Nordic cooking is all the rage these days, a remarkable development for a region previously known largely for lutefisk. Chef Gunnar Gislason’s Dill, which opened in 2009 in Reykjavik and has gone on to international fame, is a miracle of marketing as well as culinary skill and ingenuity. Take unusual items Icelanders learned to cook and eat simply to avoid starvation and celebrate them as exotic. Throw in a healthy dose of molecular gastronomy (involving cooking tools unbeknownst to the Vikings, such as sous vide machines and immersion blenders) and–voila!–you’ve got cutting edge cuisine.
North is a visually stunning book. The pictures of its huge and beautiful landscapes make it worthwhile as a travelogue alone. The interviews with its rugged fishermen, farmers, and herders are fascinating and impressive. I was particularly struck byfisherman Siggi Henningsson, who lives on the island of Grimsey, a three mile chunk of land on the Arctic Circle home to under ninety inhabitants, and clambers down cliffs to retrieve seabird eggs. AS a cookbook, though, North is more of intellectual interest than a practical guide. When testing recipes for North, I struggled with what to choose. I wasn’t going to clamber down the cliffs of the Oregon coast to collect seabird eggs. Nor was I about to prepare reindeer liver, fish smoked over four month old compressed sheep dung, herring ice cream, or lamb heart with heather and Icelandic moss. And, as an opposite sort of problem, I didn’t own a sous vice machine, a kitchen torch, or a home smoker.
First I decided to make beer vinegar, an ingredient called for in many recipes. Icelandic cooking derives from scarcity: there are no citrus fruits, so vinegar of all kinds (cider, seaweed, pine tree, beer) provides the acidic kick. There are fresh herbs, such as yes, dill, but not of the intense spices common in warmer climes. Grains don’t grow (there’s limited rye and barley, and an ingenious “bread” made from dried fish), vegetables are limited to the root variety. Salt is hand dried from the ocean. The preparation of beer vinegar was simple: pour some beer into a sterilized jar, cover it with cheesecloth to keep out particulates but admit natural yeasts, and let it sit for a few weeks. When, after three weeks, white spots formed on the surface, I thought my experiment had failed, but no. A re-reading of the recipe told me to “scrape off the white film that forms”. So I kept doing that.
I decided to make “baked plaice, shrimp, roasted cauliflower puree, and salted almonds”, which sounded like a meal my family would actually eat. My local fishmonger suggested Dover Sole in place of the plaice (a type of flounder unavailable on the West Coast). The meal wasn’t difficult to put together. The instructions were clear, and while it required a fair amount of chopping and prep bowls, was well in reach for the home cook. I substituted canola oil for the rapeseed oil. The recipe suggested cooking fish in a low-moderate oven on a cooking sheet with a sheet of plastic pressed into it (presumably to mimic a sous vide machine). I was nervous chemicals from the plastic would leach out, so I substituted parchment paper. It worked fine. The shrimp sauce required an ample amount of beer vinegar, so I tasted it to make sure it didn’t taste moldy. It didn’t. It didn’t taste vinegary either, more like warm, flat beer.
I plated the meal following the picture in the book. It was delicious–mild and herby, rich with butter and cream. The almonds, which I had been dubious about, added a lovely crunch, as did the raw cauliflower core garnish (I’d never thought to eat the cauliflower core before but Gislason uses every bit of every plant or animal). The shrimp sauce was especially tasty.
OOps–gotta be honest. I omitted the pterygiophores (the place where the fish fin connects to the body, suggested as a garnish).
I would recommend this book as an excellent coffee table choice for those interested in unusual cuisines and cooking experimentation.