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.
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.
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.
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.
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.