Monday, June 30, 2008

My Glamorous Job?

Day 5 of my first tour and I was exhausted by the time we reached Copenhagen. The group is actually great and things have been going well. My talks are still a little shaky (was it Gustav II or Carl the X that sacked Copenhagen?) and I had a wicked bout of insomnia for two nights.

The group is from all over North America. There are two couples from Canada, a family from Delaware, a family from Oregon, some Californians, and folks from Nebraska, Arizona and Alabama. They are a highly educated bunch. Two professors - Entomology & Psychology - a neurosurgeon, an obstetrician, an attorney and a dentist. Some folks are retired and some are teachers.

There has been absolutely no drama and everyone gets along really well. There are four teenagers, which honestly freaked me out before the tour began. They are all girls and range in age from 13 to 17. They are actually all really sweet, smart and travel-savvy (one has already been on three tours!). Two of the girls are friends - traveling with the mother of one girl - who wanted to come to Scandinavia because they love Scandinavian music. They love the Hives of course and a whole bunch of bands I have never heard of. We were able to bridge the generation gap with Keane, but I don't know any of the other bands they are into. I am going to plug into one of their iPods soon and take this opportunity to get exposed to some new music.

I realized at the onset of this tour that I would have to pace myself. I am doing three tours in a row with essentially no day off. The day I do have off I need to fly from Bergen back to Stockholm. So - I am taking advantage of afternoons and evenings that I have free during the tour. This group is really well-traveled and independent. This means on a free afternoon and evening - like the one we had in Copenhagen - I have no problem with setting them loose. On some tours I may arrange an optional activity - a happy hour, or trip to one of my favorite restaurants - but for this first trip I took the night off.

The hotel has an Italian restaurant downstairs, so I ordered a pizza margerita to go. I picked up some cans of cold Carlsberg at the corner store (10kr per can, versus 20kr per can from the hotel bar). The front desk gave me some ice and a real glass. I camped out in my room with wifi access and put the beers on ice in the bathroom sink.

When the pizza arrived...I poured a beer and had a nice quiet evening to myself.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I made it to Sweden Friday afternoon. One of my first stops when I arrive is usually the candy store. I kid you not - I am totally addicted to the candy here. When I say candy I mean godis - pronounced kind of like goodies - which means something like candy I guess. What it really means to me is bulk candy - the kind sold in open bins from which you can pick and choose and come up with a mix all your own.

Godis are sold in every convenient store, grocery store and in lots of special godis shops here. The funny thing is, the majority of people loading up on godis are adults. Men in suits, older ladies and some kids too. But lots of grown-up me.

My favorites are probably the filled licorice - which are more like licorice in texture rather than flavor. They come in all sorts of fruity flavors - rhubarb being my favorite. There is lots of black licorice too. I also get Swedish fish and some mentos-type chewy candies. There are chocolates too - chocolate covered marshmallows, caramels, gummy bears - you name it.

Friday night was perfect - I was tired after two busy days in Copenhagen and a little road weary from the 5-hour train ride from Copenhagen to Stockholm. I cozied up with my laptop and reruns of Sex and the City on DVD and ate the entire bag.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Copenhagen by Cykel

I am pretty new to riding a bike. That old saying that you never forget or are too old or whatever - doesn't really apply to me. Since I've been traveling to Denmark every summer for the last 10 years though I've been tempted. These are cycling-happy people. And they look damn cute doing it.
A few years back, I revealed my desire to my friends in Copenhagen - Lone & Bjarne. That next summer, they wanted to show me Copenhagen by bike. They were easy on me and took me along small back streets and we didn't ride very far. I was hooked. I got a hand-me-down Schwinn Collegiate two years ago and have ridden it around my neighborhood ever since. OK, only 3 or 4 times actually and only for about 1/4 mile. But still, I feel pretty smug when I peddle down to the farmer's market in the summer, pick up some vegetables and ride home.

I guess I love the "idea" of riding a bike more than actually riding one. Seattle is a lot hillier than Denmark too, so cycling is tougher at home. Pretty lame I know. At least I'm not the only one. I even bought an adorable wicker basket in Denmark last summer for my bike and a bell too.

Nearly every Dane has at least one bike. In Copenhagen especially, there are more bikes than cars. There is bike traffic during commuter hours. The entire city has great bike lanes, traffic lights for bikes, bike parking and all. People talk on their on mobile phones - even send TEXT MESSAGES - while riding a bike. Little children sit on the back of the bike for a ride to school. There are even these cool cycle wagons made in Copenhagen for people to transport their shopping bags, kids and all. For years I have avoided riding a bike in Copenhagen, but this year I was feeling pretty confident. I also had about 12 hotels spread all over town to check out in the span of 5-6 hours. A bike would be quicker and the hotel offered me one for free.

So - there I was, feeling all smug and Danish and thinking I probably looked so cute riding around on my little bike. Then, tragedy struck. A pedestrian stepped out into the crosswalk and before I knew it I slammed on the front brake instead of the back break and nearly fell ass over tea kettle onto the pavement. The bike broke my fall thankfully, but still my ego was burrrr-ruised. It was already after 10am, so there wasn't that much bike traffic but nonetheless 3 or 4 Danes stopped their bikes (gracefully dismounting, natch) to see if I was alright.
Yes, yes, I replied - I'm OK, just a dumb tourist...thanks. I was embarrassed enough. The bike had a crack in the headlight, but I was unscathed. My ego was bruised, but not so much that I didn't want to get a picture of myself to at least say I did it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pimps, Prostitutes and Polse

I arrived in Copenhagen late Wednesday afternoon. This is one of my favorite cities. It has great design, lots of water, beautiful people and just enough grit to keep it interesting.

My hotel is in the red light district. It is located on the corner of Helgolandsgade and Istedgade - probably ground zero for prostitutes in Copenhagen. The thing is, if you didn't know this was the red light district, you may not notice the prostitutes. They are dressed pretty conservatively (I've seen more scantily clad Scandinavians) and don't catcall of make a big spectacle of themselves. They just happen to be hanging out in front of my hotel, the hotel kitty corner and the mini-mart across the street. Ground I said.

Prostitution is legal in Denmark, but the prostitutes aren't Danish. They are generally Eastern European and Russian girls brought here by what I imagine are pimps that make it too hard or too expensive for them to leave. There probably is nothing for them back home anyways.

Walking around Copenhagen that first afternoon, I quickly worked up an appetite (airplane food didn't satisfy me...surprise, surprise). All around Copenhagen (and the rest of Denmark, really) are small wagons selling Polse - hot dogs. I am not even going to kid you about how much I like hot dogs. Come on - I am a child of the 80s. I love me some processed food.

At the polse wagons around town, you choose from a pictorial menu and pay in cash (roughly $3-4 a hot dog with today's dismal exchange rate). My favorite used to be the Fransk Hotdog, a soft un-slit bun that has a hole drilled in it and is filled with a mayo-like sauce and then stuffed with a hot dog.

Lately though, I go for the Ristet Hotdog. It's a crispy-skinned hot dog in a bun, loaded with fresh onions, mild pickles and dried onions (kind of like those ones your mom probably put on top of green bean casserole, only better). Then lots of mustard and ketchup. These are probably the only hot dogs in the world that give Chicago's a run for their money.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pre-flight Ritual

There aren't many things I truly hate about flying other than the hecticness and stress that ensues if you are running late. Seattle traffic is unpredictable, so I try to get to the airport 3-4 hours in advance to play it safe.

Back in the day when my parents and all their friends still smoked - yet the airport had already banned smoking, we discovered 13 Coins. We were seeing off some friends that were moving back to Norway and needed a place near the airport to eat, drink and smoke.

13 Coins has two Seattle area outposts - downtown and at the airport. It's known for the dark, woodsy interior, antipasto platters and 24-hour dining. The decor is pretty cool - with high back leather stools at the counter - where you can watch the chefs at work, and cavernous booths with high backed leather benches.

The food is fairly unremarkable except for the price. Fritattas are a safe bet and I am also fond of their steamed clams. Usually when I go to "The Coins" however it is more about the drinks than the food.

Pre-flight ritual is arriving at Sea-tac by 3 or 4pm, when the check-in desk at SAS has little or no line. I check my bags while my folks wait in the car and then we zip across the street to 13 Coins. I always have a Manhattan *special* (a double) and graze at the antipasto platter.

After a quick bite and a cool, classic cocktail, I feel ready to tackle the security line.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Molasses Farewell Cookies

Parting is such sweet sorrow - or in this case such SWEET cookies!

I am leaving tonight on a plane bound for Copenhagen, where I'll begin my travels for the next 6+ weeks through Denmark, Sweden & Norway. All of my time there will be spent guiding tours (three, two-week tours of Scandinavia), but I'll have some afternoons and evening on my own - so expect notes from the road.

Leaving Gavin for an extended period of time is always tough - on me and him - but after 10+ years at this job, we are getting the hang of it. I truly appreciate what he has to take care of at home - bills, car, house, cats - not to mention the ever-growing list of house projects.

So, a few years back I started leaving him "stay at home" presents. These range from gift cards to our favorite burger & taco joints to movie rentals, new magazines or books. More often than not though, I bake up some sort of sweet treat for him to enjoy in those first few days I am gone.

I generally fly out in the early evening, so that gives me an entire day to wrap up loose ends, pack and relax. I find baking to be very relaxing and this kind of meditation allows me to clear my head and remember any items I may have forgotten to pack.

Gavin's favorite cookies of all time are chewy molasses cookies. I had never made them until I got a new ATK cookbook a few years back. This recipe makes store (and even bakery) bought cookies pale in comparison. The key is using the freshest spices possible. I buy my spices in bulk from a store with good turnover - that way I only buy what I can use in 4-6 months. I also date the top of the refillable jar so I know when the spices are getting old.

To one-up the ATK folks, I also crush my own black pepper and allspice in a mortar and pestle. I swear this makes a difference.

Soft and Chewy Molasses Spice Cookies

1/3 cup granulated sugar (about 2 1/2 ounces), plus 1/2 cup for dipping
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (11 1/4 ounces)
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp table salt
12 Tbsp unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened but still cool
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar (about 2 1/2 ounces)
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup molasses (about 6 ounces), light or dark

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Place 1/2 cup sugar for dipping in 8- or 9-inch cake pan.

2. Whisk flour, baking soda, spices, and salt in medium bowl until thoroughly combined; set aside.

3. In standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter with brown and granulated sugars at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and add yolk and vanilla; increase speed to medium and beat until incorporated, about 20 seconds. Reduce speed to medium-low and add molasses; beat until fully incorporated, about 20 seconds, scraping bottom and sides of bowl once with rubber spatula. Reduce speed to lowest setting; add flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping bowl down once. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no pockets of flour remain at bottom. Dough will be soft.

4. Using tablespoon measure, scoop heaping tablespoon of dough and roll between wet palms into 1 1/2-inch ball; drop ball into cake pan with sugar and repeat to form about 4 balls. Toss balls in sugar to coat and set on prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Repeat with remaining dough. Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies are browned, still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will look raw between cracks and seem underdone), about 11 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Do not overbake.

5. Cool cookies on baking sheet 10 minutes, then use wide metal spatula to transfer cookies to wire rack; cool cookies to room temperature and serve. (Can be stored at room temperature in airtight container or zipper-lock plastic bag up to 5 days.)

Salmonberry Cocktails

I come from a long line of berry pickers. My parents took me foraging for wild blueberries at a young age and also planted me in the middle of a field of strawberries while they picked (I picked too, but most berries ended up in my belly before we left the farm). I've learned that berry picking (and growing) is a popular Scandinavian past time as well and my family there marks the seasons with what berries are growing out in the forest.

When the cold dark days of winter have passed, I guess those of us in Northern climates love seeing any bright spot that summer is near. In the Pacific Northwest, salmonberries grow wild along the banks of streams and you can see their bright pink flowers in May and soon after the berries begin to appear.

I've been eagerly awaiting the salmonberries growing along the creek behind our house to ripen. This has been one of the coldest and wettest May/June period for awhile in Seattle and I doubt the strawberries will turn out very sweet this year. Salmonberries are grown in the shade though and seem to thrive in the wet, cool, early summer weather we are experiencing.

Sunday afternoon turned out to be warm - almost 70 (!) - and it was the perfect evening to head out for a walk with my bucket in hand. Despite the nettles, I managed to pick about 2 cups worth of berries.

Salmonberries - despite my romantic vision of them - are sorely lacking in both flavor and sweetness. They have almost an earthy, rhubarb-like taste to them. I decided to make a syrup/coulis that I could use to mix up some sort of cocktail.

This turned out to be a great idea - the salmonberry syrup, combined with vodka and fresh lime juice and shaken vigorously turned out to be a very tasty cocktail. That combined with the great color the orange-to-red hued berries lent to the drink and the garnish make this a prety cocktail as well.

Salmonberry Cocktails
1 oz. salmonberry syrup (see below)
1 oz. vodka
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
fresh salmonberries to garnish

Combine liquids in a Boston shaker and add about 1 cup of ice. Shake vigorously for 10-20 seconds. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with fresh salmonberries.

Salmonberry Syrup

1 cup salmonberries
1/2-3/4 cup sugar
1-2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Place berries, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Mash the berries, then bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until it has cooked down to a thick syrup. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and discard the berry pulp. Store in the fridge until ready to use (lasts up to two weeks.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Taco Truck Tour

South of the border is working its way north. The taco trucks & buses that started appearing around Seattle 3-4 years ago seem to have multiplied 10 fold in the last year. Thankfully, this means there are now some good options near our place way out in "The Shire."

Memorial Day weekend brought us surprisingly warm and sunny weather, so Gavin and I plotted a course for a long-awaited tour of the taco trucks in the north end. It seems like there is lots of information out there about taco trucks in the south end of Seattle, but nothing about the plethora of options now available in our area.

I started planning our "tour" by researching some tips and recommendations on yelp and chowhound. I then created a customized map with Google. It is pretty handy though I can't figure out how to read it on our iPhones. Check out our map. Our plan was to try 4-5 taco trucks and try only one taco each at each truck. Gavin likes an Asada (grilled steak), I like the Carnitas (slow-roasted pork). We packed up the cooler with cold drinks and hit the road.

Funny thing is - we are by no means taco aficionados. We haven't even been to Mexico! We are pretty new to the whole taco truck scene too. We have definitely had some good Mexican food in our day and in the last 10 years or so, we have really come to appreciate "real" Mexican food as opposed to the slop served at most places in the US. Once I tried the warm little corn tortillas filled with tender, flavorful meat and topped with crunchy onions, fresh cilantro and fiery hot sauce I haven't looked back.

Our first destination was to the intersection of 15th Ave NE and 145th St in Shoreline. There are two options there: Tacos El Casador (behind Goodwill, in the parking lot of a 76 gas station) and Taqueria Matamoros (parked on the NW corner of the intersection in the lot of an auto repair shop).

Tacos El Casador had a nice covered picnic table at $1.10 tacos. I had to adjust my plan because they had Tacos al Pastor (pork stewed with pineapple and spices) which I don't see very often. Gavin had an asada taco. Both were pretty dang tasty and by the end of our tour were probably our favorite - even if they were the most expensive.

Taqueria Matamoros was tasty in that their tacos (carnita and asada this time) had grilled onions and fresh avocado on top. The carnitas was a tad too smoky for my taste, but the asada was great. They are sold our of the little red truck, but have a nice garden shed next door where you can sit and enjoy your meal.

Our plan next, was to cross west over I-5 and 99 and hit El Carreton II and then head back to 99 and hit El Carreton. Well, we had started our tour too late, because ECII was closing up.

El Carreton on Aurora and 150th. They are located in an old school bus that you enter to order and sit in to enjoy your meal. It smelled a little funky in there at first I will admit, but once I had those steaming tacos in front of me it didn't matter.

They were - unfortunately - out of carnitas, so I ordered adobada (spicy slow-cooked pork) instead. It was tasty - but way too greasy (can you see that little orange pool of grease above?).

I decided to order a mulita with asada after finishing my taco. I only recently learned about mulitas - they are two corn tortillas filled with meat of our choice, cheese, cilantro and avocado sandwich-style. This tortilla-wich is then fried on the griddle. They are AMAZING! This was Gavin's first taste of a mulita and he literally did a double-take of the menu and then me like, "why have you not told me about these WOMAN!?" Unfortunately I didn't manage to take a photo (of the mulita nor Gavin's reaction). I think at that point I was well on my way to a food coma. Our taco truck tour would have continued.