Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Week #27 Swedish

If you're looking for Scandinavian food in Los Angeles, good luck with that. Actually, we did find some, but you just don't "go out for Swedish" here like you can for Italian or Chinese, or even Ethiopian.

So dusting off the cookbooks was in order, in my case, Culinaria's collection of European specialties. Since Sweden is the land that gave us the smörgåsbord, I decided to make some dishes you'd typically find on one, or at least on an authentic one. None of this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spread on a long table like you tend to find in American feeding trough-style restaurants.

Ikea has a market of prepared Swedish foods, so we forged past all the amusingly named furniture to buy pickled herring, gherkins, cloudberry jam, crisp bread, cheese and a few other things to boost the authenticity level of our home-cooked meal. While we were there, Himself and I ate dinner in the restaurant. The Burbank Ikea is probably best known from those guerrilla movies that keep popping up on You Tube, so I wanted to be as discreet as possible about taking pix, just in case they thought we were some of Those People, and asked us to leave. (What would that say about you, being kicked out of Ikea, I wonder?)
Busted, heh heh! These are the very same meatballs, mashed potatoes, gravy and lingonberries you'll find in the photo on the Wikipedia page on Swedish cuisine! And all are available in the food market at Ikea, as well as in their cafeteria.

Yeah, Swedish meatballs are pretty clichéd, but you know what? This plate of food was quite satisfying. And I appreciate discovering that I actually like Swedish meatballs. I'd been under the impression that I didn't, because I'd been grossed out over the years by too many of those nasty things coated with a sickly sweet goo made of grape jelly or Odin-knows-what. Swedish meatballs are basically just smallish beef meatballs that are plainly seasoned and served with gravy. That's all there is to it. The potatoes contained bits of peel, which is always a good thing. The lingonberry jam reminded me a bit of cranberry jam, but it was sweeter and not quite so astringent. It was good, but I think I'll stick with my cranberries.

Anyway, back to the home cooking: Himself and I decided to put together a small smörgåsbord for ourselves:
"Sun's Eye": Himself said that if he didn't like this, he was going to rename it "Sauron's Eye." Fortunately, he liked it!

 Okay, so this is one of the coolest looking things I've ever made: Solöga, "Sun's Eye." As the name suggests, you create an "eye" on a plate, one per person. There are no precise measurements--just use as much as you want. Himself and I shared this one, along with several other dishes in our mini-smörgåsbord.

To construct it, chop anchovy fillets and arrange them in a round in the middle of a plate. In concentric circles, build out rings of chopped onion (I rinsed the onion well before plating to remove its harsh edge), finely chopped fresh parsley, finely chopped pickled red beet and tiny cubes of boiled potato (I used waxy potatoes, which hold their shape better when cubed). Place a raw egg yolk (a very fresh one, please) in the center, atop the anchovies. Chill the dish before serving. (Here's the disclaimer: Don't serve raw egg to the very young, the very old, the pregnant or the immune system-compromised. If you're unsure whether you should trust eating raw eggs, look for those that have been irradiated.) I added a grinding of black pepper but no salt--the anchovies provided enough for the entire dish. This combination may seem pretty weird, but the dish was really, seriously good! We all but licked the plate clean and agreed that we'll definitely be having this again. Next time I want to trek to the fish market in downtown LA to get fresh anchovies. I'm sure they'll make my Solöga even more authentic.
Alongside the Solöga we had a salad of pickled red beets, apples and gherkins with some sour cream and grated horseradish root mixed in. When the meal is heavy on seafood, it's nice to have tart foods to mitigate the fishiness.
Räksallad, along with pickled herring, cheese, rye bread & knäckebröd
The Räksallad or "shrimp salad" is actually a dish of cooked shrimp served cold with a dip that's heavy on sour cream, fresh dill and lemon juice. Once again, the tart helps rein in any excessive seafoodiness. Hm, is that a word?
A great snack: knäckebröd with cloudberry jam and an aquavit-laced cheese
Cloudberries look rather like large golden-orange raspberries, and they have incredibly large seeds. Still, they make a good jam and are worth all the tooth-picking that ensues. Morfars Brännvinsost is an aquavit-laced, semi-firm, aged cow's milk cheese. I couldn't actually taste the aquavit, but its light astringency was a good match for the sweet jam, and I appreciate the slight crunch of grana in it that you typically only find in much harder aged cheeses like Parmigiano reggiano and pecorino. 

Knäckebröd, or crisp bread, was devised some 500 years ago as a way to preserve bread. When you live in a place with weather as inclement as it is in Scandinavia, you learn a thing or two about creating indestructible food--that's what all the pickled fish is about. Anyway, it is made of whole grains and does a fine job of, um, keeping the plumbing clean. And that's enough about that.

By the way, I learned that the smörgåsbord was originally a side table of appetizers. At some point it moved to the fore and became the meal itself. Smörgåsbord means "sandwich table" and the "gåsbord" part means "goose butter," so I guess we know what those first sandwiches were made of! (Incidentally, while the word "smörgåsbord" is Swedish, the concept of the long table filled with a variety of foods is by no means unique to that country. You'll find similar spreads around the world.)
Berolina is a Swedish bakery in Glendale that produces goodies from the homeland, along with an array of European breads and pastries. I popped in to sample a semla, a lightly sweet bread that reminds me in texture of brioche. You carve out the middle (it's used to garnish the one in this photo), fill it with marzipan and top it with a lightly sweet crème chantilly. The marzipan has plenty of sugar, making the less sweet bread and crème a good foil for the richness inside.

Speaking of marzipan, the Swedish seem to have a passion for it, becaue it pops up in a lot of desserts, like the Princess Cake.
Princess Cake
Princess Cake, as with the semla, consists of lightly sweet cake and crème chantilly, but this time, with the marzipan coating the outside. It's a good thing the marzipan is the only sweet element--any more sugar and these desserts would be too sweet. Some Princess Cake also contains crème patissiere. I'm sure that variety seriously pushes the boundaries of what a person could and should eat!

So maybe this wasn't a full meal in an authentically Swedish restaurant, but I think we got a pretty good idea of what the cuisine is like. Of course, if I ever get a chance to visit Sweden I'll certainly avail myself of everything there is to try, especially that aquavit...


Shanna said...

My sister lives in LA and loves Olson's Scandinavian Delicatessen, if you're ever in the mood for Swedish food again.

Hungry Passport said...

Thanks, Shanna! I'm so glad to find out about Olson's. What do you suggest we order to get the most authentic representation of a Swedish meal?