New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill

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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.

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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.

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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

Getting to the Heart of Food Writing (and a Swedish Currant Cake)

Swedish Currant Cake

There’s a secret that food writers keep. We don’t mean to, of course, but when one’s beat is food, it’s easy for most of the media we use to reflect only a tiny facet of who we are. That secret is the varied nature of our lives–outside of the kitchen. Aside from the occasional clue found on our Instagram feeds or the other publications you might find our work in, you probably wouldn’t know a lot about us other than the fact that we read a lot of cookbooks, can use work as an excuse for baking after cake, and that we sometimes get a little sentimental and nostalgic about something as ephemeral as food.

I’ve been thinking, though, about how much more there is to each of us. In fact, food writing isn’t about the food at all to me. I could get all starry-eyed about that amazing meal I ate and fill up a blog post with overused words like “delicious” and “perfect” but chance are that would end up sounding shallow at best, disingenuous or pretentious at worst. Food is all about the people, the memories, the experiences–it’s about life.

It’s about the beachside crêpe stand down the square from the house where I stayed the summer I studied in Normandy–a little white truck luring passersby with the sweet aromas of melted butter and warm sugar carried on the ocean breeze–and how my awareness of the world and its many cultures expanded as I fumbled my way through my order in a foreign language. Then there’s the glow of early love I felt as I sat by the side of a street by the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome for lunch with my husband on our honeymoon. We ate slices of chewy, yeasty pizza by hand, savoring the balance of the delicate zucchini blossoms and assertive anchovies adorned with little more than olive oil and salt; eight years later we still stalk zucchini blossoms together at the farmers’ market each summer until we find them, just so we can attempt to recreate that pizza at home and keep that experience of early romance alive. It’s also about how deeply comforting a protein-fortified milkshake and peanut butter and jelly sandwich paired with Earl Grey tea in a paper cup tasted when I was recovering from an emergency cesarean delivery and how even the mention of stewed prunes takes me back to the first sweet but hazy days with my newborn in the hospital.

That’s a little bit of my story right there, all wrapped up in food. And none of it really is about food. The pizza and the crêpes sucrées and the milkshake from the hospital cafeteria mean nothing in and of themselves–they’re just things that someone made and that someone ate, sustenance that meets one of our biggest needs for survival. But when there’s a story associated with them, they become something more: an entry point into our memories and a framework by which to contemplate our pasts.

If you were to look at what I’ve been eating in the past couple of weeks, the number of quick café meals–a breakfast sandwich here; yogurt, milk, and a panini there; and an occasional blended strawberry and cream drink and double nonfat latte along the way–would help define this moment in time occupied with hospital visits. As my son and I have eaten our drive-through coffee shop meals in the car (which I try to avoid) and out of crinkly white paper to-go bags in a lobby, I’ve experienced guilt about abandoning the structure and nutritional quality that I’ve built around our daytime meals. But in a way, while I watch someone dear to me struggle with the debilitating effects of stroke and wonder whether her speech and comprehension will ever fully return, I am thankful for the steady, predictable schedule of mealtime, no matter the form or its contents–that rhythm, at least, is one thing still in my control.

Swedish Currant Cake

And so we come to cake. Just as with that milkshake and those crêpes, there’s no inherent magic in a bunch of flour, sugar, butter, and currants baked together in a pan–unless you have something bigger to attach it to. Food blog guidelines would instruct me here to use evocative language that would entice you to want to drop everything and head to your kitchen right now to bake, but perhaps because of what I’m going through at the moment that seems beside the point–pointless even. For me, what this cake really represents is a gateway to a day I don’t want to forget, something a little ordinary, a little special, and full of sweetness in a time otherwise filled with grief and uncertainty.

This cake sat in my kitchen this morning, surrounded by toasted English muffins, sliced tomatoes, ham, artichoke hearts, avocados and bacon. As my husband made Hollandaise sauce and poached eggs, we mingled with a dozen or so friends, inviting them each to whip up a Bloody Mary and build their own eggs benedict. To have a houseful of people so early in the day is a rarity (late to bed, typically late to rise), but it was opening day of the Seattle Sounders FC season, and we wanted to mark the occasion well. In the blur of it all, I didn’t even think to snap a photo as a visual record of the morning. All I have are the photos of this cake, which I took yesterday.

From there we went to the game, a match against Sporting Kansas City, a game in which the 0-0 score glared down at the fans until after the 90th minute, in stoppage time, when the Sounders finally made a goal, winning the game with what felt like less than 30 seconds to go. I’m not a huge sports fan, but to be there with my husband and son, surrounded by tens of thousands of people cheering on a team in the rain–and erupting in applause as fireworks went off and the word “GOAL” flashed on the screen–that was something special, a memory I don’t want to forget.

And so there’s cake today, a dense, subtly-sweet one studded with almost three cups of dried currants, the type of cake you serve for brunch rather than a special occasion. One that would taste just as good toasted and spread with butter as any raisin-cinnamon toast. I’ll leave you with a recipe, should you want to give it a try. For me, it’s another way to remember something that has absolutely nothing to do with cake but has everything to do with friends and fellowship, brunch and soccer, and the bright hours of an otherwise challenging couple of weeks.

Swedish Currant Cake

Swedish Currant Cake
Adapted from Swedish Cakes and Cookies. As the original recipe recommends, plan on making this cake a couple of days before you plan on serving it. Just keep it covered and it will stay moist and get better with time.

2 3/4 cups dried currants
3/4 cup salted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Zest of one lemon, grated
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon water, plus more hot water for rinsing currants

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and grease a tube pan. Rinse the currants briefly in hot water; drain well and set aside.

Beat butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, scraping down the sides occasionally, until light and fluffy. This will take a couple of minutes–don’t rush it. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing well before each addition.

Toss a tablespoon or two of the flour with the currants in a separate bowl. Add the rest of the flour–along with the cinnamon, lemon zest, and baking powder–to the batter and beat until mixed. Stir in almond extract, lemon juice, and a tablespoon of water until everything is incorporated, then fold in the currants.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean and the edges start to pull away from the sides. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about five minutes, then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife, invert it onto a plate and remove the cake. Store covered.

Food Lovingly Prepared and Joyously Served

Old Family Photo in Grandparents' Dining Room

I miss them. It hit me one night as I sat at my desk in my office, suddenly thinking about my grandparents. In an instant it was like I was back there at their house overlooking Puget Sound, so many years ago, as a child. I miss them, I kept whispering to myself, tears coming to my eyes as I reflected on those two people now long gone.

It wasn’t long after my grandmother Agny died in 2009 that I started this blog. As I tried to cope with the dark shroud of grief messing with my heart on those sunny days of July, I browsed the bookstore shelves looking for Scandinavian cookbooks. Soon I started trying out the recipes and looking for even more sources of this food that somehow fed my healing heart.

The cuisine of my heritage was a way to feel closer to my grandmother, a dear woman who seemed in some ways, even in her nineties, like she would never die.

Now as I think about why I keep writing about Scandinavian food–here on the blog and for various publications–I keep coming back to one thing: It’s all about the people. Sure, we eat for survival, for sustenance. But it goes so much beyond that. We cook to feed ourselves, to feed our soul, and to feed each other. We eat because we need to live and survive, but we also need to thrive and to connect.

Rice Cream

I’m not just talking about Scandinavian food. I’m talking about family. About people. Love. Connection. Hospitality. A life fully lived and shared with others. That is what my grandparents gave to me, what they shared with my parents and me whenever we would visit. Three of my grandparents are gone, but I hold onto their memory, as well as the promise that I will someday see them again on the other side of eternity.

Wedding Day with Grandma

The next night, after that one in which my grandparents’ memory came back to me so strongly, I sat in my office again, sorting through papers, organizing stuff, making sense out of the piles that accumulate so often. As I opened an old greeting card I saw my grandmother’s handwriting–elegant cursive, at a slight diagonal, with a trace of a shaky hand that still carried with it so much grace and dignity despite age and frailty. I skimmed that note, and the other ones I came across. Mentions of love, how happy she was that I had found such a good husband, thanking me for a recent visit. I did not read them in detail, not yet. But they are there on the floor right now, organized by year with other greeting cards and mementos. They are calling out to me in some ways, to read them and reflect and remember such a beautiful woman whom I miss so much. One of these days I will bring myself to read them again.

If I am honest, Outside Oslo is very much a legacy of a memory, something that grew out of grief, as a way for me to cope. But it ended up blossoming into so much more and helped me to connect with my heritage and to better understand somebody I still love to this day and will always be thankful that I was able to call Grandma.

That woman gave me the gift of love and showed me how to quietly and humbly serve someone with hospitality. She demonstrated how food can be a means of communication, a way to share something in a way possibly more profound than words. As I photograph Norwegian cakes and Swedish cookies and write about them here, I’m doing more than swapping recipes. I’m trying to tap into the rich connections that we make when we sit down to share a meal lovingly prepared and joyously served.

Norwegian Heart Waffles Horizontal

It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Scandinavian or French, Mexican or Chinese–the experience is universal. That’s why it all matters, why I took so enthusiastically to writing about food. It just so happens that I am Norwegian, and so that is the cuisine that speaks most clearly to me. So whatever cultural background or interests you have, I hope you’ll keep reading Outside Oslo–for the food, of course, but also for the essence of why it all matters. It’s not just a pretty photo or a mouthwatering recipe. It’s a way to silently and subtly show love, to feed each other well, and to foster the rich connection and conversations that our hearts so desperately need.

May your relationships be enriched this week as you connect over food.

Until next time,

Daytona

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