I’m having a Nordic moment in the kitchen, inspired by the Scandinavian sensibility for fresh, brightly-flavored, seasonal ingredients- prepared simply. The food is light but nourishing, intended to stimulate the senses and energize the body. During springtime, I can’t wait to be outside, riding my bike with the husband, feeling a cool breeze on my skin. Walking little Minnie, our dachshund, is a pleasure, as she bounds through the green grass, ears flopping up and down. Summer will arrive soon, with oppressive heat and blazing sun, draining my body of the energy to cook and depleting my appetite. For now, I revel in spring- the pleasantly sunny days alternating with dramatic thunderstorms, the thrill of tender lettuces and just-harvested asparagus spears- tending to my happy little herb garden and enjoying the subtlety of the season.
Scandinavian food, like the design it’s famous for, is about clean, straightforward flavors that focus on seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients. In the cookbook, Kitchen of Light, Andreas Viestad describes a cuisine built upon a balance of meat, fish, hearty grains, foraged mushrooms and herbs, tender vegetables, and the sweetest wild berries. During summer, the Scandinavian countries may seem like paradise, but the winters are harsh. The author writes:
“Norway lies about as far north as is humanly habitable. The climate and nature are at times extreme. In northern Norway the sun never sets during the summer months, and during the long winter it never rises above the horizon. The south coast of the country, considered a summer holiday paradise by many Norwegians, is on the same latitude as southern Alaska.”
After the long, dark winter, it seems that life eagerly springs from the soil in the form of fresh vegetables like peas, spinach, fennel, dill, cucumbers, etc. The forests are verdant and lush, and the never-setting sun causes residents to forget the brutal winter. Seeing Jamie Oliver visit Stockholm, Sweden, for his show, Jamie’s Food Escapes, really drives home the beauty of nature that inspires Nordic cooking.
Lotta Jansdotter’s book, Handmade Living, is another source of Scandi-inspiration. I love how she peppers the book of crafts and style with traditional recipes from her homeland. From fika (coffee with cinnamon buns and a good friend) to smörgåstårta (sandwich cake with layers of white bread, shrimp, salmon and dill), a sense of fun, hospitality, and beautiful Scandinavian aesthetic is just as evident in the food as it is in the interior designs. Every time I open Handmade Living I’m inspired by Lotta Jansdotter’s ideas.
In the June issue of Bon Appétit, I came a cross an entertaining piece, “Summer Smørrebrød,” which is a Danish buffet of ingredients for guests to compose their own open-face sandwiches. Slices of rye bread, gravlax, roast beef, cucumber, hardboiled eggs, and fresh leafy greens are arranged on a platter along with side dishes like shrimp salad and boiled potatoes flavored with dill. Everything is served chilled and washed down with refreshing Aquavit spritzer, made from the traditional herb and spice infused liquor of Scandinavia- the “water of life.” This easygoing Scandinavian meal is just right for al fresco dining with friends, while the garden is vibrant and the evenings are cool.
The last bit of Nordic inspiration comes from Noma (in Copenhagen, Denmark), voted The World’s Best Restaurant 2011 (and several years past). Chef René Redzepi is famous for elevating Nordic cooking to create a new Nordic cuisine built upon the wealth of local produce and wild foods in the area. His passion for Nordic food is so strong, it led him to establish the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit research center dedicated to advancing Nordic cuisine using local food resources. His cookbook, Noma, gives some insight into what makes this chef tick:
“We have discussed what cooking means when the building blocks are not pre-defined but emerge through experimentation with raw ingredients, consistency, color, temperature and texture. The alphabet of food is not supplied in advance, but crafted as part of the actual work, and the relationships between the individual letters are created during the experimental journey.
…We are constantly confronted with a trivialized sensory world, largely the product of banal commercialization. The makers of that world aim for ‘safe’ sensations, selling experiences with which their target group can immediately identify. As a result, the individual’s imaginative ability is leveled off to become the same for everyone. The senses are blunted. By contrast, what is continually being developed at Noma helps to keep our senses keen. Its ability to surprise and sow the seeds of uncertainty is of the essence.”
Cooking is supposed to stimulate the senses- not just taste, but also sight, smell, touch, and even sound. This is the very purpose behind la Domestique, as I wrote a year ago:
“Remember what it feels like to stimulate your senses: the sweet smell of a ripe strawberry, the sour taste of fresh squeezed lemonade, the silky feel of homemade bread dough, the sound of a steak sizzling on the grill…”
The Noma cookbook may be esoteric (as noted by Melissa Block of NPR), full of complicated techniques that are almost impossible to use in the home kitchen, but the book is meant to be a look into the journey of the man behind the New Nordic Cuisine, and there are excerpts from Chef René Redzepi’s personal diary along with the restaurant recipes and Dittie Isager’s stunning photographs. Just looking at the ingredients and plates of food is enough to breathe new life into your home cooking, and reading the food philosophy behind Noma is intellectually stimulating (and surprisingly unpretentious). I only wish I had picked it up sooner.
Inspired by Nordic cuisine and the fresh, simple flavors of spring, I’ve got a recipe for potato salad to share with you today.
Tarragon Potato Salad with Smoked Salmon and Lemon Vinaigrette
- 2 pounds potatoes, cut half if large
- ¼ cup thinly sliced spring onions, about 4 green onions
- 1 lemon
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
- 4 ounces smoked salmon or cured salmon like the Gravlax I made last summer
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- crème fraîche or sour cream
Place the potatoes in a large pot of water and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, until tender and easily pierced through with a knife, about 20-30 minutes. Drain the cooked potatoes in a colander, cover with a dishtowel, and allow to steam for 5-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette by zesting ½ the lemon into a bowl. Add juice from ½ the lemon, along with ½ teaspoon sea salt and a bit of freshly ground black pepper. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while continuously whisking, until the vinaigrette is emulsified.
Toss the cooked potatoes and spring onion slices in the vinaigrette with half the chopped tarragon. Arrange the potato salad on a platter. Slice the smoked salmon into bite sized ribbons and place atop the potato salad. Sprinkle over the rest of the chopped tarragon. Serve crème fraîche or sour cream on the side.