Sunday, 20 May 2012

School food nostalgia

After making my less traditional version of spinach pancakes, I have been thinking a lot about traditional Finnish food, and particularly food memories from my childhood. I don't know if I'm suffering from an iron deficiency right now, but the two foods that have particularly occupied my thoughts have been liver casserole and blood pancakes. Weird, I know. Oh, and I should apologise in advance, this will be a very long rant going off on several topics. As usual, feel free to skip straight to the recipe at the end.

I guess the first thing I should explain for the non-Finnish reader (not sure if there are any... oh well, I'll go ahead anyways) is about Finnish school food. In Finland, all the way from elementary to high school, you are served a free warm lunch every day. In fact, education in general is free in Finland, which I think is one of the great things we should take pride in, but I won't go further into my thoughts on education policies. I'll just stick to talking about food. So, like I said, free food for everyone. Of course the budget of the school kitchens are not very big, and the quality of school food today probably is not what it used to be when I was a kid. Still, the idea is to serve (relatively) healthy and varied basic food, serving a variety of fish, meat or chicken based food. Interestingly, there was an uproar of protest when the schools in the capital region started to serve only vegetarian food one day a week. Previously there had always been an vegetarian option in addition to fish or meat, but it was seen as totally incomprehensible that growing children were forced to eat vegetarian food once a week. I am rolling my eyes as I write this, I can't understand why at least one day of fully veggie food wouldn't be acceptable to serve in schools, but this was seen as forcing food ideologies on people. Personally, I don't see why veggie food couldn't be a part of a normal diet for everyone, especially since many veggie foods can still be incredibly nutritious but inexpensive at the same time, not to even mention veggie food being the more environmentally friendly option. I think learning to eat and appreciate all different types of food would be important, and if children learn this already when they grow up, where is the harm? Of course families are then free to serve them whatever they want at dinner, if they find the lack of animal protein to be extremely worrying, they can compensate for this at dinner that day. 

I grew up in a really small village about an hour's drive from the capital, and went to a very idyllic small elementary school for the first six years of my education. The school had four teachers and a hundred or so pupils. We used to have two cooks in our own little school kitchen who prepared traditional home-cooked Finnish food, like fish and potatoes, sausage and mash, macaroni and minced meat casserole, meat stews and suchlike. We had green salads or grated root veg every day to go with the food. The principle was that you had to have at least a small taste of everything (a principle I still try to live by). I can remember the two things I really hated was pickled herring with a white sauce with boiled eggs and breaded and fried herring. My favourites, at least the ones I can remember, were oven baked macaroni and minced meat casserole, sausage in tomato sauce, pasta bolognese and blood pancakes. Particularly, I remember that the pancakes were served from the kitchen in aluminum foil tins with stacks of pancakes, maybe six or so to a stack. As the pancakes were heated in the oven, the top pancake got a bit burned and dried out, and it was the most delicious thing to eat.

Inspired by these childhood memories, I realised I have never cooked any offal in my entire life. So I decided I really have to try it out. I can remember my mum making liver casserole when I was a kid, and in Finland it's actually so popular that you can buy microwave meals of it in all grocery stores. To explain the whole thing, I think I have to start by explaining the concept of "laatikko". In Finnish cooking, we have loads of foods named laatikko. The word laatikko in general is best translated to box or container, and when it comes to food, the closest translation is casserole. It refers basically to a food that has been cooked slowly in the oven for a long time. The most common "laatikko" foods are makaroonilaatikko (macaroni casserole), maksalaatikko (liver casserole), porkkanalaatikko (carrot casserole), lanttulaatikko (swede casserole), perunalaatikko (potato casserole), kaalilaatikko (cabbage casserole) and I could go on forever. In my opinion, it's an excellent way of cooking. It brings out more flavour from the foods, and you can use cheaper cuts of meat (most often minced meat is used, as in makaroonilaatikko, it's a mix of macaroni and minced meat). Casseroles with root veggies are often a mix of grated or pureed root veg mixed with rice and cooked slowly to enhance the natural sweetness, often with a dash of syrup and butter added for taste. So the laatikko-foods have a very central part in Finnish cooking, best exemplified by the three classics, carrot- swede and potato casserole which are pretty much obligatory on the Christmas dinner table in Finland. I wouldn't say it's the most gourmet experience Finnish cooking can produce, but it's basic, good, homecooked food at it's best. And you can leave the stuff in the oven for hours on low heat, the flavours just intesify, and you can use your time for something else, like writing a food blog...

Then onto the subject of offal. In general, I'm not a big fan. However, recently I have taken a liking to liver. I had a great chicken liver salad at Carluccio's a few months ago, and absolutely exquisite chicken liver ravioli in sherry sauce at Jamie's Italian, sadly it's no longer on the menu. I was debating between making blood pancakes or liver casserole as my first attempt of traditional Finnish offal. I have to admit I settled for the liver, as I'm slightly queasy at the thought of cooking with blood. However, I like the thought that if an animal is to die in order to feed humans (and in theory, we know this wouldn't be strictly necessary to keep us alive), at least we should use every part of the animal that is edible. I just watched an episode of Two greedy italians where Antonio and Gennaro participate in slaughtering a pig in a small village in Italy. When the animal is actually slaughtered by the men in the village, and it's not done anonymously at some slaughter house far away where you don't have to see the thing actually happening, I think you have a very different respect for the food you get. They really used and preserved every part of the animal, not just the meat (again, meat sounds so much more appetising than muscle now doesn't it...). Bones can be used to make stock, most of the internal organs can be cooked in pies or stews and the blood can be made into a lot of things, like puddings or sausages. Interestingly they used the blood for a dessert called sanguinaccio, cooking it with flour, sugar, milk and cocoa powder. I've never seen anything like that done from blood. I'm not quite prepared to try that out yet, but maybe if I get a bit braver I'll try the blood pancakes. For now, I'll stick to the liver casserole though. Funnily enough, liver casserole was voted by Finnish school children to be their least favourite food in 2011 in a survey of 299 children. The top food was pizza, which was definitely not served at lunch in school when I was a kid. Goes to show how old I am. 

For my casserole, I looked for inspiration from several different recipes, at least these three: Kotikokki, Pirkka and this lovely looking blog called Grandma's recipes. Traditionally, rice is used in this dish, but as I'm going through a pearl barley phase, I decided to replace the rice with barley. I ended up with my own amalgamation of the recipes above: 

Liver casserole (maksalaatikko, 4-6 servings):

200g pearl barley (or rice)
160 ml water
600ml milk
a pinch of salt

1 onion
1 tbsp rapeseed oil

50ml syrup (I used agave syrup)
150g (about 1 cup or 2.5 dl) raisins (or less or none if you are not a fan)
1 egg
white pepper
500g beef liver, finely chopped or minced

The howto:
Bring the water to a boil, add barley, and let cook until water is absorbed (a few minutes). Then add milk 100-200 ml at a time, let cook until absorbed and add more milk. When all milk is absorbed, you should have a thick porridge with soft but still a little bit chewy barley. 
Preheat oven to 175 degrees C. Finely chop the onion and fry in the oil.
Mix the onion and barley, add the rest of the ingredients and stir. Put into a oven proof casserole, and bake in the oven for at least an hour (I baked it for about 90 minutes, first without cover, and after 30 minutes I covered with foil to keep it from going too dark). Serve piping hot with a knob of butter. Traditionally, this dish would be served with lingonberry jam, but unfortunately that is a treat I don't have access to. Hopefully next time I go down to London I will have time to get some from the Scandinavian shop, and enjoy the privilege of paying triple compared to what I would back home. 

Before baking

One serving (1/6 of recipe) contains 450 kcal, 18g fat, 67g carbs and 27g protein.

The verdict:
This is a really difficult verdict to make, as I am so strongly influenced by how I think this dish should taste, based on the store bought one. I know many people think the store bought one (and liver casserole in general) is food which is not suitable for people, but should only be served dogs and cats, but I actually have a soft spot for it. It wasn't something I ate often, but every once in a while I would get a pack as a guilty pleasure.

When my casserole was cooking, the smell spreading into my apartment was exactly right, just the way I remembered it from when my mum was making the dish, or how it smells when you heat the store bought one in the oven (it gets a nicer taste compared ). So that was encouraging. And taking it out of the oven, the look was also right. Tasting it, I was very excited to say, to some extent it was the same. Yet different. In good and bad. However, there are many substitutions I have made to the recipe, so it was bound to be different. One of the most notable differences is that mine isn't nearly as sweet, and I think next time I might add 10 or 20 more ml syrup. And maybe still a bit more raisins, although I have to say my version already contains more raisins that the store bought one. But if you have been reading my previous posts, you know I have a thing for raisins (funnily enough, I needed 150 g raisins for this dish, I bought a 500g pack as that was the smallest one they had at Tesco, and I don't have any raisins left. I think there is  a raisin specific black hole in my food cupboard. Oh wait, why has my butt suddenly expanded to ginormous proportions? No idea...). The other big difference is the liver, as I didn't mince mine, but just chopped it up. I think I actually like my way better, I like the chewy little bits of liver. After already starting the cooking process, I looked online for the ingredients of the store bought one, and it contains a mix of pork, beef and chicken liver. Next time I might try the same mix. On the issue of barley versus rice I'm undecided. I am going through a barley phase right now, I like the texture of the grain better than rice. As the overpowering flavours in this dish are the raisins, syrup and liver, I don't think it matters very much if you use barley or rice, it is only there to add more substance to eat instead of anything else I guess. One more difference is that if I was cooking this back home, I would use a dark syrup, which would be something halfway between golden syrup and treacle and which I haven't seen in grocery stores here. I substituted with agave syrup, which again is very different, but the main thing is that this dish needs a bit of sweetness to work, and I think the more complex flavours of dark syrup are more suitable, but you have to stick to the ingredients you have access to. So on the issue of store bought versus home-made, I think I will settle for a tie, the store bought is sweeter and a bit more moist, this one is drier, but the taste and texture of liver comes through much better. 

Also, this turns out to be a really cheap dish to make. Ignoring the cost of the oil and spices, the rest of the ingredients cost me: liver £0.75, barley £0.36, milk £0.65, raisins £0.46, egg £0.31, onion £0.15, agave syrup £0.5. For me, this amount makes 6 servings, so the price per serving is £0.53. Yes, seriously!! Talk about cheap food. A quick google search suggested that the current price for Saarioinen's liver casserole €2.5, I would say that is 3 servings of equal size making it more expensive at €0.83 (£0.76). And shipping it to the UK in fridge temperature also might add a bit to the cost.

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