Monday, March 26, 2012

Week Twelve: A Journey to Norway

I began this week’s culinary exploration of Norway with only one thought:  salmon.  Otherwise, I opened my mind to new experiences and flavors for an interesting journey.  As with many cultures, the key components of Norwegian cuisine directly relate to the geographic terrain of the country.  Norway’s coastline stretches over 15,000 miles, not including the coastlines of its 50,000 islands located off the rugged mainland coast.  These coastlines resulted in a strong presence of salmon and cod in Norwegian cuisine.  The cold weather also led Norwegians to creative solutions for maintaining their large harvests of fish, which explains their affections for fish that has been smoked, cured, pickled, fermented, and even lyed as with the infamous lutefisk.  In addition to its vast coastline, Norway’s terrain includes the Scandinavian Mountains.  Because of its mountainous landscape, Norway is a popular area for mushroom foraging, primarily chanterelle mushrooms.   In the Northern regions, game hunting is a popular sport, which is why moose, wild reindeer, deer, grouse, and hares are commonly found in the everyday cuisine of that area.  In addition to fish and wild game, Norwegian diets commonly include lamb, pork, and mutton.  Meatcakes and mutton stew represent the most popular and notable dishes of farmed meats.  Milk plays an important role in the cuisine, and early Norwegians approached it in the same manner as fish by converting fresh milk to butter, buttermilk, and cheeses for longer storage times.  Famous Norwegian cheeses include Jarlsberg (similar to Swiss cheese) and gjetost (a soft brown cheese made of milk, cream, and whey).  The cold weather dictates that most vegetables come from the ground, and the berries, though not abundant, are prized for their piqued sweetness. 

Beyond everyday cuisine, Norwegians treat Christmas as a food holiday.  On the coast, fresh cod, halibut, and lutefisk are served on Christmas Eve; while on the mainland, Norwegians enjoy pork ribs and sausages.  On the West Coast, dried mutton ribs are a Christmas specialty.  In addition to Christmas meals, the tradition of families making seven kinds of Christmas cookies endures.  The traditional cookie spread includes gingersnaps, butter cookies, cookies in cone shapes, and cardamom-spiced cookies. 

With so many options, I planned menus to celebrate the cuisines of the coastlines, the mountains, and the holidays.

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Torsk (Cod) with Egg Sauce & Braised Leeks
After reading that cod is the most consumed fish in Norway, I planned to make it for a weeknight dinner.  As I read through Norwegian blogs and websites, I found several mentions of the dish Torsk Med Eggsaus as a favorite.  The dish includes poached cod with an egg sauce made from butter, hard-boiled egg, tomato, parsley, and chives.  Right away, I was intrigued by the sauce.  When I read “egg sauce” in the title, I thought it would be a hollandaise, and I was shocked to read that it included hard-boiled egg.  I served braised leeks with lemon as a side dish in order to balance the richness of the sauce.  We enjoyed this meal.  (The egg sauce was beyond rich!)  I felt like it gave me a taste of Norwegian cuisine, but it didn’t wow me to the point of wanting more.

Friday Night “Snack Supper”:  Gravlax with Mustard Sauce
When I saw Norway on my calendar for this week, I knew that homemade gravlax would be in my future.  On Wednesday, I bought a beautiful piece of wild-caught sockeye salmon and piled it high with a mixture of sugar, salt, dill, lemon zest, bay leaves, and black pepper.  It cured in the refrigerator for 48 hours, and the resulting gravlax tasted amazing.  The real key to this dish is slicing it as thinly as possible.  If the slices are thick, the texture is chewy and gummy.  I made a mustard dill sauce with Colman’s mustard, mayonnaise, dill, salt, and pepper to serve with the gravlax.   Then, we turned on March Madness basketball and sat down on the couch for a snack supper buffet of gravlax, mustard dill sauce, and thinly sliced whole grain bread.  A pretty nice Friday night!

As a side note, I planned for us to enjoy Aquavit martinis with our little spread, but after tasting Aquavit, I decided that I would leave it to the Scandinavians for their martinis.  Not a flavor I enjoyed!  I’ll stick with my Grey Goose.

Saturday Afternoon Snack: Gjetost, a.k.a Norwegian Fudge Cheese
I discovered a new love:  gjetost!  Imagine a slab of gooey, creamy caramel that tastes a little like cheese.  That’s the best way I can describe it...more like caramel than cheese.  I could only eat a few slivers, because it is one of the richest cheeses I’ve ever tasted.  I highly recommend a trip to Whole Foods to buy a block of this.  It’s worth the extra effort to try out!

Saturday Night Dinner: Juniper-Spiced Venison, Mashed Rutabaga, and Sautéed Mushrooms
Over the holidays, I received a random text from my husband stating “Rick just gave me venison steaks from his brother.  I told him you would be excited.”  He was so right about that.  I’ve been saving them for the perfect occasion, and after reading about the popularity of wild game in Norwegian cuisine, I knew the time had arrived!  Norwegian recipes for wild game generally include rich sauces and strong spices, such as juniper berries, to balance the distinct flavors of game.  I confidently selected Andreas Viestad’s recipe for Juniper-Spiced Venison with Brown Goat Cheese Sauce as a vehicle to discover these Norwegian flavors.  In addition to sounding delicious, it included gjetost and aquavit in the sauce, which I had been planning to buy for this project anyway.  The venision steaks I had were thinly sliced, so I cooked my steaks for a much shorter time period than directed in the recipe.  Otherwise, I followed it precisely.  I served the venison with mashed rutabaga and sautéed mushrooms as they are common side dishes in Norwegian fare.  Unfortunately, I did not have the traditional chanterelle mushrooms available, so I used crimini mushrooms.  Of course, I also included lingonberry preserves on the plate as an accompaniment to the venison steaks.  That’s a “must have” in Norwegian cuisine.

We loved this meal.  The flavors of the juniper spice rub, the creamy sauce, and lingonberry preserves perfectly complemented the venison.  The only thing I will change when I make it in the future is to add less Aquavit to the sauce, because that step thinned out the sauce more than I preferred. 

Sunday Afternoon Snack:  Pepperkaker

After reading about Norway’s Christmas Cookie obsession, I knew I had to make at least one Norwegian Christmas Cookie recipe for the project.  I selected Pepperkaker because of its interesting spice combination, including cardamom which is commonly used Norwegian desserts.  I also thought the inclusion of fresh ground black pepper would be interesting in the flavor profile.  I’ve made ginger cookies with black pepper in them previously, and while it may sound odd, it adds a bit of heat to the cookie that is addictive.

The recipe is a simple butter cookie recipe with minimal sugar included.  (Most Norwegian desserts include only small amounts of sugar because it was so expensive for Norway to import before modern times.)  The recipe also includes cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper.  As I pulled the first baking sheet out of the oven, the aroma surprised me.  They smelled amazing, but there was something peculiar and familiar that I couldn’t quite figure out.  I tasted one and liked it.  At first, the flavor was all butter cookie.  Then, there was a recognizable aftertaste…similar to the aroma….what was it?  AHA!  Biscuits and gravy….no joke!  These cookies taste like biscuits and gravy.  Most of the cookie is flour and butter with a strong freshly ground pepper presence, which is essentially biscuits and gravy:  flour, fat, and pepper.  I still liked the cookies, and I even had them with coffee on Monday morning, but I can’t escape the biscuits and gravy reference.  Definitely odd for a cookie!

My Norwegian journey turned out to be much more exciting than I originally expected.  I will repeat the venison spiced with juniper and cheese sauce.  Gjetost will be served on future cheese platters for guests (and me), and I will make gravlax for a party.  As for the “biscuits and gravy” cookies, I probably won’t include them in Christmas cookie and candy making plans this year, but I will certainly remember them fondly!

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