New Nordic food movement

How to eat like a Scandinavian

The Scandinavian-style wallpaper (white with blue hearts) and photographs of wintry rural Minnesota (by local lens master Alec Soth) contrast nicely with the old warehouse's wooden beams and brick walls. Looking through the kitchen and out the brightly lit back window toward the Mississippi River, one can almost imagine fishing-boat sails flapping in the wind in a Copenhagen harbor, with Sweden looming just across the Øresund.

Then came dessert. The cornmeal almond cake with green rhubarb, strawberries, and cream was a perfect fusion of the two settings. This fancy version of strawberry shortcake — perhaps the most American of desserts — boasted almonds, the crown jewel of Scandinavian sweets.

"I don't think this restaurant would necessarily work in Copenhagen," Andrew admits. "It's our take on what's happening over there. We don't try too closely to be Scandinavian. This is our take on Minnesota's take on Nordic cuisine."

Heartland Restaurant

Michael Fitzgerald makes grilled white asparagus with gravlax, smoked almonds, and pine syrup
Emily Utne
Michael Fitzgerald makes grilled white asparagus with gravlax, smoked almonds, and pine syrup
The meat shop at Ingebretsen's hasn't changed much since 1921, says Steve Dahl
photo by City Pages
The meat shop at Ingebretsen's hasn't changed much since 1921, says Steve Dahl

LENNY RUSSO, EXECUTIVE CHEF AT HEARTLAND in lowertown St. Paul, rejects the notion that his restaurant is trying to be New Nordic.

"We're not really playing to the crowd," says Russo. "We're more about letting the local culture influence what we do. We do what we find interesting and culturally significant to us, and hope that resonates with those who eat here."

Heartland includes Scandinavian wild game such as caribou and reindeer on its menu, and incorporates lingonberries and cloudberries to achieve a sweet and sour blend. But Russo is just as likely to substitute the ingredients' North American brethren: venison in place of reindeer, whitefish for cod, and cranberries instead of lingonberries. Cardamom, juniper, pine needles, and fennel seeds also appeal to Russo.

Few foods are as important to Scandinavian cuisine as bread, and that's where New Nordic once again intersects with the upper Midwest. Russo has adapted a Danish brown bread salad that's filling enough to combat both the Minnesota winter and the chilly North Sea rains. He also uses buckwheat, which is a northern grain, in his blini Russian pancakes.

"I don't know that we should define New Nordic cuisine," says Russo. "Lets say who the chefs are and what they're doing. They reach to their roots for inspiration, and they look to native ingredients that are easily at hand: that means North Sea fish, or all the things they can forage, such as wild berries and wild onions. I don't think it's that different from what we're doing here. We look around to see what's at hand, in season, and readily available."

Russo accepts wild-grown foods from several foragers, both veterans and newcomers. The early spring this year has been a delight for foragers, yielding morel mushrooms, wild leeks, and nettles ahead of schedule. Next up are chanterelles.

The idea that Scandinavian food is nothing more than a smorgasbord of meat, cheese, and fish is a misconception, says Russo, whose cooking technique is decidedly Italian and French, though he is a sucker for cardamom, juniper, pine, and other spices typical to Nordic cuisine.

"Lots of great cuisines get overlooked," offers Russo. "Mexican cuisine's alta cocina, for example, is much more than just tacos. The same is true with Scandinavian food. Think wild berries and plums, and lots of crossover."

Café Fika (American Swedish Institute)

MICHAEL FITZGERALD, THE CHEF AT CAFEÉ FIKA in the American Swedish Institute, doesn't want to rock the boat too much. Sweden's cultural ties to Minneapolis can't be overstated, and the Institute boasts over 5,000 members, at least some of whom might call for Fitzgerald's head if he removed lingonberries from the café menu.

"I was a little intimidated by the fact that traditional Scandinavian food is something that people grew up with," Fitzgerald admits. "There's a lot of history and family ties. When you're cooking [a variation of] something that someone's grandma made, no matter how good it is, it will still be different."

So as not to upset Ole and Lena, Fitzgerald focuses on homemade breads and pastries that commuters can pick up and enjoy on their way to downtown Minneapolis. Popular with morning coffee are the dried blueberry, candied ginger, and cherry scones; croissants; and egg tarts, as well as the kanelbulle cinnamon buns with cardamom in the dough.

For lunch, Fitzgerald's menu becomes more contemporary, using traditional Swedish ingredients but with a fresh Nordic twist. There's a butter lettuce salad with hazelnuts and apple vinegar; a cucumber, tomato, and elderberry salad; beets with horseradish, arugula, and caraway; fingerling potatoes with pickled onions and smoked salmon roe; porkbelly with English peas and mustard; grilled white asparagus with gravlax, smoked almonds, and pine syrup; and of course, the most Swedish of them all: meatballs with potato purée and lingonberry mostarda.

"One of the things about the New Nordic food movement that I like is that it's in line with what most cooks really want to do," says Fitzgerald, "which is to work with fresh ingredients and clean flavors. I'm trying to take that idea of traditional food and flavor pairings and make nice, simple, clean food."


WHILE THE NEW NORDIC MOVEMENT flows through menus at the Bachelor Farmer, Heartland, and Café Fika, Ingebretsen's looks pretty much as it did in 1921 when Norwegian immigrant "Bud" Ingebretsen moved his meat market and butcher shop from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to East Lake Street, then the heart of the Norwegian community and strategically located on a streetcar line.

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