Basics

Basics

By
Simon Bajada
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742708799
Photographer
Simon Bajada

Classic Nordic gastronomy has a long tradition of looking outwards, adopting those well-practised skills from Western Europe. I will revisit these through the recipes in the following chapters, updating them to reflect our ever-changing tastes. I will also explore some of the wonderful newer techniques developed in recent years, many of which are helping make Nordic cooking more accessible at home.

New Nordic cooking aims to achieve a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Sometimes this is simply through the clever use of a quickly pickled garnish to offset a sweeter dish; or it could be via a more complex layering of flavours. To make things even more interesting though, the lines between sweet and savoury are often blurred, with flourishes of each dotted throughout.

Ingredients are typically Northern European, by which I mean that they grow well in a cold climate. In the past ten years there has been a surge in interest in what the chilly, often sparse Nordic habitat can bring to the dining table, and with coastlines and forests ripe for harvesting, foraging is a popular endeavour. I encourage you to look at what is growing around you and all that is local to your environment.

In this section, I will introduce you to some of the principal ideas behind new Nordic cuisine: the equipment you will need and ingredients you’ll come across, and explore how traditional techniques such as pickling, smoking and curing have found a place in contemporary kitchens.

Equipment

As in all cooking, the use of different ingredients gives rise to different preparation methods, which in turn often require a different set of tools.

As well as the methods from the past fifty years or so – those classical French and other Western-European styles with which we are all so familiar – chefs of the new Nordic cuisine have started to look back even further for inspiration. Some cook using heat from hot rocks set into pits dug into the ground, the food wrapped in birch tree bark; others cook in cast-iron pots set over open fires. And there is a restaurant I know where they only use flame and smoke. These ancient techniques, mixed in with the new, are helping to define what new Nordic cuisine is and can be.

The new Nordic home kitchen doesn’t require masses of fancy kit, but there are a few tools that will help produce the best results, and bring authenticity to your cooking.

Cast-iron pans & casseroles

At one time, Sweden produced the best quality coal and as a result of this industry they also perfected the art of cast-iron. Old cookbooks passed down through the generations all call for the use of this sturdy cookware, and for many good reasons. Using a flimsy non-stick pan means the base gets very hot, very quickly which, when making a batch of now-famous Nordic meatballs, for example, can lead to burning and patchy cooking. Castiron gives a well-rounded even temperature, ensuring the meat cooks all the way through with less direct heat. As an added benefit, the cookware acts as a natural iron enrichment, a mineral that many of us lack in our modern-day diets.

Cast-iron is a reliable, long-lasting material that, with a little care, can be used over and over again. Eventually, though, after repeated use, your pan will dry out, and when this happens, or if you happen to score a winning secondhand one, it’s easy to re-season. Pour a thin layer of rapeseed oil into the dry pan then heat to a high temperature, either on the stove or in the oven, depending on whether the handle is heatproof. After about 10–15 minutes, when the oil has stopped smoking, the pan will be black and properly seasoned again, ready for use.

Cast-iron cooking utensils are available in many different shapes for use over fire or on the stove top.

Mandoline

We have all seen flourishing garnishes, waving delicately from atop artful smears on our plates. Sometimes these garnishes are so thin one can’t even tell what they are. The trick to achieving these very thin shards of ‘whatever’ is to use a mandoline. It’s a great tool, allowing you to play around with raw and pickled ingredients to all manner of decorative effects. These types of garnishes almost always adorn new Nordic dishes and they offer up more than just their looks; they also add important texture and acidity, as they are usually pickled. Try shaping these with a knife and chopping board and you’ll find it a very hard task. Throughout the book you will see plenty of examples of garnishes sliced using a mandoline.

Cheese slicer

In 1925, Norwegian inventor Thor Bjørklund introduced us to the Nordic cheese slicer. His design drew influence from the carpenter’s plane, enabling you to shave off very thin slices. It is essential in the everyday eating of open sandwiches. Its uses extend beyond cheese though, making it a great addition to any kitchen. It can also be used like a mandoline to slice vegetables very thinly – just be very careful! If you do acquire one, sooner or later you will know what I mean when I say your cheese wedge looks like a ski jump.

Danish rye bread guillotine

Danish bread can be dense, so dense that a normal bread knife can make hard work of cutting slices. This specialist slicer makes the task easier. A Danish company called Raadvad have been making them since the nineteenth century and they are available online.

Pickling jars & stoneware pots

These were mandatory when preserving food was essential to keep going through the seasons, and they are still used today. Jars need to have a sealed lid for pickles and brines; the pots are for preserving berry jams and compotes.

Notched rolling pin

These famous bread pins, called kruskavel, are from Sweden and they put the dimples in flatbreads that help them cook more evenly. They come in two different depths of textures, depending on what type of bread you are making. Crispbreads use a more pointed dimple version, so the hot air can reach a greater surface area, and the other less-defined type is used for softer flatbreads. If you cannot find a kruskavel you can always use the back of a fork to make your dimples.

Egg slicer

While the rest of the world enjoys a yolk oozing out on to some sourdough, Nordic countries love a hard-boiled egg. This slicer uses a wire frame to cut perfectly even slices and it is essential to the ritual of open sandwiches. The large Swedish furniture retailer sells them cheaply.

Swedish butter knife, smörknivar

These special butter knives are made from open-grained, flexible wood with a slight scent of a fresh spring forest. The finish of the wood is very smooth and you can get them in many different shapes, but the most important design feature is that the blade is wider than the handle.

The thickness of the knife is also important. This allows you to achieve the right flex when scooping up butter with a precise sweeping motion, and to apply sufficient resistance when spreading the butter on bread.

It is said that some families in Sweden even have individual butter knives! And I’ve also read that if you tarnish a knife with anything other than butter it must be thrown away!

Decilitre (DL) to cups converter

Traditionally, Nordic countries use a metric system that differs from grams, millilitres or cups. They use a special measuring device for both wet and dry ingredients. I haven’t used them in this book, but for any future Nordic recipes you come across, 1 decilitre (DL) is equal to 100 ml.

Whole & raw foods

Being spoiled for choice can limit our creativity. I think the harsh Nordic climate, with its restricted range of produce has actively encouraged chefs to think imaginatively and develop new techniques for preparing traditional and familiar ingredients. I will probably say this many times in this book in one way or another, but ‘old ingredients–new ideas’ is a good summation of the mentality of new Nordic cooking.

Familiar techniques are not being disregarded, but perhaps they are being questioned. Nordic chefs feel free to try new things without being held down by a strict heritage of how things are ‘meant to be done’, as one might find in other, classical European cuisines.

The recent and growing popularity of raw food, primarily due to perceived nutritional benefits, is very fitting for Nordic cuisine as it opens the doors to what can be done with backyard produce. And working with the seasons is tied directly to this: the freshest ingredients will give you the best flavours.

Combine this ‘raw’ approach with the Nordic loves of pickling and cooking with fire and coal, and all of a sudden a parsnip can be presented in ten delicious ways.

Chefs are also thinking at either end of the scale – in one dish you might find just a few raw fronds of broccoli acting as a garnish, while in another a whole slow-roasted cauliflower could be your centrepiece. These sorts of ideas are springing up in new Nordic kitchens at a rapid rate. Some may not stand the test of time, but it is the experimentation that is so exciting; the better ones will stick, and the others won’t.

You’ll find lots of unusual ideas in the upcoming chapters, but I’m not going to provide a comprehensive list of them here. Through reading this book and cooking from it, I hope you will learn something of the new Nordic way of thinking, so that you, at home, can develop your own ideas for serving everyday ingredients in different and surprising ways. Come at an ingredient from a different perspective and try something you’ve never thought of before. Perhaps toast a few grains of buckwheat rather than pine nuts to add crunch to a salad, or serve slices of raw mushrooms to add an earthy texture to a dish. Some of your adventures in the kitchen might not work, but some might open up an entirely new way of cooking for you.

Key ingredients

Dairy products are an everyday part of the Nordic diet – there are more than double the varieties of milk products across the region than can be found in most countries. Of particular interest is their range of sour and fermented milks. Due to their limited availability outside Nordic countries, some of the recipes ahead use a mixture of yoghurt and milk to reach a similar density and flavour. Yoghurts, creams, butters and cheeses are all intrinsic to the Nordic diet and you will see them appearing time and again in the recipes in this book.

Flour is not limited to one variety; the list is long. Buckwheat, rye and Graham flour (a form of wholemeal [whole-wheat] flour) and many other wheat flours available in a huge array of textures and densities result in a diverse selection of breads.

With such a large coastline and with many inland waterways, fish and seafood feature highly in Nordic cuisine. The varieties of fish that are found in the region (mainly oily and/or firm-fleshed) lend themselves well to traditional preservation techniques, such as brining, smoking, pickling and curing. Salmon and herring are the most common, but trout and small prawns (or shrimp) are also popular.

Traditional Nordic cooking, like many other Western food cultures, has always relied heavily on the meat component in a dish. This is changing and new Nordic cooking is shifting its focus. Beef and lamb, although quite expensive, are still used though, and pork, which is less expensive due to its intense production, is heavily consumed. Poultry, in comparison to other Western cultures, is rather insignificant. With endless forests, game meats such as venison and elk are popular at home as well as appearing on nearly all restaurant menus.

Since the range of vegetables able to grow this far north is limited, new Nordic chefs – who are keen locavores – have become very creative in their preparation techniques. Cold-climate vegetables that you’ll find used across the region include cabbage, cauliflower, onions, beetroot (or beets) and radish. Swede (or rutabaga) and other native root vegetables are very popular.

The potato is ever-present in Nordic cuisine. This humble hero, eaten, with its thin skin, is a treat in itself, especially when newly harvested around midsummer.

The cucumber is king, providing the perfect crisp balance to a slice of salty, sweet or smoky fish, followed closely by red onion. It is often lightly pickled and used as a garnish.

When it comes to fruit, nowadays like most places, the Nordic countries are well supplied with imports from countries far and wide. But if you’re keeping things close to home, choose berries and rhubarb in the summer, with stone fruits, such as cherries, plums and apricots towards the end of this season. Pears and apples are found in abundance as we head into autumn.

Since olive trees don’t take well to the Nordic landscape, rapeseed oil (or canola oil) is used instead, as well as butter. As well as being a local ingredient, rapeseed oil actually contains less saturated fat than either olive oil or butter.

Fruit and malt vinegars replace the balsamic vinegar or wine vinegars that we are used to in our predominantly classical European cooking styles. In Sweden they often use a very strong vinegar called ättiksprit in their pickling solution. Ättiksprit is an essence of vinegar and can be up to three times stronger in terms of its acidity than other vinegars; it has twelve per cent acidity. As a comparison, common apple and malt vinegars have only five per cent acidity.

Nordic mustard has a very different flavour profile from other mustards. They are much sweeter and always contain sugar. See a classic Nordic mustard recipe (Finnish sweet mustard) and a Mustard dill sauce.

White pepper is preferred to black pepper and sugar somehow manages to find its way into almost all dishes. It is this balance of sweet and savoury that is a key component of new Nordic cooking.

The culture of open sandwiches all across the region has resulted in an abundance of ‘toppings’. Liver paste, cured or smoked fish and meats usually make up the base, on to which fresh vegetables and cheese are piled.

In most supermarkets you will find sweet breads, developed so that they keep well for the purpose of open sandwiches. Dried breads and, of course, rye bread are also very popular.

Food preservation

The Nordic region is no Mediterranean. With vigorous, contrasting seasons and long winter months, methods of food preservation were a necessity in days gone past. Brining, smoking, pickling and curing have left such a mark on the culture that even though they are no longer essential for survival, they are still popular today and are rightly celebrated at the new Nordic table.

Two fundamental themes running throughout all contemporary Nordic cooking are balance – in terms of both flavour and texture – and a reinvention of traditional techniques. Preserving food has both of these in abundance. From the acid-sharp crunch provided by a quickly pickled garnish, to the rich, silky smoked salmon that has come to be loved the world over, these historical skills provide dynamic flavour profiles and wonderful contrasting textures.

There are, of course, entire books written on each of these skills and on the following pages I have given you just a glimpse of what can be achieved. But, hopefully, these will enable you – often very simply – to add a taste of new Nordic to your cooking and encourage you to experiment in the kitchen.

Brining

I’m writing about brining ahead of the more obvious preservation techniques because, although it has taken a bit of a back seat in contemporary cooking, it has a lot of culinary value. The ubiquitously popular cold-smoked salmon is brined before it is smoked, and herring is brined before being pickled. Brining is a key stage in the production of some of the most famous Nordic foods.

Brining works by hydrating the tissue cells and its effects are three-fold: it seasons, tenderises and preserves. Below is a good recipe for brine, suitable for fish and seafood. Not all brines contain sugar, as it only partially penetrates the flesh, but I think it is worth using to balance the saltiness. A recommended brine for red meats and poultry is 250 ml of water to 1 tablespoon salt. (Sugar is less commonly used in brines for meats as it can make the meat watery if pan-frying or grilling, and the sugar can burn easily when cooking at a higher temperature.) Meat will need longer in the brine than fish, but timings will depend entirely on the weight and quality of the meat you use. As a very rough guide, a small cut (such as a chicken breast) will need 30 minutes –1 hour, whereas larger cuts (such as a whole turkey or a piece of pork belly) will need 12–24 hours. For longer brining times, use a non-metallic bowl to avoid tainting the flavour.

Smoking

Today, smoking ingredients is still common practice in Nordic countries and the flavour typifies Nordic cuisine. Smokehouses are dotted all along the coastline and in new Nordic restaurants, you name it, it is smoked!

Typically, you will find smoked salmon, trout, eel, kipper, mackerel, prawns and shrimp. Less commonly, meat is smoked, and when it is, it is usually only venison, pork or chicken.

Smoking is a time-consuming process with a lot of variables and it can require a good deal of trial and error. With some basic knowledge though, a lot of fun can be had messing around with temperatures, duration and ingredients to achieve different results.

It is very common for Nordic summer holiday houses to have an outdoor smoker for the haul of fish or a bounty of game you might bring back after a day out, but in restaurants and the homes of those living in the city there is a vast range of more practical methods to add that wonderful smoky flavour to your food. Rather than cooking the food through entirely (as a conventional smoker often will), these domestic methods simply impart their smoke flavour before the food is properly cooked by other means. The best salmon fillet I have ever eaten was smoked first to impart flavour and then cooked in the oven afterwards. The lingering smoke flavour was delicious yet it had the consistency of a salmon fillet cooked normally.

On the following pages I’ve included those methods most suitable for the home cook. Read on for a guide to timings and how different woods can impart a range of flavours.

If you are going to experiment a little it is best to use a kitchen thermometer to check the internal temperatures of meats, particularly pork and chicken, to avoid running in to nasty incidents with bacteria.

Wood

The general rule is to use a hardwood and avoid wood from evergreens. Usually woodchips are recommended, but you can also use branches. People often get hung up on the type of wood to use and, although it does have some impact on the resulting flavour, it is not the most significant component of well-smoked food. It’s the quality of the meat, fish or vegetables, the seasoning you use, the temperature and the fire control that are going to have the most effect on the taste. Once you have perfected the other elements, then play around with different woody flavours. Here are a few pointers:

Hickory chips

This is the most commonly used wood. It has a pungent, bacon-like flavour and is good for all smoking but be aware that it is quite strong. It works best with vegetables, pork, game and red meat.

Cherry, apple, beech chips or branches

These give a light, slightly sweet flavour that is good for poultry, all fish and seafood, cheeses and game.

Birch branches or chips

Like hickory, birch is quite strong so works best with robust ingredients like red meats, game and poultry.

Juniper branches

These are used in the final stages of smoking, once other woods have done most of the work, to impart a gin-like flavour. It works very well with seafood and vegetables.

Domestic smoking techniques

The techniques outlined here are suitable for small-scale smoking – 300 g up to 2 kg f meat, fish or vegetables. Anything larger should really be attempted in a standard smoker.

Smoking gun

This hand-held device offers an alternative to traditional smoking techniques. Already-cooked vegetables, sauces or raw foods can be flavoured with this tool and then stored in sealable bags or containers. Guides to cooking techniques and times are supplied with the product.

Closed gas barbecue

This uses a standard lidded gas barbecue. Soak 2 handfuls of woodchips in water for 15 minutes. Drain and spread them out in a small disposable aluminium tray. Place the tray on one corner of the grill-rack, directly over the flame bars or lava rocks.

Heat the grill to high for about 15–20 minutes with the lid on. Turn off the middle burners and place the food over them to smoke.

Kettle barbecue

Soak two handfuls of woodchips in water for 15 minutes. Drain, then combine with the coal and pile up on one side of the barbecue. Place a small disposable aluminium tray filled with water on the grill-rack directly above the coals and chips.

Light the coals and let them burn for 15 minutes, or until the internal temperature is at least 120°C. Set the food on the other side of the grill-rack, above the empty space, and close the lid, making sure the ventilation holes in the lid sit directly above the food and that they are fully open.

In the oven

If you are not the outdoor type or you don’t have a garden, you can still experiment with smoking your own food. Using a barbecue is preferable, though, mainly because your house could get full of smoke!

Preheat the oven to 120°C. Soak one large handful of woodchips in water for 15 minutes. Spread them out in a large disposable aluminium tray in a single layer. Position a wire rack directly above the chips (it should be about the same size as the tray). Pour enough water into the tray to form a very shallow film over the bottom.

Place the food on the wire rack. Using the thickest foil you can find, form a tent that peaks well above the food, giving the smoke room to move around inside.

Ensure the foil is sealed around the edges of the tray so the smoke can’t escape. Place on the bottom shelf of the oven and smoke away!

During the smoking process, the water may evaporate and dry out your chips and also your food. For longer timings (which I recommend doing outside if you can) you will need to keep it topped up. This is when your kitchen will fill with smoke. Remove the tray from the oven and, with your outside door open, lift a small edge of the foil to peek in and check. If it looks like it’s drying out, pour some more water into the tray, re-wetting the chips and re-creating the film of water at the bottom. Cover up with foil again and return to the oven.

A guide to smoking times & temperatures

If you are using one of the domestic techniques described above to impart some lovely smoky flavour, I would recommend smoking your meat, fish, seafood and vegetables for 20–40 minutes, and then finish cooking them using conventional methods. Bear in mind that the smoke will have very gently cooked the food, especially delicate fish and seafood and thinly sliced meats, so it may not need cooking for very long afterwards. To concentrate the flavour, you can trap some of the smoke with the food in a well-sealed container and refrigerate for a little while to allow the flavours to develop before cooking.

The guidelines below are for conventional smoking, which cooks the food as well as imparting flavour.

Fish & seafood

Hot-smoked fish

This works well with salmon, trout and other oily fish, such as mackerel and tuna.

Temperature: 65°C

Length: 6 hours for a large fillet

Cold-smoked salmon, swordfish, tuna, ocean trout

Temperature: Air temperature no higher than 33°C to avoid actually cooking the flesh. Since the temperature is so low, it isn’t really possible to cold-smoke salmon at home.

Length: 12–16 hours

Prawns

The following technique is for tiger prawns or similar. Small prawns will need half the time. Before smoking prawns, salt them and let them sit for 30 minutes, then rinse them well. Place in the smoker for 10 minutes then turn them over. They will be ready when they are completely opaque all over. This should not take longer than 15–20 minutes. Eat them immediately or chill them.

Cheese

The key to smoking cheese is to keep the temperature low, around 30°C.

With this in mind, smoking outside in colder weather is ideal. Any cheese is suitable. Cut it into 10 cm x 10 cm x 1 cm pieces and smoke it for 3 hours. Adjust this time for the next occasion according to your personal taste. To store the cheese, wrap each piece in plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator. Ideally, you want to wait a week or two to allow the flavours to develop.

Meat

Beef or venison

For a 2 kg brisket

Temperature: 110°C

Length: 6–7 hours

Chicken

For a whole chicken

Temperature: 120°C

Length: 4 hours

For 1 kg boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Temperature: 120°C

Length: 1½–2 hours. Use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the chicken reaches at least 70°C to be safe.

Vegetables

Roasted vegetables can benefit from a little smoke flavour but it’s best to use a smoking gun to impart flavour once they are cooked rather than cook them in a smoker.

Using smoke to cook vegetables is most effective on permeable vegetables, like halved onions, tomatoes and cabbage wedges. It is possible to smoke potatoes or beetroot, but it is very time consuming and not really worth the effort.

Pickling

The process of pickling in vinegar is an age-old technique traditionally used to preserve vegetables and fish. Today, we are attracted more to the flavour and texture that pickling brings to dishes than its practical uses in storing food. Still, we should not discount its original benefits. If you’re at a farmers’ market and there’s a particularly glorious vegetable in abundance, buy it in bulk and pickle it. Later in the year you can enjoy travelling back in time via your taste buds.

Nordic folk are by no means opposed to some sweetness in their food, and the acidity from the vinegar in pickles plays an important role in balancing those flavours. The dishes in this book are often garnished with a vegetable that has been lightly pickled for this purpose. They also add a satisfying crunch and are very attractive to the eye.

Some pickling tips

Avoid using metallic or reactive materials when pickling as they can affect the flavour. Use ceramic or glass.

Non-iodised salt helps prevent the pickling solution from becoming cloudy.

The best vegetables for pickling are those that have a low starch content. Vegetables with higher levels need longer in pickling brine – at least a week. Cauliflower, carrots, beetroot and cabbage all pickle well and will keep in a lidded jar in the refrigerator for up to a month.

How thinly you slice your vegetables will determine how long they need in the pickling solution. Don't leave them for too long; the ideal is a sharp, fresh crunchy vegetable that rounds off a dish and balances any sweeter flavours.

Vegetables with a high water content break down quickly if sliced thinly, so they only require brief pickling.

Traditionally, recipes may call for pre-boiling or curing and then rinsing vegetables before pickling, but if you slice them thinly enough you won't need to.

Try to use organic or farm fresh produce and always give it a thorough rinse.

Pickling fish is a classic technique in Nordic cooking and for those willing to endure the process it is very rewarding. Pre-cured fillets of small oily fish, such as sardines, mackerel and herring respond the most effectively. The fish will need to be soaked in water for 24 hours, rinsing occasionally, to remove the salt, then they should be pickled for at least 24 hours. The sweeter, light pickling solution is best for this. Pickling raw, or unsalted fish is a much lengthier process, taking at least 5 days.

Vinegars

The vinegars that best complement Nordic cuisine are malt, apple and basic white. It is unusual to see vinegars from other parts of Europe being used, such as balsamic and wine vinegars. A good pickling solution using a regular vinegar would be 1 part water to 1 part vinegar.

Spices

Almost any combination of spices can be used to flavour your pickling solution but I find the best use common Nordic ingredients. Be careful with cloves and allspice berries though, as they can be overpowering. Some of my favourites are:

Allspice berries

Bay leaves

Celery seeds

Cloves

Dill seeds

Fennel seeds

Juniper berries

Mustard seeds

Star anise

Curing

Curing uses the process of osmosis, in which a mixture of sugar and salt work together to very lightly ‘cook’ the food. The flavour is uniquely sweet and salty. In new Nordic cooking it is most commonly used for seafood, particularly salmon, but you can also cure vegetables that have strong flavours, such as onion. Unlike in southern European countries, cured meats are not very common in Nordic regions.

You can combine any spice you like with the salt and sugar to impart specific flavours into the fish, vegetables and meats.

Gravlax is probably the most famous Nordic example of curing. Grav means grave and lax means salmon because, traditionally, fishermen buried whole fish in the sand, and left it to lightly ferment. It was a great way to preserve excess stock for the future when the catch may not be so abundant. Nowadays, salmon is cured in a more conventional manner, but the name has stuck. In my recipe, I use juniper berries and mustard seeds, which give the salmon a nice gin-like flavour.

Recipes in this Chapter

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again