Swedish Christmas table
Inclement weather remnants, frantic holiday motorists, faulty zippers and not being able to remember a telephone number other than my own conspired to form a Mid-Atlantic maelstrom of some real F’ed-mas cheer. Finding that my childhood 80 sq ft room’s dresser drawers were being used as a trash receptacle for an unemployed 43 yr old hermit’s empty Kodiak dip cans, candy wrappers, loose change and food containers did little to liven the mood. Even less after he threatened to place his fist in my old man’s face. Some Nordic booze in ice provided a well deserved, albeit temporary analgesic distraction.
Then saw an excellent movie about an emotionally vacant man, his accordingly suited job and his seminar schtick. Such continuity in a story is what every menu should strive for. It left a remarkable impression. Anvil did the same in validating purpose and determination, albeit financially and professionally unsuccessful as is the case for most purist epicureans and craftsmen who do what they do for the self-rewarding passion.
7 Jews, 2 Swedish shiksa and the reclusive aforementioned temperamental groundhog descended upon a nicely set table on the Eve of Christmas day to feast on Sweden’s limited end of year bounty. Swedish matron provided all the Swedish herring. I provided the brined herring for the matjes which could have benefited from another fortnight’s worth of soaking to easy the stunningly salty brine. Aunts Mimi, Bunny and Nan made the cookies. 91 year old Uncle Max brought the depraved teenage libido.
Tre Sorters sill – Three kinds of herring
Matjes sill – Soused herring
Rökt lax – Smoked salmon
Sill salad - Herring salad
Grav lax – Cured salmon
Jansons frestelse - Janson’s temptation
Prins korv - Prince sausage
Julskinka - Christmas ham
Köttbullar - Swedish meatballs
Rödkål - Red cabbage
Rödbetor - Pickled beets
Gurksallad - Cumucber salad
Lingon – Lingonberries
Ris a là Malta - Rice porridge
Små kakor - Small cookies
The 3 varieties of pickled herring were served in sauced of red wine vinegar, dill cream and mustard. Matjes was another type of milder, smaller, immature herring and salt-brined rather than pickled. The herring salad was assembled from mature herring in a very strong brine which were soaked in milk overnight in a hasty attempt to degorge the salt. It didn’t work too well as the dish was still considerably salty. The grav lax was made at home, the smoked salmon was not.
Jansson’s Temptation is where it gets interesting, a less familiar dish but very representative of Nordic fare: pickled sprats, potatoes, cream and onions. The potatoes are cut into batons, smaller than the French Pont Neuf cut and randomly strew about a buttered baking dish with a layer of sprats and thinly sliced onion rings in the middle, covered with cream and finished with a top layer of onions cut in the same fashion. It is essentially a gratin Dauphinois, augmented with the onions and sprats. The sprats permeate the cream and give the otherwise rich and 2 dimensional dish notes of acidity and pleasant salty fishiness. The Frenchified Thanksgiving version consisted of thinly sliced potatoes with a middle layer of caramelized onions deglazed with water and a lemon juice, thyme, dried chili and anchovies, then covered with nutmeg infused cream.
Anchovies erroneously found their way into international versions since sprats are called ansjovis by Swedes, whereas anchovies fall under the sardeller appellation.
The three folkloric Norse origins of Jansson’s Temptation’s legend are inconclusive and subject to very little debate by neither mythological conspiracy enthusiasts nor epicurean historians.
Some suspect the namesake of the dish to be Per Adolf “Pelle” Janzon, a gluttonous 19th century opera singer whose troubadour regimen allegedly consisted of beer, schnapps and the dish which won him marginal posthumous celebrity on the 40th anniversary of his expiration date.
Gunnar Stigmark, author of the Gastronomisk Kalender hopelessly attributes the dish to the eponymous 1928 Swedish silent-movie box-office flop starring Edvin Adolphson.
Hippie publishers of the 1967 American Heritage Cookbook believed that Erik Jansson, the really pious Swedish religious reformer who founded Bishop Hill, Ill in 1846 (2000 census pop. 125) was spied eating a decadent dish of anchovies and potatoes bound with rich, creamery butter and farm fresh milk. Janssonist zealots considered Jansson to be the second coming of Christ and cursed the dish as Jansson’s Temptation. He was murdered in 1850.
Yours truly brought the cooked ham from DC to Long Island where it was decorated. The shank end of the picnic ham (minus the butt) was injected and brined for 5 days in a 5%/2.5% salt/turbinado sugar solution with #1, cinnamon, clove, allspice, rosemary, gumdrops, orange zest, garlic and chili after which it was left to dry and develop a pellicule.
The ham was then smoked in the faulty file-cabinet smoker which due to its placement in an alcove outside the back door manages to efficiently smoke the apartment when the door opens. Hickory chips were burned on the electric hot plate at the bottom of the file-cabinet and the ham placed on a rack in what would be the second drawer whose base had been removed. Once sufficient smokage was attained, the ham was cooked in seasoned “smiling” water for an internal temperature of 150F. The resulting liquid was traditionally clarified with egg whites, gelled with additional gelatin and colored upon arrival at the holiday destination.
Few, if any foods are blue in nature and food coloring sleight of hand was required. Turmeric provided the yellow…and was boosted with some yellow from the food-coloring 4-pack for good measure. A cross mold was cut into cardboard, lined with plastic wrap and filled with the yellow aspic. The blue aspic was poured into a dish and cut to fit the flag design. A clear coat of aspic was poured where the skin was removed and the flag elements were “glued” to the ham. More clear aspic was applied to seal the pieces. Romanesco, yellow and purple cauliflower were pickled (the purple separately) in 24% ättiksprit (Swedish vinegar) with carrots, carawy, lemon zest and chili.
An assortment of home made cookies and strong coffee trumpeted the finale. The host chef got the almond in the porridge and modestly won the prize, which she instinctively shared with everyone.
Christ is Björn: Though Christmas is fundamentally a Christian holiday and I bear a Semitic surname, it has always been a secular feast day to enjoy with the Protestant French and something Swedish maternal sides of the family. Oysters, shrimp, pork and many other not kosher items have graced the 10 Swedish versions which have all been attended by a Jewy majority with a supermarket style choice of faith. The herring were all bought canned from Sweden with the exception of the heavily brined herring which I brought up as well and not much can be said for their taste other than the consistency with last years. Grav lax was a little wet and could have been cured differently, but it was not my event. The Nordic breads were immensely satisfying, particularly the dense home made multigrain loaf rägbröd. The harder circular rye flatbread knäckebröd is a sturdy instrument for herding food items onto a fork and an important nod to the Viking heritage.
The ham was very well prepared and pleased all palates. The aspic was a kitschy delight for the Swedes and Heb’s alike. The generous holiday buffet was a delicious representation of fundamental Nordic ingredients, traditional preparations and humble compositions. Tack så mycket, or tak for mad as the beloved Danish ladies would garble.