This summer, I undertook the daunting yet exciting task of cooking for some of my peers. The experience started when I submitted a paper for the 2014 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which was being held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England.
This year’s theme was food markets, and my paper covered my thoughts about Nordic food past, present and future. I wanted to explain the history behind Nordic food and why all of a sudden it is in focus, along with what it has to offer other than just being a new trend.
My paper was accepted, and I was thrilled. I was going to Oxford and staying at St. Catherine’s. My academic career was interrupted a couple of years ago by my love for cooking, but with this experience I could now finally live out my dream of an Ivy League university experience.
No more than a few days after learning my paper was accepted, an email came in from one of the symposium trustees, Ursula Heinzelmann. Would I cook Nordic street food for the banquet Saturday night? I was a little hesitant, as I was excited about pretending to be an academic for the weekend.
Not to mention Nordic street food does not really exist. That’s hot dogs with remoulade sauce or open sandwiches on rye bread — not really material for an Oxford banquet.
After a few hours of in-depth thinking, I decided to accept, but I changed the concept. I wanted to cook the kind of supper I would do in my kitchen at home.
Deciding on a Nordic dinner menu no easy task
My head started to spin. Did I want to come up with something completely new or just cook some of my favorite things and share my love for my own food culture? I decided on a home-cooked Danish dinner, a simple, tasty menu.
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My first menu selection was cured salmon with home-baked rye focaccia served with some favorite July vegetables: radishes and cucumbers. Testing this, I tried to cure the salmon with dry nettles, but it did not work. It tasted like herbal tea. Fresh nettles worked, but the season for nettle is over come July, so I decided on lovage, a spicy herb with an aftertaste of celery. It worked perfectly with the salmon. To accompany that, I thickened some heavy cream with lemon overnight and then added a lot of freshly grated horseradish, a bit of sugar and lots of black pepper to make a horseradish dressing.
For the main course I decided to serve black barley, which is a heritage grain that my friends at Skærtoft Mølle back home in Denmark started cultivating some years back. It’s now growing in small quantities. I wanted to use tarragon, fennel, cauliflower and celeriac. When I create a menu or a new recipe, I always start with the vegetables. For me, the vegetables are the center of the meal.
With that, I decided to serve one of my classic lamb stews with fennel, tarragon, white wine and elderflower cordial (see recipe below). The cheese for the meal I brought myself from Knuthenlund, a small organic producer in Denmark.
The pudding had to be a classic from the month of July: a cold buttermilk soup with cardamom biscuits. I contemplated going the chef way and revamping the pudding using the same ingredients, but I do not cook like that anymore. I cook things in a simple style. I do not plate it too much; I like to keep the food transparent and let the ingredients do the talking, so I stayed with the classic.
With one suitcase full of cheese and the other full of rye flour and black barley from Skærtoft Mølle, I set out for Oxford three days ahead of the dinner to start cooking everything from scratch. The first thing I did upon arrival was meet with and greet the staff and head chef in the kitchen.
That’s always an interesting experience. Head chefs do not in general like other chefs in their kitchen. They tend to compete heavily instead of exchanging ideas. The attitude is often that the head chef knows everything.
I have cooked in many kitchens around the world. First you start out humbly, trying to understand their system. This time was a little bit different because Tim Kelsey, the head chef at St. Catherine’s, and his team do this every year. I believe they both look forward and dread the event, as they never know what is going to happen. But they were very open and forthcoming with me.
I made my plans and started prepping with my new team. On Friday night, my sister Silla arrived to assist me, and on Saturday we worked all day. Silla cut 700 slices of cured salmon and I baked the bread, adjusted the buttermilk soup, cut vegetables, prepared the fresh herbs and made the stew. By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all 220 salmon dishes were lined up. The kitchen was 100 percent calm, and we were ready to get the food out.
This is the moment of bliss: You have worked for days and are just waiting for the action. You know you’ve put all your love into it. This is the moment I love the most in the kitchen; it’s the calm before the storm.
We ran a smooth service that night. I was happy with everything, but also apprehensive. Before the guests start eating, there’s no way to tell whether they will like it. I had high hopes and butterflies in my stomach. I mean, I was cooking for Claudia Roden! That doesn’t happen every day.
The meal was indeed very well received — people complimented us and asked questions about the flavors, the grain and how I had cooked the celeriac. I believe the dinner was a success, and I was overwhelmed and very proud as I went around the tables and talked to people. I had shown a corner of modern home-cooked Danish food.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 pounds lamb, cut in cubes, from shoulder or leg
- 3 leeks
- 2 whole fennels
- 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 10 sprigs of tarragon
- ½ cup elderflower cordial
- 2 cups white wine
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves
- Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan and brown the meat on all sides. Do this in two batches if necessary. Do not boil the meat.
- Chop the vegetables. The leeks should be in 1 inch pieces, and the fennel should be in ½ inch slices.
- After the meat is browned, add the garlic, fennel seeds, bay leaves and tarragon to the sauté pan and mix well. Then add in ⅔ of the leeks and fennel, reserving the rest for later. Allow the mixture to sauté for a few minutes.
- Pour the elderflower cordial and white wine over the meat and vegetable mix, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and bring to a boil.
- Skim off any froth that rises to the surface, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
- When the lamb is tender, add the rest of the leeks and fennel and let simmer for 5 minutes more, then add more salt and pepper if necessary.
- Sprinkle with fresh tarragon before serving. The dish can be served with boiled barley or boiled new potatoes.
Main photo: The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton