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Friday, March 22, 2013

Norway, ho!

I wrote a couple of posts ago that I have two different cooking groups (remember, it was here, about Bulgarian night, and I included the recipe for that delicious rose water and pistachio pound cake.

That was group A (hosts choose theme and provide the beverages, guests bring the food). This week it was group B’s turn. In that group (which we fondly and hilariously call Dinners of the World, Unite! or DOTWU!), we have all the countries in the world on little slips of paper in a bowl. Each member gets to pick three (there was panic at the idea of picking one and being stuck with someplace like the Marshall Islands) and then makes a dinner for the group featuring the cuisine of that land.

We’ve had some amazing meals from Sri Lanka, Belgium, Spain, Djibouti, Albania, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Italy and the Bahamas. And then there was Norway.

I’ve always believed that the traditional food of any country has something to offer. No matter how perverse a cuisine has become (Olive Garden Fried Lasagna, anyone?), if you go back to its roots, you’ll usually find fresh vegetables, interesting cooking methods, tasty spices and herbs.

The Norwegian flag
At least I used to think that, until I picked Norway. In Norway, the winters are long. Like 10 months of the year long. There’s not much of a growing season, so there aren’t a whole lot of fresh vegetables or fruits. Or herbs. Most traditional dishes feature dill and parsley, salt and pepper. And maybe cardamom. There are loads of sheep, so traditionally the Norwegians ate mutton. And fish. Lots of fish. But the things they learned to do with fish, well, they should be illegal. Fish pudding. Fish balls. Lutefisk, which is made from whitefish (usually cod) that is dried, then soaked in lye until it reaches a gelatinous texture. I don’t know about you, but “gelatinous” is one of those words I don’t like applied to anything I’m about to eat. Lutefisk, according to one source, “has an extremely strong, pungent odor.” In other words, it stinks. 

Nordic Delicacies in Brooklyn
Fish balls in a can
Because in New York City, unlike Norway, you can find any food at any time of year, I was able to locate a Norwegian deli, out in Bay Ridge, which used to be a Scandinavian neighborhood. The Norwegian woman there was very helpful—and very surprised that someone was making an entire meal from Norwegian food who wasn't Norwegian (and hadn't lost a bet). I bought some herring, fish pudding, lingonberry juice, lingonberry preserves, dried cod roe in a tube like salty toothpaste, Norwegian sausage (tastes like kielbasa with most of the flavor removed), canned fish balls (what did they do with the rest of the fish? badabing!), and Norwegian cheeses, which were, uniformly, awful. One of them, the goat cheese, called Gjetost, had the color of peanut butter, the texture of softened plastic, and the taste of…I don’t know what, but it wasn’t cheese. In the spirit of adventure, I asked her if they sold lutefisk.

“Only at the holidays,” she said, with a lovely Norwegian accent.
Cod roe in a tube

Then she looked at me with surprise. “Have you tried lutefisk?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, with understanding.  “It’s disgusting.”

This from a woman who makes money selling it!

The camel-colored cheese
I left the store with a big bag of Norwegian provisions and headed to Sockerbit, a Scandinavian candy store in the Village. Sockerbit, with means “sugar cube,” is a pretty little shop with an Marrimeko-meets-Ikea-meets-spaceship sort of look. Apparently in Scandinavia, there is a tradition of “lördagsgodis," meaning Saturday sweets. Every Saturday, the kiddies get to buy their favorite little candies as a weekend treat. The store has one long wall crammed with dozens of bins of colorful candies from all around Scandinavia. While my selection wasn’t strictly Norwegian (there were bits of Sweden and Denmark and Finland thrown in), it was colorful and yummy. The shop also has a few housewares and there was a display of Easter goodies. And this song was playing while I was shopping, which I love because it makes me smile (they're Swedish).

Pretty Sockerbit

And then the cooking began. I made fårikål (sheep in cabbage, yes, that’s about it for the recipe), a dried pea puree, kjottkaker (meat cookies—basically flattened meatballs in a slimy brown sauce), cucumber salad, and potato salad (boiled potatoes with vinegar, dill, and parsley—such a boring potato salad!). And, for dessert, a frystekke, or almond tart, which wasn’t bad. Especially when served alongside all those pretty candies from Sockerbit. By far, the best thing I made was gravlaks. And also the wolf paw cocktails: lingonberry juice mixed with vodka and seltzer.

If you’re thinking of going Norwegian, think again. But do try the gravlaks. It couldn’t be easier, and your guests will be very impressed. And it’s definitely better than the lutefisk.

BTW, my next pick is…Marshall Islands.

Adapted from Julia Child (was she part Norwegian?).
Note that you have to start the curing process about five days before you plan to serve.
2 1/2-3 lbs salmon fillets, skin on, all bones removed (ask for sushi grade and make sure all the tiny pinbones are removed—run your fingers along the fillet and if you feel any remaining, removing them with a tweezer)
1 1/2 TB kosher salt
2 1/4 tsp brown sugar
4 TB cognac (I used Aquavit, to be more Norwegian)
1 cup dill sprigs, packed
  1. Day one: Trim the salmon and get rid of any thin or uneven edges.
  2. Cut the fillet in half crosswise so you have two pieces of roughly the same size.
  3. Put one piece skin side down in a glass (or other non-reactive) baking dish (I used a Pyrex dish).
  4. Mix the salt and sugar together and sprinkle half of the mixture over each fillet and rub it in. Drizzle each with half the cognac/Aquavit and rub it in.
  5. Spread the dill over the salmon half in the dish and lay the other half on top, skin side up (like you’re making a dill sandwich). Line them up as much as you can.
  6. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place a board or plate on top of the fillets, making sure it’s resting on the fish, not the pan. Weight the top with something heavy (I used a big can of tomatoes) and put it in the fridge.
  7. Day two: Turn the fillets over, baste with the liquid that’s accumulated, replace the wrap and weights and put it back in the fridge.
  8. Day three: Turn and baste again. Slice of a little piece to taste. If it doesn’t taste like much (other than regular salmon), add a little more salt and cognac and put it back in the fridge.
  9. Day four: Turn and baste again.
  10. Day five: Ready to serve. Clean away the dill and wipe the fish dry. Use a long, thin, sharp knife and slice as thinly as possible. The goal is paper-thin slices. I did not achieve this goal, in fact, I didn’t come close. It was still delicious.

Traditional accompaniments: rye bread or crispbread, sweet dill mustard sauce, capers, and finely chopped onions. I served it as part of an appetizer koldtbord, the Norwegian name for a smorgasbord, with the herrings, sausage, fish balls, cheeses, and the cod roe in a tube rolled up with cream cheese and dill on a soft tunnbröd, or thin bread (that was actually pretty good, and super salty). Gravlax can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week and in the freezer for up to a month.


  1. You were valiant...and your gravlax were divine.

    1. Thanks Mon. A for effort. Marshall Islands will be so much better. All that spam...