Of Spices and Time

Aquavit's Minneapolis outpost is shuttered, but fans can still enjoy its new Scandinavian delicacies at home

Ah, the intangible connection between food and memory. The taste of a particular pastry, the smell of a special spice, the ambience of a beloved locale--and suddenly, a vivid, visceral remembrance of another, lovelier place and time. Unexpected connections, usually, but powerful ones. And when they're severed, it's sad.

Last June when I heard that Aquavit, the posh Minneapolis outpost of the famous New York restaurant, had closed, the magnitude of my dismay took me by surprise. Certainly, there was something different and innovative about the place and its Scandinavian cuisine, made hip and contemporary by exotic spices and creative, gravity-defying presentation. But it took me a while to realize just why its demise--it's just a restaurant, after all--was such a shock.

You see, my father liked Aquavit. He liked the sparkling service, the sparse, simple décor, the experimental flavors. (Oh rapture, the idea of uniting mango and pickled herring under one roof!) In fact, it was one of his unfulfilled wishes to go there one more time before he died in 2000. After that, my mother and I went back more than a handful of times, for the food, of course, but also to remember, through taste and surroundings, a little piece of him. When the restaurant closed, it was another erosion of something that had tied my present to an ever more irretrievable past with my sweet dad.

Born in Ethiopia, raised and fed in Sweden: Marcus Samuelsson
Paul Brissman courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Company
Born in Ethiopia, raised and fed in Sweden: Marcus Samuelsson

So you'll understand, then, why I was so delighted a few weeks ago when I chanced upon the new Aquavit cookbook. Perhaps this particular link to the past was locally unavailable, but the food--the food--I could create right here at home.

If you ever went to Aquavit and rejoiced even slightly in the stylized plates spilling forth from the kitchen, this cookbook will not disappoint. Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine, by chef Marcus Samuelsson, is an impressive sight to behold. At 302 pages, the hardback book is hefty indeed, and its artful design and exquisite photographs make flipping through the recipes a joy--even if you're not planning on cooking anything.

The book is more personal and tender than your average cookbook, starting with a lengthy introduction in which the Ethiopian-born Samuelsson explains how he came to be adopted and raised in Göteborg, Sweden. Not only does he describe the mainstays of that country's cuisine; he offers a glimpse into his own family's particular penchants, comfort foods, and traditions. Throughout the book you'll find Samuelsson's renderings of family recipes (his grandmother's chicken soup is on page 104), accompanied by warmhearted notes that add his own childhood memories to the mix.

As he details his journey to become, at age 24, the head chef of Aquavit in New York, he tells a story of spices and aesthetics that's as fascinating as the recipes that follow, a story that bridges tradition and innovation in the same way his food does. "My grandmother might be surprised to see the bright paintings I create on the plate," Samuelsson writes, "but the homemade mustards I make them with are the same ones she taught me."

And then it's on to the recipes, lovingly tucked into these pages in a way that makes you truly believe that you, too, could create those surprising tastes and beautifully designed dinner plates, right here, in your very own kitchen.

First off, a warning: This is no beginner's cookbook. There's an underlying assumption that aspiring chefs are fairly comfortable and curious in the kitchen--and that their counters and cabinets are well stocked. Don't let this intimidate you, however; Samuelsson serves as an excellent guide, even offering suggestions on equipment and techniques and substitutions.

Beyond that, perhaps the most important bit of information you need before launching into the Aquavit cookbook is that time, often in large quantities, is a fundamental ingredient. It's not that preparing the dishes is all that complicated, but there are often lengthy intermediary steps: Bake the potatoes for an hour, refrigerate the cucumbers for three to six hours, allow the pancake batter to sit for up to 24 hours, let the sauce settle for four to six hours or overnight. It adds up.

Yet with a little planning (and a considerable amount of shelf space in your fridge), this actually can work to your advantage. Simply start on several dishes, stow them for the requisite time (three hours, overnight, two days, six weeks) while you're, say, having a life. Or searching the specialty shops for those cardamom pods (personally, I gave up the search early and went with the easier-to-locate ground variety).

The recipes are divided into 13 categories--cured items; appetizers and snacks; sandwiches; salads; soups; seafood; poultry and meat; side dishes; breads; jams, salsas, and chutneys; sorbets; desserts; and drinks--plus an addendum of basics like fish stock and homemade dill butter. There's also a glossary, some resources for hard-to-find items, and insights on equipment.

All totaled, there are some 175 recipes in this book, most including ideas for variations and commentaries about ingredients or trivia about the dishes, as well as recommended pairings. It's worth mentioning that there's a heavy weighting toward fish, birds, meat, and game, and most of the soups call for chicken or seafood stock, so vegetarians might have to make do with the salads and side dishes. And there's also a lot of heavy cream and butter in these dishes, so you'll have to pick and choose carefully if yours is a low-fat life.

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