It’s Saturday in the kitchen, and I am surrounded by the raw ingredients that make up the food of my people: potatoes, cream, salmon, pork and dill. Yes, lots of dill.
These familiar foods, which look so commonplace on my counter, can be found on the dinner plates of many cultures.
But today, as I cook from the encyclopedic “The Nordic Cookbook” (Phaidon, 768 pages, $49.95), by Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, I’m feeling Scandinavian from head to toe — not so incidentally, because I am, with family genealogy dating to the 15th century.
This book might well be called “The History of Nordic Cooking,” or even “The World of Nordic Cooking,” for all its historical reference and thorough research.
Instead, the book’s simple title for a not-so-simple subject reflects the heart of its content. This is a collection of recipes that illustrate the cooking that appears in homes throughout a region that encompasses 1.3 million square miles and seven countries.
Nilsson visits our land of nearly 600,000 Swedes — that would be Minnesota — this week to talk about all things Nordic, including his book, at the American Swedish Institute, where an exhibit of his photographs, taken for the cookbook research, will be on display through Aug. 14.
His spin on modern Nordic food, with its focus on seasonal fare from the land and waters near his home, has captured the food world’s attention during his tenure as chef of the 16-seat Fäviken Magasinet in western Sweden. In the classic Nordic manner, much of the food is gathered during the short growing season and preserved for culinary use during colder months.
If you want to cook in the manner of Nilsson, you can find recipes from the restaurant in his first book, “Fäviken.”
But this second volume, on home cooking, is entirely different. Here he documents what ordinary cooks serve at mealtime.
Think of “The Nordic Cookbook” as a kind of “Joy of Cooking,” with a Scandinavian twist. Like Irma Rombauer’s reference book, which has been a culinary source for generations of American cooks, Nilsson’s volume covers more information, recipes and serendipity than you’ll ever consume in one sitting, much less a dozen.
It’s all written in a conversational tone that makes you feel as if he’s at your side, guiding you step by step, while casually dropping culinary tidbits: The taco in Sweden refers to a kind of meat pie — beef or moose — made with taco seasonings and cooked in a crust. The Flying Jacob is a creamed chicken and banana casserole that includes Heinz chili sauce, salted peanuts and packaged Italian salad dressing; it first appeared in a magazine in 1976, and was named for its creator, Ove Jacobsson, who worked in air freight.
When Nilsson was approached about writing such a comprehensive volume, he hesitated. His interest lay in writing a Swedish book of cookery, since that was his experience. But the publisher wanted more. If Nilsson didn’t write the book himself, he assumed someone else would, without the breadth, depth and context that he could offer. He would do it himself.
Looking for the best
Nilsson’s approach would be to document and curate recipes — not to present what he liked or would prefer to see at home or at his restaurant, but what Nordic cooks were preparing today. He would include the cultural perspective that was lacking elsewhere.
He started his research by ordering all the used Nordic cookbooks on Amazon — about 400 that he didn’t have. (If you’re an author with a Nordic volume to your name, he has a copy of your book.)
What he found missing in most of them was any sense of how or why those dishes were part of the home cook’s repertoire. One exception was “Cooking of Scandinavia,” part of the 1968 Time-Life series of world cooking, a volume that he refers to as a masterpiece, accurate and useful nearly 50 years later.
He also wanted to hear from the home cooks themselves. In a grand crowdsourcing effort, he gave them a voice through a web-based poll where they could indicate what recipes they considered important, and send him their favorites.
And they did. The recipes poured in, some unfamiliar and others predictable, such as pickled herring, which he noted ruefully was not helpful since he had his own good version.
“It was very interesting to see what people think and what they do, and how revealing it is,” said Nilsson about the poll. “People’s ways of looking at themselves and how they consume foods and food culture don’t correspond much with the actual reality.”
After finding experts in each country to vet his research, Nilsson hit the road, crashing on couches and finding himself in all sorts of everyday food-related scenarios that, for the rest of us, aren’t so everyday, including gathering sea bird eggs from the cliffs of the Faroe Islands.
By the time he was done collecting information — actually when his publisher said he was done, as there was no end in sight — he had assembled 11,000 pieces of paper, filled with notes and recipes. From these he picked the best and tested them at home.
Nilsson’s book includes older traditional recipes: seven meatball variations, 38 with herring, six for split pea soup, among them. But he also notes the unexpected that reflect the changing dynamics of the dinner table. Consider the prevalence of Nordic pizza, which Nilsson points out is really flatbread with cheese, served with a side of cabbage salad and a sauce in which to dip the slice.
Practical advice for cooks
The book includes 700-plus recipes, some of which serve simply as a way to document cultural traditions, which include hunting practices in Greenland and the Faroe Islands that were once critical for survival.
He does offer one unexpected comment. The Swedish recipe for Seared Baltic Herrings comes with a caution. “I would never ever try to cook this dish in my kitchen at home, as it will make it smell like burnt herring fat to the ends of time.” Stick to the outdoors for that one.
Nilsson’s practical advice to cooks is specifically directed toward the use of his book. But it could pertain to any.
Use common sense when preparing these recipes, he says, a phrase that bears repeating in all cooking. If something isn’t working quite as you expect, fix it along the way.
Simply because a recipe he tested in Sweden worked well for him there doesn’t mean it will work exactly as stated in your kitchen, even though he had testers around the globe problem solving to anticipate this. Different locales have varying kinds of ingredients, such as flour, as well as weather, all of which affect a dish.
Nilsson also suggests that for the best results, cooks should use measurements in grams and milliliters instead of the American style of cups and tablespoons. (Both are included.) Ditto with cooking time; all stoves and ovens are different, and so are the cooks who interpret “low,” “medium” and “high.”
“Recipes are there to give you a base to start from, inspiration if you will, and also to explain the technical base on which you can build,” he writes in the introduction.
That’s what Nilsson provides, and so much more.
Creamed Potatoes With Dill
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: These are a Swedish specialty, particularly good in the summer with new potatoes still in their skins. Adapted slightly from “The Nordic Cookbook,” by Magnus Nilsson.
• 1 3/4 lb. potatoes, skins on or off (about 16 small to medium new potatoes)
• 3 1/2 tbsp. butter
• 3 tbsp. flour
• 1 c. milk
• 1 c. cream
• White pepper
• Freshly grated nutmeg, optional
• 1 good bunch dill, fronds picked and stalks finely chopped
• Salt and white pepper, to taste
To prepare the potatoes: Put the potatoes in a large pan. Cover them with water, add salt and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently until potatoes are tender. Do not overcook; they should be tender, but still have texture. Drain potatoes, then return to the pan. Place a sheet of paper towel on top of potatoes, put the lid back on and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Cool potatoes and cut into uniform pieces.
To prepare béchamel sauce: Melt the butter in small pot over medium heat. Remove pot from heat and whisk in flour. Return pot to medium heat, gradually whisk in all the milk and cream, making sure the sauce is smooth between each addition. Season with salt.
Lower heat, cover pot and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and not run off. Season with more salt if necessary, then add pepper and nutmeg, if using. If the sauce is too thick, add a little more milk. If it is too runny, simmer for a bit longer.
To finish the dish: Add the potatoes to the sauce. Stir carefully from time to time, while heating the mixture over a low heat. Make sure the sauce doesn’t burn, but also take care not to break up the potatoes too much.
Once the potatoes are hot enough, and just before serving, add the dill and season well with salt and quite a bit of white pepper.
Tester’s notes: We used red new potatoes, with the skins, and cut them into a 1/2-inch dice. This dish is reminiscent of a warm potato salad.
Nutrition information per each 6 servings:
Calories 245 Fat 12 g Sodium 420 mg Saturated fat 7 g
Carbohydrates 31 g Total sugars 5 g
Protein 5 g Cholesterol 35 mg Dietary fiber 3 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 starch, 2½ fat.
Norwegian Thick Salt-Pork Pancakes
Makes 4 to 6.
Note: This popular Norwegian pancake is often served with finely snipped chives and grated cheese. Adapted slightly from “The Nordic Cookbook,” by Magnus Nilsson.
• 3/4 c. plus 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
• 5 eggs
• Good pinch salt
• 2 c. milk, divided
• Butter, for frying
• 11 to 12 oz. salt pork or bacon, sliced or cut into sticks
Combine flour, eggs, salt and 1 cup milk in a mixing bowl, and whisk until no lumps remain. Add the remaining 1 cup milk, whisking continuously.
Heat a little butter in a frying pan or skillet and add 1/4 or 1/6 of the pork or bacon (depending on how many you are making). Fry until it starts to brown a little. Ladle in 1/4 to 1/6 of batter. Fry pancake until underside is golden, then turn and fry on other side. Keep warm while you fry the remaining pancakes with additional butter and pork or bacon, and serve with your choice of accompaniments.
Tester’s notes: These are big pancakes, made from a thin batter that will expand to take up the entire pan, so these pancakes can only be made one at a time. Make sure the pancake is very firm before you flip it because it easily can break. We used a 10-inch skillet. How thick these pancakes end up, and the resulting cooking time, will depend on the size of the skillet you use and the amount of batter. Nilsson prefers to use cake flour rather than all-purpose. These taste more similar to the crêpe-like Swedish pancake than the traditional pancake found at a diner.
Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:
Calories 570 Fat 51 g Sodium 910 mg Saturated fat 19 g
Carbohydrates 16 g Total sugars 3 g
Protein 10 g Cholesterol 210 mg Dietary fiber 1 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 medium-fat protein, 9 fat.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: While this is eaten throughout the Nordic countries, it is in Finland where the dish is most common and cherished. If you don’t have something to grind the allspice or peppercorns, place them on a cutting board and, with a sturdy knife, press hard on them until crushed. From “The Nordic Cookbook,” by Magnus Nilsson.
• 8 firm medium potatoes, cut into 1/4-in. slices or 3/4 in. cubes
• 2 carrots, cut into 1/4 in. slices
• 2 onions, cut into wedges
• 2 bay leaves
• 10 allspice berries or black peppercorns, ground (see Note)
• 1 1/4 c. cream
• Salt to taste
• About 1 lb. salmon fillet, cut into 1-in. cubes
• 1 bunch dill, fronds picked and stalks finely cut, for sprinkling.
Put the potatoes, carrots, onions, bay leaves and allspice into a large pot, and add enough water to cover them completely. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cream and salt to taste.
Continue simmering until potatoes are almost done, then add the salmon to the pot. Taste and adjust the seasoning one last time, then remove the pot from the heat and leave the salmon to sit in the hot liquid for a few minutes until just done. You mustn’t stir the soup any more after adding the salmon.
Remove the bay leaves. Sprinkle the dill over the soup just before serving.
Tester’s notes: We used Yukon Gold potatoes, which hold their shape nicely, and about 8 cups water to simmer them in.
Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:
Calories 350 Fat 12 g Sodium 640 mg Saturated fat 5 g
Carbohydrates 41 g Total sugars 6 g
Protein 22 g Cholesterol 62 mg Dietary fiber 6 g
Exchanges per serving: 3 starch, 2 lean protein, 1 ½ fat.
Danish Boiled Meatballs in Curry Cream Sauce
Makes 24 (2-inch) meatballs.
Note: This is classic Danish comfort food, usually served with white rice. The curry sauce is common throughout the Nordic countries and served with everything from chicken or beef to eggs from sea birds. It’s really only a cream sauce flavored with a very mild yellow curry powder from the supermarket. Adapted slightly from “The Nordic Cookbook,” by Magnus Nilsson.
• 1 lb. minced ground pork or veal
• 1 onion, grated, or finely chopped
• 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour, divided
• 1/3 c. milk plus 3/4 c. milk divided
• 1 egg
• Salt and white pepper to taste
• 1 3/4 tbsp. butter
• 2 tbsp. curry powder
• 3/4 c. cream
To make the meatballs: In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the meat, onion, 3 tablespoons flour, 1/3 cup milk, egg, and salt and pepper to taste. You need to add quite a bit of salt from the start to facilitate this [we used 1/2 teaspoon]. Mix this together until dense and well combined.
Bring pot of water to boil and start shaping the meat into suitably sized meatballs dropping them into the water one by one as you finish shaping them. Simmer the meatballs until done [about 10 minutes for a 2-inch meatball; check with a thermometer to make sure it’s 160 degrees]. Lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon and place them on a serving plate.
To make the curry cream sauce: Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Add the curry powder and stir for a minute to warm through. Add 1 tablespoon flour and stir for a few minutes. Add cream, whisking so that no lumps form. Whisk in 3/4 cup milk, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer until it reaches the consistency you want. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To complete: Pour the hot sauce over the hot meatballs just before serving them.
Tester’s notes: We made these meatballs from pork and they were incredibly tender, with a simple curry sauce that we will definitely be using for other protein.
Nutrition information per each of 6 servings (without rice):
Calories 290 Fat 20 g Sodium 120 mg Saturated fat 9 g
Carbohydrates 10 g Total sugars 5 g
Protein 19 g Cholesterol 105 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: ½ carb, 3 medium-fat protein, 1 fat.