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Iceland is a land of extremes. In recent years, its remote, untouched beauty has lured tourists in vast numbers. But this tourism, which is the lifeblood of the country, is also the very thing that’s destroying it.

Back in late 2008, Iceland suffered a major financial crisis, the largest experienced by any country in economic history. To add to the damage, two years later, in 2010, the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull ejected so much smoke and ash into the atmosphere that the airspace around Iceland and Europe was closed to air traffic for an 8-day period, accounting for 48% of the world’s total air traffic and about 10 million displaced passengers.

This devastating combination caused prices in Iceland to plummet and word got out that it was an inexpensive, somewhat unexplored, destination for adventurers.
Fast forward a few years later: Icelandair announced cheap airfares and no charge for layovers in Reykjavík, making travel to Iceland more attractive than ever. However, as the economy recovered, prices in Iceland started skyrocketing. Despite this, tourism has increased from 200,000 people a year 10 years ago to 3 million a year currently. Quite a huge change for a country with a population of only 300,000!
There is no way this beautiful country, and the small city of Reykjavík, can handle this onslaught of tourism for very long. In fact, the Icelandic government has now started reducing new construction and putting a tax on hotels in downtown Reykjavík, trying to get people to do use lodgings that are outside of the city limits.

But it’s going to take a lot more than that to slow down the massive number of people who are finding Iceland the new “in place” to go.

The Sun Voyager. On the Reykjavik waterfront.

My wife and I first visited Iceland 16 years ago, and to say that things have changed is a huge understatement. Everything was so different, so built up; it was completely unrecognizable.
Our recent 3-day, 4-night trip to Iceland happened in between Christmas and New Year’s, where the winter weather remained in the 30s and 40s during the day, with on and off rain. We only had 4 hours of sunlight: the sun rose at 11:30AM and set at 3:30PM!
Despite that this is the prime season to see the aurora borealis, the lack of clear skies made it impossible for us to see it on our trip. In fact, there are very few clear nights in the winter months, so it’s a chance every traveler takes. The aurora borealis is usually visible between the months of September through mid-April. A good idea is to download a free app that lets you know when visibility will be at its best. You may not get to see the aurora, but at least you won’t lose money reserving a spot on a trip that ends up a disappointment…like I did!

Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church, and one of the highest points in all of Iceland. Take the elevator up to catch the view!

 

Reykjavík is a great walking city, and for the longer jaunts, there are plenty of taxis to take you where you need to go. There is no Uber in Iceland…yet! Locals will tell you that the Reykjavík bus system is spotty at best. We found that walking was a great way to work off some of the calories of the very rich foods we were eating.

This is what you get if you’re trying to get an Uber ride in Reykjavik.

 

Like all of our travels, we came for the food…

Restaurants in Reykjavik feature mostly Icelandic menus. That means a lot of lamb dishes and lamb soups. After all, there are three sheep roaming the grassy fields of Iceland for every one of the 300,000 people living in this country. Beef can be found on just about every menu, but, like everything else that is imported, it comes at a very steep price. Icelandic seafood is spectacular, but just because it’s local, it doesn’t mean it’s a cheaper alternative.
Alcoholic beverages are another huge expense in Iceland. For example, my Hendrick’s gin and tonic cost $25 US, and all I got was 1 ounce of gin in my glass! Hard to get a good buzz at that price! My advice is: if you can buy a bottle at the duty-free shop at the airport…do it! Then have a cocktail in your hotel room or apartment.

An expensive–and rare–treat: A Hendrick’s and tonic at Sushi Social in Reykjavik.

 

The homemade solution to high alcohol prices: buy it and mix it yourself!

 

Although some restaurants do have vegetarian menus, vegetables in general are hard to come by in Iceland, and all fruits must be imported. Root vegetables can be found on some dishes: carrots, parsnips and potatoes. If you’re craving a salad, greenhouses in Iceland grow the cooler weather greens like arugula and spinach. You’ll also find small greenhouse tomatoes in some dishes. (Electricity is the one thing that’s cheap in Iceland, thanks to geothermal power, so greenhouses can make a profit here.)
Reykjavík does offer sushi restaurants as well as noodle shops. You can also find Italian restaurants and pizza joints.
And if you’re craving a hot dog, nothing beats a lamb hotdog with “the works” at the world-famous Reykjavík hotdog stand, that has been in operation for over 80 years. “The works” means: ketchup, mustard, fried onions, raw onions, and their special remoulade.

 

The famous hot dog stand in Reykjavik. That’s my daughter’s hot dog: ketchup only!

 

Other than KFC and Taco Bell out in the suburbs, we didn’t find any fast-food restaurants in Reykjavik, which was fine by us.
For finer dining, the general rule is this: whatever you think an expensive dinner should cost in the US, triple that price and you’re pretty close to what you’ll pay in Reykjavik! It’s important to keep this in mind when budgeting for a trip, especially if you’re a food nut like my wife and me, and you want to eat everything.

Lamb soup, a staple in Icelandic cooking, and our first taste on our food tour.

 

If you want to learn about local foods, I highly recommend you sign up for the food tour as one of your first things to do in Reykjavík. We went with a company called Wake Up Reykjavík, and they are full of wonderful information about the food and history of Iceland. It’s a walking tour, and you get to sample all kinds of interesting Icelandic foods, from lamb soup to skyr (their version of yogurt), from cheeses to cured meats, and homemade seafood dishes as well. Of course, the famous lamb hot dog stand is on the tour as well. Do the food tour on your first day, and you will already be ahead of the game as far as knowing the lay of the land in this wonderful town.

Our food tour guide was Eyglo, from Wake Up Reykjavik. Here she’s giving us samples of Icelandic cheeses, and cured lamb, horse (yes, horse!) and goose.

 

Icelandic comfort food: a baked cod dish on our food tour.

 

Where and what we ate in Reykjavik…

Staff Kitchen & Bar: a local gastropub on Hverfisgata, one of the main roads in town, with small shops and restaurants. Great burgers, craft beers. Had a wonderful duck risotto with mushrooms and excellent leg of lamb. www.facebook.com/staffkitchenandbar

Duck risotto with mushrooms at Staff Kitchen & Bar.

 

Hofnin: On the waterfront, this homey seafood-based restaurant also has many satisfying meat dishes. Burgers, open-faced roast beef sandwiches, shrimp cocktail with Icelandic shrimp, naan pizza with langoustines. Good solid comfort food. www.hofnin.is

Hofnin, on the waterfront in Reykjavik.

 

Bad lighting, but great open-faced roast beef sandwich at Hofnin.

 

Delicious Icelandic shrimp cocktail at Hofnin.

 

 

Apotek: Keeping the theme of the former apothecary that previously occupied the building, this hip dining establishment is a great place to stop in for a cocktail. But dinner is also a good move: beef tenderloin, Icelandic langoustines and shrimp, minke whale (if you dare), duck and waffles, and an excellent trio of waffles with cured sea trout, lamb and duck. Though the service was a bit lacking, it was still one of our favorite meals in Reykjavik. http://www.apotekrestaurant.is

A beautiful plate of langoustines and shrimp at Apotek.

 

Sushi Social: This is where the beautiful young people hang out. Loud and fun, it’s less about the food and more about who you’re with. A full cocktail bar and sushi that’s fresh, but just OK. And though the prices are high (as everywhere in Iceland) you don’t get a whole lot of fish on your sushi rolls. Still, a fun place that’s packed every night. http://www.sushisocial.is

A front-row seat at Sushi Social.

 

The Icelandic sushi plate at Sushi Social. (See? It’s on a cut-out of Iceland.)

 

Ramen Momo: the original ramen in Iceland and excellent. Great stop for lunch. www.facebook.com/ramenmomoreykjavik

Hard Rock Cafe: There was a Hard Rock in Reykjavik many years ago, and then they shut it down. But as the tourists started coming, it was a wise move to open a newer, bigger and better one. The menus at all Hard Rocks are about the same, so if you’re craving a cheeseburger, mac and cheese, a Caesar salad, ribs, or any other American dish, this is the place to go…with a side of rock and roll. Given that salads are hard to come by in Iceland, it was a welcome change.

 

Jomfruin Scandinavian Kitchen: This was my best meal in Iceland by far. It was also my last meal! Had I known about it sooner, I would’ve eaten there every day. Growing up in a Lithuanian family, herring and smoked eel are in my blood. So when my wife told me there’s a restaurant serving this and more right next door to the Hard Rock, I had to go in. The herring is from Iceland, and marinated in-house. The smoked eel, imported from Denmark, is fatty and absolutely delicious. Washing it down with a shot of Icelandic aquavit…it was like paradise!

Right next door to the Hard Rock…and so good!

 

This meal was so good, it deserves a close-up! House-marinated herring, smoked eel, and Icelandic aquavit: it doesn’t get any better than this!

 

…and don’t forget the original hot dog stand: on Tryggvagata, near Kolaportio. http://www.bbp.is

 

 


Getting around Iceland…

Because it was winter time and we were basically staying in Reykjavík, we found no need to rent a car. I hired a car service online that took us from the airport in Keflavík to our rental apartment in Reykjavík…and then back again at the end of our vacation. (It’s about a 1-hour drive each way.) There is an airport in Reykjavik, but it’s for domestic flights and helicopter trips.
There are buses that will take you to Reykjavik as well, but if you pack as heavily as we do when you travel, having a private driver will be worth every penny–I mean–kronur!

The Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. Many tours use this location as a meeting place.

 

We chose to do the Golden Circle tour, which includes the famous Blue Lagoon. Again, we hired a company to drive us on a very comfortable small bus to all the sites: Þingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Area (home of the famous Geysir hot spring) and Gullfoss (the Golden Waterfall.) We also had a nice meet-and-greet with Icelandic horses, a stop at Kerið Volcanic Crater, and of course, the Blue Lagoon.

Icelandic horse were brought over by the Vikings and have never interbred, making them the purest breed of horses in the world.

 

We went with Nice Travel, and our driver, Marek, was courteous, knowledgeable, and very skilled in winter Icelandic driving, where the weather can and will change every 15 minutes. We went from rain to snow to sleet to hail to sunshine, and back again in every combination possible.

Just before sunrise…and the only time we saw the moon all week!

The Golden Circle is a 190-mile road, not counting the extra drive to the Blue Lagoon, and if you take the tour, you’ll meet your bus around 8:30AM, and you’ll return around 9PM. It’s a long trip that is really worth a full day of your time.

Gulfoss Waterfall.

 

Our tour stopped for lunch at Geysir, where (besides the geyser!) they have a very large souvenir shop and several restaurants with a variety of food choices…none of which was there when we first visited 16 years ago.

Yes, they even allow dorks like me on this trip!

 

Reykjavik has many museums, some ridiculously small, others substantial. My wife, being an artist, checked out all the art museums in town in one day. My daughter and I, less interested in all that, spent our time at the Hard Rock and Perlan, a futuristic-looking museum and planetarium, with amazing panoramic views of Reykjavík. The outdoor observation deck on the fourth floor of this massive dome is breathtaking, as is the enclosed fifth floor restaurant, offering even better views.

The dome at Perlan.

 

Scultpures outside of Perlan. The dome sits on top of massive, repurposed water tanks. You can see them in the background.

 

So is Iceland worth the trip, even in the winter? Absolutely. Will you pay through the nose (or other orifice) for everything? Yes…yes, you will.

Our first trip 16 years ago was in the summer, when we had barely 3 hours of darkness every day. This time, we had 3 hours of sunlight. It was a totally different experience, and one we won’t forget.

Next time–and there will be a next time–we’ll visit in the fall, and take a few remote excursions far outside Reykjavik city limits. There’s much more beauty to see.

Though it may sound Japanese, the word “saganaki” refers to a small frying pan used in Greek cooking. The most famous of these dishes, simply called saganaki, is a fried cheese, often flamed at the end with a little ouzo.

Shrimp saganaki is one of my favorite Greek dishes, and it usually involves cooking shrimp in a tomato-based sauce with plenty of feta cheese sprinkled in. It’s simple yet fantastic if the ingredients are fresh. Doesn’t hurt to be sitting in a taverna on the beautiful island of Santorini while eating it, either!

 

You can find Graviera cheese in most supermarkets.

 

I found a slab of Graviera cheese at a local supermarket, and decided to recreate shrimp saganaki using that instead of feta. It was pretty damn amazing.

I like using 24–30 shrimp, because larger shrimp don’t always cook through. These smaller shrimp will be bite-sized and delicious.

Melty, gooey, delicious!

Melty, gooey, delicious!

 

200g package (7 oz.) grated Graviera cheese
1 can (28 oz.) whole tomatoes
1 lb. (about 24) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 medium onion, chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, through a press
pinch red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons Ouzo
salt and pepper

 

Peel and de-vein the shrimp (or you can buy them that way already.) Squeeze the juice of  1/2 of a lemon on to the shrimp and toss. Set aside.

In a large pan, saute the onions in the olive oil until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds more.

Crush or puree the tomatoes and add to the pan. Add the red pepper flakes, dill and oregano, and salt and pepper. Add the Ouzo.

Let this sauce cook down for a bit until all the flavors have blended together.

Pour a layer of the sauce on the bottom of a metal broiler-proof pan. Lay the raw shrimp in a single layer into the sauce. Cover the shrimp with the rest of the sauce and sprinkle the grated Graviera on top.

Place the pan in a pre-heated 350-degree oven and bake until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly and the shrimp have cooked through.

shrimp saganaki

 

 

I think I spent half of my childhood in the kitchen, watching my Mom and grandmother make koldūnai (kohl-doo-nayh), the Lithuanian version of a pierogi, by hand at lightning speed. They would roll a simple dough into a log about 1″ in diameter, then cut it into 1″ pieces, twirling each piece between their fingers to make a flat pancake, filling each with a small spoonful of meat or mushrooms, then fold it over, crimping the edges to make a crescent-shaped dumpling. It blew my mind that they could crank out over a hundred of these little masterpieces in no time, placing them on a cookie sheet and freezing them until it was time to cook.

 

 

Always on the lookout to make my job easier, I discovered a new tool last year: a device that makes faster work of koldūnai production, though they do come out much smaller. It’s a ravioli maker, and the Lithuanian purists I chatted with on social media didn’t like it. I was willing to give it a try if it meant that I could save myself a lot of time.

 

 

Simply roll out a sheet of dough on top of it.

 

Add a spoon of filling (in this case, ground beef) in each area.

 

Then roll out another sheet of dough on top of that and press down with a rolling pin.

Voila! Out pop 37 mini-koldūnai at once!

 

I first tried it with gluten-free dough, with limited success. The dough needs to have elasticity for the device to work properly and that’s something that is sorely lacking in any gluten-free dough I’ve made over the years. Gluten-free dough tends to dry out quickly and simply break rather than bend. But, that said, I managed to make a decent amount of them so that my wife, who maintains a gluten-free diet, could enjoy them, too.

 

Always great to have a helper in the kitchen!

 

One of the main reasons Lithuanian koldūnai beat Polish pierogis is the filling. For me, standard pierogi fillings like potatoes, cheese, and sauerkraut just don’t cut it. My Mom would mix ground beef with chopped onions sautéed in butter, a couple of eggs, and milk crackers soaked in milk. She’d add salt and pepper, then spoon that mixture into her koldūnai.

The other stuffing, usually reserved for special holidays like Christmas Eve and Easter, was made from mushrooms. Italy may lay claim to the porcini, but the fact of the matter is, Lithuania is porcini heaven. And when they’re dried and reconstituted, their incredible flavor is so intense, you don’t need many of them to flavor a large amount of regular button mushrooms. We’d get our dried boletes from relatives in Lithuania every year. Mom would place a handful in some boiling water and let them steep until they swelled up and could easily be chopped and added to the other mushrooms. She’d then pour the mushroom liquid into the pan as well, not wasting a bit of that magical porcini flavor. The mushrooms were simply sautéed in butter, cooled, then used to fill the koldūnai.

 

I found that my Mom’s log method was too much work. I roll the dough out into a sheet with a rolling pin, then cut circles with a glass. Yes, that’s mac-and-cheese in the forefront.

 

A few years ago, I decided it was time to try my hand at making koldūnai. As I recall, my Mom simply mixed water with flour to make the dough, kneaded it into a log, and off she went. I decided to go with the rolling pin and glass cutting method in addition to the ravioli maker, because I wanted to compare the classic crescent-shaped koldūnai with the newer mini’s.

The biggest challenges I had with making my own koldūnai was my own clumsiness and lack of experience. Once I got the hang of it, things moved along steadily, and it didn’t take long for me to make a decent batch–not all perfect, but not bad for a first try.

 

The rolling pin method.

 

This time around, I made four kinds of koldūnai: traditional (ground beef as well as mushroom) and non-traditional (mac & cheese and pulled pork.)  Patty’s Pierogis, a restaurant in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, and featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” is where my daughter first had mac & cheese pierogis. She was instantly hooked and begs for them every year.

I keep all my fillings gluten-free, so I can use them in the GF as well as regular koldūnai. There’s no difference in the taste. Gluten-free mac-and-cheese is easily found in a box in supermarkets everywhere. Here’s my beef recipe…

 

1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 pat of butter
1 lb. ground beef
1 egg
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I use gluten-free)

I make my gluten-free breadcrumbs with Udi’s frozen GF bread that I toast, then chop in a food processor. I think it tastes better than store-bought GF breadcrumbs in a can.

Finely chop the onion and saute it in the butter until translucent. Let it cool, then add it to 1 lb. of thawed ground beef. Add the egg and the breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Mix the ingredients thoroughly and keep the meat in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.

 

Two pots of boiling salted water: one for the meat-filled koldūnai, and one for the mac-and-cheese filled koldūnai.

Two pots of boiling salted water: one for the meat-filled koldūnai, and one for the mac-and-cheese filled koldūnai.

 

In my childhood home, you cannot possibly serve koldūnai without sour cream on the side and without spirgučiai (spir-guh-chay), chopped and fried bacon and onions that are sprinkled on top.

1 lb. bacon, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped

In a large pan, fry the chopped bacon until it’s almost crisp. Never drain the fat! Add the chopped onions and cook until they are soft. Set aside.  (My Mom always kept a stash of spirgučiai in a container in the fridge, and sprinkled them on anything and everything.)

 

duni 4

Making the dough is simple.

2 cups all-purpose flour (gluten-free or regular)
1 cup water

I don’t use salt in the dough because I boil the koldūnai in salted water later.

Combine the ingredients in a bowl, mixing with your hands. Keep adding flour in small amounts until the dough isn’t wet and sticky. When it forms a nice ball, remove it from the bowl and place it on a floured surface and knead it a bit more. Cut the ball into quarters, and work with these smaller pieces of dough.

If you’re using the ravioli maker method, each quarter will  make one sheet of dough for the top or bottom of the ravioli maker. If making them by hand, each sheet will give you about 8 crescent-shaped koldūnai.

For the rolling-pin method, roll each quarter out until the dough is about 1/8″ thick. Using a rocks glass as your cutter, cut circles out of the dough. Add a small spoonful of filling in the center of the dough, then fold the edges over and pinch them with your fingers. Flip it over and pinch again, making sure none of the filling seeps out. A tight edge means the koldūnai won’t break open when you put them in boiling water.

 

Who knew a rocks glass had more uses than just to hold a great Manhattan?

 

Some stuffed with mac and cheese!

 

Place the koldūnai on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and when you’re done, place the sheet pan in the freezer.

 

Sometimes the chef gets punchy after making koldūnai all day long!

 

Get a large pot of salted water boiling. Drop the koldūnai in gently, being careful not to overcrowd them. If the dough is thin, the koldūnai will be ready when they float up to the surface. A thicker dough will need longer cooking. The best way to know if they’re done is by taking one out, cutting it open and having a look (and taste!)

When plating, sprinkle generously with spirgučiai, and serve with sour cream on the side.

 

 

My conclusion: When all is said and done, the old ways are still the best. Although the ravioli maker did a good job, in many ways it was just as time-consuming. And the finished mini-raviolis did not have the dough-to-filling ratio that I find so satisfying with classically made koldūnai. We sampled both side-by-side, and there really was a difference. I’m sticking with the classic methods for now! Mom will be proud.

 

The hand-painted Christmas trees in the photos are from our friend, Don Cadoret, an artist here in Tiverton, RI. Check out all of his work at: http://www.doncadoret.net.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ICELAND PIC OF THE DAY 4

Posted: December 30, 2018 in Uncategorized
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Our vacation has been great, but sadly, it is time to go home.  This very cool sculpture on the waterfront in Reykjavík says it all.

ICELAND PIC OF THE DAY 3

Posted: December 28, 2018 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

We took the Golden Circle tour, checking out techtonic plate boundaries, volcanoes, waterfalls, geysers, and ended it all with a soak in the famous Blue Lagoon. On the way, we met a few friendly Icelandic horses, one of the oldest pure breeds in the world…originally brought over by the Vikings.

 

ICELAND PIC OF THE DAY 2

Posted: December 27, 2018 in Uncategorized
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23934D9B-DB97-4BEF-9F07-CF8C9B37A333Having a lamb dog with everything is a must at the world famous 80+ year old Reykjavík hot dog stand!

ICELAND PIC OF THE DAY 1

Posted: December 26, 2018 in Uncategorized
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For me, 2-for-1 Moscow Mules means just that: 2 for 1 person! Fun meal at Staff in Reykjavík

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PARIS PIC OF THE DAY 5

Posted: December 25, 2018 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Merry Christmas!

25408566-E8FA-4501-89E5-AB3A18495361

PARIS PIC OF THE DAY 4

Posted: December 24, 2018 in Uncategorized
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What makes Paris so special is the quality of the ingredients they use,  from a Michelin star restaurant to a sandwich stand.

Nobody here settles for the cheap way out.

A simple sandwich: fresh baguette, Iberico ham, and a generous slathering of raclette cheese. Three ingredients, one incredible sandwich.

Almost didn’t get one. My daughter turned to me and said: “Dad, if you keep looking at it, you’re just going to torture yourself more. “ After all, what was the point of going to Paris if I wasn’t going to eat everything?

Not a bit of guilt. Not before and not after!

 

 

PARIS PIC OF THE DAY 3

Posted: December 23, 2018 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

My daughter’s continuing quest to go to every Hard Rock Cafe possible. So far: Orlando, New York, Cayman Islands, Washington DC…and today: Paris! 615D46BC-88EB-4749-9F76-2B3BE87BD2CE


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