You will be hard pressed to find anyone less in the know about Nordic food than this humble writer. Sure, I make trips to Ikea with no intention of buying big box furniture just to eat Swedish meatballs mixed with buttery potatoes and lingonberry preserves. And being a food enthusiast I have followed René Redzepi’s rise to fame by foraging, picking, pickling and plating wild delicacies at his world-famous restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark. I watched the spread of Nordic cooking in the US move from New York and Los Angeles to less likely places like Minneapolis, Minnesota. And I read Bon Appetit’s restaurant issue greedily, where Aska, Brooklyn’s newest Nordic eatery helmed by chef Fredrik Berselius, was named one of the 10 best restaurants of 2013. But for all intents and purposes, I am a Nordic food newbie. In my mind, I built up Nordic cuisine to be less-than-palatable fermented shark, preserved lambs heads, an abundance of jams and preserves spread on loaves of brown bread served with cups of black tea.
But despite my ignorance, what has always impressed me about Nordic cooking is the weight placed on using the best quality local or at hand ingredients. Scandinavian cooking, both in Michelin-rated restaurants and over home stovetops, demonstrates a sensitivity for meat raised on small-scale family farms, fish which is self-caught and game hunted sustainably, root vegetables brought into the kitchen from nearby plots of land, espresso brown, sticky dirt caked on their outer skin and a wild ingredients foraged by hand. Items of this sort run from familiarities such as mulberries, lingonberries, ramps and wild greens, to the puzzling, like pine needles and moss. It is a cuisine based on what we in North America would think of as survival foods – plants and berries – but over the years has been elevated to dining rooms across the world with month-long (or more) waiting lists. The chefs responsible for this are doing so by sticking to these aforementioned traditions. As Fredrik Berselius told Andrew Knowlton and his team at BA, “It’s easy to use what’s fashionable, but you have to find luxury in simple ingredients. What you pick with your hands is so much more precious than what you pay for.”
With this in mind I contacted my friend Hermann, an Icelander whom I met several years back while we were both working in television commercials, via panicked email asking him simply – What is Icelandic food? Hermann lives in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital. I know through mutual friends who have visited him that his family owns a sheep farm in the Icelandic countryside. For seven days they were treated tours of Reykjavík, family sheep farms and an endless parade of hospitality in the form of sinfully delectable pastries and piping hot urns of coffee (Icelanders consumer more coffee per year per capita than anywhere else in the world aside from Norway and Finland, also Nordic countries) at relatives’ houses. Hermann responded saying, “In terms of food, Icelanders are proud of the quality of our products, rather than actual dishes. I am proud of the quality of the lamb and the availability of fresh fish and our (newfound) knowledge to treat it properly.”
Today I set out to make Plokkfiskur, or Icelandic fish stew. With its preparation, I tried to keep conscious of the ethos of great Nordic chefs and Hermann – keep it simple, keep it local, use the best possible ingredients. A recent transplant the Portland, Maine area, the fish was sourced from the local fish market where all of the seaman pull their scales from local waters. Potatoes, onions and other vegetables came from the farmers’ market a block away, their dirty skins evidence of where they came from. The cream and butter were sourced from a local creamery. Served with brown bread and butter, it was a perfect meal for a day not yet chilly enough to be fall but much too cold to be summer.
Not bad for a Nordic food newbie.
Icelandic Fish Stew (Plokkfiskur)
Prep time: 10 minutes, Cooking time: 40 minutes; Serves: 6
2 tablespoons good quality butter
1 medium white onion, diced finely
2 celery stalks, sliced finely
1 small carrot, diced finely
3/4 cup white wine
1 pound small, waxy potatoes, but into halves or quarters
1.5 liters chicken or vegetable stock
2 pounds haddock, cod or other white fish, cube into 1 inch cubes
1 medium tomato, chopped
two cups cream
Salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons finely minced chives
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heavy butter over medium heat. Add onions, celery and carrots and sweat until onions are translucent, about six minutes. Add white wine, bring to a simmer and reduce by half, about five minutes. Add stock and potatoes, bring to a simmer and cook for twenty minutes or until vegetables are soft.
Add cubed fish and chopped tomatoes; softly simmer for another five minutes. Turn heat down to low, add cream and salt and pepper to taste and heat until soup is piping hot but not boiling (otherwise the cream with curdle). Turn off heat, add chives and serve immediately with good brown bread and butter. Enjoy!
Learn more about Nordic cuisine at the NORTH Festival 2013 in New York City. This post is a collaboration between the blogger and NORTH Festival 2013.