Swedish Chef Magnus Nilsson's Tome is All About Real Nordic Food

Swedish Chef Magnus Nilsson's Tome is All About Real Nordic FoodEXPAND
Photo by Erik Olsson

Swedish native Magnus Nilsson didn't want to write a cookbook about Nordic cuisine. When the chef of Sweden's Fäviken restaurant was first approached with the idea by the publisher Phaidon, he thought of Scandinavia as a geographic region, not a cultural area. "I was a little offended," he tells the Voice. But the book was going to be written, whether by him or someone else. He didn't want it to be the latter, so he gave in. Through his extensive research for The Nordic Cook Book, Nilsson discovered there were more similarities than he initially believed.

Nilsson met with local experts across Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland, Finland, and The Faroe Islands. These people acted as guides, bringing him into home kitchens to show him regionally important ingredients. Through his journey, he began to see the ties. Across the territory, there are four seasons, during at least one of which, he says, farming is not an option: "Historically, people had to produce an excess in summer and store it together for winter."

Aside from a need to preserve food, the only other parallel between the cultures is a love of open-faced sandwiches. There are no pan-Nordic dishes, according to Nilsson. Some exist in one or two countries. Bread is the lowest common denominator. Again, it's one of the most conventional ways to store summer's bounty. While the style of sandwich does tie the region together, each country and even state has its own style, from which one can infer a lot about the local population. Denmark's (probably the wealthiest nation) variation is chock full of ingredients. "You can't even hold them," says Nilsson. Icelandic people are accustomed to mutton or something similar; in Swede it's  all about dairy and grain. In Nilsson's home province, Jämtland, the usual dish is flatbread with just cheese on top. 

Nilsson's main goal with the book was to create a chronicle of the Nordic food culture as it exists today. It includes a bit of history for context as well as new dishes that have sprung up in the past 30 or 40 years, things that are not yet considered Nordic. Nilsson offers numerous methods of food preparation: Swedish egg cheese, smoked eel, cured white fish, Norwegian soured sausage. There's 68 pages on vegetable preparation (with several on kale alone). Another section is dedicated to sausages and charcuterie.

He has a whole chapter dedicated to marine mammals and seafood, which raises some interesting points on ethics. About the Faroe Island whale hunt he writes: "What I do know from having seen it with my own eyes is that the way it is done is not any worse or any better than any other form of recreational hunting. We will always be putting animals at the risk of suffering when we decide to kill them, that is an unavoidable fact." While some readers may find it disturbing, the book contains recipes for seal soup and boiled pilot whale with blubber and potatoes. 

While it's not Nilsson's goal to become the Swedish culinary ambassador, he does worry that traditional Nordic dishes may get lost in the modern world. Even with all the newfound attention on New Nordic cuisine, much of that is appointed to high-end restaurants (like Nilsson's Fäviken Magasinet), the kind of places that sit on The World's 50 Best Restaurant's lists.

Those Michelin-starred spots, he says, aren't representative of everyday Nordic food culture. Noma in Denmark and Oslo's Ylajali serve ambitious and contemporary food, not traditional home-cooked fare. Scandinavia does not have the same restaurant culture found in the south of Europe. Restaurants prepare one type of food and home cooks make another. "It's [Nordic food] much less accessible," says Nilsson. "Say you go to France or Spain and to a restaurant, chances are you can get real French or Spanish food. That' something that's important in the book. How food culture is consumed, it defines how food culture is communicated."

Factors like globalization and modern refrigeration are chipping away at traditional culinary techniques, as well. Given the harsh winters, curing, smoking, and pickling are integral to established meals. No one needs to go through the trouble of preserving food. Just like in the States (especially NYC) and much of the world, younger Scandinavians are eating out more frequently. Nilsson uses his friends as an example. In their mid-thirties, many eat out three meals a week, he says, "That didn't happen in my parents generation."

Nilsson doesn't believe he's the one to change Nordic eating habits (for him, keeping his restaurant full is most important), but he does hope that The Nordic Cook Book will serves as an informative tool across the world.

He knows that most Americans are familiar with herring, meatballs, and gravlax, but he wants readers to learn that Nordic cuisine goes much further than the familiar foods from Scandinavia. He also hopes that residents of the region can learn a bit, as well. "As a random Swede, you will know as little about Finnish food culture as a random New Yorker does about Argentine food culture."

As part of his book tour, Nilsson is cooking four five-course dinners with Fredrik Berselius of soon-to-reopen Aska on Sunday, November 15 and Monday, November 16 at 6:30 and 9 p.m. The cost to attend is $175, which includes food, drinks, and a signed copy of the book ($49.95).

"Everyone knows about herring, meatballs, and gravlax" says Nilsson.
"Everyone knows about herring, meatballs, and gravlax" says Nilsson.
Photo by Magnus Nilsson

Gravlax

Adapted from The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, October 2015)

Gravlaks (Norway)
Graavilohi (Finland)
Gravad laks (Denmark)
Gravlax (Sweden)

Few things – except the Swedish chef from The Muppets Show and the smörgåsbord, of which this dish is an indispensible part – are so associated with Sweden and Swedish cooking as gravlax. It’s enjoyed in many ways, but the favorites are either as a standalone dish, with lemon wedges and a warm side like Creamed Potatoes with Dill (page 118), or in very thin slices as part of a festive buffet, such as the Julbord Christmas dinner, with Sweet-and-Strong Mustard Sauce for Cured Fish (page 664). Leftover gravlax is excellent in Salmon and Potato Pudding (page 219).

The name of the dish itself comes from the Swedish word meaning ‘to bury’. This refers back to the original gravlax, which was just salted and buried in the ground to ferment before being eaten, a technique similar to Norwegian rakfisk (page 175).

The use of white pepper and dill as aromatics, which is completely dominating gravlax recipes today, started in the eighteenth century, but before that the fish was probably not seasoned at all, except by the cure itself.

Preparation time: 20 minutes
Curing time: 2 days
Serves: 4 as a stand-alone dish

Ingredients

• 1 x 1-kg/2¼-lb salmon fillet, skin on, pin bones removed and patted dry
• 4 tablespoons salt
• 4 tablespoons sugar
• 20 white peppercorns, coarsely crushed
• 1 bunch dill, stalks and fronds separated

Instructions

Cure according to the method on page 190* (see below), curing fish with salt and sugar.
I like to cure the salmon for about 24 hours before washing off the cure mix. I then like to leave it for another 24 hours after the cure is washed off, before eating, so that the cure can even out in the fish.

*Additional Recipes

Salt and Sugar Curing Method 

Remove the pin bones from a clean and evenly thick piece of fish fillet. Rub it all over with a mixture of salt, sugar and aromatics. I like to store the fish and the curing mix in a plastic bag, which makes it easy to keep the whole surface of the fish in contact with the cure, ensuring an even result. When the fish is thoroughly coated, place it in its bag on a tray and set a few plates on top to weight it down a little (or use something else flat and suitably heavy). Transfer it to the refrigerator to cure for the required length of time.

To stop the cure, take the fish out of the bag and either rinse it quickly under cold running water or scrape the cure and seasonings off it. Transfer the fish to a new plastic bag, place it back on the tray and return it to the refrigerator. This allows the cure to even out within the fish. Leave it for about the same length of time as it was in the curing mix.

The fish can be served straight away or after only a short rest, but it will appear more cured on the surface than in the middle. Fish prepared this way is either cut straight down, at a 90-degree angle relative to the chopping (cutting) board, in slightly thicker slices of 4-5 mm (?-¼inch) or else it is cut at a 45-degree angle into very thin and much larger slices.

Curing Fish With Salt and Sugar 

There are many cured fish preparations around the Nordic region using different varieties of fish, different amounts of salt and sugar (or no salt), different seasonings and different curing times. There are wet cures, dry cures and many in-between cures.

The purpose of curing fish is to lessen the amount of water available in the flesh of the fish to prevent harmful microorganisms from reproducing and, by doing so, prolonging the shelf life of the fish. Another factor to take into account when curing fish, especially when using longer curing times and sweet cures, is that the presence and growth of beneficial lactobacillus will lower the pH level in the fish, further adding to both its preservation and flavour.

The length of a salt-and-sugar cure can last from anything between 3 hours to several days, depending on the desired result. The longer the fish stays in its cure, the more water will migrate out of the fish and dissolve into the salt-and-sugar mixture, making the flesh more dense and firm.

The more sugar the cure contains, the creamier the result will be. In a short cure, where lactobacillus hasn’t had much time to grow, a higher sugar cure will result in a sweeter taste, whilst in a long cure, where the sugar is largely consumed by the lactobacillus, a high sugar content will result in a more acidic taste.

Saltier cures produce firmer products and so does the lower pH level from the lactic acid. Longer cures mean more breakdown of proteins into amino acids, which in turn means a more savoury and mouth-filling result.

Looking at literature spanning the last 100 years or so, sweet cures (like for gravlax) have become even sweeter and the not-so-sweet cures have become less sweet. It seems like almost all cures are stored for less time before being eaten today than what used to be the case, sometimes verging more on a kind of borderline sashimi product.


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