A feast of nationalistic proportions
June 5, 2012 § 57 Comments
I held my belated Norwegian Independence Day party almost a week and a half ago now, and I have to admit, I’ve yet to come down off of the high that that was. It was so much fun! And so totally epic. I finally have my thoughts halfway in order and my photos fully in order, so I can show you a little bit of what we did!
The meal was 17 courses. Yup. Seriously. 17. 17 plated courses at that. Back in February I got it into my head that this year for Syttende Mai, I wanted to try to explore some elements of the fundamentals of Nordic cuisine and how traditional cuisines evolve by creating a meal in which I would attempt to fuse the traditional Norwegian foods we eat on the 17th of May with the style and principles of the food at Noma. You know, that little ole’ Danish restaurant that has revolutionized cuisine, particularly Nordic cuisine, and is merely one of the best, most famous restaurants in the world right now.
A totally reasonable project for me to work on in my spare time, right? Ok, not at all really. But, boy was it a kick!
I literally spent three months preparing for the feast, and in the process learned a lot about the raw materials that the Scandinavian foods I love are built with. And even more about myself and the foods and scenes that are part of me and my identity. I’m going to write more about it elsewhere, and I’ll let you know about that when it happens, but I wanted to give you guys at least a sense of the project.
What I discovered, and became completely taken with, in exploring the New Nordic Cuisine was its strong focus on conveying a sense of place and time. So, in developing the 17 courses that I served, I wound up thinking about where the ingredients of the traditional dishes come from, how they are used traditionally, where they are served traditionally, and then also the times and places I associate them with in my own life.
In keeping with the fusion of new and old, I invited my family, some of my best childhood friends, and some of our best friends in Boston to come to the feast. In the end, there were fourteen people at the table (not including me and a friend who stayed in the kitchen). The feast lasted from 3 in the afternoon until 11 at night! Lest that seem like an airplane flight’s worth of sitting, we did break it up after about 1/3 of the courses with a parade around the block. This was followed with a rowdy and hilarious Nordic talent show that included Ole and Lena jokes, storytelling (both a Finnish tale and a Norwegian one), an operatic interlude, and a macho Karelian dance off. Plus, my ever talented husband carved a Dala horse out of a potato. After that it was back to feasting.
My friend Meka, who is at least part if not completely angel, came down from Maine solely to help me out in the kitchen with plating the dishes. In the final days leading up to the feast I had done almost nothing but prep ingredients, and my friends who came into town were more than generous with their helping hands. So, my fridge and pantry were stuffed to the brim with food that needed to be taken out, cooked quickly in various ways, finished with sauces and oils, and plated. It was a huge effort, but so fun, and so worth it. And, wonder of wonders, my friends were so quick to leap up and take turns washing plates after each course was done, we managed to serve all of the courses (that’s 17 X 14 people, meaning 238 plates needed!) without using any paper plates.
As we carried out and served each course, I came out and explained the thinking behind it and what it meant to me. Here is the feast:
“Saturday treat” – smoked salmon “candy”. Growing up we, like most Norwegian children, were only allowed to have candy on Saturday. We called it Saturday treat. On Syttende Mai, we also had candy as part of the parade. So, playing off of the idea of candy and what I think of as candy or a very special treat now, I decided to start the meal off with a little amuse bouche of amazing smoked salmon “candy” that I had my mom bring with her from our favorite Smokehaus, in Minnesota.
“Out in the garden” – cucumber gelee, pickled rhubarb, garden flowers, wild herbs, and sheep’s milk yogurt. Traditionally on the 17th we have both a sweet-sour cucumber salad as well as a thick rhubarb soup dessert. I decided to flip the textures and some of the flavors of these two and put them into one dish, resulting in the cucumber gelee and the pickled rhubarb. Thinking about the garden spaces where these plants come from, I wanted to evoke that feeling of the garden and its flavors by adding some garden flowers and herbs as well. And, because sheep are all over the place in Norway and always getting into the gardens, I added a swipe of sheep’s milk yogurt to tie it all together.
“Midnight sun” – potato blini, gravlaks, poached scrambled egg, chive oil, wildflowers. Every year we have gravlaks at Syttende Mai, accompanied by mustards as well as cold scrambled eggs with chives. But, the best eggs and salmon I ever had in my life were when we were up in Northern Norway visiting my father’s family. So, I will always associate it with the midnight sun up there in the summer. Because of this, I created a plating to look like the midnight sun using a potato blini (a play off of potato bread), gravlaks, eggs, and chive oil.
“Shrimp evening” – white wine and dill marinated shrimp stuffed dumplings with dill oil and homemade mayonnaise. In the summers in Norway we always have at least one rekeaften, or shrimp evening. It’s sort of a package deal with the same thing every time, lots of shrimp, bread, mayo, dill, and white wine to accompany. So, I decided to turn it into an actual little package, marinating the shrimp in white wine and dill and putting them inside the bread in the form of a dumpling. After a shrimp evening there would always be lots of shrimp heads to go crab fishing with, so I designed the plating to try to look like peering down through the ripples into the water as we would see when crab fishing.
“The forest’s stillness” – wild mushroom turnover, mushroom cream, mushroom dust, and pickled spruce tips. Going mushroom hunting is hugely popular all across the Nordic countries. So, I decided to create a mushroom dish that was reminiscent of the forest floor where Joel and I once went and collected chanterelles with our good friends Kaitlin and Matti (who were able to come to the party!).
“Coffee break” – cardamom currant doughnut stuffed with coffee custard. Time for a coffee break! I took the bolle, a cardamom raisin bun that is ubiquitous at coffee time in Norway, and playing off the coffee and doughnut parallel that’s so popular in Boston, where I live now, I made cardamom currant doughnuts. Then I added the coffee in the form of a coffee custard stuffed inside.
“Birch” – lefse rolled with pate, mustard cream, crisped onions. Though lefse is traditionally Norwegian, my family didn’t know how to make it from scratch until our neighbors in Minnesota taught us. So, I will always associate fresh lefse with Minnesota. When I think of Minnesota and our neighborhood I also think of birch forests, so I plated the lefse to look like a birch forest floor. Instead of the hot dogs that we would normally put in lefse, I filled these with local pork pate, a different way of using pig and also a nod to our next door neighbor’s (from growing up) amazing pate.
“Winter hike” – Beer and cinnamon braised pork with caraway creme fraiche porridge and horseradish meringue. This thought process was a bit complicated, but see if you can follow it! Rømmegrøt, a sour cream porridge, is one of Norway’s national dishes. It is a perfect food to eat at one of the cottages you will pass when out hiking in the mountains. Traditionally it is served topped with cinnamon and sugar and accompanied by cured meats and a nice cold beer. I decided to combine all those elements by cooking the meat with cinnamon and beer and serving it atop the porridge, which I made from local creme fraiche instead of sour cream. Now, I really only grew up eating rømmegrøt on Syttende Mai, and because of this we were always drinking aquavit (a caraway spirit) with our beer, so I incorporated this by infusing the porridge with caraway. Finally, I topped the dish off with craggy chunks of horseradish meringue to recall the craggy rocks of a hike in the mountains up to the cottage where you would get the porridge.
“Summer hike” – beer waffles, homemade sausage, blueberry ketchup, crisped onions, and wild herbs. Another classic hiking food that you may buy at a cottage along the trail is waffles. Waffles are one of Norway’s national snacks, and a must have at Syttende Mai. Continuing on the train of thought about hiking, I also thought about the times I’ve been out hiking and we’ve stopped to grill sausages. I put the two of these ideas together, making savory waffles and miniature versions of a traditional sausage, the medisterpølse. I accompanied this with a blueberry ketchup, representing all the blueberries we stop and pick on summer hikes, and I finished the dish with crisped onions and foraged plants to make it look a bit like the woods along a hiking path.
“Sheep in cabbage” – lamb braised with ramps, juniper, fennel, and peppercorn in a cabbage leaf with chervil cream sauce. One of the most traditional Norwegian dishes I know of is Faar i kaal, which translates literally to “sheep in cabbage.” It’s a big pot of lamb and cabbage hunks cooked together. I decided instead to go the quite literal route, and wrapped cabbage leaves around little pieces of lamb that had been slowly braised with woodsy spices. I topped this with an herb cream sauce, going for the green look of a pasture where you would stumble upon sheep and goats grazing in the mountains.
“Farm” – meatballs, potato puree, peas, gjetost tuile shards, rye ‘dirt’. Meatballs and mashed potatoes with gravy is a classic dish you would find at any traditional tavern and was my absolute favorite meal from growing up. It is farm food, hearty and satisfying. I pictured the farms near our cabin in Norway, where the cows are grazing in a field along the edge of the vegetable patch, and following this I created a plating to look a bit like that edge of the potato field, where all the ingredients come from.
“Christmas” – lefse, red cabbage confit, crispy pork bits, and caraway salt. At Christmas our traditional meal is pork, cabbage, and potatoes. This dish is designed to look a little like a Christmas star and filled with all of those central elements of the Christmas meal combined together into a cup of lefse filled with a pork studded cabbage confit. The cabbage is usually cooked with caraway in it, but I took that bit out and added it instead in the form of a caraway salt sprinkled about.
“Lunch packet” – rye bread with ham and pea puree, homemade cheese and pea shoots, and caramelized whey. The open faced sandwich is eaten across Scandinavia, and we always have a spread of breads and toppings at Syttende Mai. So, I created an updated version with my homemade renditions of several traditional sandwich toppings. Caramelizing whey, surprisingly, was one of the hardest parts of preparing the feast. I incinerated more batches than I care to talk about!
“The way we survived” – rutabaga chip with salt cod powder and nutmeg creme fraiche. Not that long ago, Norway was extremely poor. “Ireland poor” as my brother puts it. Life there was pretty much about survival. To create this dish, I thought about the fundamentals of what people ate and how they survived back before the potato was even introduced, and certainly before they had oil money. What they had was rutabaga and salt cod. I wanted to evoke the spare, cold feeling of pure survival with this dish, but at the same time, I took the rutabaga and presented it in a form that root vegetables are increasingly seen in now that the country is wealthy and modernized, the chip. Incidentally, the Norwegian for potato chip is potetgull, or potato gold, which conjures up some of those issues around wealth as well. I sprinkled the rutabaga chip with powdered salt cod (I had turned it into powder by blitzing it to smithereens in my food processor), and then added just a little bit of nutmeg creme fraiche for dipping.
“Ice cream for breakfast” – gjetost semifreddo bars layered with lingonberry preserves and rye shortbread with whipped cream and hazelnut cookie crumbs. Syttende Mai is such a special holiday in Norway, you’re allowed to have ice cream for breakfast! I played on this idea by taking the pieces of one very traditional breakfast, a piece of rye bread with gjetost and jam, and turned them into ice cream bars. As I thought about these ingredients and the space I associated them with, I thought of the deck at our cabin, my favorite place to eat breakfast. Sitting on the deck you notice the sharpness of the wood against the smooth speckled rocks, so I added quenelles of whipped cream and a sprinkling of hazelnut cookie crumbs, to conjure up that look.
“Forest berries” – sheep’s milk yogurt cake with cloudberry jam, cloudberry curd, whipped sheep’s milk yogurt and honey, spruce shortbread crumbs, candied spruce, and wood sorrel. No celebration in Norway is complete without bløtkake, a layered cake with whipped cream and berries. Drawing on the berries in the cake, I wanted to create a scene of berry picking. Although you can use any berries, and strawberries would have been the most seasonal and local, I got caught up in thinking about cloudberries, a unique polar berry that makes for the best bløtkake, and one that I’ve eaten at some of the happiest celebrations in my memory. While I ruminated on cloudberries, my mind flooded with images of hiking across tundra areas with my family, stopping here and there to pluck the orange berries from patches on the lichen and brush covered ground. As in so many places in Norway, there were sheep wandering around, their bells clanging. I built the cake around these images, incorporating cloudberries and sheep’s milk as well as some spruce and leaves, pieces of the tundra.
“Coffee and cognac” – cognac mousse with coffee sauce and a Norwegian milk chocolate disc with hazelnut cookie crumbs. The closing of the meal! Many a grand meal in Norway ends with coffee and cognac, perhaps accompanied by a little piece of chocolate or a cookie, so I wanted mine to end that way as well, in its own way. I transformed them all into a dessert, a mousse with sauce and a little Freja milk chocolate disc speckled with cookie on top. I associate a good glass of cognac and cup of coffee with my great Auntie Mari, who was like a grandmother to me. She and I also used to embroider fanciful woodland designs on pillows together, so I made the mousse dessert into a little mushroom like she might have decorated a pillow with.
It’s been rare in my life that something I make or do turns out as awesome as it is in my imagination, but this feast was an exception. Everything about it was as splendid as I imagined, and I don’t think I can come up with a thing I would change! I still don’t even understand quite how it happened, but the timing of each course went perfectly, the food was beautiful and delicious, and the company the best. I felt unbelievably honored that my friends and family would come, some from across the country, to participate in a dinner I created. I poured so much of myself into the making of the meal, and it felt like the greatest gift in the world to be able to share it with people I love. I wish I could have served it to all of my friends. But, our table couldn’t have squeezed in a single person more. Maybe next time though!