Monday, February 7, 2011

Bloody Food

While it wasn't exactly a New Year’s resolution, my family decided to go on a diet of only fish and vegetables for the month of January, mostly as an experiment to see if we can reduce the amount of red meat we eat.  That’s easier for some of us (read my wife) than for others (that would be me).  By the way, this idea is a variation of the practice widely professed by some Finns of swearing off alcohol for at least a month following the festive Christmas season.  There’s even a name for that tea-totaling custom, tipaton tammikuu. 

Our break from meat wasn’t an ironclad prohibition.  My daughter was of course served meat as part of her school lunches, and my son elected to opt out of the whole thing.  That said, for an entire month our family meals – meaning dinner – consisted only of plants and creatures no higher on the evolutionary ladder than a herring. 

Medieval-era herring fishing in neighboring Sweden.
The change of diet wasn’t exactly a huge stretch for us.  Like lots of families in Finland, we already eat fish pretty regularly.  Finns do like their fish, be it fried, baked, boiled, grilled, smoked, raw or even pickled.   (However, they don't seem go for fermenting our gilled, water-breathing friends, as the Swedes do.)  And most grocery stores offer an excellent variety of fish, from large slabs of salmon to  finger-sized muikku.  And, of course, the ubiquitous Baltic herring.  

There’s no prize for guessing the reason the popularity of fish in this country.  Surrounded on two sides by the Baltic Sea and pockmarked with nearly 200,000 freshwater lakes (mostly concentrated in the east where my wife is from), Finland has always enjoyed a bountiful supply of fishy protein close to home. 

Still, my family typically consumes less fish than beef or chicken.  (We’re also not big eaters of the other favorite meat for Finns, pork.)  So it nonetheless took some adjustment to switch temporarily to life without meat.  The biggest hardship for me wasn’t so much being unable to eat the stuff, as it was figuring out what to cook in its place. 

I do most of the cooking in our house during the week, thanks to me currently being a stay-at-home Dad, and sad to say I’m no Jamie Oliver.  I can fry your basic ground beef – essential for our mainstays of pizza, macaroni casserole (makaronilaatikko), burritos, etc. – and chicken for stir-fry dishes.  I can also make a pretty mean hotdog soup, and when it comes to pea soup, I’m able to open a tin can alongside the best of them. 

With meat off the table, however, the limits of my culinary range became as painfully apparent.  I quickly found you can serve fish sticks or salmon soup only so many times during a given month.  And the obvious choice of all-veggie meals – though healthy and appetizing in theory – turned out to be challenging for this accidental chef.  My attempt at a soy and lentil concoction was tasty – well, editable – but its presentation suffered a tab from being indistinguishable from canned cat food.  Cheap canned cat food.  Word of this dish spread even to my daughter’s friends, who had to see for themselves the food so gross that only a cat would consider eating it – if only it contained meat. 

Blood pancakes with lingonberries.
Now that January is behind us, I can breathe a little easier when suppertime approaches, though we’re committed to continue reducing our meat intake and I’m determined to learn how to cook veggie dishes that are not so foul as to make a vegan backslide.  

In the meantime, we’re back to our more normal, easier-to-prepare menu.  Our first meaty meal was my mother-in-law’s meatballs, which I can confidently state are the best in the world.  The other meat-ish dish we allowed ourselves is one we don’t often eat nowadays, verilettu.  This traditional Finnish pancake made with pig blood – that’s right pig’s blood – used to be a staple in our house when the kids were young.  That was back when you could still buy dry blood-pancake mix, which made it easy for busy parents to quickly whip up a batch of verilettu for hungry youngsters.  Just mix with water, fry in a skillet, and serve with lingonberries on top.  Of course, my kids chose to break with traditional and instead smothered the pancakes with, what else, ketchup. 

For some years now, the dried mix has disappeared off the store shelves, why I can’t say.  But, small ready-made blood pancakes, about the size of silver dollars, are still available.  This is what we recently served with supper for the first time in quite a while.  The kids were not enthusiastic.  Obviously, they have lost their taste for this Finnish delicacy, with or without ketchup.  Or, maybe these modern-day mass-produced, overly processed pancakes aren’t quite the same as the ones they remember from their childhood. 

In any case, my wife found them acceptable.  And she remembers a time when verilettu were prepared the old fashion way – that is, with fresh blood.  In those days, people made the pancakes with pig's blood that they bought from the local butcher shop and brought home in buckets.  Buckets of blood.  Picture that for a moment.  If that doesn’t nudge you toward taking a little break from meat yourself, then nothing will.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I commend you guys for trying something different.

    Pig blood pancakes. Even I would have to think twice about that, and I'm pretty darned adventurous when it comes to food. I'll try just about anything.

    I wouldn't have a problem eating anywhere there is plentiful fish. I recall some of the best fish I ever had was when your dad descended from the trout streams of Cohutta one day with many, many (over his limit) brook trout. Your mom cooked them up and I remember that I was surprised how much the flesh looked like salmon. I'll never forget that.