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.

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup (Blomkålsuppe) with Brown Butter and Cardamom

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup

The house feels bare this week. Freshly cleared of Christmas decorations, the rooms seem more spacious, cavernous even, as the furniture and ordinary décor settle back into their normal positions and I adjust to the amount of physical space that the Christmas tree and festive ornaments had swelled to fill.

January has always seemed to me a month of quiet, pale in contrast to the luster of the holidays. I am trying to learn how to recast it as something different, a month in which I celebrate the space while creatively considering ways to preserve the warmth and the feeling of hygge or koselig that December so naturally fosters. That might mean soft blankets draped on seating areas throughout the house, ready for impromptu snuggles, or perhaps remembering to light the candles I’ve purposefully left scattered on shelves and windowsills. And of course there should be soup.

Having been out of town for half of the month of November and sick for much of the month of December, I’m still trying to get back into routines, especially in the kitchen. Breakfast and lunch are always easy; these early meals almost always seem to take care of themselves with items that are regularly on hand—milk, eggs, bread, peanut butter, jam, cheese, fruit, and the like. But dinner is another story. As much of the recipe testing and development that I’m doing doesn’t translate to a well-balanced dinner (we need much more than cardamom boller and various Scandinavian sweets in our diet), dinnertime rolls around and even though I may have spent plenty of time in the kitchen that day, I don’t exactly have much of nutritional value to show for it.

That is perhaps reason enough to embrace soup. Scandinavian cooking is full of them, from creamy yet light Bergen fish soup to hearty yellow pea soup that clings to the spoon, meaning I can call it “work” and still feed my family something nutritious. This week’s choice was blomkålsuppe, a classic throughout the Scandinavian countries.

Juniper and Caraway

Cauliflower

With an almost-embarrassing level of access to a wealth of produce at local grocery stores year-round, I have to admit that I’ve long thought of cauliflower as an ordinary, everyday vegetable. It turns out I was wrong.

“Cauliflower has always been considered a fine thing, even by the rich,” writes Danish cook Camilla Plum in her book The Scandinavian Kitchen.

With its pale color and plentiful florets, cauliflower was a vegetable to be praised and celebrated. Its origins go back to the Middle Ages when, according to Plum, it was a cabbage chosen for its enlarged flowers. It had spread to Northern Europe by the 17th century.

Just the thought of cauliflower brings sweet memories to the minds of Scandinavians. Norwegian cookbook author Astrid Karlsen Scott writes with nostalgia in Authentic Norwegian Cooking about how she remembers the feeling of summer breezes rustling the kitchen curtains while her mother simmered cauliflower soup. Magnus Nilsson, chef of the celebrated Fäviken in Sweden writes in The Nordic Cookbook about the pleasures of steaming a head of cauliflower straight from the garden, perhaps served with salted butter and lemon for dipping. Reading his words I can’t help but picture that garden and taste the sun and the Nordic air absorbed into the cauliflower’s very cells.

Nordic Cauliflower Soup Diptych

Roasted Cauliflower Diptych

At its simplest, cauliflower soup might look like steamed cauliflower pureed with broth and swirled with cream, but it invites so much more. Some recipes call for steaming the cauliflower first, while others panfry or roast it. As for flavorings, one recipe includes Danish blue cheese, while another source says that in Denmark people sometimes add a shot of sherry. Andreas Viestad, host of New Scandinavian Cooking, adds dry white wine and a generous splash of aquavit in his recipe in Kitchen of Light, saying the traditional Scandinavian spirit adds a nice spiciness. He garnishes the soup with fresh chervil, a lovely, delicate, and feathery herb that’s as useful for its beauty as well as flavor. Nilsson writes that he likes to garnish his with bacon, chives, and a halved hard-boiled egg. While some recipes call for garnishing the soup with small prawns or shrimp, Danish chef Trine Hahnemann tops hers with grilled scallops in The Scandinavian Cookbook. Sunny at the blog Arctic Grub features a dairy-free version, optionally spiked with curry powder.

The version I’m featuring today gets its start with the cauliflower and juniper soup in The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen, a beautiful new book by Simon Bajada. I’ve added cardamom, which I find gives a subtle warmth to cauliflower. Flecks of spice dot the soup, a whisper of the flavor infused in each bite. But rather than dominating the soup, the spices, you’ll find, are subtle and nuanced, lending a gentle warmth to a classic, comforting dish.

Soup is always cozy, warming the body while going down. Even when it’s too hot to eat immediately, the pleasure of holding a spoon to the lips and blowing off the soft rising swirls of steam hints at a slower pace, of savoring the moment. It’s a step, I think, toward preserving the warmth of the holidays even in the sparseness of the new season.

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup (Blomkålsuppe) with Brown Butter and Cardamom
Adapted from the cauliflower and juniper soup in The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen by Simon Bajada (Hardie Grant Books, 2015)

1 head cauliflower, leaves attached
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried juniper berries
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 tablespoon canola or rapeseed oil
20 ounces chicken broth or stock
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sour cream
Ground white pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rinse the cauliflower thoroughly, then snap off the thick outer leaves, leaving the small, tender ones attached. Using a sharp knife, cut off the stem, leaving a flat base on which the cauliflower can rest. Place the cauliflower on a baking sheet. Pour the oil over the cauliflower, using your hand to rub it in.

Using a mortar and pestle, smash together the salt, juniper, and cardamom, thoroughly crushing the herbs. Sprinkle it over the cauliflower in a generous, even layer (you may not need it all).

Slide the tray into the oven and roast for about 40 minutes, until a knife easily pierces the stem. (After 40 minutes, if the cauliflower is not tender yet, the original recipe suggests turning down the heat to 340 degrees to finish roasting—this took me an additional 15 minutes.) At this point, the cauliflower will be deep golden and richly fragrant, almost nutty.

When the cauliflower is still warm but cool enough to handle, cut it into rough florets, reserving the leaves, and place in a blender. Blend, gradually adding chicken broth, until as smooth as can be. You only want to add as much broth as necessary to make it a luscious, spoonable soup—it took me 15 ounces.

In a medium pot, melt butter over medium heat. Continue heating until the butter starts to brown. It will crackle and release an intoxicating aroma into the air. Carefully swirl the pan until the milk solids separate and the butter is golden brown. Promptly remove the pot to a cool burner to stop cooking, then pour the pureed cauliflower in, taking care as it will sputter dramatically when the cauliflower hits the hot butter. Stir in the sour cream. Taste and season with additional salt and white pepper if necessary.

Return the pot to medium heat and cook, continuing to stir occasionally, until the soup is heated through. Serve, garnishing with the leaves, which are now curled, warmly colored, and almost translucent.

Serves 4.

Venison with Parsnips and Chanterelles

Venison with Parsnips and Chanterelles

Food was how I found my way back, back to a time when someone dear to me was still alive, a time when my grandmother’s midcentury kitchen still churned out the hearty Norwegian dishes that were at once hearty and elegant. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might know the story, how I came to love Norwegian food with such passion. I grew up eating it, but it was one summer in my mid-twenties when I realized just how much it meant to me. (This post in the archives sums it up pretty well.) Over the past six years it’s helped me to better understand the generations who came before me, ones who carried their heritage and traditions all the way across the Atlantic to America.

With each Scandinavian cookbook I read or recipe I cook, I glean a little more insight into where both sides of my family came from. I seem to gravitate toward the sweets, and I love creaming countless sticks of butter into glistening sugar and watching the simplest of ingredients transform into any number of different deserts. (Norwegian baking is remarkable in its simplicity and variety–the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Christmas cookies, are just some examples of what you can do with little more than butter, sugar, eggs, and flour.) But the savory dishes are just as good, and gravlax, fish soup, bacalao stew, and spiced medisterkaker meatballs nestled into surkål are my ideas of comfort food. Until recently, however, I had never cooked venison, a common meat in the Nordic countries.

Venison with Parsnips and Chanterelles

I’d eaten venison in Norway, of course, during one of those meals that stay with you and linger, even as the details get hazy. We had stopped at a lovely rustic restaurant along a cobbled street in Bergen, up a bit from the main part of town. There I remember eating red deer and drinking crystal clear aquavit that tasted purely like distilled dill. I don’t remember what we talked about (aside from that remarkable aquavit) or what we were wearing. But I remember sitting there with my husband and sharing a meal in a white-hued restaurant with light flooding in through the windows from the soft-bright day. I remember the way it felt to experience Norway for the first time and how much I loved being in that country.

When I cooked venison for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I rubbed it with crushed anise seed, salt, and pepper, and nestled it along with creamy pureed parsnips, buttery chanterelles, and a generous spoonful of lingonberry preserves. Though I was creating my own recipe, I was drawing from many of the preparations I’ve seen in Scandinavian cookbooks, from the anise seed that flavors the venison (a nod to Danish chef and author Trine Hahnemann) to the chanterelles and lingonberry preserves that accompany it (mushrooms and a little something sweet are very typical). Though I didn’t grow up eating venison (neither of my parents likes it so they didn’t cook it), the time I’ve spent exploring its uses in preparation for this recipe has deepened my understanding and appreciation of yet another facet of Scandinavian cooking.

Venison with Parsnips and Chanterelles

Venison with Parsnips and Chanterelles
I created this recipe as an entry in a recipe challenge for Marx Foods. They invited me to participate and sent me a couple of complimentary packs of Cervena Venison to work with. Voting takes place next week. You can learn more about the challenge on their website.

Venison:
1 venison 8-rib frenched rack
1 Tablespoon anise seed, crushed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Parsnips:
3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
3 cups whole milk
1/2 Tablespoon kosher salt
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

Chanterelles:
3/4 pound chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned and cut lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending on size
3 Tablespoons butter
Salt

Sauce:
2 Tablespoons aquavit
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tablespoon juniper berries, crushed
Salt and pepper, to taste

Lingonberry preserves, for serving

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Pat the venison dry, then mix together anise seed, salt, and pepper and rub over the meat evenly on all sides.

Heat olive oil in an oven-safe large pan over medium-high heat. Sear the venison on both sides, allowing it to form a deep golden crust. Transfer to the oven to finish cooking. Timing will depend on how you’d like the venison cooked; due to its low fat content, you’ll want to make sure to not overcook it. (While the USDA recommends cooking farmed game meat to an internal temperature of 160°, the product information for this venison states the following recommended internal cooking temperatures: 104° for rare, 111° for medium rare, and 129° for medium.) Remove from the oven when the internal temperature is a few degrees below where you want it. Transfer the venison to a plate and cover with foil to rest while you finish the rest of the dish.

While the venison cooks, work on the vegetables. Place the parsnips, salt, milk, and thyme in a medium pot and bring to a vigorous simmer. Cook until the parsnips yield easily to a fork, then remove from the heat. Remove the thyme sprigs and discard. Transfer the parsnips to a food processor, along with enough milk to make a smooth puree. Be careful, as they’re hot. Process until as smooth as can be, adding more of the milk as needed. (Parsnips will retain some texture, so don’t overprocess them.)

For the mushrooms, heat butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes until they’re tender but still retain a slight bite. Season with salt.

To make the sauce, deglaze the pan with aquavit, using a wooden spoon to loosen all the brown bits. Add cream and juniper berries and cook for a few minutes over medium or medium-high heat until it thickens and takes on a pale golden color. Strain, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, spoon the parsnips on a platter, then top with the venison and chanterelles. Pour the sauce over the venison and add a generous dollop of lingonberry preserves.

Smoked Mackerel and Dill Spread

Smoked Mackerel Spread

Over Mother’s Day weekend I sat on the porch with Mom, embracing the fresh air of spring with a glass of gentle white wine and this Scandi-worthy appetizer. The dish took a matter of minutes to prepare yet was something special to share with someone so dear to me. I thought I’d take a quick moment to share it with you today.

Smoked Mackerel Spread

Smoked Mackerel and Dill Spread
The idea for this easy appetizer or snack comes from Eat. Nourish. Glow. by Amelia Freer, who has been all over the media lately for her work helping celebrity clients get healthy and fit. I haven’t read the book, but I did spot this recipe from it and was excited to give it a try. I found packages of frozen smoked mackerel at Scandinavian Specialties in Seattle.

.40 pound smoked mackerel, skin removed
4 sprigs fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Freshly-ground black pepper
Crispbread, for serving

Start by roughly chopping the smoked mackerel and placing it in a medium bowl. Add the dill, yogurt, and lemon juice and stir, breaking the fish apart with the back of a spoon. Grind a little pepper over the top and stir again. Give it a taste and adjust the flavors a bit if necessary, perhaps adding a little dill or a touch more lemon if needed to balance out the oiliness of the fish. Serve with crispbread.

Serves 2.

Nordic Whipped Porridge & The Writing Life

Whipped Porridge

We find our own way, sometimes.

I started my career on the serious journalism track, my days played out to the soundtrack of police scanners and competing top-of-the-hour headlines.

“You have to love news,” the golden-haired anchor told me over coffees outside a cafe not far from the TV station one day. She had once been where I was, a beginning journalist, and she was there to share her knowledge.

Of course I love news, I told myself, wanting to believe that my drive–which would soon motivate me enough to flip my schedule upside down for work–was enough to count. But in reality, the truth that I didn’t want to acknowledge was that I didn’t understand what she meant. How could anyone love car wrecks and politics?

I went on to spend several years working nights, writing and producing for the morning newscast. Until 2007, when I realized it was time for a change. Waking up to a full life after leaving the newsroom for the real world, I soon discovered a different pace. Daylight was for living, darkness for sleep. Resolute in my quest to find a 9-to-5 job that would put me on the same shift as my husband (we had spent the first two years of our marriage on opposite schedules, but that’s another story), I found myself working for a great theatre in the neighborhood next door while building a clip file of freelance articles. And then in 2009 I started this blog.

Whipped Porridge

Whipped Porridge Diptych with Coconut

Scandinavian food is as normal to me as hot dogs and burgers. Though I’ve grown up in the Seattle area, I’m the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, and because of the Nordics’ tendencies to settle in tight-knit communities, I managed to be born entirely of Norwegian blood. But it’s one thing to know something intrinsically, another to understand and be able to describe it. While I was eating spiced medisterkaker sausages and surkål (very loosely a Norwegian sauerkraut) at holiday meals and tucking into tins of any number of Scandinavian Christmas cookies throughout my childhood, I was obliviously and blissfully taking part in traditions that generations on both sides of my family had brought with them from Norway to Seattle, from Norway to small-town North Dakota. When Grandma Agny died in 2009, I found myself taking it to the next level, seeking out Scandinavian cookbooks as a way to soothe my grieving heart. It didn’t take long for me to discover a cuisine much more varied than the flavors of pickled herring, dill, salmon, and almond that I had long associated with Scandinavia.

Over the years, I’ve traded breaking news for baked goods, and I couldn’t be happier. Today I’m a food writer specializing in Nordic cooking, and I love learning about dishes and desserts from each of the Nordic countries and sharing them with others. (I make a distinction between “Scandinavian” and “Nordic,” the former made up of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and the latter including Iceland and Finland.)

Whipped Porridge Whipped Porridge Diptych with Cream

When I started my career cocooned in the newsroom in the early morning hours, I didn’t know what lay ahead. I didn’t know that I would end up trading the conventional 40-plus hour week for the freelance life. I knew I would eventually have a family, but I was unsure of how I’d be able to realize my career dreams while giving my future kids the experience my mother had given me as a stay-at-home mom, something I had always been thankful for. With my youngest currently a baby, I’m still figuring out the logistics. But I’m getting there, slowly but surely, embracing motherhood to the fullest while finding room in my life for the writing that’s always been there, in some form or another, the writing that must always be there. I’m getting the hang of it again.

Yes, we find our own way, sometimes. As much as I’ve always wanted to have the perfect plan, to know what comes next, to map it all out, I’ve also discovered that sometimes what lies ahead looks even better than what I could have imagined.

Whipped Porridge

Grape Nordic Whipped Porridge with Coconut and Honey
Whipped porridge, also known as air porridge, is one of those Nordic dishes that I’ve only recently discovered. But I think I might be hooked. Open to any number of variations, it’s fluffy and light, nothing like the oatmeal-type dish I had always associated with “porridge.” In a nutshell, you cook farina in water with a bit of berries or juice until it thickens, then let it cool and whip it until it fluffs up into a pale cloud. Traditionally made with tart lingonberries and just a touch of sugar, you can substitute just about any sort of berry or fruit juice. My version is lightly flavored with grape juice. It’s simple and subtle on its own but really becomes something special when drizzled with honey and cream and given a light dusting of coconut. Go ahead–give it a try.

2 cups water
1 cup grape juice
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup farina
Cream, for serving
Honey, for serving
Unsweetened coconut flakes, for serving

Bring water and grape juice to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan with a pinch of salt. Pour in the farina at a steady pace, whisking constantly. Lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until thickened, then remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer to a mixing bowl and whip until fluffy, ideally using a stand mixer. Serve with cream, honey, and coconut.

Serves 4.

Starting Again, with Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled BeetsTime goes quickly here, sometimes too quickly. I know it’s something we all experience, the subject of small talk and of catching up with old acquaintances at big events, but it’s true. The time really does fly. As I sit here at my desk on this 14th of January, the sun forces its way through the shades, reminding me that it’s a new year, that winter will soon give way to spring, that though the calendar might point to a season of stillness, new life–from the maple trees outside my home to the bulbs nestled in soil–is getting ready to burst forth in full bloom. It’s hard to believe that it’s already mid-January, that I have been sick–cold after cold and now bronchitis–for over a month. Has it really been almost a year since Grandma suffered her strokes? Almost a year since I drove my toddler son to the hospital to visit his great-grandma one blindingly sunny winter day after another? Soon it will have been a year since we gathered at the rehabilitation center for the makeshift 95th birthday party my dear Grandma couldn’t even comprehend.

I’ve shied away from this space lately for a variety of reasons: a sense of perfectionism that’s creeping in due to my other forms of writing; being uninspired by the formula that food blogs are falling prey to, getting duller and duller even as their photos and graphics get shinier and shinier (tell me, please, that you know what I mean?); and being in a season of life that I want to write about but find too personal to approach quite yet in such an informal place as a blog.

But I miss it, too, miss the way it feels to have a place to write quickly and without the gloss of perfection that some other forms of writing require. While there’s a permanence to blogs–content lives out there unless deleted–one post is replaced by another and then another in a fleeting way, almost like a journal entry that gets buried deeper and deeper into a collection of notebooks that the keeper fills and collects just in case there might be a time, somewhere down the road, when she might want to remember.

For a long time I’ve wrestled with the purpose of this blog. Sure, it’s a Nordic food blog, and its food sticks to that theme for the most part. But who is it for? Am I trying to create content for the reader? Or for myself? Maybe it’s just weariness from a seemingly-endless illness talking (right now my ribcage hurts each time I take a deep breath or dare to cough), but I think I want to care less and write more. There was a time when I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was a journalist, writing story after story, day after day, focusing my brain on the words at hand even as scanners scratched and top-of-the-hour headlines blared on the competing networks. Deadlines didn’t wait for inspiration. Writer’s block was a luxury I couldn’t afford. These days–though I’m beginning to step up my freelance writing and other projects again–I have more of that luxury. And I’m afraid I’m giving in to it too often. Oh, I don’t feel like writing today. I can wait until tomorrow. Or this one (if you’re a writer, too, I’m sure you know it too): I should clear my desk. Or better yet embark on a massive organizing spree before I start writing! Yeah, the writing life can be full of excuses.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions or strict goal-setting. I find those too restrictive. But I do like to have intentions and a system to make them happen. So I’m not promising to blog here on any sort of predictable schedule. But I do want to do it more frequently. There will be recipes, sure, because that’s what a food blog is all about. But I’m going to care less about the format, the glossy veneer, the oneupmanship that’s so common, and care more about the practice, the experience of getting those words to flow more freely, and getting comfortable again with sharing those words online rather than obsessively editing myself.

And so I’m starting again today, with pickled beets.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled Beets with Star Anise
After baking a bunch of cookies (krumkaker, pepperkaker, sirupsnipper and more) while at home, sick, over the Christmas season, it seems appropriate to trade sweet for savory today on the blog. Pickled beets are a classic Scandinavian condiment, something to serve with everything from the Swedish hash pytt i panna to sjömans biff, or sailor’s beef stew. Though coming from no single source, this recipe takes cues from The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann, a 1964 recipe found on Epicurious.com, and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler; the addition of star anise comes from Hahnemann, a Danish chef.

3-4 medium beets
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoons pepper
1 star anise

To cook the beets, I like to use Tamar Adler’s method from An Everlasting Meal: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the beets snugly in a shallow pan, she instructs, then with the water running and the pan tipped to the side, wash the beets under its stream, leaving a little of the water pooled in the pan once it runs clear. Cover the pan tightly with foil, then roast until the beets are cooked through, about 40 minutes for medium-sized beets. Adler’s method steams the beets and allows the skins to be easily rubbed off once the beets are cooled. After rubbing off the skins, cut the beets into quarter-inch slices and place in a shallow, heat-safe dish.

Place vinegar in a medium-sized pot along with sugar, salt, pepper, and star anise. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the beets. Let cool, the refrigerate overnight before serving.

For the sake of transparency I should let you know that I’ve received review copies of some of Hahnemann’s books. I love them, regardless, and they hold prime spots in my Nordic cookbook collection.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Easy Holiday Appetizer: Gravlax

Gravlax Finished

Oh friends, how does one even start after having been silent for so long? Life is full in the real world, even if it seems quiet in the virtual one. I’ll get to the gravlax you see here in the photos soon enough, but first I just need to reflect a little out loud, to cast some light on the events happening between the lines of this blog.

I think 2014 will go down in my memory as a year of heartache and blessings. There’s tension as those two intermingle, so close and simultaneous. I’ve only alluded to it on the blog until now, but early in the year my dear grandma suffered a stroke and it’s been a long road of recovery. She’s closer to 100 than most people will ever be and she knows her time is coming. She’s ready. But still. Still.

During Grandma’s first stages of recovery at the hospital and then at a rehabilitation center, I was pregnant and getting ready to welcome my daughter into the family, all the while preparing my son for his new role as a big brother and helping him to create space his his heart and home for a new little one. Grandma hung on long enough to meet my daughter–who’s named in part for her–and hold that little baby in her frail, thinning arms. Now, each time I take my son and my daughter to visit Grandma, I know that it’s significant. There might be another time–maybe years’ worth, I don’t know. But it also might be the last.

These events have been the defining parts of this past year. Writing has helped me to process the emotions swelling in my heart–so, yes, I have been writing even if things have been pretty quiet around here–but it’s been too personal to publish on such an immediate, informal format as a blog. There’s a story there, many stories. I’ll share them someday. But in the meantime I’ve been working them out, creating a narrative around my experiences, and trying to just embrace and enjoy life and to savor the moments big and small. Tuesday night was one of them.

Book Club Holiday Party

As a dozen friends gathered in my kitchen for our book club holiday party, I didn’t have any idea I’d be sitting down over the next days to write about it. I took some photos of the food with my phone for the purpose of posting them on Instagram, but I didn’t plan on sharing a recipe or any sort of story here on the blog. But a comment one of you left on Facebook the other day prompted me to write again. And a fellow blogger at book club reminded me how much fun this can be.

So today I’m writing about gravlax, with photos taken with iPhones for the purpose of social media. Salmon, salt, sugar, dill–that’s it. Our book club is all about food. Italian for Under the Tuscan Sun, French for On Rue Tatin and The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. There have been Caribbean dishes (An Embarrassment of Mangoes), Indian (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Chinese (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), and pizza (Delancey). I work in a little bit of a Scandinavian touch whenever I can, so for our holiday party this week I served gravlax.

Gravlax in Salt "Snow"As with any traditional recipe, there are plenty of variations out there for gravlax, ranging from the simplest list of ingredients to ones that get fancy with fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits that lend varying essences and hues to the salmon. I’m sure that orange, horseradish, aquavit, and beetroot–all things that I’ve spotted in recipes–yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax pure, the flavor of the salmon concentrated and accented only with a hint of dill.

Gravlax is, by definition, cured salmon. It’s typically a Nordic preparation, and the parts of the word–grav for pit or grave, lax or laks for salmon–hint at the days of preserving fish by burying it in the ground.

Gravlax Cure

My husband and I use Mark Bittman’s recipe as our base. We read about in the New York Times some years ago and have always had great results. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of frozen salmon (frozen to kill the parasites), then defrost it, cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. We generally leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. For the specific recipe, I’m going to point you to Bittman’s article (it includes several recipes–we use The Minimalist’s Gravlax). Making gravlax is so simple, but perhaps because of that, I find it helpful to refer to Bittman’s guidance. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

For serving gravlax, it’s as easy as lemon wedges, mustard sauce (such as this one from Ina Garten), capers, maybe some chopped red onion, and crackers or crispbread of some sort.

Gravlax-Platter

It’s been one of my goals this holiday season to keep our schedule light, the to-do list to a minimum. It’s far too easy to become swept up in the bustle and busyness of this time of year, and perhaps because of the time in life, I’m just trying to minimize as much stress as possible. But my book club holiday party was one of the events that I happily did write down–in pen–in my calendar. And gravlax was something special I could serve my friends–while being simple and easy to make at the same time. If you’re still looking for the perfect appetizer for a holiday party, go ahead and give it a try. With just a little planning ahead, you’ll find yourself with a gorgeous, delicious dish that took almost no hands-on time to prepare.

Thanks, E, for the photo of the gravlax platter.

Note: This fall I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’m taking cues from Shauna James Ahern‘s session on professional recipe development. She emphasized authenticity and living a full, rich life–plus not worrying about using iPhone cameras for food blog photography. Thanks, Shauna. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. If I had had to pull out the DSLR for this post, it never would have happened.

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9893

As a Seattle-born Norwegian-American, a woman once removed from the country of her father, my way back to my heritage has been through its food. I’ve always loved being Norwegian. Dressing up in a child-sized bunad for Syttende Mai parades in the Scandinavian-rich neighborhood of Ballard, eating the traditional feasts my grandparents would serve us on holidays, listening to the heavy and melodic accent that wove its way through my relatives’ speech–this was my upbringing and I loved it. But there’s a difference between the cultures in which we’re raised as children and the ones that we embrace as adults. I grew out of the black and red bunad. My paternal grandparents aged and passed on. The adults who kept their heritage alive so vibrantly and shared it with me faded into memory. The culture was no longer handed to me and it started to become peripheral.

Grandma Agny’s death five years ago was a big turning point for me. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was going to ask her to start telling me her stories the day I got the phone call saying she had died. Grandma had been a young woman during the German occupation. She had a baby during the war, and she later uprooted her family and moved them to the United States. During my first trip to Norway in 2008, I became intrigued about her life–and the corresponding Norwegian history–and I wanted to know more. But I waited too long. Grandma’s death left me feeling a profound sense of loss, and in response I found myself seeking out elements of my heritage.

And that’s where the food comes in.

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9887

I still remember scanning the spines of books at Barnes and Noble shortly after Grandma’s death. I had come up with the idea of looking for Scandinavian cookbooks, as though the food between their pages might provide some comfort or solace. I found just a couple: Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson and The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas. My journalistic tendency to research things in detail came into play and I started seeking out as many Scandinavian cookbooks as I could find. Nordic cooking wasn’t as much of a trend in the U.S. then as it is now, and it took a little digging. But I wanted to know more, to understand more. And it was becoming clear to me that the way in was going to be through the food.

As I explored my Norwegian heritage, I started Outside Oslo as a way to document what I was discovering. Although Scandinavian food had always been in my family’s repertoire while I was growing up, I was discovering it for myself. I was finally starting to get a sense of its origins, a sense of place. In the process, I was also beginning to understand my late grandmother more deeply.

Things look a lot different now, five years later. My grandparents’ generation is fading fast, but the opportunity I lost when Grandma Agny died is not entirely gone. I will never get her back, but I’m learning more about my family and its history as my father helps me fill in the gaps. I’ve heard stories of my other grandmother’s life and created countless sweet memories with her as she’s taught me how to make sandbakkels, lefse, krumkaker, and other Scandinavian treats. And now it’s my turn to share the heritage that my grandparents so graciously shared with me. As I’ve studied Nordic food and worked it into what I cook at home, I know that the culture that my family brought with them to America will continue to live on. I have two kids of my own now, and they will grow up knowing the pleasure of eating pannekaker for an occasional dinner, the taste of sweet heart-shaped vaffler served with gjetost (Norwegian brown goat cheese), and all the warmth and love that surround meals shared together at the table.

I never expected five years ago, in the darkest days of grief, that such richness was in store. But Grandma Agny had given me a gift by keeping her heritage alive and sharing it with me through all those Syttende Mai parades, traditional Norwegian meals, and with her generous heart.

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9897

Today I’m still cooking my way through various Nordic recipes, sometimes returning to family classics, other times trying something new. Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad was one of the early books I discovered, and to this day it is one of my favorites. (I wrote a review a couple of years ago; despite receiving a copy from the publisher, I can say genuinely that this is an excellent book.) I had found it at the library while researching Scandinavian food, and this dish–chanterelles and potatoes with lemon and dill–was one of the first recipes I featured on the blog. I made it this week for my parents and was reminded of how just a few simple ingredients can be so satisfying: just new potatoes and chanterelles, flavored intensely with lemon, garlic, and dill. The season for chanterelles is fleeting, but if you can still find some, I hope you’ll give this recipe a try.

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill
Adapted from Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad

2 pounds new potatoes
½ pound (or more) chanterelle mushrooms
3 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, pressed
Salt
Small handful of fresh dill, coarsely chopped, plus a few sprigs for garnish
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Lemon

Cook the potatoes in a pot of salted boiling water until tender, then drain. While the potatoes are cooking, trim the mushrooms and cut them lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending on their size. I like to keep them as large as possible, so I halve most of them, only quartering the really thick ones to make their size even with the rest. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the mushrooms, stirring from time to time, until tender. Add garlic and a dash of salt, then cook for another moment just to take the edge of the garlic’s flavor. Add the mushrooms to the potatoes, making sure to spoon up all the flavorful butter from the pan. Add the dill and parsley, along with the juice of one lemon, and stir to combine. Add a little more salt if necessary, then transfer to a dish, garnish with dill sprigs, and serve.

Serves 4-6

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

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.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

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.

Norwegian Bacalao StewBut 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

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.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

The doorbell rings a little before 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening each month. By now I know exactly who it is, which friend is always punctual and comes bearing a couple of bottles of wine with the food she’s brought to share. As we catch up on what’s taken place in each other’s lives over the past month, there’s a knock and then another knock as more friends trickle in, gradually filing my kitchen.

Conversation takes place as easily as wine flows. That is one of the things I love most about this group. A little over a year and a half ago I got a crazy little idea in my head and began to wonder if I might know enough people who would want to join me for a food-based book club. Now, 17 books and “Foodie Lit Book Club” dinners later, there are roughly a dozen members–some I knew previously and some I’ve met because friends have invited their friends. We’re from different walks of life and most of us would never have met had it not been for the common interests of eating and reading about food.

There’s nothing pretentious here, no need to impress. But we eat exceedingly well. We cook from the recipes in the book we’re reading–or bring something inspired by it–and so many times we’re trying something new for the first time. We’ve experimented with pizza toppings, experienced dried dates given a new dimension with olive oil and sea salt, analyzed what made a particular polenta recipe fail, and how to take an already-good shortbread recipe to the next level. We’ve proven that no matter the menu or the skill of the cook, just gathering over a meal is a sure way to connect on a meaningful level and nurture relationships.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

I served this particular recipe, a Norwegian cheese and onion pie, at a recent book club. It had nothing to do with the book we were reading–The Language of Baklava–unless you consider that author Diana Abu-Jaber’s family immigrant story has parallels with my own family’s transition to a new country. But I was working on adapting a recipe from the Scandinavian cookbook Kitchen of Light for my own preferences and decided to test it out on these friends.

Made with cheese such as Norwegian Jarlsberg, plenty of thick red onion slices, and my addition of sliced mushrooms, it’s a substantial appetizer that would pair well with a glass of chilled white wine on a hot day, the condensation forming on the outside of the glass in the summer heat. Jarlsberg tastes great with the onion, but in a pinch, sharp white cheddar works too. Viestad also says Gouda, Parmesan, or Gruyere are options.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart
Adapted from the Onion Pie with Jarlsberg and Thyme from Kitchen of Light by Andreas Viestad

3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 red onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
Freshly-ground black pepper
2 whole cloves
Leaves from 2-3 sprigs fresh oregano, divided
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted if frozen
2 cups shredded cheese such as Jarlsberg, divided

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and lower the heat to medium-low. Sprinkle garlic, bay leaf, a few grinds of pepper, cloves, and leaves from 1 sprig of oregano over the pan. Cook 10 minutes, then carefully flip the onion slices, taking care to leave them intact. Cook another 10 minutes, until they’re softened but before they turn brown.

Meanwhile, melt remaining tablespoon of butter in a skillet and saute the mushrooms over medium to medium-high heat until they’re cooked through but still have a toothsome bite, 4-5 minutes. (You can do this in a separate pan while the onions cook, or you can do what I do and reduce the amount of cleanup by using the same pan when the onions are done–just give it a quick wipe beforehand.)

The recipe can be made in advance until this point; just refrigerate the onions and mushrooms until shortly before you’re ready to assemble the tart, giving them a little time to come up to room temperature.

Roll out puff pastry into a 10×16-inch rectangle onto floured parchment paper. Trim away any rough edges. Transfer the parchment and pastry onto a baking sheet and prick the pastry all over with a fork, avoiding an inch-wide border. Bake for about 12 minutes, until it turns golden.

Sprinkle pastry with 1 cup shredded cheese, leaving a 1-inch border, then layer on the onion slices followed by the mushrooms. Scatter remaining cheese over the top and bake until the cheese is melted and glistening, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining oregano leaves and serve.

Serves 6.

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