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.

Easy, Elegant Shrimp Smørrebrød

Shrimp Smørrebrød Vertical

The art of the Scandinavian smørrebrød reflects something of abundance. Not gluttony, but rather a sense of appreciating the fullness of life’s blessings no matter the times, circumstances, or resources.

Cook simply, with creativity, quality ingredients, and love, and you’ll produce something elegant and you’ll be proud to bring to the table.

I’ve been thinking for several months about how the food of Scandinavia has long demonstrated elegance and hospitality even in tough times. Interviewing a cookbook author recently for an article confirmed that when she mentioned the food that Scandinavians would eat in time of poverty. The lesson I’m learning to distill from this: Cook simply, with creativity, quality ingredients, and love, and you’ll produce something elegant and you’ll be proud to bring to the table. And speaking of that table, dressing it with your finest linens and dishes can also elevate the experience.

This all brings me back to smørrebrød, or the open sandwiches that are popular in the Scandinavian countries. The word smørrebrød is so lively, conjuring up images of smearing soft, rich butter generously and evenly over a slice of bread. From there any number of toppings can be added, with shrimp, smoked salmon, and roast beef being some of the most well-known.

Assembling Shrimp Smørrebrød

Garnishing Shrimp Smørrebrød

…the sandwich takes on a civilized air and encourages the diner to slow down and enjoy the meal, to be in the moment with one’s company and to savor the food.

Though the smørrebrød pictured here appear simple–merely buttered bread topped with vivid green lettuce, a pile of shrimp, creme fraiche, cucumber, and lemon–the results are satisfying in a way that an ordinary sandwich, hastily thrown together and squished flat for transport to be eaten at work or on the go, isn’t. There’s an art to building smørrebrød, with rules for how they must be assembled, the care in presentation, and which type of bread must accompany a certain type of topping. Eaten with a fork and knife rather than held between one’s hands, the sandwich takes on a civilized air and encourages the diner to slow down and enjoy the meal, to be in the moment with one’s company and to savor the food.

Shrimp Smørrebrød Assembled

Going back to the idea of abundance for a moment, take a look at these sandwiches. Piled high with generous amounts of shrimp, they need only one slice of bread. Paired with a couple other varieties, they make a full, satisfying meal. And to think that they often require no cooking–just creativity, quality ingredients, and love.

Shrimp Smørrebrød with Lemon and Cucumber
This recipe is adapted from an NPR story, which itself is worth a read.  

2 slices hearty bread
1-2 tablespoons softened butter
2-4 leaves of lettuce
6 ounces shrimp
4 tablespoons creme fraiche
2 lemon slices
2 cucumber slices
1 sprig of dill

Smear the butter evenly over the bread, taking care to thinly and evenly cover the surface all the way to the ends. Cover fully with lettuce, then divide the shrimp between the two sandwiches, arranging them in neat piles in the center of the lettuce. Top each with a dollop of creme fraiche, and arrange a slice of lemon and cucumber on top. Garnish with dill.

Serves 2.

Shrimp Smørrebrød Horizontal

Nordic Flavor Inspiration: Anchovy-Dill Butter

Lamb with Anchovy Dill Butter

I can still picture the setting–an outdoor patio on the edge of an irregular shaped cove of eateries. I was studying abroad in a little seaside town in Normandy, and the professor had taken us students to the nearby city of Caen for dinner. Dimly illuminated by little lights all around us, the 14 students and our professor sat looking at the menus. One thing caught the professor’s eye: anchovy pizza. No one would split it with him. Except me.

I remember that evening vividly, despite it being over a decade ago. For some reason the idea of eating anchovies on pizza was exotic to that group of Seattle university students studying political science and French in Normandy. It actually surprises me, looking back at it, that I was the only one to eat it. It was good.

Anchovies are one of those foods, briney and bold, that I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid. Like pickled herring, all sorts of olives, and strong cheeses. My parents would regularly order Greek salads from a neighborhood restaurant, and I would take little nibbles of the anchovies, their tiny pin bones prickling my mouth as the salty flavor burst on my tongue. If I found anchovies intriguing as a kid, why not try them on pizza, right?

Some years later, while on our honeymoon in Italy, my husband and I walked into a tiny sliver of a pizza shop in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori to order lunch. I can’t remember our entire order, but I’ll never forget the special pizza they were doing that day: anchovy and zucchini blossom. Much different from the tomato sauce-based pizza I shared with my politcial sceience professor in Normandy, this pizza was based upon a perfect dough, with little more than olive oil, salt, anchovies, and the delicately fragrant little blossoms scattered on top. For the past several years, it has been a summertime tradition for my husband and I to visit the farmers market weekly to hunt for zucchini blossoms. We visit the same farmers week after week, checking in on the status, and excitedly making a beeline to the blossoms as soon as we spot them. We experiment with different recipes for pizza dough, trying to come up with one that will someday form our signature crust, and we build our pizza and eat it, savoring the explosion of flavor that comes with each bite.

Knowing my history with anchovies, you can probably imagine my excitement when I received Scandilicious Baking–Signe Johansen’s new cookbook–in the mail a few weeks ago and found a recipe for anchovy-dill butter. Johansen instructs readers to combine butter with Swedish Abba anchovies, dill, and a little salt until blended, and offers suggestions for how to eat it, such as on fish or potatoes. I decided to try it out, substituting my usual oil-packed anchovies for the Swedish ones and compensating by greatly reducing the quantity of anchovies. Wow, that butter packs a punch. I’m keeping it stored in my freezer right now, and I find myself chipping off a little bit of it to taste every once in a while, like a kid taking a bite of cookie dough while his mom isn’t looking.

Smorrebrod with Anchovy Dill Butter

One of the wonderful things about flavored butters is how they can elevate simple, quality ingredients into something special with absolutely no effort. Having this butter in my freezer has been inspiring me to think creatively about flavors, looking to Scandinavian cuisine, of course, but also to places like Provence, where anchovy is commonly paired with lamb, a surprisingly good flavor combination. Here are some of the creations I’ve enjoyed recently. If you find yourself inspired as well, I’d love to hear your ideas!

Pan-grilled Lamb Chops with Anchovy-Dill Butter and Brussels Sprouts

Rinse and pat dry two bone-in lamb shoulder chops and season both sides with salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat for several minutes until hot. Add a little olive oil, and when it begins to shimmer, add the lamb chops. Cook, adjusting the heat between medium and medium-high as necessary, for six minutes, until the lamb has developed a nice brown color. Flip the chops and continue cooking on the other side, adjusting heat as necessary, until the meat reaches a temperature of about 160 degrees for medium. Remove from heat and let rest for a few minutes.

While the lamb is cooking, cut 10 brussels sprouts in half lengthwise, and toss with a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat, then add the sprouts, cut side down, cooking them, covered, for five minutes until the flat sides are caramelized. Remove the lid, turn up the heat to medium-high, and cook for several more minutes, stirring frequently, to let the rest of the sprouts start to brown. (This technique is adapted from 101 Cookbooks, and is a surefire way to convert brussels sprouts skeptics into enthusiasts.)

Divide the lamb chops and Brussels sprouts between two plates, and top the lamb with a teaspoon of chilled anchovy butter.* Garnish with sprigs of fresh dill.

Serves two.

Smørrebrød with Anchovy-Dill Butter, Green Leaf Lettuce, and a Hard-Boiled Egg

Toast a slice of bread. While the bread is still hot, smear a little chilled anchovy-dill butter* on top, covering the surface of the bread as the butter melts. Cover with slices of crisp green leaf lettuce, then arrange a sliced hard-boiled egg and a sprig of dill on top.

Serves one, but can be easily multiplied to serve however many you want.

*To make the anchovy butter, whirl butter, anchovies–Abba anchovies or oil-packed–and dill in a food processor until combined, adjusting quantities until you have a flavor profile that suits your tastes. Start light with the anchovies and dill, because their flavors are strong.

Smørrebrød and Snacktime

Strawberry and Goat Cheese Smorrebrod

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to raise my son in such a way that celebrates his Scandinavian heritage. He’s half Norwegian along with some Swedish from my husband’s side, and although–or maybe because–he’s a couple generations removed from Scandinavia, it’s important to me that he grows up as familiar with his heritage as I did.

One thing I’m attempting is exposing him to the Norwegian language. Babies are born with the ability to hear every sound in every language, but that ability diminishes with time as they focus on the sounds of the primary languages they hear. I don’t expect to realistically teach him to be bilingual, since I’m not, but I do want him to know the basics and to have a good foundation in case he decides to keep learning as he gets older. Honestly, however, I’m having a hard time figuring out the best ways to do this. Norwegian programs for children are scarce in the United States, and finding age-appropriate books and music in Norwegian is proving difficult. I’m in the process of trying to get ideas from a variety of people and institutions, and hopefully I’ll have some luck in the near future. I’d love to hear your ideas, too, as well as any perspective and tips you can share about learning a second language, Norwegian or otherwise.

While I work through the language issue, I’m happy to report that introducing my son to Scandinavian food is rather easy. He’s recently taken a liking to brunost, so in the late morning yesterday, after his nap, the two of us sat at the dining room together and had a snack. He ate diced brunost with little pieces of peaches and bread, and I made myself the most surprisingly delightful smørrebrød. Inspired by the sweet, savory, and creamy combination of a cream cheese, strawberry, and green pepper smørrebrød in Beatrice Ojakangas’ Scandinavian Cooking, I toasted some slices of baguette, smeared them with butter, layered them with slices of brunost, then topped them with thinly sliced red bell pepper and sliced strawberry. We sat together, my half-Norwegian son and me, and enjoyed a snack together, something that is rare as I often struggled to take time to sit down and eat during the day, even while I’m feeding my son (I know, it’s a bad habit, but one I’m inspired to break after today’s experience).

This smørrebrød really doesn’t need a recipe, but I’ve provided guidelines and directions here in case you’re like me and still like to see things in recipe format. Strawberries will soon be making way for autumn fruits, but if you have a chance to get some fresh ones before they’re gone, I encourage you to give this smørrebrød a try.

Strawberry, Red Bell Pepper, and Goat Cheese Smørrebrød

Baguette, sliced on the bias
Butter, softened
Brown goat cheese, sliced
Red bell pepper, thinly sliced
Strawberries, sliced

Lightly toast the baguette slices then spread with butter. Top each with slices of goat cheese, covering the entire surface area. Add a couple of bell pepper slices to the perimeter of the bread, and top with strawberry slices in the center.

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