My friend Lynne delivered a holiday card last month. It contained her advice for surviving the winter by practicing “friluftsliv” (free-loofts-liv,) a Norwegian word meaning “open- air living.”
I have rolled that word around in my mouth since receiving the card (it’s a good word to roll around!) Lynne described it as “robust bonfires and food,” saying “that’s where you fit in.”
My husband and I like spending time outdoors during all the seasons, and with the pandemic, found solace, as many people did, in taking walks in the neighborhood and hikes on the many trails in our area. Our birdwatching and mushroom hunting improved and we found new places to explore.
But we did miss socializing. When summer rolled around, we jumped at the reduced restrictions by hosting small outdoor parties. Life began to feel somewhat normal.
The vaccine had not yet arrived when the weather got colder, and the predicted upswing in cases restricted gatherings and indoor dining again. I dread the possibility of a full lockdown. But sometimes getting through bad situations is a matter of changing your mindset, and maybe this “friluftsliv” deserved further research.
The Norwegians live at 69 degrees North, and their winters are longer and darker than ours at the 45th parallel. It is said that the practice of open-air living gives them a psychological boost to get through gloomy days. I have read that the practice is all encompassi— from long hikes, cross-country ski treks, and camping, to simply meeting friends in an urban park for a picnic. They even have a special word for drinking beer outdoors, “utepils” (oo-ta-pees.)
I have pondered how to embrace “friluftsliv” in my quest to gather around the table this winter, despite the pandemic. It comes down to figuring out how to keep warm, and the logistics of preparing and eating food outdoors in the cold. How to keep warm is a matter of good clothing, blankets, and a crackling fire. Outdoor cooking needs a little more creativity.
I have not had much experience cooking outdoors until we started going to a friend’s camp in Canada. Part of the property includes two large tent platforms set on rock outcroppings that face Lake Huron.
There is a cooking setup in between the platforms, along with a deck for sitting and eating. One option for cooking is on a grate over a wood fire in a pit set into the rocks. There is also a propane burner, and a classic Weber grill.
In early spring the large tents need to be put up, and late fall, taken down and stored for the winter. The process involves several people who are willing to brave the chilly air to get the work done. I love being part of the crew. There is usually time set aside for fishing, and our best dinners have been of freshly caught pike, cleaned, filleted, and pan-fried. Nothing tastes better after a day outside! We have managed some splendid feasts at camp: Cooking bread in a Dutch oven, making hash browns and eggs for breakfast, and sausage, peppers, and onions to eat on fat buns for dinner. The key is a simple menu, hardy gear (a cast iron pan, good knives, and a sturdy work surface) along with a willingness to adjust to the elements.
We began to dabble with our own backyard fire pit for cooking here at home. The fire pit is a salvaged piece of old farm equipment we found while hiking one day. It stands tall rather than wide, with holes for air and an opening large enough for a grate for cooking food. We now prefer our steaks cooked on the open fire and love to grill a fat piece of sourdough bread alongside. In the fall, we purchase a bushel of sweet peppers, the “seconds” that are not perfect to sell, and roast batches of them over the fire to freeze for the year. Of course, there are afternoons for flame-cooked hot dogs and even a toasted marshmallow now and then.
The fire pit is a good gathering space, and while the heat generated is not warm enough for long hours in the winter cold, I stood with my husband and his pond hockey team out there the other night. The rink is across the street, and the team came over after their game. They toasted their narrow victory over the women’s team with some beer and potato chips. We were “utepils”-ing!
This year, friends invited us over to celebrate New Years’ Eve on their deck. They had placed their large fire pit in a corner out of the wind and added a propane heater for good measure. We sat on chairs draped in blankets, the type furniture movers use, and there were wool throws to put over us if needed. We were plenty warm as the conversation, as well as the wine, flowed, and good music played. All felt weirdly right in the world.
I noticed my friend Tim putting what looked like marshmallows on long skewers, the kind used to cook hot dogs on a fire. He crouched and held the skewer over the fire, and in the light of the flames, I could see these were not marshmallows. He was cooking big, beautiful, sweet scallops. He poured a little melted butter over one and handed it to me. Unexpected and delicious!
The feast had begun. We slurped briny raw oysters brought by another friend, throwing the shells into the fire. A smooth, curried squash soup kept warm in a slow cooker followed, ladled into cups for us to sip. We grilled a marinated venison backstrap and served it with horseradish cream.
The night meandered as we walked the property and caught glimpses of the moon, shared our hopes for a better year, then danced on the deck to R&B music. Someone noticed fireworks in the distance, and I glimpsed at my watch. It was almost midnight! We danced some more, drank hot cider and brandy, and shouted “Happy New Year” at the stars.
Now that is friluftsliv!
Taking a lesson from that night, I can imagine dinner parties we will have this winter. I like the idea of shish kebobs, keeping the pieces small enough not to need a fork and knife. The way Tim cooked those scallops make me think of cooking shrimp that way. I will definitely keep grilling bread, and fat rolls alongside sausage and peppers. Which makes me wonder, could I make grilled cheese sandwiches? Maybe spiff them up with a pile of caramelized onions, relish or chutney in the middle? Have a side of soup? The possibilities are truly endless.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
Serves 4 – 6
2 T. canola or other vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 leek, ends trimmed, cut lengthwise and cleaned well, thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
1 carrot, chopped into small pieces
1 small green pepper, chopped
2 C. light chicken stock
2 (8 oz.) bottles clam juice
2 t. dried basil
1 t. dried oregano
½ t. paprika
1 bay leaf
14 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
- 2-3 (6.5 oz.) cans chopped clams
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and leeks and cook, stirring, until softened. Add celery, carrots and green pepper and cook until just softened. Add stock, clam juice, and herbs, bring to a simmer for 15 minutes. Empty tomatoes into a bowl and crush lightly with your hands, then add them to the soup. Cook 30 minutes more to meld the flavors. Add clams just before serving to heat through, taste and correct seasonings, adding salt and pepper to your liking.
- My father freezes the liquid from steaming clams, and when he has enough, makes a big batch of chowder. If you buy fresh clams, steam and chop the clams, and use the liquid in the soup. It will take this soup to another level. Add an extra can of clams if you want it more “clam forward.” This is a good “meal in a soup,” and one that can be easily eaten from a cup outdoors.
— Ted Schueler, as told to Rose Hollander
Brandied Hot Chocolate
2 t. cornstarch
2 T. cold milk
½ C. water
10 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 ½ C. milk
½ C. heavy cream
1 T. cocoa powder
2 T. brandy
Place cornstarch and 2 T. milk in a small bowl and mix together well. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil. Lower the heat and add the chopped chocolate, stirring until it is melted. Add a pinch of salt, then the milk and cream. Cook, stirring until smooth and the milk is hot. Whisk in the cocoa powder. Stir the cornstarch and milk in the small bowl, then pour into the pan, whisking to blend. Add brandy and serve.
Servings should be small as it is quite rich. This makes a thick, drinkable dessert but if you want it a little less thick, use less cornstarch. Can be served without brandy if preferred.
— Rose Hollander, adapted from Gourmet magazine