Although the terms “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” are used interchangeably, Scandinavia originally referred only to Norway, Sweden and Denmark while Nordic is an umbrella term created by the French (“Pays Nordiques” or “Nordic Countries”) to also include Finland and Iceland. While each country claims its unique dishes, all share similarities.
Miles of seacoast led to a strong focus on seafood—cod, salmon, herring and other cold-water species are poached, braised, cured, smoked, dried or pickled. Shrimp and crayfish also appear frequently, as do game, pork and sausage, with root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and parsnips as accompaniments. Berries, cherries and other fruits are turned into sauces and preserves. Scandinavia also has a cheesemaking heritage, boasting varieties including Norwegian Jarlsberg, Geitost, Gjetost, Snofrisk and Ridder, Danish havarti and Swedish fontina.
Morten Sohlberg, owner/executive chef of Smorgas Chef Restaurant Group in New York City, menus a wide selection of Nordic specialties. Classics like Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and aquavit-cured Gravlaks (salmon) are very popular, as are made-from-scratch blinis and potato pancakes. “I employ a meatball chef, who uses a recipe derived from about 80 different versions. We sell around 100,000 meatballs a month,” he reports. Another top seller is the Coldwater Shrimp Sandwich or Salad. Sohlberg specs coldwater shrimp that are caught in Northern Europe, then cooked seconds later in sea water and immediately frozen “so they taste like they just came off the boat. It makes a huge difference,” he says.
Although tradition is important to Sohlberg, he approaches ingredients with modern touches. The same shrimp go into Shrimp Brulee with spicy aioli flavored with ginger and pepper. And his Gravlaks Croquettes are potato fingers fried with a line of salmon to resemble sushi. He takes a modern approach to purchasing, too. “I don’t use a broadliner; I buy from specialty vendors and my own driver goes to wholesale clubs and greenmarkets.” Sohlberg also forages for chanterelles in the Catskills and is exploring land upstate to grow and supply produce.
At New York City’s Aquavit, executive chef Marcus Jernmark works directly with local farmers to purchase as much meat and produce as possible. “My lamb comes from a Swedish farmer in New Jersey—it’s the best farm-to-table experience,” he notes. “I’m trying to line up a pork supply from his neighbor who raises pigs.” Jernmark’s goal: stay true to ingredients that have Swedish roots but can be sourced close to home.
Local sourcing is in step with the “Nordic Kitchen Manifesto,” formulated in 2004. It emphasizes local, seasonal foods, small-scale production and preservation of the food culture. Jernmark is on the same page, focusing on techniques like smoking, curing, drying and pickling that are true to the Scandinavian culinary legacy. “Pickling really distinguishes the cooking, so I’m playing a lot with vinegars, sugar and salt to balance sweet, tart and salty flavors,” he says. His Jarlsberg cheese tartlet with smoked trout caviar and pickled cucumber is an example. “I want to reflect what’s best in Scandinavian cuisine while taking Aquavit into a new era,” he explains.
Restaurant Magnus, Madison, WI
Potato Terrine with Pickled Apple: Fennel, elderflower, truffle vinaigrette; $11
Cardamom Chicken Breast: Jarlsberg-apple puree, leeks, cabbage and red wine syrup; $25
Smorgas Chef, New York City
Cloudberry Duck: Seared duck, braised cabbage, carrot ginger mash, cloudberry reduction; $21
Aquavit, New York City
Venison Tartare with horseradish, pickled beets, mustard; $13
Poached Chatham Cod with potato confit, leeks, trout roe salad, horseradish sauce; $25