New Nordic food movement
You've heard the gripes about Scandinavian food being boring. There's the obligatory holiday exodus to visit grandparents in outstate Minnesota and eat lutefisk — a Norwegian cod preserved in lye — served with potatoes and mashed peas in a meal that lacks color and taste. Or the oh-so-true Ole and Lena joke: "We used lutefisk to get rid of the raccoons, but now we've got a family of Norwegians living under our house!"
Garrison Keillor describes our Scandinavian food heritage as though it were an allegory for the biblical book of Job. We willingly suffer, over and over again, just to show our faith in a higher power, or so as not to offend our fellow Lutherans next door. To be sure, no episode of Top Chef will be filmed anytime soon in A Prairie Home Companion's Lake Wobegon.
It's not that our forefathers chose to eat bland food — it was just all they could afford.
"Many people who came here during the turn of the 20th century were really, really poor, and so [they ate food that] we don't really eat anymore in Scandinavia," says Sibban Johnson, a Swedish immigrant who co-owns Café Finspang in the Midtown Global Market. "Who wants to eat blood pudding? I know people love it here, but it's just pig's blood and wheat. I don't really want that."
But for those descendants of Leif Ericson who don't salivate at the thought of blood pudding, help is on the way. The "New Nordic" food movement has come to the Twin Cites, turning traditional culinary ideas on their head. Best of all, New Nordic borrows just enough from our ancestors' recipes that it won't offend your grandmother — her meatballs are still on the menu.
We visited the top spots in the Twin Cities for both traditional Scandinavian and New Nordic food. In both Minneapolis and St. Paul, you can now enjoy delicious plates as sophisticated as those served at restaurants in Copenhagen or Stockholm. But so long as the wooden Viking stands watch next to the deli at Ingebretsen's on Lake Street, traditional meatballs, pickled herring, and lutefisk will be there for you too.
To Paul Berglund, executive chef at the Bachelor Farmer, the swanky new restaurant in Minneapolis's Warehouse District, the concept of "New Nordic" isn't that avant-garde.
"There's a push as part of New Nordic cuisine to reconnect with traditional food ways and ingredients," says Berglund, who was raised on his grandmother's Swedish meatballs. "To me, Nordic cooking more than anything is about a connection with nature.... There's this real intimate connection between food and nature."
The Bachelor Farmer
GOV. MARK DAYTON is a creature of habit, says his eldest son Eric, who, together with brother Andrew, opened the Bachelor Farmer last summer. The first 14 times the elder statesman visited the New Nordic hot spot, he ate Berglund's Swedish meatballs. Alas, on the 15th visit he was finally forced to order something else.
"We didn't take them off the menu specifically to spite him," says Eric, "but it did take Dad out of his comfort zone."
Here you can enjoy the governor's favorite meatballs (which will probably return to the menu when the weather turns cold) and cuts such as the Wieninleike, a Finnish-style wienerschnitzel. But guests can also feast on lighter entrees that incorporate fresh and foraged delicacies, such as the poached eggs with glazed carrots and sugar snap peas, or the sockeye salmon with grilled asparagus and nettle purée.
"We've been well received here by people who grew up on Scandinavian food," says Andrew. "It's maybe not the exact recipe they had, but some elements might stir up emotions in people. 'These meatballs take me back to my grandma's kitchen when I was young,' they say."
When President Obama visited the Bachelor Farmer for a June 1 fundraiser, the menu featured house-smoked pork breast with chives from the restaurant's rooftop garden; English pea and crème fraiche pureed soup with radishes and mint; a salad of early-summer vegetables and flowers, goat's milk cheese, pistachios, and cider vinaigrette; Copper River sockeye salmon, new potatoes, and grilled asparagus with tarragon; and roasted chicken with arugula-bread salad, chicken confit, and pickled shallots. That's hardly the greasy diner food that American politicians have to stomach in photo-ops to win blue-collar votes.
Entrées at the Bachelor Farmer are typically preceded by four slices of homemade toasted bread with a variety of toppings. Authentic Nordic choices include the sugar- and salt-cured salmon gravlax and the Pate de campagne. This Smørrebrød course is typically eaten (by the Danes, at least) with a knife and fork.
The appetizers seem particularly reflective of New Nordic experimental cuisine. Behold the combination of purslane, pickled duck hearts, strawberries, and toasted hazelnuts, which offered a sweet, sour, and crunchy sensation. Purslane is a little known but nutritious weed with a tart, lemony taste. It grows all around us, reflecting the impulse in New Nordic cuisine to pull from nature's abundance.
"Foraging is one tenet of the new wave of cooking known as New Nordic, but it's more about establishing a deep connection with the source," explains Berglund. "Whether it's the woods or the wilderness, or a cultivated plot of land that's tended with affection. That relates to the current zeitgeist of Minnesota food, which is an appreciation for what grows around us. There's a passion of local farmers that's projected through local chefs and finally experienced by the diner."
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."
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 CAFE&EACUTE; 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.
"Things haven't changed much," says Steve Dahl, whose father Warren joined Bud Jr. as a partner. Dahl manages the meat market today while Julie Ingebretsen, granddaughter of the founder, runs the Scandinavian gift shop on the opposite side of the store.
The biggest changes at Ingebretsen's may have been made in the early '70s, when Warren imported a pølsemaker (meat maker) from the old country and expanded the menu to include even more Scandinavian recipes. Today, Steve says that 75 percent of what's on the shelves come directly from Norway, Sweden, or Denmark.
The meat market and deli stock julskinkas (a Christmas ham) for Swedes, lutefisk for Norwegians, and blood sausage for those barbarian Danes. Ingebretsen's smokes its own hams, bacon, frankfurters, and wieners, as well as offering a variety of Scandinavian cheeses, eight different kinds of herring, and delicacies such as pigs' feet.
For those with less adventurous palates, the Swedish meatball mix makes an excellent hamburger, and the Swedish sausage of beef, potato, and onions is a top seller.
"We're still here because we make pretty much everything ourselves," says Dahl. "You can't get this stuff anyplace else. We're unique in that sense."
Scandinavians on visits to the Twin Cities often express amazement at how many traditional foods they can find here. Sometimes they even find candies or other treats so traditional that they are no longer readily available back home.
Do Minnesotans not intimately connected to their Viking culinary ancestry ever have trouble warming up to herring and pigs feet?
Yes and no, says Dahl. "Lutefisk is something you either like or don't like: There's no in between there."
To expand the ranks of the faithful, Ingebretsen's offers lutefisk tastings on the second to the last Saturday in October.
"Some who've never had it before actually like it!" Dahl says.
HERE IN THE MIDWEST, the most recognizable Finnish food is the Karelian pasty, a hearty meat or fish pie that became popular with miners in Minnesota's Iron Range. But as in neighboring Sweden, with which the Finns share many of their culinary traditions, foraged fruits and vegetables are also abundant in Finland.
In St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood, across the street from Micawber's bookstore, Soile Anderson's Finnish Bistro offers dishes that are sweet and savory, light and hearty.
If your day begins with the "Perinteiset" traditional breakfast — a plate filled with smoked salmon lox rolled into a cone, pickled herring, salami cold cuts, eggs, and slices of cucumber, tomato, Swiss cheese, and fresh bread — you'd do well to sit and nibble until 3 p.m. No one will stop you. Then have a spinach scone to help you transition to the Finnish Bistro's delectable pastries, cakes, and sweet crepes. Or if you're a working man on your way to a construction site, nourish yourself with the Finnish Beef Pasty, stuffed with beef tenderloin, carrots, rutabaga, onion, and cucumber dill sauce.
Anderson, who hails from Savonlinna near the Russian border, started her first Twin Cities business, Taste of Scandinavia, in 1982, and opened the Finnish Bistro in 1996. Six years ago she sold Taste of Scandinavia to a fellow Finn, but continues to run the bistro, as well as Deco Catering, which serves private events, weddings, graduations, and holidays.
What does New Nordic mean to her?
"It's a creative take on what you can do: old-style cooking but with good quality," says Anderson. "The Nordic food scene is changing. People think about meatballs and potatoes, which is what the hard-working immigrants ate when they came here, but there's potential for so much more color and diversity."
Taste of Scandinavia
HAVE YOU HEARD THE JOKE about the Scandinavian cruise ship that marooned on an uninhabited island? Two days later, when the rescuers arrived, they could easily tell the Scandinavians apart: The Danes were all drunk and carousing, the Norwegians were all fighting each other, and the Swedes were standing around waiting to be introduced.
But at Taste of Scandinavia, which boasts suburban locations in Little Canada, North Oaks, and Bloomington, the descendants of those stubborn Vikings get along just fine. Neither the regulars nor the food need any introduction.
It could be the Swedish pancakes topped with lingonberries and whipped cream, or the chicken lefsa melt, or the open-faced smorgasbord sandwiches. Tiina Nordlie, a Finnish-born, Swedish-speaking blonde who moved here 15 years ago and acquired Taste of Scandinavia from Soile Anderson six years ago, has that effect on people.
Given its suburban clientele, Taste of Scandinavia wisely Americanized some of its menu. The traditional Finnish beef pasty, for example, now resembles an Anglo breakfast sandwich, with bacon and ham in the mix. For these regular customers, the herring and the lutefisk are a tougher sell.
Nordlie also caters wedding cakes. Taste of Scandinavia is most known for the Scandinavian strawberry torte: yellow sponge cake with bananas, raspberry jam, chocolate mousse, and fresh whipped cream and strawberries on top. This recipe came from Anderson's grandmother and crossed the Atlantic with her. The kransekage, an almond layer cake with Scandinavian flags stuck in it, is also a big hit.
"Most of our customers are of Scandinavian descent, and some are first-generation," says Nordlie. "But anyone would feel at home here. We're also known for our Italian pie, which is baked in a flaky crust, with vegetables, artichokes, black olives, and cheese."
Café Finspång (Midtown Global Market)
MAIBRITT SYSE AND SIBBAN JOHNSON, childhood friends who grew up on the same street in the village of Finspång, Sweden, came here to work with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. Syse arrived in 1983, and Johnson followed soon afterward. In 2006, they opened the café to bring a small taste of Scandinavia to the city's celebrated ethnic bazaar.
The Midtown Global Market celebrates Minnesota's Somali, Hmong, Middle Eastern, and Latino immigrants; it would be a shame to leave Scandinavians off the list.
Syse explains the concept behind smörgås, or smørrebrød in Denmark.
"You want to see what you put on a sandwich, so you leave it open-faced," he says. "The more you have on it, the prettier it looks. When you put bread on top, you have no idea what's in between."
Pickled herring is a must, Syse explains. When you sit together and eat, especially in Denmark, you start with the fish, then follow with cheeses and meats. But you never mix different kinds of meats. Subsequent smørrebrød courses often involve lettuce, shrimp, or cucumbers.
Other popular items include strawberry cakes, salt licorice, lefse, Anna's ginger snaps (the latest trend in Sweden is to top them with blue cheese), Fat Tuesday cardamom bread between Christmas and Easter, cucumber salad, Juusto cheese (which the Finns grill, bake, or fry and then dip in their morning coffee), Söderblandning tea, and chocolate balls made with oatmeal and liqueur.
While New Nordic might be avante-garde to some, it's nothing new for Johnson. Her father hunted moose, deer, rabbit, and pheasants while she was growing up; her mother forced her into the forest to gather blueberries, lingonberries, and chanterelle mushrooms. Her grandmother owned an earth cellar built in the 17th century where she would store potatoes, berries, and preserves.
"I wasn't surrounded by processed foods, so the real flavor was always right in food," Johnson says.
To her, the expression "New Nordic" touches on another current trend in Scandinavia: the influx of immigrants from outside of the homogenous Nordic region.
"In Scandinavia in the last 30 years, we've had lots of immigrants come: Chileans, Somalis, and others," Johnson explains. "The food changes with the immigrants that bring it to our country. People in general gain a wider picture of the foods they enjoy."
The cultural intermingling has led to some interesting culinary experiments.
"We have our own take now on tacos, or on Somali food," Johnson says. "Let's try tacos with lingonberries or something like that. Why not?"
Churches, community centers, and homes
ANY DISCUSSION OF NEW NORDIC CUISINE inevitably leads to the Copenhagen restaurant NOMA and its executive chef, René Redzepi, who has won the Restaurant magazine award for best restaurant each of the last three years. Redzepi uses only food native to the Nordic region, forcing him to forage for delicacies in Denmark's forests or North Sea coastline. What he pulls out of the ground and adds to his menu are often items that went missing from Scandinavian kitchens decades ago.
Minnesota boasts a climate similar to that of the Nordic region, and its four seasons and bountiful meadows, forests, lakes, and rivers make it ideal for local foraging expeditions.
"In the Minnesota state constitution, there's basically a right to forage, and an open-door policy for mushrooms, wild ramps, and things like that," says Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, the former City Pages food critic who now reviews restaurants for Mpls-St. Paul magazine. "If there's a restaurant that has 'locavore' ambitions, they'll use foragers."
According to Moskowitz Grumdahl, the most authentic Nordic cuisine around is probably found in people's homes, or in church basements.
With that in mind, attend a Syttende Mai (May 7: Norway's Constitution Day) party or a Julebord Christmas buffet dinner (first Friday in January) at the Mindekirken Norwegian Memorial Lutheran Church. Or check out a cultural event at the Danish American Center on West Mississippi River Parkway. If you're lucky, you might encounter æbleskiver — rolled-up apple pancakes.
Vær så god! (Bon appetit!)
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