Sunday, July 26, 2009

Deconstructing Tradition

Another week, another Scandinavian Saturday! For last night's supper, I decided to deconstruct a Norwegian tradition: the lutefisk supper. Faithful Reader, because you know my true feelings about lutefisk, you are now wondering why in the world I would ever choose to prepare it myself. That I cannot answer. I can say only that something inspired me to approach lutefisk as a challenge: Could I find a new way to present a traditional Norwegian meal of lutefisk and all the fixin's?

First off, one must know that "the traditional meal" is different depending on whether the lutefisk is being served in Norway, Sweden, Finland, or in a North Dakotan Lutheran church basement (although in all places, lutefisk is usually a winter food, not a summer one). In Norway, the boiled lutefisk is often covered in melted butter and served with boiled potatoes, mashed peas, bacon, and lefse. In Finland the melted butter is replaced by a white sauce seasoned with allspice, and potatoes are sometimes the only other item on the plate. In Sweden the white sauce is either supplemented with, or replaced by, coarse mustard.

ND Lutheran churches prefer to serve lutefisk with melted butter as in Norway, and potato lefse is a pretty standard accompaniment, although I've never seen boiled potatoes, mashed peas, or bacon as side dishes. Instead there is coleslaw or another salad, a variety of pickles, maybe cooked corn, and mashed potatoes with gravy and meatballs (so that people who can't gag down the overcooked lutefisk will still have some protein to eat).

I decided to deconstruct--and reconstruct--these elements of the meal: lutefisk, melted butter, potatoes, peas, bacon, lefse, and meatballs. I also wanted to make it a summertime meal instead of a wintertime one. So here's what I served:

main course
herbed potato salad with crispy bacon and sweet peas
grilled lemon/herb lutefisk with chilled lemon/garlic/parsley/dill butter
pølse ["sausage"] with dill, mustard, and scallions in whole-wheat tortillas à la lefse

What's more summer-y than meat prepared on the grill and served with potato salad? So I made a potato salad that would incorporate the potatoes, peas, and bacon that usually serve as side dishes to lutefisk. Hillary (my Scandinavian Saturday cooking assistant this week) helped with the grocery shopping Friday afternoon, after which she set about playing with her sisters while I made the salad so that it could sit overnight and soak up its own flavors: small red potatoes boiled and quartered and tossed with sweet peas and crispy bacon in a dressing of minced shallots, fresh dill and parsley, tarragon, minced garlic, Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. It was an interesting twist on the standard mayonnaise-based potato salad dressing; the tarragon was very prominent!

That was a far easier de-/reconstruction than the lutefisk, cod soaked in lye until its texture is changed from the firmness that we all identify with fish to a mucilaginous goo that we usually associate with gelatin or phlegm. Sometimes overzealous ND Lutheran cooks compound the problem by overboiling the lutefisk until it's a completely translucent block that jiggles back and forth on the plate, sometimes tough as a rubber eraser, other times dissolving into a puddle of fish glop floating in a plateful of melted butter. Nothing I could do would restore the natural fish texture to the lutefisk, but I tried firming it up by soaking it in cold water overnight and then in salt water for several hours before preparing it.

Then I drizzled the lutefisk with olive oil, sprinkled it liberally with a lemon/herb grilling seasoning, and cooked it in a perforated pan on the grill. Instead of melting butter to pour over it, I mixed fresh dill and parsley, minced garlic, and the zest from a fresh lemon into some butter Friday afternoon and chilled it overnight in the fridge, serving each portion of grilled lutefisk with a pat of the savory butter. To be honest, lutefisk on the grill wasn't a vast improvement over lutefisk prepared any other way. The flavors from the lemon/herb seasoning and the seasoned butter were a welcome addition, making the lutefisk taste more like regular cod when it's grilled. However, there was no getting over the rubbery lutefisk texture--and with no mashed potatoes and gravy in which to hide the lutefisk before swallowing it, we had to face the fish head-on. With my permission, everyone left a little lutefisk uneaten on her plate.

All along I feared that grilled lutefisk would, at worst, be an inedible disaster or, at best, be a different but still-not-all-that-appealing way to eat lutefisk. In either case, the potato salad alone wouldn't satisfy our appetites. The traditional (to ND, at least) solution, of course, is to serve meatballs (with mashed potatoes and gravy). I decided to go for a more modern Norwegian ground-meat item: pølse, a term for all manner of sausages, including what Americans call "hot dogs." According to My Little Norway, "pølse is the fast food of Norway"! Unless you've been to Norway yourself, you might not have guessed that. (When our friend Darin came back from visiting Norway a few years ago, we thought he was joking when he told us about how crazy the Norwegians are for hot dogs.) A popular way to eat pølse there in the summer is to put it in a tortilla, top it with condiments, and roll it up. So I topped the grilled hot dogs with chopped scallions, fresh dill, whole-grain mustard (a nod to Sweden), and dill relish; and, for our de-/reconstructed lutefisk meal, I let the pølse take the place of meatballs and the whole-wheat tortillas take the place of potato lefse.

To further emphasize the summertime twist to this meal, we drank pink lemonade with our supper and ate supper on the veranda, enjoying the shade and the breeze while we ate. Then we cleared the dishes, and Susan, Suzanna, and Abigail played basketball on the driveway while Hillary and I went inside to prepare dessert (which, when it was ready, we ate on the veranda, too):

pears with ginger, juniper berries, chili powder, and caraway whipped cream

Pears don't strike me as particularly Scandinavian; but since this meal was all about doing unexpected things to standard foods, I was drawn to this recipe from Norwegian chef Andreas Viestad, who pairs pears with some unlikely spices. Hillary didn't help me prepare the items for the main course, but she did join me in the kitchen to make dessert. Hillary and I turned honey and butter into a caramel sauce to which we added peeled Bosc pears, ginger, juniper berries, and chili powder. To plate the dessert, we spooned the honey caramel sauce over individual servings of the cooked pears and topped them with homemade whipped cream with sugar and crushed caraway seeds in it.

We would have gobbled up a more standard "pears in caramel sauce with whipped cream," but we took our time with this version in order to experience the additional flavors. The juniper berries and chili powder added just the slightest zing without being outright hot-and-spicy; the plump chunks of ginger were little bursts of intense sweetness with their own kind of spiciness; and the caraway seeds added a touch of savory that highlighted the dairy-ness of the cream rather than the sweetness of the sugar and the honey.

It was fun to deconstruct the traditional wintertime lutefisk supper and reconstruct it as a summertime meal outdoors--although I think once is enough when it comes to preparing lutefisk on the grill.


  1. EEEWWWWW! (the lutefisk I mean!) I couldn't even bring that stuff into my home. Ish....
    Now for the other items, it sounds as if they were very tasty!

  2. I think we can safely say that lutefisk -- grilled or otherwise -- won't be appearing on the Moberg family menu with any regularity. I enjoyed the other menu items -- definitely nothing that I would think to put together, but delicious flavor combinations. And, as always, I appreciated the time off from kitchen duty! Thank you, Kevin & Hillary!