When Copenhagen's Noma was named the world's best restaurant a few years ago, it introduced a wider audience to the concept of New Nordic cuisine. A movement that swept Scandinavia (and, subsequently, the rest of the culinary world), New Nordic combines the oft-maligned and little known local ingredients with modern technique and playful vision. Reindeer and lichen, meet Thermomix and Pacojet. The resulting hay-infused oils and deep-fried mosses represent a new direction for Scandinavian cuisine. But amid the excitement of matching Viking produce with a post-modern kitchen, it's easy to lose sight of the basic facts: the old Nordic cuisine is pretty good too.
Although its praises are seldom sung, traditional Scandinavian fare — full of seafood, berries, roots and rye — has a lot to recommend it. To be clear, we're not talking fancy French technique or expansively layered spice palettes. We're talking about simple farm fare, hearty whole grain breads and rich seafood stews, food meant to sustain you during the winter. And according to some studies, it may actually be fairly healthy.
The region's miles of coastline have made seafood a bedrock of the cuisine. Although there are preparations that can be hard to embrace (including the ammonia-scented rotting shark of Iceland that routinely makes worst-thing-ever-eaten lists), much of the seafood is delicious, from pickled herring to gravlax to crayfish so beloved that they anchor seasonal parties.
Nordic food is often depicted as bland — admittedly, chili-like heat is entirely absent (and somewhat feared). But saffron and cardamom have graced baked goods since the Vikings first discovered them, and allspice, black pepper and nutmeg are also embraced (admittedly in more of a sweet-savory pairing than is common in America). And feathery fresh dill graces everything from shrimp salad to pickled herring.
And while this is not the land of crusty-yet-airy baguettes, the baked goods have their own charm. There are eggy sweet buns to dunk in coffee, scented either with cardamom or saffron. Rye, which thrives in the often-shallow glacial soils of Nordic countries, makes for a filling loaf. The whole grain flour adds a nubby note to flatbreads. When it's not paired with caraway seeds, rye reveals a soft, almost malty sweetness.
The short growing season means that the harvest is more limited, and there's more of an emphasis on root vegetables. But it also means that when other crops make their briefer appearances, they are celebrated with near-religious fervor. The first berries (currants, cloudberries, strawberries), mushrooms, and tiny new potatoes almost become a holiday in and of themselves. And the heaps of always-in-season dairy — from cheese to yogurt to clouds of whipped cream — make a perfect accompaniment. It's an embrace of the products that flourish in this part of the world, and the culture of food that has developed to celebrate them. Thermomix blender and reindeer moss not required.
Rose Hip Soup
Rose hips, which ripen long after the rose blooms have faded, can be dried to enjoy all year and serve as an important source of vitamin C in northern countries. This soup is common in Sweden, with its deep rosy color and sweet-tart tang. And it's adaptable — you can enjoy a lightly sweetened version for breakfast, or go full-on with the whipped cream and a bit more sugar for a dessert.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup dried rose hips (available in bulk sections of supermarkets or natural food stores)
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
Unsweetened whipped cream to taste
Place the rose hips in a pot and add water until it covers them by an inch. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer until the rose hips have completely softened, about 15 minutes.
To break down (and strain out any pits or sticks), run through a food mill or puree in a blender and then pass through a sieve. Return to the pot and add lemon and sugar to taste, along with additional water, if needed, to yield a thick-yet-spoonable soup. Serve with whipped cream.
Karelian Piiraka (Finnish Pasties)
These rye-crusted, hand-held pies, adapted from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), make a lovely snack on their own, or paired with Scandinavia's ever-present cups of strong coffee. Rice porridge is the most common filling, but a mix of root vegetables makes a nice variation. The egg butter topping may sound strange (even when scaled down from the original recommendation of 2 eggs per cup of butter), but it's an addictively perfect accompaniment.
Makes 16 pasties
Scant 1 1/2 pounds mixed root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, rutabagas), peeled and cut into chunks
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
Salt and white pepper to taste
About 1/2 cup milk, as needed
1 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups rye flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
4 hard-boiled eggs
1 stick butter
Salt to taste
To make the filling, place the vegetables in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until they are quite soft, about15 minutes. Drain, and mash or beat until smooth. Add the butter, salt and pepper to taste, and enough milk to make a smooth texture (a bit looser than mashed potatoes). Set aside and let cool.
For the crust, mix together the water, salt and flours to create a smooth dough (add more flour and/or water as needed). Divide into 16 pieces and roll into balls.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Grease 2 cookie sheets, or line them with parchment paper.
On a lightly floured countertop, roll out the dough balls into ovals, as thin as possible. If they resist, let relax a few minutes (because of the low-gluten rye flour, this should be relatively easy). Cover any unused dough with a dish towel so it doesn't dry out. Spread a few spoonfuls of filling over each oval, and crimp the edges over it. Transfer to the prepared cookie sheets (a spatula is helpful). Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
In a small saucepan, boil together the milk and butter. Brush the pastie dough with this milk-butter mixture, then transfer it to the oven, and bake until browned, seven to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, brush again with the milk-butter mixture. Let cool slightly.
To make the egg butter, mash the eggs with the butter until it makes a smooth mixture and season generously with salt. Serve the pasties topped with egg butter.
Smorgastarta (Sandwich Cake)
This ridiculous dish would never be confused with simple Viking food, but it incorporates many Nordic favorites and has long been a Swedish party staple. The combination of seafood and egg salads, dense bread and creamy spread makes for a rich dish, and a little goes a long way. You can follow the recipe below, or riff on your own with favorite spreads. Just make sure to make the fillings both creamy and ample — the bread absorbs some of the moisture as it sits overnight, and there's common agreement that there's nothing worse than a dry smorgastarta.
Makes 1 cake.
4 ounces smoked salmon
3 ounces cream cheese
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup sour cream
1 handful fresh dill, chopped
Salt and white pepper, to taste
Cream or milk, if needed
4 eggs, hard-boiled
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Squeeze lemon juice
Salt and white pepper, to taste
1/2 pound cooked salad shrimp
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon caviar or tobiko (optional)
1 loaf rye or pumpernickel bread, unsliced
1 3/4 cups sour cream
12 ounces cream cheese
Salt and white pepper to taste
Fresh dill and/or chives
Slices of smoked salmon, hard-boiled eggs and/or shrimp to decorate
To make the smoked salmon filling, place the salmon, cream cheese, lemon juice, sour cream and dill in a food processor. Puree, then season with salt and white pepper to taste and add cream or milk as needed to create a loose texture, somewhere between a spread and a dip.
To make the egg filling, place the egg yolks, mustard, mayonnaise and lemon juice in a food processor or bowl, and blend until smooth. Chop the whites (in a food processor or by hand) until they're in small bits — to allow for easier cutting of the smorgastarta, you want things a little more finely chopped than for your average egg salad. Mix together, and season to taste with salt and white pepper.
For the shrimp filling, chop the shrimp fairly fine, then mix with the mayonnaise and caviar (if using).
To assemble, cut the crusts off the bread, and then slice it horizontally into four slices. Place the bottom slice on a platter, then spread with the fillings — one in between each layer.
Beat together the sour cream and cream cheese, and season to taste. Spread over the whole smorgastarta. Like icing a cake, it's easiest to spread one thin layer over everything first, to seal in the crumbs, and then spread a thicker layer. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a plastic bag, and place in the refrigerator overnight.
To serve, decorate with dill, chives, smoked salmon, egg slices and shrimp. Present whole to your amazed guests, then cut into thin slices for serving.