In the early 1970s, dining out in Minnesota was more about the decor than the meal, especially if you were a kid whose family frequented the Jolly Troll in the Twin Cities. While we stood in line to enter the dining room, I'd press my face up against a glass partition to get a better view of the animated trolls.
They always held my interest far longer than the Midwestern-style smörgåsbord, but the promise of ham and meatballs eventually guided me toward the endless buffet in the restaurant's dining room.
I am still guided by hunger as the holidays arrive and I fearlessly face a glut of local julbord (Christmas smörgåsbord) celebrations. While hot dishes of roasts and casseroles tempt other grazers, I am drawn to the racy allure of pickled herring, boiled potatoes with dill, cheese, pickles, rye bread and crackers, all washed down with beer and shots of aquavit.
The true beauty of this table is how well it transforms from traditional Swedish buffet table to modern cocktail parties. Most dishes can be prepared ahead of time and assembled before guests arrive: a cheese plate, two or three kinds of pickled herring, assorted rye breads and crackers, quick pickled cucumbers, lingonberry preserves and a chafing dish loaded with meatballs.
Add a bit of drama to the festivities with a batch of rye-dill blini cooked to order in the kitchen (we all end up there anyway, right?). As guests arrive, hosts can sling the blini themselves, or hire a neighborhood troll (or teen) to stand over the griddle for half an hour. Top blini with roe butter (butter blended with inexpensive fish eggs and shallots) and serve with icy shots of dill-flavored aquavit.
For a herring-friendly cheese plate, ask your cheesemonger for an assortment of local cheeses that will happily marry the flavors of rye. You'll want three to five cheeses, and one to two ounces per cheese for each guest. Look for a variety of textures, flavors, ages and milk to include something soft, firm, aged and blue, as well as at least one cheese made with sheep's or goat's milk.
Label cheeses and serve at room temperature. Include accouterments that complement cheeses: pickled mustard seeds, fruit preserves or chutney, dried or fresh seasonal fruit, honeycomb and roasted nuts. Rye breads and crackers round out the cheese plate.
For the spirited side of this gathering, reach for locally made beer and, most important, aquavit. From New Richmond, Wis., 45th Parallel distills three flavors of Gamle Ode aquavit, including a dill that pairs beautifully with rye-dill blini. Add a splash of Gamle Ode Holiday (dill, juniper and caraway balanced with orange peel and allspice) or Celebration (a more traditional blend that includes coriander and star anise) to your meatballs.
For an aquavit with a cardamom-forward flavor reminiscent of limpa (sweet rye bread), try Øvrevann out of Vikre Distilling in Duluth. North Shore Distilling in Chicago produces a Private Reserve aquavit that carries notes of caraway, cumin, coriander and caramel. Whichever aquavits you choose, serve them icy cold.
While many of us associate Sweden with salmon, herring is considered Sweden's national fish. Pickled herring is the star of any Swedish buffet table, and you should serve it at least two ways.
Lake Superior Blue Fin herring is available fresh before the lakes freeze. If you can find it in time for your party, pickle your own herring or coat the fillets in flour seasoned with dry mustard and pan-fry in butter. Don't panic if fresh herring season is over. It is perfectly acceptable, yes, even preferable, to purchase a tub of pickled herring. Serve as is, or doctor the fish with a fresh brine or sour cream dressing.
Patrice Johnson is the 2012 winner of the Taste cookie contest, with her Royal Sweets With Chocolate Balsamic Sauce. She is a freelance writer from Roseville and a Nordic food cooking instructor.