Of Spices and Time

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

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.

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.

Some of the recipes are things I'd likely never try (to each her own, but I think I'll shy away from the wild boar and venison), but a great many sounded intriguing, if a little unusual (coffee-roasted duck breasts, black pepper cheesecake, warm beef carpaccio in mushroom tea). Mostly, the handful of dishes I picked out to try for starters were more traditional Swedish fare.

By far the best thing I prepared was the gravlax with mustard sauce. All the better, given that I was initially somewhat skeptical about the endeavor. Making this dish is easy enough, with a couple of caveats: You need two days lead time and sushi-grade salmon. For those of us with jobs and homes and busy lives, the latter is probably easier to come by. (I picked mine up at Coastal Seafoods.)

Once that's procured, all you need is sugar, salt, white peppercorns, a lot of fresh dill, and, of course, a lot of time. You place the fish filet in a baking dish, spread a mixture of sugar, kosher salt, and peppercorns over it, cover the whole thing with chopped fresh dill, and then let it sit (first for six hours in a "cool spot," then for 36 hours in the refrigerator).

The result? Amazing. As Samuelsson promises, it turns out velvety-smooth. Once the time has elapsed, you simply scrape off the spices, take a very sharp knife and cut along the bias to shave off paper-thin slices of cured salmon, delectably saturated with salty-sweetness and the pungent edge of the dill. Put it on crackers and add a dab of mustard sauce, and you've got a special appetizer or a light dinner. Or opt for the gravlax club sandwich on page 66.

Other winners were the Swedish meatballs, a moist mixture of ground beef, pork, and veal. The braised red cabbage was folksy but delicate, with the sweet tinge of cinnamon and the tartness of vinegar. The quick pickled cucumbers were similarly sweet and tangy, a light accompaniment to the mild and hearty prosciutto-wrapped halibut. The crepe-like Swedish pancakes with lingonberry whipped cream were a delightful dessert--and tasty breakfast treat the next day. And really, can you go wrong with garlic mashed potatoes (especially when the spuds are cooked in milk and cream)?

Some of my less successful efforts were the sauces. Perhaps it's operator error (they've never been my strong suit), but the dark beer sauce meant to accompany the halibut didn't do much for me or the fish, and the Swedish meatballs might have been just as good with a dollop of plain lingonberry preserves. My greatest disappointment was the sweet potato tarta, a creamy, orange-zesty, baked sweet potato gratin that I expected to love and just didn't, no matter how hard I tried.

Nonetheless, I predict I'll be returning to the Aquavit cookbook again and again. Buoyed by these recipes, I'm even a little less saddened each time I walk through the lobby of the IDS Center in Minneapolis and see the forlorn earth-tone-and-blond-wood skeleton that once was Aquavit. And maybe with practice, my presentation could start to live up to the legendary aesthetic that used to reside there.

So I'll happily toast Aquavit. And, even more happily, the cookbook gives me something to toast with: signature homemade aquavits, or flavor-infused vodkas. Once again, time is essential here: Once you've mixed your vodka with berries or lime or rice and tea, the concoction must steep at room temperature for six to eight weeks. Fitting, perhaps, that around the New Year, I'll be able to raise a glass and honor the passage of time, from past to present to future. After all, restaurants, they come and go. But food--and the memories it inspires--that's forever.


Quick Pickled Cucumbers
Serves 4 to 6 (makes about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 1 English (hothouse) cucumber
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 allspice berries
  1. Slice the cucumber as thin as possible (use a mandoline or other vegetable slicer if you have one). Put the slices in a colander, toss them with the salt, and let stand for about 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the water, vinegar, sugar, bay leaf, and allspice in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool.
  3. Rinse the salt off the cucumbers, and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Put the cucumbers in a medium bowl and add the pickling solution; they should be completely covered by the brine. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours before serving.


The pickled cucumbers will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

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