The end of June, beginning of July. The calendar marks the month but also the moment. It was just about this time, when one month rolled into the next, when I stepped foot in Norway for the first time.
“We’ll go to Norway together some day,” my grandfather said when I was growing up. It was an ideal, a good intention and a comforting one I think, to look ahead to some time in the future when he would return to his homeland decades after leaving–he along with my grandma, my parents, and me. But he never did go back.
I grew up steeped in the traditions of my Norwegian heritage but it would be years before I would visit Norway. When I finally did, exploring the city where my father was born and passing by his hometown on the train on the way from the airport into the city, I felt at home, right where I wanted to be.
The country calls to me. It might sound strange, but there’s a part of my heart that’s there. I see photos of the fjords and the craggy green hills, the weathered red barns and slowly-setting summer sun and I yearn to go back. I know the country, but at the same time I don’t. I know its essence even though I’d need a map to navigate its streets.
During that visit in the summer of 2008, I met my husband’s Norwegian relatives. A couple of them had flown to Seattle for our wedding a few years before, but I still had yet to meet the others. After eating meals and drinking aquavit with them in their part of the world, I had the chance to return the hospitality for one of the cousins last week. As far as dinners go, these were pretty spontaneous and we served what we had, echoes of the Scandinavian-inspired Midsummer dinner just days before. So as we sat around my kitchen table that first night, eating grilled steak accompanied by dill-speckled potatoes and sliced cucumbers bathed in a creamy dressing–and we happened to have a bar of Scandinavian chocolate in its distinct yellow wrapping on the counter–my husband noted how we were unintentionally giving this Norwegian cousin a little taste of home, far away from home.
But back to Norway, Bergen to be specific. It was uncharacteristically hot those days we were there. Temperatures in the 80s, 90s perhaps. It being the peak of summer, the sun hovered above the horizon well into the night, casting a golden glow on the multicolored Hanseatic wharf and illuminating the waters spilling in from the North Sea.
On one of those days we ate bacalao stew, the salt cod bathed in rich tomato broth and nestled amongst the broken tomatoes and chunks of potatoes. Food often serves as a link to memories, so when I recreated that stew recently I thought back on those sun-drenched days, remembering the afternoons spent exploring Bergen. I loved that city, loved walking along the cobbled ground and peering down windy narrow streets. There I savored eating a traditional, rustic dish of red deer in a tiny restaurant, washing it down with bracing dill aquavit as clear as the purest water in the fjords. I got to know another cousin a little as we shared beers and tapas, and I sampled smoked whale from the outdoor fish market at his suggestion.
During those days, my husband and I walked and ate, talked and visited. It felt relaxed but it was brief; in an instant it was time to return home and let the memories settle deep into my heart.
Norwegian Bacalao Stew
Andreas Viestad says his recipe from Kitchen of Light–which I’ve adapted here–is the classic Western Norwegian interpretation of bacalao. Aside from a little advance planning to soak the salt cod, this recipe comes together easily enough to make on a weeknight. Be sure to have plenty of crusty bread on hand for sopping up the flavorful juices. It’s even better the next day.
1-1 1/2 pounds salt cod
2 medium russet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 large yellow onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes, with juices
1 pound roasted red bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch slices
4-6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 dried hot red chiles, chopped and seeded
10 black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Thoroughly rinse the salt cod and place in a large container of water to soak for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water at least twice. Drain and cut the fish into 2-inch pieces and set aside.
Place a large pot on the stove and arrange the potatoes on the bottom, followed by the onions and then the cod. Next scatter the tomatoes on top, followed by the roasted peppers. Add the garlic, bay leaves, two thirds of the parsley, chiles, and peppercorns, gently working these down into the other ingredients by about an inch, taking care not to disrupt the layering. Pour the olive oil all over the top and turn on the heat.
Simmer gently for 30 minutes, shaking the pot every once in a while. Adjust the heat down if necessary and continue to cook for another 45 minutes, still shaking it every once in a while (avoid stirring the stew at any point).
Divide the stew between six bowls, arranging each of the ingredients in every bowl. Garnish with the remaining parsley. Serve with a bowl of sea salt on the side so everyone can adjust the seasoning to their tastes.