Friday, October 30, 2009

Thinkin' Bout Smoked Salmon

Today I got to thinking about a cuisine I crave a lot but rarely cook or eat.  Scandinavian food.  Being an American of mostly Norwegian decent, many of the dishes of my youth and childhood, both on my mother's and father's sides, were Norse.  As I sit here with my Swedish cookbook on my lap, flipping longingly through the pages, I'm reminded of a rhyme I learned as a child:

   "Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds chased by one Norwegian..." 

Be that as it may, the most accessible source of Scandinavian food I've found so far in SoCal is the wonderful Swedish organization IKEA. Every time I go there I feel like it's the holidays. It's a guilty pleasure. I love it. If anyone knows of any more restaurants or markets where I can get my Norwegian food on in LA without having to wait for the Sons of Norway dinner in Van Nuys in November, I'd be grateful.

For those of you not familiar with Norway, or Norwegian food, Norway is a long thin country up near the Arctic Circle.  Its rocky coast line winds and twists on forever, and the growing season is understandably short.  As a result, preservation and rationing are everything.  Scandinavian food is simple and rich in seafood, pickled herring, smoked salmon, dried salted cod, salty fish pastes.  I'd love to share with you all the simple flavorful dishes I'm really jones-ing for right now, like the infamous lutfisk, but I'll start you slow. ;)  Here are two recipes to begin your introduction to the Scandinavian flavors I love.  They're both simple-surprise surprise!- so get out there and taste something new!  Both these recipes are simple, beautiful, and a little bit hoity-toity due to the seafood and so can be easily modified to make perfect appetizers.

A Special Breakfast for Us Norwegian Kids: Bagles and Lox

2 Plain Bagles
4 oz. Cream Cheeze
4 oz. Smoked Salmon
Capers or Sliced Onions, if desired

Half the bagels.  Toast or warm bagel halves in the microwave.  Spread one ounce of room temperature cream cheese on each bagel half.  Top with one ounce of smoked salmon (and capers or onions if desired).

Makes 4 servings.

*Use mini-bagels and garnish with fresh dill to make appetizers.

Here's Swedish lox recipe modified from the Swedish Cooking NGV cookbook, simplified for everyday use.

Gravad Lax Med Hovmastarsas

8 Rye Crisps (Wasa or similar brand)
4-5 oz. Smoked Salmon (moist)
1/4 c. Honey Mustard Sauce (not honey mustard)
1 Bunch Finely Chopped Fresh Dill

Stir the chopped dill into the honey mustard sauce. Pile each of the rye crisps with a 1/2 oz slice of the smoked salmon and the mustard sauce drizzled to taste.  

*Break rye crisps in half before topping (or buy a large wheel of rye crisp bread and break into pieces) and top with a sprig of fresh dill to make appetizers.

Enjoy! And like I said, simple!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Montana Memories and Root Vegetable Stew

When I go back in my mind to the best stews of my life, I find myself sitting at my grandmother's dining room table in Montana. Late fall snows dust the wide, terraced yard where her small orchards and gardens are scattered. The deer come in the dusk poking for forgotten apples. Homemade brown bread and raspberry rhubarb jam make the rounds while Grandma dishes up the first helping of stew.

Autumn is all about food that is both bold and soothing, and no main course embodies this better than a stew of hearty root vegetables. In this dish, several aromatics work together to create wonderful complexity and feature vegetables like turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas. The meat in this dish, whether chicken, beef, or venison, plays almost a supporting role to these earthy, fall flavors.

For Grandma's root vegetable stew, there was no written-in-stone recipe. The exact ingredients and quantities always changed depending on what she had on hand. As we were growing up, learning about food, Grandma used the stew as a chaperon for new tastes and textures she wanted us to discover. And while we ate, she taught us about food.

The venison in this stew, she would explain, was twice marinated to make sure it wouldn't be gamey and then browned with allspice, giving it a Scandinavian flavor. The chicken in another stew was cooked in a pressure cooker, making the meat insanely tender. And every vegetable, it seemed, came from the garden of a friend. In that way, we grew up very aware of our food and where it came from. The people of local religious communities and organic farmers seemed to stand around our table, their ghostly presence inviting us to not just enjoy but to be thankful for our meal.

Part of the charm of this type of dish is that unlike many prima donna courses, stew never holds form above function. The stews of my childhood were there to nourish us, to provide a place for the odds and ends of late summer cooking, and to fill us up when the constant chill made our hunger insatiable. The truest test for any stew is quite simply: Is it delicious? When autumn makes the days short and appetites big, a simple root vegetable stew has the power to satisfy a deep, primal part of ourselves, the part of us that knows winter is coming.

Hungry? Check out this link and the additional cooking instructions below.

Here are a couple of tips for making this stew a little more like the ones I remember:

Use rutabagas instead of beets, toss in a potato or two, and add a 1/2 to 1 lb. of your choice of meat. Brown 1" cubes of meat in a sauce pan if raw (with salt and pepper to taste) before adding stock to boil. If using cooked chicken, add in with veggies. If using fish, add 1" cubes during last 10 minutes of simmering and test for doneness (flaky, opaque) before serving.

Texture options: Smash some of the veggies with a fork for a courser stew. You can also puree part or all of the finished stew for a creamier, more refined texture.

Have fun connecting with your inner hunter/gatherer with a big bowl of this stew!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why Eat Passion?

Every foodie knows that food is so much more than just food. We use certain dishes to make us feel better, to bring back memories, to satisfy parts of our souls that we can touch in no other way. Food marks every major occasion of our lives because food does so much more than fill our bellies. It does more even than merely define us. It creates us. And for me, food is all about escape. A simple plate of something new, and I'm on an instant vacation. Exotic flavors have the power to transport us to new places, new countries. Flavors can take us places. Try to bite a firm yellow pineapple and not think about sunshine on palm branches.

Food can teach us about new cultures and new ways of thinking too. To know the food of a people is to know something about their philosophies. How they treat food says something about how they view life and how they work to live life to its fullest. Every dish is a history lesson. From the simple fish dishes of Scandinavia, the stone ground corn of Mexico, to the small cut, quick fried meats and veggies of China, everything in cooking has a reason. None of it is without purpose, and there's always a story behind that purpose.

Food can transport us in other ways as well. Good cooking can make the simplest food rich, enriching the people who eat it. Likewise, even lobster is worthless if prepared improperly. (Tell you more about that one later!) Cooking is transformative. Eating is a continuation of that transformation inside us. We cook, we eat, we live, we change.

Well, I'm off now to discover more about what makes us... us! More stories, more philosophies, more lifestyles, more recipes, more flavors! And I'll share everything I learn right here, including some of my favorite old recipes and stories. So as you also go forth and eat, always remember:

Whatever you eat, eat with passion and you will always be satisfied.