My Mixing Bowl Second Anniversary

Today is the second anniversary of My Mixing Bowl, which started back on July 22, 2012 with a post about garlic scape pesto.  Over the past year, I’ve added 87 posts with new recipes, restaurant reviews, travel tips, and musings about Peeps.

Thank you to everyone who’s been following along with my culinary journey.  And although I didn’t get around to making a birthday cake for my blog, I did make some anniversary garlic scape pesto.

Boiled New Potatoes with Garlic Scape Pesto

A new and delicious way to use garlic scape pesto-with new potatoes from our CSA

 

Sauteed Corn with Poblanos

When it comes to vegetables, my preparation methods feature a lackadaisical approach that I sometimes wish I could apply to other areas of my life.  Miniature cucumbers get eaten straight from the crisper, while cherry tomatoes are consumed from a bowl on the counter.  Since there are few chores that frustrate me more than peeling vegetables, potatoes are always cooked with their skins on and unless we happen to get “real” carrots in our CSA box, I buy pre-peeled baby carrots.  Occasionally I feel guilty about the premium I’m paying for carrot convenience, but there are many foods that I put lots of effort into (spaghetti sauce, oatmeal bars, lots of bread, homemade dinners almost every night, and the eight gallon-sized bags strawberries in the freezer).  Life is too short to waste time with unnecessary chores you hate.

Another vegetable that gives me the periodic twinge of guilt is corn.  Minnesota is prime sweet corn territory, and in late summer roadside stands selling large quantities at cheap prices pop up along our commute home.  Since I spend the winter eating lots of frozen vegetables, it would make sense to buy corn in season and freeze it.  But the very idea of cutting all those kernels off the cob gives me visions of a corn-strewn kitchen and aching shoulders.  So instead, I eat my fresh corn right off the cob and buy large bags of generic frozen corn throughout the colder months.  In accordance with my lazy philosophy of vegetable preparation, we usually just microwave frozen corn and eat it plain, but I needed a more inspiring side dish to complement the Fajita Zucchini Rice Bowls I served my in-laws on a recent visit.  This recipe, adapted from Real Simple, was perfect, with a  mild spiciness from the poblano peppers and a citrus punch from fresh lime juice.  As an added bonus, since corn wasn’t in season yet, I had no shame about admitting my frozen shortcut to my father-in-law.

On the off chance that you are more ambitious than I am when it comes to corn processing (I applaud you), a 16-ounce package of corn is about 2 1/3 cups of kernels.

Adapted from the Real Simple recipe by Dawn Perry

Serves 4 as a substantial side

Ingredients:

Sauteed Corn with Poblanos Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 poblano peppers, seeded and cut into quarter-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
1 cup chopped onion
16-ounce package of frozen corn, thawed (about 2 1/3 cups kernels)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

Heat a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add olive oil and tilt to evenly coat.  Add peppers and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the skin on the peppers is starting to blister and the onions are beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add the corn, garlic, salt, and pepper and cook until corn is warmed and garlic is golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Stir in the lime juice and serve.

Sauteed Corn with Poblanos

Review: Moscow on the Hill

Since we didn’t get a chance to eat much local food on our port stop in St. Petersburg, we decided to try some Russian cuisine closer to home.  St. Paul’s Moscow on the Hill serves up a variety of Russian and Eastern Eastern European specialties (including some with a Minnesota twist, like the wild rice stuffed cabbage rolls).  Although there’s a cozy dining room and chic vodka lounge, the best seating on a summer evening is on the patio.  Located behind the restaurant, it’s ringed with ivy-covered walls and nearly devoid of traffic noise, making for one of the most tranquil patio dining experiences we’ve had in the Twin Cities.

For the vodka aficionado, there is a staggering list of over seventy selections from across the world, a wide array of cocktails, house-made infusions, and flights.  Mike recommends a shot of the cherry infused vodka.

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Our meal started with the bread basket–although there is a nominal charge, it’s worth every penny.  Thick slices of airy white bread with a chewy crust and dense sour rye bread are served with a delightful whipped chive butter.

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According to the menu, the assortment of the pickled vegetable plate varies by season.  The night of our visit, it consisted of house-pickled bell pepper, mushrooms, red cabbage, tiny cucumbers, olives, beets, and and pepperoncini.  My favorites were the beets, which struck a nice balance between sweetness and tanginess.

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Mike had a hard time narrowing down his dinner selection–the wild rice cabbage rolls, beef stroganoff, and peasant pelmeni all looked enticing.  He settled on the peasant pelmeni, beef and pork dumplings with a mushroom sauce and cheese.  Although it was a heavy dish for a summer evening, the combination of flavors made it worth every bite.  The most pronounced flavor of the dish was the hearty, woodsy flavor of the mushrooms, which balanced the richness of the melted cheese.

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I ordered the borscht, which came with another slice of the delicious sour rye bread.  The generously-sized bowl of soup was packed with shredded cabbage and beets and had a pleasantly high acidity level.  The copious garnishes of dill and scallions gave the hot soup a fresh, summery feeling.

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The dessert special for the evening was a cheese blintz, stuffed with cream cheese and a few raisins, and topped with cherries in syrup and candied pecans. The balance in textures between the delicate blintz, smooth cream cheese, chewy cherries, and crunchy pecans was perfect.  Although we both enjoyed it, the candied pecans provided the only sweet note in the dish–Mike thought it could pass for breakfast.

We thought that our trip to Moscow on the Hill would be a one-off visit to try Russian food, but everything we ate (and the patio!) gave us a reason to return.  Moscow on the Hill is a wonderful Russian restaurant, but the attention to detail and flavors make it a wonderful restaurant, period.

★★★★ out of 5 (highly recommended)

If you go:

Moscow on the Hill
http://moscowonthehill.com/
371 Selby Avenue
St Paul, MN 55102
651-291-1236

Moscow on the Hill on Urbanspoon

Fajita Zucchini Rice Bowls

Zucchini is my unsung vegetable hero of the farmer’s market.  Although it lacks the hipster cachet of kale or beauty of an heirloom tomato, zucchini is reliably abundant, reasonably priced, and versatile.  Grated, it adds a rich moistness to muffins and quick breads; sauteed in olive oil with some salt, pepper, and garlic, it’s an easy side dish; cut into spears and served raw, it pairs with just about any dip that strikes your fancy.  But lately, I’ve been in a zucchini entree rut: all of my zucchini recipes revolve around the delicious Italian trinity of olive oil, garlic, and pasta (see:  Zucchini with Linguine and Chickpeas and Gnocchi with Zucchini and Feta).  Inspired by the Chipotle that I walk by on my way to work each day, I decided to mix it up a bit and use a Mexican-style marinade recipe from my meat-eating days to make fajita zucchini rice bowls.  This recipe does require a bit of advance planning, since the vegetables need to marinate for at least eight hours to absorb the flavors.  But on the plus side, actual dinner time preparation is minimal–you’ve already done most of the chopping and measuring.

I used zucchini, but this recipe would be easy to adapt for whatever combination of vegetables you have on hand.  I’m looking forward to trying a zucchini-onion-bell pepper mixture once peppers are in season.  For more protein, you could add cubes of tofu to the marinade along with the vegetables or add beans to the finished rice bowls.

Fajita marinade adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook

Ingredients:

Fajita Zucchini Rice Bowls Marinade Ingredients

For the marinade:
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 medium zucchini, sliced into quarter-inch thick half moons (about 3 to 4 cups)
1 medium onion, chopped into half inch pieces (about 2 cups)

Fajita Zucchini Rice Bowls Serving Ingredients

For serving:
cooked rice
salsa
sour cream
fresh cilantro, chopped

Combine the oil, vinegar, sugar, oregano, chili powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper in a large container with a tightly fitting lid.  Add the zucchini and onion and toss to thoroughly coat vegetables with marinade.  Refrigerate, tossing occasionally to redistribute the marinade, for 8 to 24 hours.

Zucchini and Onions Marinating

Heat a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add the marinated zucchini and onions and cook until crisp-tender, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Serve vegetables over rice, and garnish with salsa, sour cream, and cilantro.

Fajita Zucchini Rice Bowls

Baltic Cruise: Stockholm

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Sailing in and out of Stockholm was the best scenery of our cruise.  Both sides of the narrow shipping channel are lined with islands (24,000 total in the Stockholm archipelago), some barren bits of rock home only to seabirds; others with dense forests, summer cottages, and ramshackle lighthouses; and a few with small towns and queues of cars waiting for the ferry.

Stockholm itself is spread across several islands, connected by bridges and ferries.  It was one of the most spread-out cities we visited, and since we had a fairly short time in port, it’s a city on my short list of places to revisit.

The Food:

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  • We did most of our Stockholm eating at Skansen, an open air folk museum with a plethora of dining options ranging from hamburger stands to fine Nordic cuisine.  We went the middle route and opted for the Skansen Terrassen cafeteria, which offers a small selection of entrees and sandwiches and has a lovely outdoor seating area overlooking Stockholm Harbor.  Since we were in Sweden, Mike tried traditional meatballs, gravy, and mashed potatoes, which were served with the same pleasantly tart whole ligonberry sauce we encountered in Helsinki.  I ordered the vegetarian option, a wheat berry salad with feta.  Although it may not have been traditionally Swedish, it was wonderfully fresh and light, with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing and a side of rye crispbread.

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  • One of the historic buildings in Skansen is a bakery from the 1800s, where you can buy period pastries from a costumed worker (the only thing out of historical context is the discreetly positioned credit card reader).  To my delight, my cinnamon roll was also flavored with cardamom, a spice combination that was so delicious I’m going to incorporate it into my own baking.

Other Stockholm Tips:

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  • The warship Vasa is perhaps one of the greatest engineering blunders in history: 1,500 meters into its 1628 maiden voyage, it tipped over in Stockholm Harbor and sank to the bottom.  In 1961, it was salvaged and is now housed in the Vasa Museum.  Besides the restored ship (which is 98 percent original), the museum has informative exhibits in Swedish and English about a wide range of topics, including the history of the ship, the salvage effort, a sailor’s life in the 17th century, forensic reconstructions based on skeletons found in the wreckage, and the ongoing preservation effort.  The 20-minute introductory video is a good way to start your visit, since it provides an appreciation for the amount of work that went into the salvage and restoration of the ship.

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  • My favorite Stockholm sight was Skansen, an open air folk museum with over 150 historic buildings spread over 75 acres.  The buildings, which have been transplanted from all over Sweden, include farmsteads, a windmill, a post office, and several stores representing eras from the 1700s to the 1930s.  There is also a small zoo featuring Nordic animals, historic reenactors, and demonstrations of various handicrafts, like pottery and glass blowing.  Most of the signs describing the buildings are in Swedish and English, and the reenactors we encountered were fluent in English as well.  After several days of high-powered sightseeing, it was rejuvenating to stroll around without any particular purpose, watching some very happy brown bears, bison, and a wolverine frolic and learning a bit about daily life throughout Sweden’s history.

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  • We had anticipated that the Vasa Museum, Skansen, and transit time would take up all of our day, but we ended up with an extra hour and a half.  Since we are Rick Steves groupies, we spent an hour doing his self-guided walking tour through Stockholm’s Old Town, Gamla Stan.  It was a great way to see a bit of historic Stockholm that we wouldn’t have discovered on our own, with a walk down an almost-empty, picturesque medieval lane only a block from the tourist main drag.  We even had enough time to spend our last Swedish kroner on a waffle bowl of ice cream.

Since Stockholm was the final port stop of our cruise, it’s time for me to get back to my blog’s regularly scheduled summer programming of recipes that use up an abundance of CSA zucchini and reviews of Twin Cities restaurants with great patios.  Thanks to everyone who’s been following along with my travel log and for your encouragement online and off—I’m hoping that there will be a lot more travel writing in my future.

Baltic Cruise: Helsinki

As a proud Finnish-American (among the many European nationalities I can claim), Helsinki was the port I was most looking forward to seeing.  Unfortunately, the day started with a heavy drizzle that turned into a downpour by the afternoon.  We put on our raincoats and made the best of it, spending less time on our self-guided walking tour than planned and instead taking a couple hours to see the National Museum of Finland (which was free for the day in honor of Helsinki Day, the city’s birthday).  Helsinki was the only place where we were actually mistaken for locals–Mike thinks it’s because no other tourists would be crazy enough to spend the day getting soaked, but I like to think it’s because I was at home in the land of my people.

The Food:

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  • The market square by the harbor has several food stalls, grilling up a variety of seafood and some meat options for reasonable prices.  Most of the stalls have their own small covered seating areas (great for a rainy day) and have either English or pictorial menus for the non-Finnish speaker.  I got one of the freshest pieces of salmon I’ve ever eaten, with a delicious mayonnaise-mustard sauce, potatoes, and vegetables.  Mike ordered the reindeer platter, with reindeer meatballs and sausage, ligonberry sauce, potatoes, and vegetables.  The reindeer was lean and tasty (it reminded me of venison, but Mike though it was milder than venison), and the ligonberry sauce had a nice tartness reminiscent of a cranberry sauce.

Other Helsinki Tips:

Helsinki Shopping

Clockwise from upper left: a handmade trivet from the market square; a Marimekko tray featuring their signature floral design; the licorice selection at Stockmann department store

  • Due to the rain, we spent more time shopping than usual (to my delight and Mike’s chagrin).  The market square has both typical tourist trinkets and Finnish-made wood, leather, antler, and ceramic handicrafts.  The Esplanade features a variety of high-end Finnish design stores including iittala and Marimekko.  The basement of Stockmann department store has a large candy section with Finnish chocolates and lots of licorice, as well as a bakery with a tempting array of pastries and breads (sadly, we were still too full from lunch to indulge.)
  • Another good rainy day activity is the National Museum of Finland, with its well-organized collection and highly informative exhibit text in both Finnish and English.  The highlight is the 20th century exhibit, with artifacts from people’s daily lives organized by decade.  The 1910s and 1950s sections feature wonderful compilations of newsreel footage that offer a fascinating glimpses of both major historical events and day-to-day life.
  • Whatever your religious beliefs, a visit to Temppeliaukio, or the Church in the Rock, is a profound experience.  The church, built in 1969, is blasted out of solid granite and topped with skylights and a dome made of a 13-mile long coil of copper.  We were lucky to visit while a choir was performing and experience the church’s incredible acoustics.  Listening the choir and and gazing up at the dome gave me a deep sense of connectedness and serenity, while Mike was moved by the fact that tourists of various nationalities and religions are able to come together and experience such an amazing place.DSC_0541

 

Baltic Cruise: On Board the Norwegian Star

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Mike and I had very different motivations for taking our Baltic cruise.  I was all about the “Baltic” angle, spending months beforehand researching the best bakeries in Copenhagen and the sights in Helsinki.  Mike, on the other hand, was more excited about the “cruise” aspect, memorizing all kinds of technical facts about the ship and eagerly anticipating the breakfast buffet.  But by the the end of the cruise, Mike was just as excited about sightseeing as I was, and I enjoyed the dining and activities on board our ship much more than I anticipated.

We chose Norwegian Cruise Lines primarily based on the itinerary and cost, but Norwegian’s freestyle dining policy also appealed to us.  As introverts, we aren’t crazy about the idea of assigned seating with tablemates, and we also prefer a flexible rather than fixed dining time and a casual dress code.  Overall, we were pleased our experience aboard the Norwegian Star and are planning on cruising via Norwegian in the future.

Although our ship had several specialty restaurants for an additional cover charge, we stuck to the complimentary options: the Market Café buffet, Aqua and Versailles main dining rooms, and room service (we didn’t try it due to the lack of vegetarian options, but there is also a complimentary 24-hour casual restaurant, the Blue Lagoon, serving a short menu of American-style appetizers, sandwiches, and salads).

Breakfast:

  • The most popular breakfast option is the Market Café buffet, stocked with a wide variety of standard American breakfast foods: fresh fruit, cold and hot cereals, yogurt, toast, bagels, pastries (unfortunately, these always seemed stale), scrambled eggs, hash browns, corn beef hash, waffles, French toast, pancakes, sausage, bacon, a build-your-own omelet station, and my personal favorite, lox.
  • When we wanted to get an early start, we ordered room service.  You place your order the night before via a card hung your stateroom doorknob.  Options are limited to continental breakfast items: pastries, cold cereal, yogurt, and fruit.  Portions are small, so if you like a hearty breakfast be sure to order lots of food (I usually got two orders each of cereal and fruit).
  • If you have the time for a sit-down breakfast, the Versailles dining room has the best breakfast options.  Most of the standard breakfast items you can get at the buffet are available, but there are also a few specialty items: eggs Benedict, biscuits and sausage with gravy, Scottish kippers, a waffle with banana compote, and pancakes with blueberry syrup.  The salmon eggs Benedict, with lox, spinach, and a dill Hollandaise sauce, was the most delicious breakfast I had on board.

Lunch:

  • Since we spent most of our days in port, we only ate lunch on board on our embarkation and two at sea days.  On all three occasions, we opted for the Market Café buffet, which offers a wide variety of food for just about any diet.  There are many vegetarian options: a salad bar with cold cooked beans to make a protein-rich salad; a hot potato dish, such as mashed or au gratin potatoes; at least two types of cooked vegetables, such as beets, broccoli, zucchini with tomatoes, or ratatouille vegetables; a meatless hearty salad, such as Moroccan chickpea salad, lentil salad, or tabbouleh; a vegetarian main dish, such as vegetable lo mein or a spinach and cheese calzone; at least one vegetarian Indian entree, such as dal or sautéed tofu with spinach; cheese and vegetable pizza by the slice; and a pasta station with some meatless sauces.  The quality of the food was adequate, but not memorable.  The exception was the bread, which was fabulous–my favorites were the mini pretzel rolls and Indian roti.
  • Weather permitting, there is a grill buffet by the pool.  For vegetarians, there is grilled corn and veggie burgers upon request.

Dinner

  • Dinner in the main dining rooms was the culinary highlight of our cruise: the food was beautifully plated and delicious, and the service was excellent.  There are two main dining rooms, Aqua and Versailles, serving identical menus but with different atmospheres.  Aqua has a resort casual dress code, with upscale contemporary decor.  Versailles is the fancier option, decked out like a French palace and featuring a piano player and a “no shorts” dress code (although jeans are permitted, most people tend to dress in business casual attire).
    • As a bread lover, I appreciated the bread basket, which featured three types of bread that changed nightly.  Over the course of our cruise we had at least ten different types of wonderfully fresh bread, including French bread, whole wheat rolls with pumpkin seeds, cracked wheat bread, olive bread, cheese rolls, and cranberry-walnut rolls.
    • The nightly menu had about eight starters: French onion soup, a mixed green salad, and Norwegian smoked salmon tartare were always on the menu, along with nightly changing selections that included another soup and salad, a vegetarian option, and a few meat starters.  Favorites were the smoked salmon tartare, a mixture of minced smoked salmon, mashed avocado, and cucumber, garnished with mixed greens and a toast point; the Asian rice noodle salad, with a light dressing, shrimp, and wasabi; and the Mediterranean grilled vegetables.
    • For entrees, there was a “classic” menu offered every night, as well as about six nightly specials.  There were two vegetarian options each night, the vegetable lasagna roll up from the “classic” menu as well as a nightly special, such as dal curry, mushroom stroganoff, potato pot pie, or a spinach beignet.  The vegetable lasagna roll up was most the vegetable-focused vegetarian entree, packed with spinach, mushrooms, and zucchini, with a tasty fresh tomato sauce.  Since most of the other vegetarian entrees tended to feature heavy cream sauces, I ate a lot of seafood.  Anything with salmon or shrimp is a good bet–they were always grilled to perfection.
    • For dessert (the most important part of the meal), there were about six options.  One was always the marvelous chocolate volcano, a rich molten chocolate cake served with strawberry compote and a scoop of stracciatella gelato; it’s big enough to split, although you won’t want to.  The nightly specials often included crème brulees—I tried the pistachio and Nutella versions—that were creamy perfection, served in shallow ramekins that increased the caramelized surface area.  Other favorite desserts were an apple and pear tartin served with vanilla gelato and caramel sauce; a dense, fudgy Mexican brownie with a layer of dulce de leche; and a rich Nutella pot de crème.
  • The Market Café dinner buffet follows the same format as the lunch buffet, with the addition of a few themed items.  Some of the themes included vegetarian options (Oriental, Russian, and chocolate lover’s desserts), while others didn’t (prime rib, seafood, pub food, and German).  For dessert, there was a crepe station and chocolate fountain in addition to the cakes, single serving pies and tarts, and soft serve ice cream also served for dessert during the lunch buffet.

Snacks

  • The Red Lion Pub has a popcorn machine—for this popcorn addict, enough said.
  • For a $5 surcharge, you can have a pizza delivered to your stateroom or the pool deck.  According to Mike, who has a high tolerance for cheap pizza, it’s not worth it.  His pepperoni pizza was dripping with so much grease it was almost inedible, with a bland sauce reminiscent of a Lunchable.

Other Norwegian Star tips:

  • The only toiletries provided are liquid soap and shampoo, so if you want bar soap or conditioner, bring some from home.
  • The ship’s library has a decent selection of fiction and non-fiction available.  However, checkout hours are very limited and during the day, so check out your books for the trip on your first sea day.
  • There is a wide variety of entertainment and activities on board, from glitzy production shows and magic acts to digital photo scavenger hunts and craft classes.  However, we were most fascinated by the Q&A sessions with crew members and officers, for a behind-the-scenes, fairly uncensored take on what it’s like to work and live on board a cruise ship.

Strawberry Shortcake

I’m taking a break from my cruise blogging to write about one of my absolutely favorite things about summer in Minnesota: fresh strawberries.  For a few weeks in late June and early July, I feast upon pounds upon pounds of sweet, ripe, richly red beauties from our local berry farm–the sickly pale imposters sold in the grocery store year-round aren’t even comparable.  We picked thirty pounds of strawberries last Saturday, about three-quarters of which ended up in the freezer to enjoy over the upcoming winter and at least three pounds of which ended up in my stomach over the course of the day.  You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.  Eating epic amounts of strawberries is one of my third-rate superpowers.

In between my raw strawberry binges, I made strawberry shortcake.  On the Good Eats episode that gave me my absolutely perfect biscuit recipe, Alton Brown noted that strawberry shortcake is a biscuit variation (the angel food cake version is a modern convenience adaptation).  Since I am far more passionate about biscuits than angel food cake, I decided to try making a classic strawberry shortcake using my grandmother’s cookbook.  I adapted the recipe slightly by halving it and adding more sugar.

I like this classic strawberry shortcake better than the angel food variation, mostly because I love baking powder biscuits, but also because the sturdiness of a biscuit-like shortcake better holds up  to the juiciness of the berries.

Adapted from The American Woman’s Cook Book, edited by Ruth Berolzheimer (online version available here)

Yield: four to five 3-inch shortcakes

Ingredients:

Strawberry Shortcake Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons shortening
3/8 cup milk

For serving:
strawberries (about 4 medium berries per shortcake), chopped, with sugar added to taste if desired
whipped cream

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in medium bowl.  Cut shortening into flour mixture with a pastry blender until mixture resembles crumbs.  Add milk and mix just until a soft dough forms.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly a few times.  Roll dough into a 1/2 inch thick round.  Cut out shortcakes with a round cutter and place on a baking sheet so that they barely touch.  Reform scrap dough and continue cutting shortcakes.

Strawberry Shortcake before Baking

Bake for about 8 minutes, or until golden brown.  Serve immediately.

Strawberry Shortcake after Baking

To serve: Split shortcakes in half.  Place bottom half on a plate and top with chopped strawberries.  Add top half and top with additional strawberries and whipped cream.

Strawberry Shortcake

Baltic Cruise: St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, we were the farthest from home, geographically and culturally.  We were used to not being able to read signs by this point in our trip, but in Russia we didn’t even know the alphabet.  Russians tend not to smile (“If you go around smiling, people think you’re a fool,” explained our tour guide), and friendliness is not the prized virtue that it is in the Midwest.  The church architecture was unlike any we’d seen before, the palaces were magnitudes more opulent, and the art museum, with da Vincis and Rembrandts, is world class.  But the word that first springs to mind when I think about our time in Russia is “frustrating.”  We spent two days in St. Petersburg, yet it’s the city I feel like I saw the least of: we spent all of that time on an organized tour that moved much more slowly than the standard Mike and Stacy pace and was almost exclusively focused on churches and palaces.

As you may have figured out by now, Mike and I are active, independent-minded travelers.  We like to walk all over cities we visit to get a feel for them, we ride mass transit, and we eat local street food.  A guided tour via van is pretty much the opposite of our preferred method of sightseeing.  However, in Russia, unlike the other ports we visited, you can’t just stroll off your cruise ship.  Americans need a visa to enter Russia, unless you’re on a guided tour.  We decided against applying for a Russian visa based mostly on the cost (the cost of a visa alone was more than the cost of our two day tour, which included a guide, transportation, admission fees, lunches, bottled water, and gratuities), and we were also concerned about the major language barrier.  We booked a tour with a third party company rather than doing a cruise ship excursion, which was double the price.  In my research, I came across two large, well-established companies,  SPB Tours and Alla Tours, which have basically identical tours at identical prices; we chose one of them.

My major gripe with our guided tour (and the reason I don’t feel it’s fair to identify our specific tour company) was that it was a guided tour: the pace and itinerary were dictated by the tour company.  Some of the sites we saw were ones I would have skipped, while there were other places we hurried through when I would have appreciated more time.  We learned a lot about St. Petersburg in the 1700s, but aside from a brief ride on the metro and glimpses of apartment buildings from the windows of our van, got no real sense of what St. Petersburg is like today.  Instead of eating Russian food, we had lunch at a restaurant that caters to cruise ship tour groups, serving bland American-style cuisine.  If I was to cruise to St. Petersburg again, I would try to either find a tour company that offered an itinerary that focused more on modern St. Petersburg and local food, or I would hire a private guide (Red October Tours looks like a good possibility for more individualized tours, although I obviously have no personal experience with them).

Nevertheless, we did enjoy many parts of our tour.  The highlights were the Hermitage, a world class art museum housed in a palace that is itself a work of art; the colorfully mosaicked Church on Spilled Blood; and the imposing, European-style St. Issac’s Cathedral.  Odd as it may sound, we thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the metro—the station we were at was 80 meters (about 260 feet) underground, which made for a very long escalator ride back up to street level.  I also savored some authentic local food: a cheese and mushroom blini from Teremok, a Russian fast food chain.  I’d take it over a veggie burger any day.

St. Petersburg

Clockwise from upper left: the Hermitage; blini from Teremok; St. Isaac’s Cathedral; very long escalator from the metro tracks to street level; Church on Spilled Blood

Baltic Cruise: Tallinn

Although many of the cities we visited on our cruise have medieval roots, Tallinn is the best preserved.  The medieval city wall (which now encompasses a very small section of the city) is still intact, with fortified guard towers and gates that controlled the entrances into the city.  There are impressive churches, narrow cobblestone lanes, lots of shops and cafés, and dense crowds of fellow tourists.  However, all you have to do is wander a couple of blocks off the main tourist drag, Viru Street, to find nearly deserted streets and local eateries.

As we did at all ports except St. Petersburg (more on that later), we opted to sightsee on our own instead of taking a guided tour.  Tallinn in particular was very easy to get around, since the Old Town is only a 10-15 minute walk from the cruise port–just follow the signs and the parade of fellow cruise ship tourists.

The Food:

022 Maiasmokk Cream Puff

  • Maiasmokk (Pikk 16), founded in 1864, is the oldest cafe in Estonia, with an interior dating back to the early 20th century.  It’s an elegant spot for a coffee break, with a wide selection of reasonably priced pastries, cakes, and candies in a long glass case, which is conducive to the point method of ordering.  The pastries taste just as exquisite as they look: my tart had a wonderfully flaky pastry topped with pears lightly seasoned with cinnamon, and Mike’s cream puff was feathery light.

025test Cafe Eat Dumplings

  • The award for best food value during our cruise goes to Café EAT (Sauna 2).  It’s a basement cafe with self-serve dumplings sold by weight, so you just dish up all the dumplings, toppings, and sauces that you want and they weigh your bowl at the cash register.  On the day we visited, there were three types of dumplings (meat, potato, and meat with spinach), pickles, tomatoes, carrots, a lettuce-tomato-onion salad, and sour cream, garlic, sour cream with sweet chili, and ketchup with mayo sauces, all of which were helpfully labeled in English.  The dumplings are hearty and delicious, and the restaurant itself has a laid-back college hangout vibe, complete with a foosball table.  The prices are college-student friendly too: two generous bowls of dumplings and a beverage set us back about $7.

Other Tallinn Tips:

DSC_0244 Tallinn

  • Since the sightseeing highlight of Tallinn is the medieval Old Town, the best part of our day was spent walking around it.  The Rick Steves’ self-guided walking tour was an excellent way to see and appreciate the Old Town, starting outside the medieval city wall and ending with panoramic views of Tallinn.  (Note: I promise that I am not being paid off by Rick Steves to promote his book–it’s really that helpful.)
  • We happened to visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral while a service was in progress (services are held daily at 10:00 am and 6:00 pm), and it was a fascinating glimpse of Russian Orthodox worship.  There are no seats, so the worshipers stand in a crowd around the priest while he chants the liturgy.  The style of worship was less structured than Catholic or Protestant services I’ve attended, with people crossing themselves, bowing, and lighting candles as they feel moved to do so rather than in unison.  Note that women are required to cover their heads in Russian Orthodox churches.  Most of the tourists at the Cathedral don’t, and there was not anyone enforcing this rule.  However, I felt more comfortable covering my head with a scarf, especially since there was a service in progress.
  • Amazing as the Old Town is, it is also crowded with tourist hordes (particularly Town Hall Square and Viru Street) and after a morning spent hearing more English and German than Estonian, we left the crowds behind and walked to Kadriorg Park.  A 20-25 minute walk from the Old Town, it’s a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle, with beautifully landscaped grounds, a swan pond, a huge playground, and because this is Europe, a palace.
  • If you’re looking for high quality handicrafts, there are some neat shops selling textiles, wooden items, ceramics, and glass along Lühike Jalg and Katariina Käik.  Even if you’re not shopping, these picturesque lanes are worth walking down.  The Viru Turg outdoor souvenir market (Mere Puiestee 1) has the same tourist trinkets you’ll find everywhere in town, but at slightly cheaper prices.
  • At one of the shops on Lühike Jalg, Mike found our most unique souvenir of the trip, a nod to Estonia’s folk traditions and its high-tech present as one of the most wired countries in the world: an Ethernet cable wrapped in a traditional Estonian skirt pattern.

Estonian Ethernet Cable