Sunday, October 09, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Minnesota I - Godt å spise! (or Why this isn't a recipe for lutefisk)

Continuing my tour of the Upper Midwest, it's just a hop, a skip and a jump to Minnesota.  It is a state well in touch with its Native American food traditions - wild rice, the morel mushroom, and so on - as well as its rich Scandinavian heritage - erm, ummmm... lutefisk anyone?

Official Name: State of Minnesota
State Nicknames: The Gopher State; The Land of 10,000 Lakes; North Star State
Admission to the US: May 11, 1858 (#32)
Capital: St. Paul (2nd largest)
Other Important Cities: Minneapolis (largest); Duluth (4th largest); St. Cloud (8th largest)
Midwest; Great Lakes; West North Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Wild Rice; Bison
Bordered by:
Manitoba & Ontario (Canada) (north); Lake Superior (northeast); Wisconsin (east); Iowa (south); North & South Dakota (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: milk (drink); walleye (fish); honeycrisp apple (fruit); Northern wild rice (grain); blueberry muffin (muffin); morel (mushroom)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Eastern and Northern European - especially Scandinavian (Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, etc) - foods, especially lutefisk; Native American (Dakota, Ojibwe/Chippewa, etc) food traditions; dairy products

As with much of the Great Lakes region, Minnesota was settled by internal and foreign immigrants, coming into an area already well-populated by native peoples.  Today food traditions from the Dakota Sioux, Chippewa, Ojibwe (or Chippewa/Ojibwe - they're the same people) and other Native American nations are still an important part of Minnesota's modern  culinary landscape.  It shows, since foods such as the morel mushroom and especially wild rice have been eaten in Minnesota for thousands of years.

Tied in with those traditions are foods from all over Northern and Eastern Europe, from Ireland and Wales to Estonia and Poland.  Most importantly, of course, are Minnesota's Scandinavian food traditions.  Norwegian, Swedish and other Scandinavian immigrants flocked to Minnesota.  Not only Minneapolis (a contrast to heavily Catholic St. Paul [Adams 1991: 124]) but also throughout the state we see perhaps America's largest concentration of Scandinavian-Americans.  Minnesota's Scandinavian heritage is even immortalized in that most American of TV shows, The Golden Girls.  To wit:

Okay, I assume there's no such thing as "pigs in a svengebløten".  Really, I wonder just how many of Rose's strange recipes were based on real things.

So back to real food.  Perhaps that most Scandinavian of dishes is the fabled lutefisk.  For months now I had been trying, in vain, to track down and obtain lutefisk, that most Scandinavian of seafood dishes.  Those of us who aren't in the know are hard-pressed to say much about it.  It most certainly isn't easy to find in the Mid-Atlantic.  Or the South, or the Northeast, or the West, or much anywhere else in the Midwest for that matter.  And from what many Scandinavian-Americans have to say about it, why in my right mind would I?  One Swedish-American gentleman told NPR's Audie Cornish last December about his experience with the jellied fish:
[MR. JOHN ANDERSON, OF WASHINGTON, DC]: Lutefisk is a dried whitefish soaked in lime. And as the song goes: oh, lutefisk, it looks like glue and tastes like a shoe. By the time we had it for a fourth consecutive Christmas, I asked everyone in the family at the dinner table if anyone really liked it. Even my grandfather, a die-hard Swede and for whom the dish was prepared, a man who once ate carp and liked it, confessed to having trouble getting past the third bite.  [Cornish, for National Public Radio 2010]
Uh, yum?

I may be a bizarre foods kinda guy, but I can never have too little cod (not my favorite fish, sorry), and I'm not quite sure just how to make the lye solution in which to soak the dried fish.  The internet is surprisingly light on recipes for actually making the lutefisk.  The best I have come up with is how to prepare this Jell-O-like reconstituted cod, which so many people describe as tasting like shoes.  Shoe-flavored Jell-O is not my idea of a fun time.  No matter: I could not find it anywhere in Baltimore or DC - not even at IKEA.  The closest thing: their tin of ready-to-eat fiskeboller (Norwegian fish balls).

So to represent Scandinavia, I had to give up the pipe dream of finding and trying lutefisk.  My thoughts scanned past the obvious second choice - Swedish meatballs, already an American classic in its own right - and swerved to treated salmon.  Lox (smoked salmon) and gravlax (cured salmon) are such an important part of the American culinary landscape today, but I've rarely ever thought to make them myself.  Apparently, it is easier than I thought to do at least the gravlax.  Making its own sauce (or sås - see how similar Norwegian and English are?) saved me the extra trip to IKEA, where I would probably end up buying some more plates and maybe a coffee table or something else that I didn't need.

This is not the first time I had the inkling to cure my own salmon.  Stefan Gates, the Gastronaut of UK television fame, made his own.  His took three days to cure, and he called it "deeply satisfying".  The recipe for gravlax I used for this post comes from Swedish-African-American chef Helene Henderson.  Her book The Swedish Table pulls recipes from her own childhood in Luleå (that å is pronounced more like an OH).  Her gravlax recipe is the very first listed in the "Fish and Shellfish" chapter, page 61)

The recipe: Swedish Gravlax with Norwegian Mustard-Dill Sauce (or Gravlaxsås)

To make gravlax, you will need at least 48 hours to let the salmon cure, plus the following ingredients:

* salmon (make sure you have at least two pieces, skin on, to put together - as you will see later on during the recipe.  You should use fresh but in this case I used frozen from Trader Joe's.  It was substantially cheaper.  I am not sure how this affected the texture, though several recipes say it is fine - even preferable - to use frozen salmon, since it kills any possible parasites.  Of course, thaw it.  But I would like to try this with fresh fish the next time to see. Note: some sources say you can also use mackerel if you want)
* equal parts granulated sugar and kosher salt (the more fish you have, the more of each you will need)
* fresh dill (lots of it)
* aquavit, cognac or vodka (this is optional, but I wanted to use a Scandinavian liquor.  I found a Danish brand of aquavit at the Wine Source for $18)

Also make sure you have a large piece of aluminum foil, plastic wrap and a large ziploc bag.

First, mix the salt and sugar.  This is what you will use to cure the salmon and make it into gravlax.  In retrospect I think I should have used more salt and sugar, but the amount I used did work.

Generously cover the salmon with the sugar-salt mixture.

Both sides, please.

Next, place generous amounts of the dill on the salmon.

If you are using aquavit or some other liquor, douse the fish with it.

You will place the salmon pieces on top of each other, sandwiching the dill between them (I think I was supposed to put the meat inside now that I think about it).

Tightly wrap the salmon in the aluminum foil.

And then wrap that in the plastic wrap.

Place it in a dish, or as I did, a gallon-size zip top bag.  Turn it every 12 hours, for a total of 48 hours in the refrigerator (note: some sources such as Cooking for Engineers note that they get just fine results from not turning it and not keeping it pressed down with something heavy - this is something else I forgot to do!)

Two days later you will get this.  Or if you do it the right way, something a bit darker.

Wash off the salt-sugar mixture and the dill, and slice.  Use something sharper than the IKEA knife that I used.  You will get it thinner than I did, but even at this thickness it was quite wonderful.

Traditionally, you eat gravlax with a gravlaxsås.  Many of these are some variation on mustard, lemon juice and more dill.  It's not terribly difficult to make.

The recipe I used came from the Seafood from Norway website.  I only used the sauce part of the recipe.

* fish stock (I used a few small pieces from the salmon plus a few bits of dill to boil my own)
* dill (it's not like I didn't have it lying around)
* whole seed mustard (had it)
* lemon juice (same)
* shallots (two will do you)
* cream (you won't need more than one half-pint)
* butter (had this too)

Sauté the shallots in butter until soft.

Next, add the fish stock, cream and mustard.

And bring to a simmer.

Then add lemon juice.

Oh, and dill.

Just as Stefan Gates said, this is a deeply satisfying dish.  True, I had no knife capable of slicing it thinly, and the gravlax was probably not supposed to be lighter on the outside than on the inside.  Still I wound up eating almost half of what I had cured, almost as soon as I pulled it out of the bag.  This is a surprisingly simple recipe if you have the time and the patience for it.  I will be doing this again, and probably will be experimenting with other things as well: maybe onions, pepper, cumin, even Old Bay.

UPDATE (October 28, 2011)

I recently tried this again, realizing some of my old mistakes.  This time, I weighted the gravlax down, and I also put the skin sides out instead of in.  This led to a denser texture, saltier flavor and much more deeply red color.  These are pluses all around.  I also decided to throw a little alder-smoked sea salt in for flavor, and it is really noticeable.

It was also much easier to slice very thin.


Adams, Marcia. Heartland: The Best of the Old and the New from Midwest Kitchens. Clarkson Potter: New York, 1991.

All Things Considered.  "Best Holiday Food: Tried Some of That Lutefisk?" Reported by Audie Cornish for National Public Radio. Original airdate: December 31, 2010.

Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.  "History".  From the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa website.  Copyright 2011.

Chiu, Michael.  "Gravlax".  From the Cooking for Engineers website.  Published September 2, 2005.

Dooley, Beth, and Lucia Watson.  Savoring Seasons of the Northern Heartland.  Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1994.

Gates, Stefan.  "Homemade Gravlax".  From the Gastronaut website and the BBC Book Gastronaut, copyright 2006.

Henderson, Helene.  The Swedish Table.  University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2005.

Nett Lake Wild Rice.  "Recipes".  Copyright Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.

Seafood from Norway. "Norwegian Gravlax with Whole Grain Mustard Dill Sauce".  From the Seafood from Norway website.  Published 2005.  Copyright Eksportutvalget for fisk (Norwegian Seafood Export Council), 2005.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Minnesota" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Minnesota".