things found on any Swedish Christmas table. No Janssons, no Christmas.
Lutfiskpudding is a weird one. This dish, prepared with white dried fish, butter and rice, is loved by many of the older generation but sadly not quite understood by me. But apparently there’s something irresistible about the crusty surface and the lutfisk flavour eaten together with loads of butter.
No julbord would be complete without sausages (julkorv). There are normally a few varieties of these, including reindeer, wild boar and normal smoked salami with green pepper. They are normally accompanied with four or five kinds of cheese as well.
All the savoury food is served with beer and frozen snaps of course, which is taken every five minutes with a rowdy or happy Christmas song. If you’re confused regarding which snaps to go for, always opt for Linie aqvavit, which is a safe bet and enjoyed by most. Try Piraten or Beska droppar at your own peril.
The dessert of the julbord is called risgryngröt and is a form of sweet porrige. In Sweden, it’s tradition to eat risgynsgröt with an almond smuggled into in. Whoever eats the almond is said to get married the following year. My aunt tends to cheat and add four or five, so that people have a bigger chance of getting married. 25 years and it still hasn’t worked. And for someone who’s not into desserts much, I have little love to spare for risgrynsgröt. It’s quite heavy, with lots of cream, and in the South it’s normally served with raspberry sauce (normally just wild raspberries, in the freezer since summer, and then gently simmered with some sugar on the stove). The anomaly on the picture is the Norwegian way of eating it, with butter and cinnamon (as preferred by my stepmum).
Of course, this is far from a comprehensive overview of what Swedes eat at Christmas, as I’ve left out dopp i grytan, rödkål, brunkål, svampgaller, lutfisk and many other dishes. But since it’s Christmas and I’m feeling lazy, I leave you with this for now. God jul!
I’m a little reluctant to write about Piola libri, because it is already always packed, especially on the Apero evenings. Eurocrats seem love to drink and socialise, yet the EU quarter in Brussels is anything but known for its abundance of charming little places to spend the evening. And consequently piola libri is always full to the brim. But don’t let the throngs of suits scare you away: the ambience always remains chic and cosy, often with jazz musicians accompanying the guest DJs. And the owner greets all the girls at the door with a large smile.
On aperitivi evenings at La piola, this Italian book shop-cum-bar serves up simple yet lovely, complimentary snacks at the bar. You just order something to drink, pay and then help yourself to a little plate of various snacks: feta cheese with chili, assorted olives, pickled onions, sticky rice, foccacia, crustini with various spreads, cold pasta with tuna and capers, and so on. It varies slightly from time to to time, but always hits the spot. There’s no strange ticketing system like in other aperitivi bars in Brussels, so you can go several times (although since it’s a system of trust, it’s one that of course shouldn’t be abused).
The wine is excellent, if a little more expensive than the average Brussels bar. But since you can skip dinner if you go here, that’s not really an issue. A good glass of spritzer is €5, and a glass of their very decent house red is €4.80. If you go a bit earlier, you can also browse their extensive selection of Italian literature and film, as it is a book shop during the day (with free wifi). Aperitivi is normally served on Thursday and Friday nights, but have a look on their website first, as they sometimes have live readings of Italian literature instead. And make sure to arrive early if you want a seat.
Piola libri can be found at 66-68 Rue Franklin, as seen below on the map:
I know rabbit might not be for everyone, and many of you will be thinking of this:
And not of this:
But I can assure you that rabbit meat is delicious… a bit like chicken (looks exactly like it…) but gamier. I recently spent a week at my parents’ house in Paris where rabbit meat is as common as chicken’s and was presented with two rabbits to cook for dinner. I had never cooked it and did not have many ingredients so decided to go for something I know how to do well: a wine stew. I mean you can never go wrong with wine and meat… add some butter and it’s heaven!
For this recipe you will need (enough for five people)
- Two rabbits cut in smallish pieces (ask your butcher to do it, it’s usually in six pieces)
- Two carrots, minced.
- An onion, chopped.
- 300 grams of mushrooms, roughly chopped (preferably a mix of nutty mushrooms).
- Two bunches of thyme.
- Half a bottle of wine (pour the rest into a glass and drink it to get over the fact you’re eating a cute bunny).
- A lot of butter
Start by adding a knob of butter to a pan and brown the rabbit pieces. Reserve and do the same with the mushrooms in batches so they brown but don’t become mushy. Put them aside with the rabbit and add more butter to the pan. Add the onion and carrots and sweat them for 5-10 minutes. When they become soft, turn up the heat and add the wine and the thyme. You can also add a bay leaf at this point.
Let the wine reduce to half and then add the rabbit and the mushrooms. Make sure they are covered and add water if needed. Season with salt and pepper and let cook for at least 45 minutes on very low heat, with a lid on. When the meat looks like it’s cooked and almost falling off the bone take the lid off to let it reduce. Right now is the time to prepare the polenta. If you are experienced you can have a go at polenta flour which has too cook for 45 minutes with constant turning and gives you an arm ache and possibly some burns. If you are not an experienced Italian grandma, grab a good quality semi-ready polenta and follow the instructions. When the polenta is almost cooked add some cream or ricotta cheese and some parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and serve the stew over it.
The next day, if you are lucky to have some stew and polenta left, serve them together. If like me all you had is polenta, fry it in a pan with some butter until it’s crispy. For the courgette, slice it really thinly (with a peeler or a mandolin) fry it for 2-3 minutes in some butter and sprinkle it with salt, pepper, good olive oil and goat’s cheese. And there you go: a really easy and healthy second meal after the indulgence of rabbit and wine.
(Sorry for the low quality pictures, I only had my phone)
It is common knowledge that beer is one of Belgium’s national treasures. So of course, once I moved here I started a hunt for good places to drink it. I have three criteria for a good place: selection, atmosphere and bar snacks. I’ve already found two gems who fill these criteria beautifully: the Moeder Lambic bars. They are sister bars and share the name, but they have very different characters in their own remarkable ways.
The original one is in St Gilles and it’s cosy, wooden, smelly and often cramped. It’s a traditional beer house, and filled with locals, Scottish bums, tourists as well as beer connoisseurs who traveled here especially. The first time I visited and asked for the menu, the waitress proudly exclaimed that she was the menu. And then she asked a range of questions before coming out with a beer specially tailored for me. It was lovely. Me and Mr Tjockis ordered three rounds this way before leaving, and it still only set us back 17 euros. The feel of the place is very local, with people chatting away with you as soon as you’ve grabbed a chair – for better and for worse. When I came back with Mr Meatball we sampled one of their beer cheeses. It was nutty and lovely, and served with malted barley.
Malted barley is completely new to me. You feel a bit like a bird nibbling away on little pieces of dry barley with your cheese and beer, but it actually works rather well. For me something about their flavour brings back dreamy memories of cycling around on dusty roads through newly cut hay. It’s like rose-tinted glasses on demand, as you sit in a rainy and cold asphalted Brussels.
They also serve malted barley in the Bourse branch of Moder Lambic. This place is rather different though: large and modern, though still cosy. It is also conveniently located close to the city centre. The menu – which detail their 46 (!) beers on tap is structured around aroma, bitterness and flavour. This makes picking easy for those who don’t necessarily know what they want. And you need to be well-versed in beer to know here: you’ll hardly find any of the standard Belgian beer brands on the menu, and the spectacular alcohol levels of some of the most famous exports are rare.
The snacks are also succulent: apart from the small bowl of malted barley that accompanies the beers, the cheese & bread selection is extensive. They also serve cervelas with pickle, which is a moreish pale Belgian sausage. Most snacks are sharing-sized, which is perfect when you just fancy and nibble over those delicious beers. And the staff know their stuff: try order poorly matching beer to a particular snack and you’ll be dutifully corrected and given a more appropriate recommendation.
Put simply: these places are both lovely, and they are perfect places for a gourmand as well as a gourmet to sample the best of Belgian beers. You find Moeder Lambic in St Gilles here:
And the Bourse one can be found here:
I live with a dramatic Sicilian, and predictably, everything he touches turns into kitchen gold. I’ve stopped taking pride in my home cooking, as everything I make pales in comparison to the humble little dishes Peppe throws together. My favourite soup of his so far is very simple: it has courgettes, potato, onion and garlic. The secret is that it is thickened and made savoury with parmigiano, and has tons of aroma thanks to Peppe’s mother’s own olive oil.
I’m somewhat of an olive oil skeptic, as I feel it’s being used and abused all the time where it doesn’t quite belong. You need look no longer than Jamie Oliver for examples of that, and to illustrate my point I’ll just point you to this hilarious, simple montage from his shows. However, if strong olive oil belongs anywhere surely it is in Sicilian cooking. Of course, sourcing home-made Italian olive oil might be near impossible, but as long as you invest in a very good quality bottle, you should be on the right way. And spending a bit on the parmigiano and olive oil is worth it: coming home to this after a long night at the office and a damp walk home in uncomfortable shoes feels like the most wholesome experience ever.
- 3 large potatoes
- 3 courgettes
- 2 yellow onions
- 1 garlic clove
- half a cube of vegetable stock
- Good quality olive oil
- Grated parmigiano
- A blender to blitz the soup in the end
Start by slicing the onions, and then fry them with a generous splash of olive oil in a deep-bottomed pan. Add the whole, peeled garlic clove after a few minutes, and fry on medium heat whilst you peel and chop the potatoes, and chop the courgettes (keep the peel on). Add the courgettes and potatoes together with the stock cube, and add just enough water to make sure everything is covered. Boil for about 20 minutes or until all the vegetables have softened considerably, then take off the heat and spoon out a little bit more than a coffee mug’s worth of water (you can save and freeze this as stock to use on some other occasion). Take to the side and blitz with a blender for about a minute, or until you have a smooth, rather thick soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. When done, serve in bowls with a generous sprinkle of parmigiano and a few additional drops of olive oil, as well as some crusty bread.