Magnus Nilsson is often described as a wunderkind. A food purist and surely as intense as foodie as you could imagine. He is the chef at Faviken, a restaurant in the remote Jamtland province of central Sweden. His meals are made from only the local items that can be hunted or fished or foraged. He has stopped, for example, ordering lemons, preferring local, the whole local, and nothing but the local. If you are interested in eating at his restaurant, you need to book ahead. He serves only twelve guests a night. Is The Nordic Cook Book the revelations of this awesome restaurant? No, it is not. This is a vastly important book, huge in size with over 700 recipes in a massive 5 ½ pound volume. And the book is huge in perspective. It provides recipes from what is now Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and outlying islands. And these recipes span time, some ideas centuries old, some just decades.
The book begins with geographical and historical surveys. With only 160 growing days, Nordic cuisine was based first and foremost on food preservation. People could live year round there only by finding ways to gather and grow quickly, then carefully cook and preserve for the long fall and winter while waiting for the late spring. It began as a fish and grain cuisine. Game, like deer and elk, were reserved for the nobility. So the common people made use of the sea, the tens of thousands of lakes and rivers, and the precious flatlands where grains could be eked out. Potatoes, for example, did not arrive until after 1800. But grains, first wheat and then rye, have been the basis for the cuisines. Divided by mountains and the array of lakes, the nations we now know as the Nordic lands have evolved similar yet distinctive dish and styles of eating. Open-faced sandwiches in Norway for lunch. Hot cooked meals for lunch in Finland.
After two years of research, Magnus was notified by his publisher that it was time to, uh, well, write. So his 11,000 recipe articles and 8,000 photos were culled down to the 700 recipes that appear here, along with his vibrant, revealing photos of a landscape that is not barren but surely is harsh and that has shaped these dishes. The book has 22 chapters, too many to mention or survey in depth here. In fact, The Nordic Cook Book is something that will take you months or years to really wander through. Here are some key chapters and recipe ideas. In Freshwater Fish, you’ll find both Braised and Breaded Eel. There is a Poached Whole Char. These recipes begin to tell you the sophistication of the cuisine. The cooking style here is not “throw it on the grill.” Culinary ingenuity has been at play.
In Saltwater Fish, there is the Finnish Salmon Pie. And the Fish Soup from Bergen. In this recipe, Magnus’ research comes into full play, for, if you want the original, then you should avoid the contemporary chives and parsley and serve only with Pickled Purslane Stalks. And, of course, the soup can only be made with rich, homemade fish stock. Because this work is both a cook book and an anthropological study of the culinary culture, there is a chapter called Marine Mammals & Seafood. And, yes, there is a recipe for Braised Pilot Whale, a dish from some remote islands.
Magnus is not recommending whale but he is documenting what happens. On a happier note, Hash and Minced Meat provides just what you know must appear. A recipe for Basic Meatballs [pork, beef, onion, breadcrumb cream, eggs]. But then come the variations, like his own Grandmother’s with potatoes and allspice. There are meatballs in curry cream sauce, and a Danish style with celeriac. The chapter Blood and Offal does provide authentic Blood Sausages.
And there are the Blood Pancakes with Smoked Reindeer Fat and Sugared Lingonberries from the indigenous Sami or Lapland people. In Sausages and Charcuterie you’ll find something the American home sausage maker may undertake with passion: Hot-Smoked Sausage of Beef and Pork with Cognac. The Danish Sausage and Potato Casserole is readily made and surely destined for a winter night. With grains and bread so central to the cuisine for centuries, you are offered some surprises in Breads and Savory Pastries.
There is the Wort Bread, a traditional Christmas treat. Wort is the liquid from beer brewing. Added in are fennel, aniseeds, orange peel, clove, cardamom and ginger. Both rye and wheat flours provide the backbone. This dish epitomizes of the Nordic flavor profile. Another surprise is the Norwegian Griddled Soft Potato Flatbread, which is rolled around a hot dog. Or it can be buttered and sprinkled with sugar. I’ve never heard of a bread serving such disparate double duty. In a grain culture, beyond bread you must have Pastries, Biscuits and Sweets. You are offered Swedish Sugared Sweet Pretzels. There are Glazed Raspberry Squares — berries appear in countless sweet and savory recipes.
And while Nordic cuisine is not replete with chocolate recipes, here is an interesting, uncooked one: Chocolate Oatmeal Balls where butter, cocoa, oats and spices are rolled into a ball and coated with sugar or coconut. There are of course Desserts, tending to be simply and not elaborate. You can sample the Finnish Fudge Pie, made with a thickened fudge sauce which is really darkened caramel and has no chocolate at all. It would take you just minutes to make the Lingonberry Mousse, a dish to be slowly eaten with appreciation for the power of simplicity. The Nordic Cook Book can only be described as deliciously monumental.
There has to be something here that intrigues you. You can, of course, start with those meat balls but there is so much more. I know, none of us will be eating whale, but that Lingonberry Mousse is something you simply cannot ignore. If you are a weekend baker, you have a year of fun ahead of you. ( By Brian O’Rourke from Huffingtonpost.com – Note: For many more cookbook reviews and hundreds of excellent recipes, please visit Suzi’s Blog at www.cookingbythebook.com. While you are there, you can learn how we use the kitchen for culinary teambuilding).