The Easiest Gravlax

The cure begins by tucking the salmon into a blanket of sugar, salt, and dill. By the time the ingredients are fully applied, there’s no trace of the fish. The vibrant red of the sockeye is buried—as its name gravlax (“grave salmon”) suggests—in a mound that resembles freshly fallen snow.

We’ve been making gravlax, a Scandinavian cured salmon with roots that go back to the Middle Ages, for years in my home. It’s our go-to holiday appetizer, the constant fixture in our Christmas feast. The rest of the menu almost doesn’t matter; no matter how complicated or simple I make the task of designing the menu, gravlax is there.

The beauty of gravlax is in its simplicity; while many recipes call for additional spices and flavorings, I prefer to let the essence of the salmon shine. With nothing aside from salt, sugar, dill, and perhaps a bit of aquavit or vodka, the flavor of the salmon intensifies, transforming the fish into an even more rich and luscious version of itself.

When making gravlax, I know that I’m celebrating something of my heritage, joining in a centuries-old tradition, albeit one that’s morphed considerably over time.

Thinking of the origins of gravlax—which appears in documents as early as the 1300s–I imagine Norway in the Middle Ages and see a land of jagged topography lined with frigid waters that bleed into its shores and cut through the mountainous landscape. These fjords are a landmark of sorts of Norway, as recognizable to the rest of the world as are the country’s medieval Stave churches and the Viking ships unearthed over the past 150 or so years. Some things are sure: The waters were cold. The winters were dark. People needed food.

And that’s where preserved fish comes in. Gravlax, of course, gets its name from its origins. Grave salmon, buried salmon. These days, preparations like mine literally bury the salmon in a coat of sugar and salt. But its roots go back to a different kind of preservation, burying fish in the ground, wrapped in birch bark, where it would ferment.

Today a type of fermented fish, rakfisk, remains a Norwegian delicacy. The Swedes have surströmming. But the fish fermentation of the Middle Ages has otherwise largely been replaced by today’s curing methods, which draw out moisture and accentuate flavor, leaving behind the softest, most velvety texture. The results are satisfying and sophisticated, yet simple and uncomplicated—just good ingredients prepared simply. What food should perhaps almost always be.

Over the years I’ve come to see gravlax as less of a recipe than a technique. It’s almost a formula: high-quality salmon with a two-to-one cure of sugar and salt and traditionally a scattering of fresh dill. All other ingredients are optional and vary. As with any traditional recipe, variations abound, ranging from the simplest to others incorporating fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits to lend varying essences and hues to the fish. I’ve seen recipes with orange and horseradish, and others that call for beetroot, the latter of which lends the most gorgeous magenta ombré effect to the sliced salmon. I’m sure they all yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax traditional, the flavor of the already-rich sockeye concentrated and accentuated only with a hint of dill.

Years ago we read Mark Bittman’s article about gravlax in The New York Times and have almost always used The Minimalist’s Gravlax recipe as our base, though over the years it’s begun to feel less like a recipe, more like a technique. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of sockeye salmon (previously frozen to kill parasites and bacteria), then defrost it and cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. In the winter months, we leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before wiping or rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. Making gravlax is so simple. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

When it comes to serving gravlax, it’s as easy as setting out some crispbread or crackers, lemon wedges, a dill-flecked mustard sauce sweetened with a bit of honey, and perhaps some capers and chopped red onion, so that guests can assemble it to their own taste. I find that simple is best, and that gravlax needs little more than a cracker to bring it one’s mouth. Of course, one can also feel free to serve it alongside potatoes, on smørbrød (open-faced sandwich), or as the centerpiece of a salad.

No matter how you serve it, it’s hard to beat something as simple yet elegant as this.

And to think it only required a simple cure.

The Simplest Gravlax
I notice the beauty of the sockeye each time we bring a fillet into our home. We always use sockeye for our gravlax, with no exception. It’s my favorite kind of salmon; the  color is only a hint at the flavor and the richness of the fish, whether grilled or poached, cured or sashimi-style. Each time I unwrap a fillet I marvel at the beauty of the fish—its vibrant color and silky texture portend the deliciousness to come.

1 ( approximately 2 pound) fillet of best-quality salmon, skin on, previously frozen
1 bunch dill
2 cups sugar
1 cup salt (I use kosher)
3-4 tablespoons vodka or aquavit

Line a large baking sheet with plastic wrap, leaving enough over the ends to wrap over the salmon. Top this with a layer of parchment paper similarly sized. (The double layer helps to contain the mess when draining the excess liquid, although a single layer of plastic wrap will do in a pinch.)

Rinse the salmon and pat it dry. Remove any pin bones and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Thoroughly wash and dry the dill, then rough chop the whole bunch, including the stems (you’ll be removing the dill later, leaving just its essence behind). In a medium bowl, mix the dill, sugar, salt, and vodka or aquavit, then scatter it on top of and underneath the salmon, being sure to pack the cure ingredients on every part of the fish. Wrap the salmon, first with the parchment and then the plastic wrap.

At this point, you can refrigerate it immediately or take Mark Bittman’s advice and place it in a cool location (he recommends below 70 degrees) to rest for about 6 hours before refrigerating it, which will shorten the amount of time it needs to cure.

Check the gravlax every 12 hours or so, pouring out excess liquid (some is okay and can be used to baste the fish, but drain some out if it’s excessive) and turning the fish. After the salmon has cured to your liking (at least 24 hours, or as long as two days), drain off the liquid and pat the salmon dry, removing excess curing ingredients from the surface (alternatively, you can rinse them off and then pat dry if you don’t like the little flecks of dill left over). Slice very thinly.

Leftovers, if you have any, should last about five days and can also be frozen. I’ve also taken the advice of Michelin starred chef Titti Qvarnstrom, previously of Sweden’s Bloom in the Park, who taught at Seattle’s Nordic Culinary Conference last year, and briefly steamed thicker portions of leftovers. These make a wonderful addition to salads.

Makes enough for a crowd.

Fårikål (Lamb and Cabbage), Norway’s National Dish)

I remember the first time I tasted fårikål, the national dish of Norway. I had read for a long time—years maybe—about this stew of lamb and cabbage that is Norway’s national dish. It seemed too simple, I thought—just lamb and cabbage, with water, salt and pepper, the building blocks of most stews. Most recipes I’d seen were light on details, too. It must be easy to mess up, I figured, so I stayed away. Emboldened with a deadline and a job to do, however, I set to work this past spring at tackling this dish that had previously intimidated me. With Fårikålens Festdag, Norway’s fårikål feast day, coming up in the fall (it’s always the fourth Thursday of September), I knew I’d have to write about it. As food editor of The Norwegian American, I didn’t feel right outsourcing our coverage of this annual classic yet again.

Armed with a small quantity of bone-in lamb, cabbage, and a handful of recipes, I began the traditional process of arranging the ingredients in the pot, letting it all simmer, and trusting that over the next couple of hours some sort of culinary magic would take place. The results, let me tell you, exceeded my expectations.

I knew the finished dish would be simple, but I couldn’t anticipate the way the modest list of ingredients—humble ones for that matter, as mutton and tougher cuts of meat would typically be used—would somehow yield results that were just right in their restraint. The flavors of the cabbage and lamb shone individually and yet informed by one another. The whole peppercorns added an herbal, subtle floral note that was almost imperceptible and yet accented the flavor of the lamb.

I’ve since come to appreciate the dish for not only its simplicity, but also its ease. After layering or nestling the ingredients in a pot, all you need to do is wait for a couple of hours, perhaps boiling some potatoes to serve on the side, and dinner is served. Of course, we don’t always have that amount of time for dinner to cook, but one of the wonderful things about fårikål is how easily it reheats, and some people swear that leftovers get better over time. (That served me well last week when I cooked a batch of fårikål early in the day and chilled it until dinnertime, when we had only a brief amount of time for dinner before rushing off to an event.) Still, there’s nothing saying you have to make a large batch of fårikål to enjoy it. I’ve found that I prefer small-batch fårikål, the type of dish that might serve two hungry adults or a small family.

Aside from perhaps the small quantity, the recipe I’m sharing today is typical. Many recipes call for layering the ingredients in a pot. This is a small batch, so nestling them is fine. Don’t mess with the dish as it cooks, aside from checking it every once in a while; let the cabbage retain its shape. As unattractive as the dish often is—and that’s to be expected—this is one way to thoughtfully preserve the visual integrity of the ingredients, letting the eyes as well as the mouth perceive the simplicity in which the dish’s key ingredients are allowed to shine. Serve with boiled potatoes—red-skinned ones with flecks of bright green parsley will further add visual interest when serving. Flatbread and lingonberry preserves round out the meal.

The ingredients themselves reflect foods that are integral to the region. Sheep are plentiful and a fixture of Norwegian mountains. Cabbage has a significant role in Nordic history—it’s one of the oldest vegetables in the region, writes Camilla Plum in The Scandinavian Kitchen, who adds that it was the only vegetable grown in the Viking age. Though it mutes to a nondescript color as it cooks down with the lamb, it’s flavorful and is so cozy and nourishing.

For as simple as fårikål is, the results are fantastic. The challenge for many may be the cooking time, a long time for a weeknight. If you’d like to mark Fårikålens Festdag this month with a batch of homemade fårikål but don’t have the time, feel free to make it in advance—it reheats easily and will taste just as good—perhaps even better—the next day.

Fårikål (Lamb and Cabbage Stew with Peppercorns, Norway’s National Dish)

1.5 pounds lamb (shoulder, shank, or neck) cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1.5 pounds green cabbage, cut into wedges
1-2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
water to barely cover (approximately 4 cups)

In a large pot, nestle the lamb amongst the cabbage wedges. Sprinkle the peppercorns and salt over it, then add water to just barely cover. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for about two hours, until the lamb is remarkably tender and pulls easily away from any bones.

To serve, carefully lift the cabbage out of the pot and arrange it in bowls with pieces of the lamb. Pour over the broth, and make sure to distribute peppercorns between the bowls.

Serves 2, with perhaps a little left over for the next day’s lunch.

Celebrating the Kräftskiva: a Swedish Crayfish Party Tradition

Swedish Crayfish Party

A few weeks ago, before the season began its visible transition from summer to fall, I took part in one of the most charming of Scandinavian celebrations, the kräftskiva, or Swedish crayfish party. A tradition every August in Sweden, it’s one that I’ve tried to embrace here in Seattle over the past several years. This year, in addition to hosting my own, I had the opportunity to be a guest at a very special kräftskiva hosted by Old Ballard Liquor Company.

As the summer sun glowed golden over Ballard, a neighborhood rich with Scandinavian history, I crossed the old railroad tracks, past the main streets, and made my way into a shipyard where relics of the old neighborhood were displayed as if it were a museum. Lights and signs from shuttered Ballard bars and restaurants (including one of my favorites, the old Copper Gate) brought back memories of old times. An old newspaper vending box displaying a 2009 issue made me do a double take (the headline announced the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition, an event that as a journalist I remember vividly). The sun cast a radiant tint over everything, and if one had entered the scene after putting back a few shots of aquavit, one might wonder if they were really seeing things for what they were.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

Swedish Crayfish Party

With live music, lanterns, and plenty of aquavit flowing at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, we made fast friends with our fellow diners and dug into the meal. With crustacean juice and the wild-fennel-and-beer poaching liquid dripping from our lips, we shared tips for how to break into the crayfish and extract as much of the meat and goodness as possible.

My neighbor, nostalgic for a time when she had lived in Sweden, focused on the crayfish, savoring the eat-with-your-hands meal and her own personal aquavit carafe frozen in a thick sleeve of ice. Less sure of the crayfish, the woman across from me made a meal primarily out of the mini onion and mushroom cheese pies (it’s typical to serve Västerbotten cheese pie at such dinners, as crayfish themselves are hardly enough to fill one up and soak up all the aquavit consumed). Rounded out with new potatoes tossed with butter and dill, rye crispbread to slather with butter, and an elderberry ice cream topped with stone fruit compote, the meal was distinctly Nordic—with a Pacific Northwest touch.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

As the sun set, I couldn’t help but think about the Friday-night revelers that would be gathering along the strips of bars and restaurants in the heart of Ballard. They would be oblivious to this quirky, cultural tradition taking place on just the other side of the old railroad tracks. With a full stomach and happy with the warm glow of celebration and community, I knew just where I would rather be.

Swedish Crayfish Party

The Nordic Cookbook’s Finnish Spinach Pancakes (Pinaattiohukaiset)

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I’ve been sitting with the book for quite some time now. Perhaps you’ve seen it around, maybe even have a copy of your own. The Nordic Cookbook, by Magnus Nilsson, came out last fall, and ever since it’s become my primary resource in my Scandinavian and Nordic cookbook library. I had a chance to meet Magnus Nilsson—two star chef of Sweden’s celebrated restaurant Fäviken—at the Nordic Culinary Conference in Seattle this past spring. There, I found out just why this five-pound, 768-page hardcover is such a gem.

Personally, I have appreciated the context in which Nilsson puts many of the recipes, with headnotes that are meatier and more relevant than ones in many other cookbooks. But the extent of research that went into the book is what lends it something of incredible significance. Nilsson spent several years traveling throughout the Nordic countries, documenting stories, and collecting recipes. While he initially turned down the book when the publisher proposed it, wanting rather to write a Swedish cookbook, he realized eventually that there was a need: Most people don’t really know much about Nordic food culture, let alone what defines the Nordic region or the differences between “Nordic” and “Scandinavian.”

While there’s a lot of talk about Nordic food, it’s not really a homogenous region or one with dishes that exist throughout,Nilsson shared in a lecture that weekend in May. Rather, it’s a vast area, and what people eat in one part of the region differs from what people eat in the another. He didn’t want the book to be an idealized version of Nordic food, with Dala horses and gingerbread cookies, he said. Instead he wanted to reflect what people really eat—both today and traditionally.

Nestled among the approximately 700 recipes from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland are stunning photos of the region’s landscape, producers, and citizens—photos that Nilsson, who’s enjoyed photography since he was a child—took during his travels. This is one of those books that reflects history, culture, and a sense of place. As a food writer, for me The Nordic Cookbook is one of a handful that I reach for time and time again. For the recipes, of course, but also for the history and context Nilsson provides.

LingonberriesAndPancakesDiptych

Nilsson is open about the fact that it would have been impossible to put the book’s 700 or so recipes through extensive testing. So while I keep The Nordic Cookbook within easy reach, I use it mostly as a guide in the kitchen, adding my own touches as I go or merely using it as a starting place. The Swedish tiger cake, for example, was good but not spectacular–the next time I made one, I created my own recipe and bumped up the chocolate flavor considerably. That said, the recipes are traditional and are largely collected from people throughout the Nordic countries who shared them with him. I’d like to think that if I were sending a recipe to a world-class chef, it would one I’d be proud of. The Finnish spinach pancakes I’m sharing with you today are an example of that. While I altered the instructions to make them more clear, the recipe itself was sound and lent itself a sweet and savory treat. While Nilsson suggests serving these with sugared lingonberries, if you don’t have access to fresh or frozen berries, lingonberry preserves will work as well.

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Finnish Spinach Pancakes with Lingonberries (Pinaattiohukaiset)
Adapted from The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson

5 ½ ounces spinach
2 eggs
15 fluid ounces whole milk
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
Salt
White pepper
Freshly-grated nutmeg
Butter, for frying
Lingonberry preserves or sugared lingonberries, for serving

Chop the spinach as finely as you can, set aside.

In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the spinach, milk, flour, salt, white pepper, and nutmeg and stir to combine.

In a small cast-iron, melt a pat of butter over medium heat. Ladle in the batter to create thin pancakes roughly 4 inches in diameter, and fry until the underside has turned a light brown. Flip and finish cooking on the other side, then transfer to a plate to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter.

Serve with lingonberry preserves or sugared lingonberries.

Serves 4

A Vintage Norwegian Cod Dinner: Prince Fish with Asparagus and Wilted Cabbage with Bacon and Dill

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The book smells of old cabin wood, dusty, stale, with a hint of cedar. Printed back in the 1960s, it’s more than a half century old, in pristine condition apart from the torn corners of the jacket. Flipping through the unmarked, thick creamy pages and the still-crisp yet rustic deckle edge, I can’t help but wonder if had been forgotten on a bookshelf decades ago.

AsparagusAndCookbookDiptych

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I love old cookbooks, and have collected many Scandinavian and Nordic ones throughout the years. They offer clues to another time, often in subtle ways, and I can’t help but wonder how these might provide clues into what life must have been like for past generations of my family. I found my copy of The Complete Scandinavian Cookbook by Alice B. Johnson at Powell’s Books in Portland a while back. Nestled among Scandinavian and Nordic cookbooks both old and new in the high, crowded shelves, it made its way to mine, where I had all but forgotten again until this spring. With recipes grouped by country, it made it easy for me to go straight to the section on Norway and draft a menu for a vintage Norwegian dinner featuring one of the country’s most beloved fish: cod.

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Gently poached and then dressed in a creamy white sauce accented with a hint of mustard, the cod is simple yet flavorful. Vibrant asparagus gives the otherwise pale dish a splash of color. I served it alongside a dish of wilted cabbage with pieces of crunchy bacon and flecks of fresh dill.

I’ve preserved the essence of both recipes but have tweaked them a bit to reflect my tastes–primarily with the addition of a little mustard in the white sauce, a touch that livens it up and makes it something I can’t get enough of. There’s something deliciously old-school about both of these recipes. They’re neither new nor inventive, rather traditional and just the things to trigger nostalgia in each and every bite.

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Norwegian “Prince Fish” with Asparagus and White Sauce (Prinsefisk)
This recipe and the following are both adapted from The Complete Scandinavian cookbook by Alice B. Johnson (1964).

For the fish:
Approximately 1.5 pounds of cod fillets, skin and bones removed
Salt and pepper

For the Asparagus:
1 bunch fresh asparagus
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole grain mustard
1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pat cod dry and season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

Place asparagus spears in a baking dish and toss with olive oil and salt, then roast until tender, 10-15 minutes depending on thickness. Cover and keep warm.

While the asparagus roasts, place the cod in a large pan in a single water and pour water around to just cover. Gently poach until just cooked through. Reserve a cup or so of the water and drain, covering the cod to keep it warm.

To make the sauce, melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stirring constantly, add flour until it seizes up, then gradually pour in the milk while continuing to stir until it thickens a bit. Pour in the whipping cream and add mustard and salt, continuing to stir until it starts to reach a boil. Taste and adjust the salt as needed. If you need to loosen it up a bit, add a little of the reserved water, starting with a tablespoon or two, until it reaches the desired consistency.

Arrange the asparagus on a platter. Place the cod on top, then generously pour over the sauce. Boiled potatoes would be a perfect accompaniment.

Serves 4.

Wilted Cabbage with Fresh Dill and Bacon (Kål med Dill og Flesk)
A study in contrasts, the softness of the cabbage–which has yielded to the heat–gets livened up with crunchy bacon and the herby flavor of fresh dill. Do be careful with the amount of salt–you may need more or less depending on the saltiness of the bacon.

1 large head cabbage
4 slices bacon (I used uncured applewood-smoked bacon)
1 leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
A handful of chopped dill, plus more for garnish
Approximately 1/2 teaspoon salt (see note above)
Freshly-ground pepper, to taste

Slice the cabbage into 1-inch strips, discarding the core.

In a large pan, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp, then remove to a paper towel-lined plate and pour off all but a tablespoon of the fat. Add the sliced leek to the fat and cook over medium heat until lightly browned, about a minute or so. Add the cabbage, and scatter over the dill and the salt and pepper. Add about 1/2 cup water and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer until the cabbage is tender, stirring it occasionally and adding additional water as necessary. Place in a serving dish and crumble the bacon over the top. Garnish with extra dill.

Serves 4.

CabbageAndBaconDiptych

Norwegian Rømmegrøt (Sour Cream Porridge)

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My bookshelves sag with stories—literature in the form of recipes, memories formed between batter-spattered handwritten lines. I’ve said for a long time that I care so much about Scandinavian food because of the people. My grandparents loved me with medisterkaker med surkål and fresh berries dressed in the fine silk of cream. They shared the family’s heritage with bowls full of riskrem drizzled with vibrant raspberry sauces and paper-thin potato lefse spread with butter and a dusting of sugar.

I started exploring Norwegian recipes as a way to grieve after my grandmother Agny died. Throughout the years, as I baked my way through Scandinavian cookbooks and coordinated frequent baking sessions with my mom and Grandma Adeline, I understood more deeply that food is so much more than sustenance and pleasure. It is about love. Reading about rømmegrøt recently, I realized that this old-fashioned Norwegian sour cream porridge is the perfect food to illustrate this idea.

Rømmegrøt Diptych

Rømmegrøt is the type of food that in old times you might bring to a new mother, to nourish her body after she gave birth. Ingrid Espelid Hovig writes in The Best of Norwegian Traditional Cuisine that you also might serve it to celebrate the harvest or to feed your neighbors who helped out at busy times. You might eat it at weddings and funerals, those events that would bring you and your community together to either celebrate or to grieve. The composition itself, a thick, rich cream porridge, would be the sort to nourish the body and nurture the soul—especially when served with its traditional accompaniments of cured meats and salted fish. These days the thought of something so rich often makes people worry about calories and fat, an enemy of the waistline, but I think that’s missing the point. This is celebration food, food with history, food that would bring people together and provide a way to show love.

Rømmegrøt (rømme translates to sour cream, and grøt to porridge) is pretty simple, really—it’s mostly sour cream, milk, and flour. But I found myself overwhelmed and honestly a bit intimidated as I set out to make it. Being so tied to tradition–it’s said to be one of Norway’s oldest dishes–I wanted to represent it well. But I quickly discovered that true rømmegrøt is difficult to make in the United States as our sour cream is much different than that in Norway, containing much less fat than needed, and also containing stabilizers that prevent the fat from leaching out, which is an important part of the dishAs I made an initial batch, experimenting with conventional sour cream and pouring over additional melted butter at the end to serve, and then trying it again with homemade sour cream, I began to wonder if this might be something best left to hands-on instruction, a recipe passed down by one generation teaching the next.

Though my relatives made rømmegrøt back in the day and my mom remembers eating her grandmothers’ as a little girl in North Dakota, the porridge had disappeared from the family’s repertoire by the time I was born. It wasn’t passed down by my dad or paternal grandparents–who were all born in Norway–either. I was an adult the first time I tasted it, so it should make sense, then, that I was a bit intimidated to try making it. But I did. Food has been my way of learning about my heritage, about the people who came before me and the place where we have our roots. Rømmegrøt is a big part of that. The taste of the porridge, warm from the pot, is of nurturing cream, thick with comfort. I can almost imagine the nursing mothers feeling its nourishment spread through their bodies, almost hear the guests who’ve come to celebrate a wedding. Yes, my bookshelves sag with stories. Even if rømmegrøt has not been part of my own story until now, it has a history I’m so glad to have learned.

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Norwegian Rømmegrøt (Sour Cream Porridge)
The recipe I’m sharing with you today comes from the Sons of Norway online recipe collection. After reading many versions, I figured that if I’m going to traditional, that’s as good of a source as any. I’m sticking to the recipe pretty closely here, sharing what I experienced in the process. Considering how rich it is, this recipe can serve a lot of people. Cookbook author Signe Johansen writes in Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking: Scandilicious that rømmegrøt freezes well; if you have extra and wish to do this, just reheat using a little extra milk or water after defrosting, she instructs. Also, be prepared to stir relentlessly to minimize lumps. I’d love to hear how you make rømmegrøt too!

1 cup heavy whipping cream (at least 35%)
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 ¼ cups flour
5 cups whole milk
¾ teaspoon salt
Sugar, for serving
Cinnamon, for serving
Melted butter, for serving (optional)

To make the sour cream, in a medium saucepan, warm cream until it’s about body temperature. Pour in the buttermilk, give it a quick stir, and let it sit in the pot until it thickens, which should take at least 8 hours. I probably let mine sit 10 hours or so.

When you’re ready to make the rømmegrøt, bring the sour cream to a simmer, covered, in the same pan. Meanwhile, in another pot heat the milk so it will be ready to bring to a boil when you need it. After 15 minutes of simmering the sour cream, sift about a third of the flour over the cream, stirring constantly as you add the flour. Simmer for a few more minutes, until the fat has separated and you can skim or pour it off. Reserve the fat. Bring the milk to a boil in its pot. Sift the remaining flour over the porridge, stirring constantly as you go. (At this point, the original recipe said to bring it to a boil, but neither time I’ve made it—according to this recipe or another—was the porridge liquid enough to do so.) With the pot over heat, add milk a little at a time, stirring constantly, until you have the consistency you want. I used all the milk, knowing that the porridge thickens as it cools. Transfer the porridge to the larger milk pot if you need for space. Whisk vigorously until the lumps are gone, and continue to simmer for another ten minutes. Stir in the salt. To serve, divide the rømmegrøt between bowls. Add the reserved fat to each (I didn’t end up with much, so would probably add a bit of melted butter as needed), then dust with sugar and cinnamon.

Pickled Herring, Egg, and Radish Smørrebrød

Herring, Egg, and Radish Smørrebrød

I read some years ago in The New Yorker about an elderly woman who attributed her longevity to eating herring. I’d like to think she was onto something. Nordic cooking was the underdog of fine dining until restaurants like Noma and Fäviken started popping up throughout the region, but those who had tasted its wealth of flavors knew that the rest of the world was missing out.

I interviewed a Nordic cookbook author last week for an article I am writing. She pointed out something I’ve long known and have tried to articulate, that Nordic food is not the bland cuisine that so many people think it to be. We talked about the stereotypes, and how many people associate the food with the mild flavors of potatoes and lutefisk. I’ll be honest, I had that misconception for a long time, too, despite growing up tasted some amazingly flavorful Scandinavian dishes and foods, including smoked and cured fish, pickled vegetables and herring, and an array of spices present in Scandinavian cooking thanks to the trading of centuries past. Biff à la Lindström features the bright, punchy flavors of capers and pickled beets. The Swedish meat-and-potatoes stew known as sjömansbiff gets a lively pickup from those same beets and some pats of whole-grain mustard. Showers of fresh dill brighten many dishes. And then there’s pickled herring.

Herring, Egg, and Radish Smørrebrød

Even as a child I appreciated the bold flavor of pickled herring, plucking little oily bites of herring out of smorgasbord bowls with toothpicks, savoring them like fish candy. (Come to think of it, that doesn’t necessarily sound appealing, though you may understand what I mean if you also have a taste for pickled herring.)

But while the punch of salt-and-vinegar may be pleasing, Scandinavians also value balance and restraint, as demonstrated in this smørrebrød. As the sun began to fade one recent afternoon, I hurriedly mixed up a simple egg salad and carefully mounded it on slices of buttered rye bread. Even in Seattle, where we don’t truly experience the mørketid, I find myself craving the sunlight and celebrating the longer days that come in the spring. Arranging bite-sized herring pieces on top, I finished the sandwiches with paper-thin slices of radishes and feathery sprigs of dill. I had just enough time to capture the last of the afternoon light through my camera lens and then take a bite. The intense flavor of pickled herring was there, as bold as ever, but softened, more refined, on the bed of soft eggs. Fresh radish and dill pointed to the changing seasons and offered a contrast–not only in texture and color, but also in fresh versus preserved, a signal that winter is transitioning to spring, a time in which nature relaxes and unfurls, allowing even the more delicate of plants to flourish and thrive.

I’m not sure if there’s anything to that elderly woman’s story of herring granting her longevity, aide from the fish’s healthy oils, but I’ll keep eating it–with hopes for health and long life, of course, but mostly because I love it.

Herring, Egg, and Radish Smørrebrød

Pickled Herring, Egg, and Radish Smørrebrød
Adapted from Simon Bajada’s lovely book, The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen (Hardie Grant Books, 2015)

6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and finely chopped
3 Tablespoons mayonnaise
Salt, to taste
2 Tablespoons butter
4 slices rye bread
8 ounces pickled herring fillets, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces, onions reserved if possible
4 radishes, sliced paper thin
Fresh dill, for garnish

In a small bowl, mix the chopped eggs and mayonnaise together with a fork. Give it a taste and add a little salt if necessary. Spread butter on the slices of bread. Spoon the egg salad evenly over them, then top with the pickled herring, including some of the sliced onion from the jar if you have them. Arrange the radish slices over the top, and garnish with dill.

Serves 4.

Scandi-Style Salmon Burger in The Norwegian American

Scandi-Style Salmon Burger

A taste for the sea must run in my blood. Wild salmon grilled, cured, or smoked; oily silver-blue mackerel salted and grilled; humble cod, elegant with its understated opaque white flakes–these are foods my kitchen knows well. Most of the time I prefer fish cooked simply, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt to accent the taste of its native waters. But every once in a while a recipe or idea comes along that warrants playing. Such is the case with the Scandi-style salmon burger I’m sharing today in the latest issue of The Norwegian American. This recipe is packed with the traditional Nordic flavors of salmon, dill, and rye, and its open format is a nod to the traditional Scandinavian smørbrød. Bright and flavorful, it’s a perfect transitional weather meal as we eagerly await the arrival of spring. Head over to the Norwegian American Weekly for the recipe.

Scandi-Style Salmon Burger Scandi-Style Salmon Burger

Swedish Sailor’s Stew (Sjömansbiff)

If I could live in the pages of a Scandinavian cookbook, I might. Photographs of snow-kissed mountains and reflective fjords as dark as their chilly depths draw me in, and the food beckons as invitingly as the dinner bell my grandmother would ring when it was time to come to the table.

Some people daydream of sundrenched beaches while others find beauty in the mørketid. I’ve yet to experience a time and place in which the sun never or barely rises above the horizon, but it’s in my family’s blood. Scandinavians celebrate the darkness and embrace the cold. These inevitable parts of the season are merely what support the cozy atmosphere and active lifestyle they crave. (Think cozy, candlelit evenings and brisk jaunts on skis.)

The recipe I’m sharing with you today would warm one up even on the coldest of days. Called sjömansbiff, or seaman’s/sailor’s beef stew, it’s the sort of fare that I can imagine sustaining and nourishing countless Nordic sailors through grueling days battered by frozen winds.

The dish is the sort that fills you up and leaves you extremely satisfied. I haven’t seen as much of this dish as I’d expect (I first learned about a version of it in Trine Hahnemann’s The Scandinavian Cookbook from 2008 but have mostly seen it in the older, more traditional cookbooks I’ve collected; The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Standen Hazelton, from 1965, calls it a popular Scandinavian dish that is great for informal buffet entertaining). Sjömansbiff is a hearty Swedish stew made with beef, onions, and potatoes that have nearly melted into themselves. Served with some punchy condiments like pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, it’s a great mix of flavors and colors, and perfect for winter.

This is the sort of meal that complements the stunning landscapes and dramatic skies that illustrate some of the most authentic Nordic cookbooks. I think it’s time for it to have a comeback.

Sjömansbiff
Some of the older or perhaps most traditional of the recipes I’ve encountered call for thin slices of beef, maybe pounded flat. I’ve taken cues from more modern recipes and used cubes of meat instead. Even with the traditional layered assembly, this approach is a bit more approachable while preserving the integrity of this very classic Scandinavian dish. This recipe comes from no single source, but rather embraces elements from The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Hazelton (republished in the 1980s as Classic Scandinavian Cooking); The Scandinavian Cookbook by Anna Mosesson, Janet Laurence, and Judith Dern; The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann; and this recipe from The Boston Globe.

3 pounds chuck or round beef roast
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup flour
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons butter
3 large thinly sliced onions
6 bay leaves
12 ounces ale (a Belgian-style beer is good here)
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced
3 sprigs thyme
Pickled beets, for serving (I have a recipe, if you need one)
Whole-grain mustard, for serving

Cut beef into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces. Toss with salt, pepper, and flour. Heat olive oil and butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the beef, working in batches in order to not overcrowd them, and brown until they’re deeply golden, a few minutes on each side. Remove and set aside.

Using the same pan, lower heat to medium and cook the onions with the bay leaves until golden and soft, about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping up the brown bits as you go. Reglaze with the beer and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter a 2 1/2-quart casserole with lid (cast-iron works great here). Layer a third of the potatoes on the bottom, followed by half of the meat and half of the onions (separated from the beer with a slotted spoon), another third of the potatoes, the remaining meat, onions, and finally the rest of the potatoes. Nestle 3 sprigs thyme throughout.

Pour the reserved beer over the layers. Cover and place in the oven until the meat and vegetables are cooked and tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours, giving it a gentle stir from time to time. (They should almost melt into themselves when you take a bite.)

Serve with pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, removing the thyme sprigs. Scandinavian cucumber salad and knäckebröd/knekkebrød would be very typical and pleasing accompaniments.

Serves 6-8.

Biff à la Lindström

Biff Lindström

It occurred to me the other day as I set to work in the kitchen making an early dinner that the days are getting longer. Though afternoon, it was still light enough to snap some photos of the food, with hopes that the biff à la Lindström (piquant little Swedish meat patties) I was making for my family might be as appetizing to you as they were to me.

Some days it feels like we’re trudging on through the grey days and the dampness that forces its way through our clothes and skin down to the bones. While the darkness and the cold are nothing like the polar nights that my friend Dianna who lives in Tromsø has been experiencing, and while I do in fact love the winter and the coziness that it inspires, it can take some effort to break out of the weather-inspired lull and celebrate the season’s merits instead.

I read a recent story about how people in northern Norway cope with the darkness of winter. While sunlight is important for one’s physical and mental health, there are months in which the sun never rises above the horizon there—and yet people thrive. A Stanford University PhD student on a Fulbright scholarship in Tromsø discovered that seasonal depression wasn’t as common as one might expect. She found that people there celebrate the winter. They find ways to enjoy it, such as skiing. They take in the physical beauty around them, and they embrace all those wonderfully cozy elements of winter, such as curling up with a fuzzy blanket and filling the house with the warm glow of candlelight. The takeaway from the story was that shifting the way we think about winter might really help.

I’ve been trying to do that, from leaving a bunch of candles scattered throughout the house after Christmas to frequently baking treats like cardamom boller that fill my home with the warm, cozy aromas of yeast and spice (being a food writer engaged in frequent recipe testing helps with this). Soon enough spring will arrive and we’ll stash away our cold-weather gear until the next winter. We’ll miss the fireplace and the comforting feeling of knits and wool grazing against our necks and skin. It’s going to come soon—sooner perhaps than I would like—as evidenced by the lighter afternoons. Thankfully I have these little meat patties to help remind me to embrace it while it’s here.

Biff Lindström

People in Scandinavia have been enjoying biff à la Lindström for potentially over 150 years, making it a true classic. There are a couple of stories about its origins, one being that Captain Henrik Lindstrom allegedly brought the dish from Russia to Sweden in May 1862 when he introduced it at Hotel Witt in Kalmar. Another story involves Norwegian chef and polar expeditioner Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm, who was involved in three famous Norwegian polar expeditions.

Whoever said that Scandinavian food is bland must not be acquainted with biff à la Lindström. The distinctive flavors are pickled beets and capers, which are bold and present enough to be interesting but without overpowering the overall meal. It’s commonly eaten for lunch; Danish chef Trine Hahnemann, author of The Scandinavian Cookbook, writes that these piquant little meat patties—which are sometimes topped with a fried egg—are also great as a hangover cure.

As with any classic recipe, variations for biff à la Lindström abound. It’s often made with mashed potatoes, though cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas swaps breadcrumbs for the potatoes in Scandinavian Feasts, and Hahnemann doesn’t use either. Recipes sometimes include a liquid of some kind—heavy cream, or perhaps even the liquid from pickled beets—but this recipe shouldn’t need it. I researched a number of recipes to come to this one, and I trust you’ll be pleased with the results. It’s delicious alongside a simple green salad, or perhaps some new potatoes that have been boiled, smashed, and then roasted with olive oil and salt.

I managed to whip these up for an early dinner yesterday before the sun had even begun to set. The patties came together quickly, a combination of little more than lean ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, capers, and pickled beets, leaving me plenty of afternoon light. We’re still in the heart of winter, but spring will be coming soon. It’s the perfect balance–enough time to savor the season while looking forward to the next one.

Biff Lindström

Biff à la Lindström

1 pound lean ground beef
½ medium onion, finely chopped
¼ cup fine, dry bread crumbs
1 extra-large egg
½ cup chopped pickled beets, plus more for garnish (try mine, if you’d like)
2 Tablespoons capers, finely chopped
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon salt
a few grinds of freshly-ground black pepper
1-2 Tablespoons butter
Whole grain mustard, for serving (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, stir together beef, onion, and bread crumbs (I used my stand mixer for quick, thorough, yet minimal mixing). Add the egg, picked beets, capers, and Worcestershire, along with salt and pepper, and mix to combine well.

Using your hands, shape the meat into 8 patties, creating a little indentation in the middle of each one with your thumb to help cook them evenly.

In a large skillet, heat butter over medium heat. Add the patties, in two batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, and cook, flipping once, until each side is a rich golden brown and the center is cooked as you’d like.

Garnish with additional pickled beets and a spoonful of mustard on the side for serving, if you’d like. Serve alongside small boiled potatoes and something green—a salad of baby arugula, simply dressed, is nice.

Serves 4.

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