If I could live in the pages of a Scandinavian cookbook, I might. Photographs of snow-kissed mountains and reflective fjords as dark as their chilly depths draw me in, and the food beckons as invitingly as the dinner bell my grandmother would ring when it was time to come to the table.
Some people daydream of sundrenched beaches while others find beauty in the mørketid. I’ve yet to experience a time and place in which the sun never or barely rises above the horizon, but it’s in my family’s blood. Scandinavians celebrate the darkness and embrace the cold. These inevitable parts of the season are merely what support the cozy atmosphere and active lifestyle they crave. (Think cozy, candlelit evenings and brisk jaunts on skis.)
The recipe I’m sharing with you today would warm one up even on the coldest of days. Called sjömansbiff, or seaman’s/sailor’s beef stew, it’s the sort of fare that I can imagine sustaining and nourishing countless Nordic sailors through grueling days battered by frozen winds.
The dish is the sort that fills you up and leaves you extremely satisfied. I haven’t seen as much of this dish as I’d expect (I first learned about a version of it in Trine Hahnemann’s The Scandinavian Cookbook from 2008 but have mostly seen it in the older, more traditional cookbooks I’ve collected; The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Standen Hazelton, from 1965, calls it a popular Scandinavian dish that is great for informal buffet entertaining). Sjömansbiff is a hearty Swedish stew made with beef, onions, and potatoes that have nearly melted into themselves. Served with some punchy condiments like pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, it’s a great mix of flavors and colors, and perfect for winter.
This is the sort of meal that complements the stunning landscapes and dramatic skies that illustrate some of the most authentic Nordic cookbooks. I think it’s time for it to have a comeback.
Some of the older or perhaps most traditional of the recipes I’ve encountered call for thin slices of beef, maybe pounded flat. I’ve taken cues from more modern recipes and used cubes of meat instead. Even with the traditional layered assembly, this approach is a bit more approachable while preserving the integrity of this very classic Scandinavian dish. This recipe comes from no single source, but rather embraces elements from The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Hazelton (republished in the 1980s as Classic Scandinavian Cooking); The Scandinavian Cookbook by Anna Mosesson, Janet Laurence, and Judith Dern; The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann; and this recipe from The Boston Globe.
3 pounds chuck or round beef roast
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup flour
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons butter
3 large thinly sliced onions
6 bay leaves
12 ounces ale (a Belgian-style beer is good here)
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced
3 sprigs thyme
Pickled beets, for serving (I have a recipe, if you need one)
Whole-grain mustard, for serving
Cut beef into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces. Toss with salt, pepper, and flour. Heat olive oil and butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the beef, working in batches in order to not overcrowd them, and brown until they’re deeply golden, a few minutes on each side. Remove and set aside.
Using the same pan, lower heat to medium and cook the onions with the bay leaves until golden and soft, about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping up the brown bits as you go. Reglaze with the beer and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter a 2 1/2-quart casserole with lid (cast-iron works great here). Layer a third of the potatoes on the bottom, followed by half of the meat and half of the onions (separated from the beer with a slotted spoon), another third of the potatoes, the remaining meat, onions, and finally the rest of the potatoes. Nestle 3 sprigs thyme throughout.
Pour the reserved beer over the layers. Cover and place in the oven until the meat and vegetables are cooked and tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours, giving it a gentle stir from time to time. (They should almost melt into themselves when you take a bite.)
Serve with pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, removing the thyme sprigs. Scandinavian cucumber salad and knäckebröd/knekkebrød would be very typical and pleasing accompaniments.