Thursday, July 28, 2011

Recipe: Blueberry Almond Bars for Norway


A long time ago, back in another decade and life I worked for a company that was headquartered out of Norway. As luck was in my favor I ended up traveling to Norway to train some higher-ups on design programs. Funny enough, and I suppose tellingly, nearly every memory I have is steeped in food and two of my very favorite come from that beautiful Nordic country.

Every spring when the first batches of blueberries come to the markets I think, particularly fondly, of blueberry pie. My co-worker, Robin, had invited me to spend the day with her family. We put on some comfortable shoes and started our trip - hiking high into the mountains surrounding Oslo. Each person we passed exchanged pleasantries. Nearly everyone denied knowing where any mushrooms could be found while clutching bulging bags by their sides, a sweet little game of foraging and white lies, and nearly everyone had a morel or two in their possession.


When we finally reached our destination, a small grove tucked amongst the trees, laden with full blueberry bushes, Robin handed me a basket and a tool. The tool was essentially a box with metal fingers on one side and a handle on the opposite side - a blueberry or huckleberry rake. You slide the rake fingers through the blueberry bushes and the berries popped off into the box while the bush stayed in tact. We got to work picking  berries and filling our baskets. My basket full I stood up and looked around: there I was, picking wild blueberries looking out on an astounding view from the top of a mountain in Norway. Astonishing.

We made our way back home, over felled logs that served as bridges and through the dense trees. There Robin made a fresh pie crust while we listened to the music from the newly acclaimed "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack and chatted. Blueberry pie for dessert, bluegrass in my ear, the sun setting over the Oslo skyline. Beautiful perfection.


My other memory was but a moment. I woke early one Saturday morning, popped into the pastry shop just down the street and picked out a few treats - some for breakfast and some for a snack. I made my way the the train station and boarded a train for Bergen, a town clear across the country. You have to keep in mind that I was fresh out of college and alone so this entire trip was a big deal for me, but even more so to take a day trip across the entirety of Norway by myself. I was a little scared but a lot excited.

Sitting in my window seat I was treated to what I would later find out is acclaimed as one of the best train journeys in the world, and for good reason. The landscape faded from urban to craggy gray rocks, then burst into lush verdant green hills dotted with bright houses, finally ending deep in the glacial bedrock of the fjords. From there we navigated through the fjords by boat, admiring the smallest towns in the world at the foot of some of the largest mountains and ice I had ever seen. Ultimately I traveled back to Oslo that same night, by train, and thus was the completion of my journey.


By the end of my train ride I had met some truly fantastic people but at the beginning, when it was me, alone, perched at the edge of my bravery, I ate one of my snacks. It was the most amazing almond cake I've ever had - as much a cookie as a cake, it was thin, light, and perfectly balanced between crisp and chewy. The top of the almond cake glistened with a shiny egg wash and was dusted with confectioners sugar, one almond standing in the middle. It was decadent.

I returned for my almond pastry a few more times - taking them with me as I explored the Vigeland park sculpture gardens and on the plane with me home.

Almonds and blueberries. They remind me of Norway. They take me back to a place where I felt fulfilled, excited, and began to feel truly confident in myself - in part because of the empowerment of the journey but also because of the people. Norwegians, in my experience, are incredibly kind, warm, and inviting. They opened their homes to me, shared their incredible artwork and treated me to a host of inspirations, culinary delights, and gorgeous memories.


As you can imagine, and as I think we all were, I was incredibly saddened to hear of the recent tragedies that befell Oslo. At first I couldn't tear myself away from the reports but then I realized that I wanted to honor the welcoming kindness that I remembered and not waste time thinking about fringe outsiders with malicious intents...and so I reflected on my favorite memories and decided to create something positive in honor of the Norwegian people, something that married the flavors and memories in my heart. So, without further ado, I give you Blueberry Almond Bars, a little bite of heaven. Enjoy them with full hearts and pass on the message of openness, tolerance, and kindness that inspired them.

Blueberry Almond Bars

Crust (adapted from pecan bars crust from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook)
1 cup flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons (3/4 of a stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup crushed almonds (If you like you can toast the almonds but it is unnecessary)
1 teaspoon almond extract

1.5 pints (24 ounces or 6 cups) fresh blueberries
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
Zest of a medium lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons butter
 1 cup slivered or crushed almonds

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Line a 9 inch square baking pan with foil and butter or spray with cooking spray.

Place all filling ingredients in a food processor and pulse until a fine crumb. Pour into baking pan, spread evenly and press down firmly to create the crust.

Bake crust for 20-25 minutes until slightly browned.

In a medium-large pot combine all filling ingredients EXCEPT almonds. Cook on medium-high while stirring often for about 5-7 minutes - the filling will become very, very thick (peel from your spoon thick).

Once your filling has thickened remove from heat and pour over baked crust. Spread to distribute evenly. Cover evenly with slivered or crushed almonds and bake for an additional 20 minutes - when you remove from the oven the filling will be bubbling along the edges.

Let cool completely for about 2 hours. Use foil to lift bars from the pan onto a cutting surface, cut into bars and enjoy!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

To every season: growth, change and gratitude


Many of you already know this – my husband was laid off a little while ago. It's been a madhouse of re-adjustment since then - adapting schedules and needs, opening our minds and changing plans. Despite everything we have tried to be positive and grateful. We have so much to be thankful for, so many new opportunities to consider and an unbelievable support system. Job hunting is ever humbling and no need to add to that challenge. Though I am positive that my husband is talented, highly creative, and an asset to any organization the job of convincing others is not mine to do...


And so, as always, I have turned to a talent I have always had but often take for granted: industriousness. Some of the work has already been done and for that I am glad. Some is left to be done, and for that I am excited to be challenged. We were lucky, in some sense, that when faced with the blow to our budget we were not painfully impacted - we have worked diligently to reduce unnecessary spending and live within our means. Those crazy Luddite tendencies: turning off cable or switching to pre-paid cell phones, those eco-friendly choices - no paper towels or napkins and homemade laundry detergent  - it all adds, or rather, subtracts from, the bottom line.


One of the first things I considered after re-working our budget was food. We are knee-deep in a plentiful season of beautiful food - a time I usually take to stock up for winter and preserve the freshest, closest, most delicious harvests. Living only a short distance from a set of cooperative organic farms couldn't be more ideal and so, relying on the community I have worked to know, I called a farmer I adore. I asked her, Meg, if there were more work shares available and explained why I was asking so late in the season. Ever true to form Meg not only opened her farm to us, she gave us a bit of relief and a re-affirmation of why I believe in knowing your neighbors, your farmer, and your community.


Friday came and my husband was out the door by 5:45 am, picking soft-neck garlic in the furthest fields. He came home sweaty, dirty, and happy. Happy. In a time when we are explicitly expected to be stressed. The physical labor balanced out the tedium of resumes and portfolio building and the man that came back to me was more whole. A little vitamin D, a kind gesture, a few hopeful opportunities on the horizon, a lot of dirt under the nails and some of the best broccoli I have ever eaten - this is what food, community and an open heart bring: completion in incomplete times.


Meg sent an email out asking for help from the community at large to finish the garlic harvest, and so I went. Not as early and with the hard-neck variety of garlic waiting. A slather of sunscreen, a full water bottle and a bike ride later I was out in the fields listening to trains go by and brushing dirt from the roots of plum speckled German garlic bulbs. I too am completed by this. The quietude and camaraderie, the conversation and stewardship; the opportunity.


To everything there is a balance. There are upsides to unemployment and we are working to cultivate the positive: to appreciate time together as a family, wearing sandals in summer, riding bikes and splashing in a pool for a break, making homemade meals and working farmed lands. The monetary helps but it is not what matters. Going forward with a new frame of mind, finding a career that fulfills as well as supports, that is important work in itself - for that we are grateful.