It was rather embarrassing realizing I hadn’t been practicing what I’d been preaching. Winter was waning and I’d spent the better part of it burying myself under Thai takeout and deli pizzas. It was like coming up for air, fragrant caraway and dill scented air, as I returned to a New Nordic state of mind. Not familiar with New Nordic cuisine? It is the sexy coupling of Scandinavian philosophies and France's Slow Food movement.
Danish Chef Claus Meyers outlined The New Nordic Manifesto with its attention to regional and seasonal ingredients, and clean simple flavors. Claus’s Manifesto also calls for sustainability practices in the growing and harvesting of food. It promotes humane treatment of animals, and kitchens that produce little waste. Health is the key component of New Nordic, both of the planet and of an individual. We are, after all, symbiotic.
While the Mediterranean diet continues to make headlines for its health benefits, it doesn’t necessarily translate for those of us living in Northern climates, especially if we want to stock our pantries with local and seasonal ingredients. But compare the Mediterranean guidelines with those of our Nordic kin and you’ll find many similarities. Both diets call for more vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish and non-animal proteins. Both diets call for moderate consumption of low-fat dairy, less meat and sweets, and avoidance of processed food. New Nordic shares this Mediterranean thinking but utilizes the ingredients and flavors of a northern climate.
Meanwhile, American chefs are also paying attention to region and season, sustainability and farm-to-table sourcing. Clean simple flavors are featured in many restaurants, and not just in those lauded as New Nordic.
Everybody talks the local seasonal thing these days. But it isn’t anything new.
Historically, Nordic foods emphasized regional and seasonal ingredients that came from the landscape. This continues to be true today. Seas, rivers and lakes provide fish. Mountains and forests provide mushrooms, berries, and game. Farmers raise dairy, rye, barley, pork, and reindeer. Centuries of trade have brought spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, caraway, fennel, allspice and citrus, while locally sourced aromatics like dill and parsley anchor the cuisine. A short growing season and long winter meant that preservation methods such as smoking, pickling and curing rose to artistic heights. Long winters also created a reliance on root vegetables.
Today Scandinavian foodways are influenced by travel, wealth, politics and immigration. The cuisine is dynamic, beautiful, healthy, and among some of us in America often dreadfully misunderstood. Those of us with Scandinavian ancestry often suffer from a belief that what our grandparents ate for Christmas Eve every year is the summation of everyday plates across Scandinavia. Admittedly there are some foodstuffs that outsiders (and insiders) might consider to be strange. Fermented Baltic herring (surstrӧmming) is packed in a can that must be opened under running water due to the gases that escape. Lutfisk is generally enjoyed by older folks during the holidays; if prepared well the gelatinous lye soaked cod brings to mind flaky lake walleye or whitefish. It is somewhat difficult to convince Midwesterners that Nordic food is not consistently white and bland, and that yes, some of us enjoy eating lutfisk.
You might think that that eating local seasonal foods is impossible for those of us in the Midwest especially during winter. But with some careful planning, and some time puttering in the kitchen each week (which is something many of us do anyway), dinner practically cooks itself. My menu plan adheres relatively close to the New Nordic Manifesto. It includes eating fish at least twice weekly and I’ve added more vegetables to every meal and use local, seasonal, and pesticide-free ingredients whenever possible.
I admit I cannot mimic Chef Claus 100% of the time. I don’t forage, although I grow my own herbs and tomatoes and have an annual canning party. I’ve owned the NOMA cookbook since it came out and won’t be attempting one of those majestic recipes soon. The book looks lovely on our coffee table. I adhere to the 80/20 rule; 80% of the food I eat is locally sourced and prepared in my kitchen.
Walk into my house today and you will smell fragrant fennel, caraway, orange and molasses from the rye bread baking in the oven. The dense limpa sustains us during the work week with smörgås. Open-faced sandwiches are perfect for breakfast and lunch, topped with cheese and radish, salmon and avocado, or eggs and tomatoes. A garnish of fresh dill or parsley makes these small but filling meals feel fancy. As winter takes a few last wheezy breaths our evening meals consist of root vegetables, organic greens, local trout or chicken. We’ll dine on a beautiful roast or chop once a week, but are relying more on vegetable based ingredients than we have in the past. With spring our plates will be filled with asparagus, new potatoes, ramps, herbs and baby greens. New Nordic eating means celebrating each season as it comes.