Northern (lack of) Light

Sometimes when I speak of the blanket grey skies we are often subject to in Copenhagen during the winter months, particularly between November and February (winter here is actually from October to March, and snow has fallen in May on occasion) people from the UK say “Oh yes, I know. We get that too.” … And I always think to myself, 'No, you don’t.' The best way to describe the Copenhagen winter grey is: a completely mono-toned dark grey thick blanket that covers the sky and feels like it is going to smother you. We go for weeks sometimes without seeing the sun, with that blanket weighing down above us. This winter, while the temperatures have been relatively high, the grey has been accompanied by continuous rain. Boooooooo! We are however so fortunate that we pretty much never get any kinds of extreme weather. The winds can be strong and hazardous and there is the occasional flooding, but nothing, in my time at least, that has caused major disaster.

So how do we compensate for the lack of sunlight? Candles in homes and other places are a major strategy used by Danes and us foreigners in Denmark. I love them! It makes some of our visitors nervous that we have so many candles lit in our home which is in a block of apartments that all have wooden floors, and a fair amount of wooden furniture, but winter would not be the same without them. I also simply find it comforting being next to this element – when I have travelled alone in the past I have often had tea lights with me to use in the evenings.

The reason for writing about this is that I was just speaking to my office mate who is in the process of completing his PhD manuscript. He had asked me how I felt now that I have submitted and I said ‘I need to defend it and be done with it.’ He then went on to describe how this process is making him feel. He compared it to the feeling of claustrophobia, and said that it impedes his everyday life and all his social relations. Behind him is a big window and the blanket grey and it made me think, ‘The weather here does that too sometimes’.

It is so tempting to just stay inside and create hygge with my candles when it is like this, but too much of that can create the feeling of claustrophobia as well. When I was in my office mate’s position a few months ago, I had a horrible sensation, real or imagined, that I had no time. This meant that I biked everywhere in order to save time. There are so many bikes in this city and I was racing, rather than just biking, from A to B in those months, which quite probably caused more stress than it relieved. I subsequently spent little to no time enjoying the outdoors and the freedom of the mind that comes with taking a long, calm, deep breath of fresh Nordic air (albeit city air!). Nowadays, although I now feel anxious to complete this PhD process, I do feel that I have time to breathe again. I have been walking from A to B a lot since the New Year started, under the blanket grey sky and sometimes in the rain, and enjoying every minute of it! For my partner and many others I know from Southern Europe that sentence is an oxymoron, but I really insist that a great way to deal with the Northern (lack of) light is to get outside and focus on the freshness of the air instead. And for those poor people finishing their PhDs, please, as advised, do number ten on this list at least once every couple of days!

… Of course everyone should eat good colourful food at all times too! Last weekend I took to the cookbooks (another thing I have not been able to take time to do for far too long) and followed a recipe for a yummy tart by Yotam Ottolenghi in his wonderful book, Plenty. It is quite labour intensive so make sure you have plenty of time. I think I did a pretty good job and it was indeed very full and absolutely delicious! Worth every minute, so please do try it and enjoy!

Very Full Tart

(Serves 4-6)

1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
about 6 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium eggplant, cut into 4cm dice
salt and black pepper
1 small sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm dice
1 small zucchini, cut into 2cm dice
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
300g short-crust pastry
8 thyme sprigs, leaves picked
120g ricotta cheese
120g feta cheese
7 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 medium eggs
200ml double cream

Preheat the oven to 230 C (450F). Use a small serrated knife to cut around the stem of the peppers and lift it out along with the seeds. Shake the peppers to remove all the remaining seeds; discard the stems and seeds. Place the two peppers in a small ovenproof dish, drizzle with a little oil and put on the top shelf in the oven.
Mix the eggplant in a bowl with 4 tablespoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Spread in a large baking pan and place in the oven on the shelf beneath the peppers.

After 12 minutes add the sweet potato dice to the eggplant pan and stir gently. Return to the oven to roast for another 12 minutes. Then add the zucchini to the pan, stir and roast for a further 10 to 12 minutes. At this point the peppers should be brown and the rest of the vegetables cooked. Remove all from the oven and reduce the temperature to 160C (375F). Cover the peppers with foil and cool, then peel and tear roughly into strips.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan on medium heat. Sauté the onions with the bay leaves and some salt for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally until they turn brown, soft and sweet. Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaves and set aside.

Lightly grease a 23cm (9-inch) loose-bottomed tart pan. Roll out the short-crust pastry to a circle roughly 3mm (1/8 inch) thick and large enough to line the pan, plus extra to hang over the rim. Carefully line the pan with the dough, pressing it into the corners and leaving the excess hanging over the top edge. Line the dough with a large sheet of parchment paper and fill it with baking beans (or dried beans or rice). Bake the crust for 30 minutes. Carefully remove the paper with the weights, then bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, or until it turns golden brown. Remove and allow to cool a little.

Scatter the cooked onion over the bottom of the crust and top with the roasted vegetables, arranging them evenly. Scatter half the thyme leaves over. Next, dot the veg with small chunks of both cheeses and then with the tomato halves, cut-side up.

Whisk the eggs and cream in a small bowl with some salt and pepper. Carefully pour this mix into the tart; the top layer of tomatoes and cheese should remain exposed. Scatter the remaining thyme over the top. Place in the oven and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the filling sets and turns golden. Remove and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before releasing the tart from the pan and serving.