A really satisfying meal

A meal I had last year at one of Iceland's fancier (and most expensive) restaurants, where perfectly done beef was served with braised veal that was well on its way to becoming pâté and had an incredible richness of flavour, reminded me of all the times when, as a child and well into my teens, I would stalk the pot when my mother was making lamb pâté and try to nab a little morsel of braised meat that had been cooked for so long that it was beginning to separate into string-like pieces, each bursting with the flavour of meat, onions and salt and saturated with the special flavour braising gives to meat. Unfortunately for the restaurant, the comparison was not in their favour, because while the braised veal – I think they called it veal mousse although I am relatively sure that neither cream, eggs nor gelatin were involved – had a wonderful, rich flavour, it had a mushy, nasty texture that made it impossible to eat it by itself - you needed a piece of beef, vegetable or potato to hide the texture.

A little later I bought a shoulder of lamb and used a couple of pieces to cook vegetable-lamb soup. After the hour it takes to make the soup, the meat was tough and flavourless and I decided I was probably going to end up making pâté from what remained. But yesterday when I was reading Ruth Reichl's book Garlic and Sapphires, the chapter on beef gave me a hankering after meat, and I remembered the braised veal and lamb. I now decided to try to recapture that fascinating, rich flavour, along with the right texture. I had braised meat many times but never taken it to the stage where it begins to fall apart, so this was a first for me.

I started rooting around in the freezer, rejected some cutlets I found, knowing I could get them cooked and tasting good in about 30 minutes, whereas the lamb shoulder, which I dug up next, would be perfect for braising. I took two pieces and put them in the fridge to thaw, then when I came home today I got them out, cut them down to a size that would fit into the smaller of my soup pots, browned them at high heat in a frying pan and flavoured them with salt and pepper, then dumped them into the soup pot with a quartered onion and little bit of water. Once it was boiling merrily I lowered the heat so that it would barely keep simmering, put the lid on and started the timer.

After 20 minutes I opened the pot, saw there was too much liquid and poured off some of it into a jar. Every 20 minutes I checked on the pot and pulled the bottom piece of meat out and put it on top to allow all the meat to wallow in the increasingly flavourful broth, which I replenished from the jar whenever it was in danger of boiling off. After an hour I decided there was some flavour note missing from the broth, so I added a sliced carrot and a bit more salt.

At the 70 minute mark I took the meat and cut it into smaller pieces and returned it to the pot with the bones. I started cooking the potatoes around the 80 minute mark and decided that I needed a second side dish to serve with the meat, so I got out some white cabbage which I sliced into ribbons. When the potatoes were cooked, I got them out and mashed them, adding milk, butter, sugar and a pinch of salt, and then put them aside.

It was now time to start browning the meat. I poured off the broth which by now could well be called stock, so rich and concentrated had it become, turned up the heat to medium and put some butter into the pot, as the meat was rather lean and there was hardly any fat on it to use for the browning. I also put some into a frying pan for the cabbage.

While the butter in the pan melted and got up to the right temperature, I coated the meat in butter and listened to hear the sizzling begin. I dumped the cabbage into the frying pan and stirred it to get it coated with butter, then turned back to the meat. This I stirred to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and tore it apart with the edge of the wooden spoon and a fork while it browned. To make sure it wouldn't burn or dry out, I occasionally added a spoonful of the stock. At this stage I was taking turns stirring the meat and the cabbage.

When the smell of cooking cabbage began to rise from the pan, I added couple of dashes of maple syrup to it (you need to be very careful with the maple syrup as too much ruins the dish) and a pinch of salt to counteract the syrup's sweetness. I stirred the cabbage to coat with the syrup and then removed it from the heat. Then I finished browning the meat, which was now beginning to take on a caramel colour and looked like my mother's pâté meat does right before she puts it into the grinder. The onions had been completely mashed up and absorbed by the meat, but carrot pieces were still visible as tiny morsels of bright orange among the browned meat. I added the final spoonful of broth, gave it a stir, picked out the bones (carefully licking each before discarding it) and then dumped the meat onto a plate, added the mashed potatoes and the cabbage.

And how did it taste? The mashed potatoes were creamy and mild with a hint of butter, the meat was rich and soft with just the right amount of saltiness and a hint of pepper, but the cabbage was a bit bold – which was surprising as raw it had little flavour – but it was perfectly al dente and after the first explosion of flavour it had just the right amount of sweetness and a mild taste of maple to counteract the first big taste shock. I think the most exquisite moment of the meal came when the liquid from the cabbage – equal amounts cabbage juice, butter and maple syrup – seeped into the meat and was absorbed into it, adding a hint of sweetness to it to complement its rich and slightly salty braised flavour. In other words: it was a very, very good meal, in the way only food cooked at home with love and care can be.

I am just hoping the mashed potatoes will prevent me from getting heartburn, but even if I do, it will have been worth it.


News: Skyr is now available in New York and Boston

According to Morgunblaðið, skyr is now available in Whole Foods Markets in the New York and Boston areas.

Icelandic roast beef sandwich – Roast beef samloka

I’m feeling a little uninventive today, so I am going to post a recipe for a good sandwich I sometimes buy or make: roast beef.

For 1 sandwich, take 2 slices of bread (white or whole-wheat), put one slice aside and top the other with 2-3 slices of cold roast beef. Smear some remoulade (scroll down to the bottom of the page to see recipe) on top of the roast beef, add 4-5 slices of pickled cucumber/gherkin OR a couple of slices of canned apricots, and about 2 tsp of French fried onions. Top with the other slice of bread and enjoy.

I like this sandwich best when it’s newly made and the onions are still crunchy, but it is quite good even when they have gone soft.

The version with the pickled cucumber is widely available wherever sandwiches are sold in supermarkets and highway diners in Iceland.


Rjómaterta I - Cream Cake I

All kinds of scrumptuous, decorated cakes with fruit, cream and/or sweet icing are very popular in Iceland, and there are plenty of recipes to choose from. Most are based on some kind of sponge cake, or are made with meringue. They are often jokingly called Stríðstertur (Battle Cakes). Hnallþórur is another joke name for these cakes - derived from a character in one of Halldór Laxness' books, a woman who loved to make and serve these kinds of cake. These creations are as beautiful and tempting to behold as they are delicious and fattening!

Layer 1:
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
2 cups desiccated coconut or Rice Crispies
100 g dark chocolate

Beat together egg whites and sugar until stiff and peaks form. Chop or finely grate the chocolate and fold in along with coconut/Rice Crispies. Pour into a greased, round cake pan (use one with a loose bottom). Bake at 150°C for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

Layer 2:
4 eggs
100 g sugar
50 g flour
50 g potato flour

Whip the eggs until light and fluffy and add the sugar. Continue whipping until light in colour. Sift together flour and potato flour and carefully fold into egg/sugar mixture with a fork. Pour into a greased round cake pan (same size and type as layer 1). Bake at 200°C for 5 minutes and then lower heat to 175°C and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

500 ml whipping cream
1 large can strawberries in syrup
as needed fresh strawberries, chocolate-covered raisins & salted peanuts

Whip the cream until stiff. Mash the canned strawberries and fold into the cream. Spread a portion on top of layer 1. Top with layer 2. Cover the cake with the rest of the strawberry cream. Decorate with fresh strawberries, chocolate raisins and salted peanuts.


Engifermjólk - Ginger milk

Serves 2.

My own invention. This sweet ginger-milk drink is wonderfully calming if you have an upset stomach. Ginger-root is a well-known nature medicine, and is especially recommended for stomach ailments and motion sickness.

250 ml (1 cup) milk
sugar to taste
1,5 cm fresh ginger root OR 1/2 tsp dried, powdered ginger

Peel the ginger and grate it into a saucepan and add the milk, OR put the milk into a saucepan and add powdered ginger and stir to mix. Bring the milk to the boil. Pour through a sieve or tea strainer into mugs, add sugar and enjoy.

-You can vary the amount of ginger according to taste. Just don't put too much or the milk may curdle.


Caraway coffee - Kúmenkaffi

Brew some good, strong coffee, adding some caraway seeds before brewing. If you grind your own, throw some caraway seeds in the grinder along with the coffee beans. I'm not going to offer any measurements, as people's tastes vary widely where coffee in concerned, and the amount of caraway should be adjusted to taste.

-For a truly adult version of caraway coffee, make a "Black Russian" with fresh, hot coffee and use brennivín instead of vodka. To add a bit of brennivín ("að gefa út í") is a tradition still honoured by some Icelanders, and there are stories of caraway coffee sometimes arousing the (happy) suspicion that the hostess has put "a little something extra" in the coffee.


Every-day pancakes – Lummur/Klattar

"Klattar" mean "pats", an appropriate name for these pats of dough. "Lumma" (the singular form of "Lummur") is sometimes used to refer to something that is old fashioned, especially when referring to outdated music.

My mother is an expert at making these mini pancakes. Unlike the large, thin pancakes that are served rolled up with sugar or whipped cream and jam, these small, thick ones taste best sprinkled with sugar, still warm from the skillet, with a glass of cold milk. A variation on the basic recipe is fish-pancakes.

150 ml flour
1 egg
1 tsp baking powder
150 ml milk (or more as needed)
1 tbs sugar
25 g margarine/butter
150 ml rice pudding or porridge
1-2 tbs. raisins (optional)

Melt the margarine/butter on the skillet over low heat. Allow to cool slightly. Sieve flour and baking powder together into a bowl. Add sugar and rice pudding or porridge and mix well. Add half the milk and mix. Add the egg and the rest of the milk, and then the melted margarine/butter, and the raisins (if you are using them). The dough should be thick enough not to run much on the pan, and yield thick pancakes.

Heat the skillet to medium temperature. Put the dough on the skillet with a tablespoon. You should be able to fry 3-4 "lummur" at once. Turn over with a spatula. Bake until light brown on both sides.
Serving suggestion:
-Put the pancakes on a plate in layers and sprinkle some sugar on top of each layer. Serve fresh with sugar, jam or syrup.


Sólarkaffi - Sun Coffee

Because of Iceland's northerly location, the sun rises very low over the horizon during the winter. The country has many deep, narrow fjords and valleys where the sun does not rise above the mountains for many weeks during the darkest winter days. When the sun finally does show itself for a few minutes, it is a cause for celebration for the inhabitants of those dark valleys and fjords.

These days, the inhabitants of some towns and villages will get together in the gathering hall to celebrate the arrival of sunshine. Others will celebrate individually in their own homes. There is no specific sunshine day, since the sun will appear on different days in different locations. And there should be no cheating: even if you know that the sun has risen above the mountains, there is no celebrating until the weather actually allows it to be seen! This tradition is widespread in Iceland, especially in the east and west fjords, but also in some fjords and valleys in the north.

The Sun Coffee is traditionally served with pancakes, cream cake and any other cake you want! (This includes just about anything from the Cakes, pancakes and cookies page). Many will make caraway coffee for this occasion.

Sunshine day is also a cause for celebration and remembrance among those who have moved away from the fjords and valleys, usually to Reykjavík. Many of these people have formed clubs that are open to anyone coming from the "old place". They will pick a day close to the time when they know the sun will appear in the old place. A number of volunteers will each bring one cake, or a pile of pancakes or a plate of flat bread with hangikjöt, and they will have a feast with the cakes and drink freshly brewed sun coffee. Sometimes there will be entertainment.

I don't know when this sunny tradition started, but it is clearly a modern version of the ancient midwinter festivals, like Yule and Þorrablót. People look up to the skies and thank God that the sun is back and another winter will soon draw to an end.


Mayonnaise - Olíusósa

This, of course, is not Icelandic, but Icelanders are very fond of salads and sauces based on mayonnaise, so here is a recipe.

makes 200-300 grams (7-10 oz.)

2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp salt
200-300 ml salad (or cooking) oil
1 pinch pepper (optional)
1/2-1 tsp sugar
1 pinch dry, ground mustard seeds (optional)
1-2 tsp vinegar or lemon juice. White vinegar can be used but will make the taste sharp. Flavoured vinegar, such as tarragon, makes the taste more mellow.

Mayonnaise can be made in a blender or a mixer, or by hand, using a whisk and a bowl with a rounded bottom. Egg yolks and oil must be at room temperature. Mixing bowl/blender cup must be clean and dry, and also at room temperature. Choose oil that has little flavour of its own.

Mix and stir the egg yolks with the salt until light and thickened. Add the sugar and the spice, if using (pepper OR mustard) and half the vinegar/lemon juice and mix well. Lemon juice is healthier than vinegar, and mayonnaise made with lemon juice is better in dressings meant for fruit salads.
Start mixing the oil into the egg yolks, first drop by drop, and then, when the oil begins to blend in, in a steady trickle. Stirring must be constant, or else the sauce may separate. The mayonnaise should thicken bit by bit as more oil is added. If it becomes thinner the oil and egg are not mixing, i.e. the sauce is separating. If that happens, stop adding oil, stir the sauce harder and add 1 tsp water or cream. If that does not thicken the sauce, there are two methods you can use to save the sauce:

a) take a fresh egg yolk and put it in a clean bowl, whisk with a little salt and then add the thin sauce in a steady trickle, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens. The continue adding the oil until the sauce is the right thickness.

b) put 1 tbs. cold water and a bit of vinegar/lemon juice in a clean bowl and add the thin sauce in a steady trickle, stirring with a clean whisk. Then add the oil until the sauce is the right thickness.

Home-made mayonnaise should be thick, smooth and shiny. It keeps well in a closed container in a cold place for a few days. Must not be allowed to freeze and must not be kept in the coldest spot in the refrigerator because then it will separate when it is taken out for use.

When putting the mayonnaise away, smooth it into the container and put a tiny amount of water or oil on top so that a film can not form on top.
Spices may be stirred carefully into the sauce before use, and for thinning, whipped cream may be mixed in.

The sauce must be thick if it is to be used for decorating food or in salads that will be used to top bread. Sauce that will be used on food can be thinner and may be made using whole eggs instead of yolks, or eggs and yolks (1 whole egg + 1 yolk).

If you want to enlarge the recipe, follow these guidelines: 100 ml of oil should be used per each egg yolk, or 150-200 ml per whole egg. The eggs can bind more oil than that, but then the mayonnaise will taste oily.


Skonsur - Thick pancakes/pan-fried bread

The word "skonsa" (the singular form of "skonsur") is the same word as "scone" in English. We Icelanders use the word to refer to a kind of thick pancake. The taste is similar to American breakfast pancakes, but we serve them differently. We usually cook them on the same kind of skillet as we use to make the delicious Icelandic pancakes.

250 g bread flour
4 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tbs sugar
40 g margarine, melted
250 ml milk
2 eggs

Mix together the dry ingredients. Add the eggs and melted margarine, and thin with milk. Stir until smooth. Pour on a greased skillet and fry on both sides at low temperature. Cakes should be like thick pancakes.
-serve cold with any kind of topping that is good with bread: cheese, slices of meat, salads, etc.
-make a sandwich-cake: make a mayonnaise/sour-cream based salad (shrimp, tuna, egg, salmon, etc.), and layer with whole pancakes. (More on sandwich-cakes later).
-serve warm like American pancakes, with butter and syrup


Spice bread with ham and cheese filling

This is my own recipe. It's basis is a simple recipe for pizza crust that I got from a home economics cookery book, but it ended up as something completely different. Enjoy!

300 ml flour
1/2 tsp coriander
100 ml wheat germ (optional)
1 tsp garlic powder
2 1/2 tsp dry yeast*
2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tbs water, lukewarm
1/2 tsp curry powder, mild
1 tbs vegetable oil

Mix together dry ingredients, including yeast and spices. Add oil and water and mix well. Knead until the dough is well mixed and no cracks are visible on the surface. Stand in a warm place for 40 minutes to 1 hour to rise. Knead again and roll out into an oblong shape. Thin the edges.

diced ham
cheese (I recommend Gouda)
Cottage cheese (optional)

Mix together ham and cottage cheese and put in the centre of the dough oblong. Sprinkle grated cheese over the filling. Fold the edges of the dough over the filling and press edges together. Brush with vegetable oil and sprinkle with grated cheese. Stand in a warm place for 20-25 minutes, to rise. Bake at 190 deg. C. for 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

-try using caraway seed along with the other spices.
-make a filling with everything you usually put in a pizza, or use the dough recipe to make a spicy pizza crust


Mashed Potatoes - Kartöflustappa/kartöflumús

Is there a potato-growing country in the world where people don’t make mashed potatoes? I doubt it. Here is one version. I have been making mashed potatoes since I learned to cook and have never used a recipe, but this recipe gives a good idea of the approximate proportions of the ingredients.

Mashed potatoes are served with many Icelandic dishes. I like it best with sausages, stews and goulash, and occasionally with roast lamb. It's also good with fried liver sausage.

1 1/2 kg potatoes
1/2 l milk
1 tbs butter (approx.)
1/2 tsp salt
15 g sugar (approx.)

Cook the potatoes, peel and mash well. Add some milk and stir well. Continue adding milk until the desired consistency is reached (should be fairly thick, but not runny). Add the butter, sugar and salt to taste. Warm up, but do not boil.

-Add a pinch of ground nutmeg as well as salt and sugar.
-For really light, lumpless and fluffy mashed potatoes, whip them, but not for long or they can become gummy.

A little etymology: The popular Icelandic name for mashed potatoes is kartöflumús. Mús means “mouse”, which some little kids think is very funny, but it’s actually an Icelanic spelling of the French word mousse.


Fish and seafood in Iceland

Being an island, Iceland naturally relies on the sea that surrounds it and the economy is still more or less based on fishing and fish processing (although other industries are becoming more important). Traditionally fish is either cooked and eaten fresh or preserved by salting (söltun), drying (þurrkun), smoking (reyking), or partly drying (siginn fiskur). Skate (skata and tindabykkja) and shark (hákarl) are fermented (kæsing).

The most common fish caught off Iceland's shores is cod (þorskur), which is mostly exported. The majority of Icelanders prefer to eat haddock (ýsa). My own favourite is halibut (lúða, heilagfiski). The traditional way of serving fish, whether fresh or preserved, is as soðning: plain, boiled fish, served with potatoes and sometimes with melted sheep's tallow with cracklings. Cod roe and liver are considered a delicacy by many. These are seasonal treats, and so is the fatty flesh of the male lumpfish (rauðmagi).

Other common species include capelin (loðna( which is mostly processed into fish-meal, herring (síld), saithe (ufsi), ocean perch (karfi), plaice (skarkoli) and ocean catfish/wolf-fish (steinbítur), to name a few. Mackerel (makríll) and tuna (túnfiskur) fishing has recently begun.

Anglerfish (skötuselur) and dogfish (háfur) also find their way into the trawls and nets of Icelandic fishermen, along with some more exotic species like moonfish (guðlax).

Crustaceans include arctic lobster/langostines (leturhumar), arctic shrimp (rækja) and many species of crabs. Only lobster and shrimp are caught commercially. Many types of shellfish are found - the only widely caught species is the scallop (hörpuskel) - but there is also some clam (kúskel) fishing and recently a company in Stykkishólmur has begun commercial breeding of blue mussels (bláskel) .

Fermented skate w/potatoes, rye bread, crackling and melted tallow.
Grey skate and starry rays (skata, tindabykkja) and Greenland shark (hákarl) are mostly eaten on special occasions. Salted and fermented skate - the smellier, the better - is a popular meal on the feast of St. Þorlákur on December 23rd. Shark is a typical "gross-out food", offered to unsuspecting foreign visitors along with a shot of Brennivín schnapps. It is traditionally eaten at Þorrablót feasts, cut into very small pieces, although some people keep it in the house and eat some every day.

Freshwater fish also provide a part of the diet of many Icelanders. Arctic char (bleikja), brown trout (silungur, urriði), and Atlantic salmon (lax) are all indigenous to Iceland, and so is eel (áll), but few people bother to catch eels. The most popular introduced species is rainbow trout (regnbogasilungur).

Iceland is home to some of Europe's most famous salmon rivers. A testament to the clean environment of the country is the fact that a good salmon river runs through the capital, Reykjavík.