Why Iceland?

My 11-year-old son Flynn is obsessed with Iceland.

“I think I want to learn to speak Icelandic,” he declared to us at some point.

He now has two different Icelandic apps on his iPhone and paces around the house working on his pronunciation.

“Kveðja!” he says cheerfully by way of an Icelandic goodbye to our 5-year-old daughter Imogen as she heads off to summer camp.

Svið (singed sheep's head)

Svið (singed sheep’s head)

Why Iceland? I take some responsibility, having introduced him to the Icelandic band, Sigur Rós, and taken him to one of their very dramatic concerts.

I’ve always been a bit intrigued by Iceland myself. I’m Irish, I like cold and dramatic northern landscapes and broody people who drink a bit too much and write mournful poetry and music.

The food of Iceland has never held much appeal, however. The only thing I’d ever really heard of was hákarl, the infamous fermented or “rotten” shark that one travel blogger online described as “the object of my anxiety.”

Flynn chopping veggies for the lamb stew

Flynn chopping veggies for the lamb stew

But recent posts from a blogger friend who visited the island and had some impressive looking meals made me rethink my impressions. Maybe it was time to give Iceland another look? (I will note that said blogger friend, while sampling smoked puffin and minke whale, did not rise to the challenge to try hákarl — “We just ran out of time,” she offered by way of an unconvincing excuse.)

I also received an issue of Saveur toward the end of last year with an article on celebrating the holidays in Iceland, loaded with interesting recipes. I dug it out of the magazine pile. Perhaps Flynn would like to try making an Icelandic meal together? “Why not,” he said cheerfully.

We put some Sigur Rós on the stereo, did a bit of online research and got out the Saveur. It became clear we were not going to be able to prepare some of Iceland’s more iconic dishes — skyr (a yogurt-like soft cheese), harðfiskur  (air-dried stockfish) and much to Flynn’s disappointment maybe not even ein með öllu (Iceland’s famous lamb hot dogs with exotic condiments) — nor some of it’s weirder: “singed” sheep’s head, horse, ram testicles, rotten shark, minke whale and puffin.

Cod with egg & butter sauce

Cod with egg & butter sauce

In addition, most of the Christmas recipes in Saveur were extremely hearty winter dishes, not necessarily appropriate to September in Southern California.

We settled on what was possible and sounded appropriate to the five tastes of our family, as well as not too incongruous with the season: the country’s ubiquitous lamb stew with caramelized potatoes; a cod dish with hard-cooked egg and butter; and a homemade grainy rye bread. And we picked an unseasonably rainy summer day, as close as we could get to Icelandic weather.

Proud chef and his creation

Proud chef and his creation

The meal with tastier than I had expected given the simplicity of the recipes. I didn’t even bother trying to find a rutabaga in the Southern California summer for the stew, settling instead on the classic trio of carrots, onion and celery — and resisting the urge to add star anise or cinnamon or some other flavorings that would’ve thrown it in a distinctly non-Icelandic direction.

Here, then, are my versions of three Icelandic classics. If you insist on rutabaga, you might just have to wait until winter. And for fun, just try to pronounce the Icelandic names below.

So from now on, when people ask “Why Iceland,” Flynn and I offer the only answer we can: Why not?

*    *    *

Caramelized potatoes (brúnaðar kartöflur)
serves 4-6

8-10 small-to-medium Yukon Gold or other yellow, waxy potato
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. water
1 tbsp. butter
flaky sea salt to taste

Boil the potatoes in hot water until tender. Remove from heat and let cool. Peel off the skin.

In a large pan, heat sugar and water over medium-high heat until water dissolves and bubbling sugar begins to turn golden — about 4-5 minutes.

Lower heat to medium. Add potatoes and butter, and cook, turning potatoes frequently, for another 4-5 minutes, until browning. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt to taste.

*    *    *

Icelandic lamb stew (kjötsúpa)
serves 4-6

2 lbs. lamb on the bone (shoulder, stew meat, loin chops, etc.)
1 small onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 tbsp. duck fat or lard
1 bay leaf
5 or 6 juniper berries
1 cup chopped cabbage
4 cups water
salt & pepper

Season lamb generously with salt and pepper. In a large saucepan or pot, heat duck fat or lard over medium high heat until melted. Add onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown. Push veggies to the side and add lamb, and cook until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add water, bay leaf and juniper berries. Bring to a simmer. Lower heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 90 minutes. Remove lamb and cut meat from the bones. Return meat to pot, raise heat to medium, and cook for another 30 or so minutes, until stew has thickened. Add cabbage, cook for 5 minutes more, then turn off heat and cover. Let sit for 5 or 10 minutes.

Serve with caramelized potatoes.

*    *    *

Broiled cod with egg and butter sauce  (Þorskur með eggja og smjörsósu)
serves 4-6

2 lbs. cod fillet
1 tbsp. olive oil
3 eggs, hard-cooked, peeled and quartered
4 tbsp. butter
1 lemon
1 tbsp. chopped fresh dill
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Place cod fillets on a large piece of foil or a cookie sheet, and brush with olive oil. Broil in a 500-degree oven for about 8-10 minutes, until flaky and golden.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Toss in egg quarters to create a sauce.

Place cod fillets on a serving platter or individual plates. Spoon sauce and egg over fillets, squeeze a little lemon over each, sprinkle with chopped fresh dill, and season to taste with flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Sep 18, 2015 @ 00:33:19

    Good for Flynn! I agree Sean why not Iceland? Very interesting and fun post. Cheryl

    Reply

  2. Mom
    Sep 18, 2015 @ 15:42:38

    That is one cute boy.

    Reply

  3. Kathy Rautureau
    Sep 19, 2015 @ 22:03:10

    Sean, are you planning on attending the food bloggers convention in Seattle? If so, please stop by my husband’s table and say “hi”. He will be representing our restaurant Loulay. I unfortunately will not be there, but it would be great for you two to meet. His name is Thierry Rautureau, otherwise known as “The Chef in the Hat”. Love reading your blog, thanks Kathy.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Sep 19, 2015 @ 22:15:52

      Hi Kathy! No, I don’t like conventions of any kinds. And I don’t really think of myself as a blogger (silly, I know). WOW! though, I just read all about your husband’s new(ish) restaurant, and now I want to come to Seattle not to go to a blogger’s convention but to go to YOUR RESTAURANT!!! 🙂

      Reply

  4. Glennis
    Sep 29, 2015 @ 00:27:23

    Nice to see Flynn in that UCLA shirt!!

    I am spamming a little here, but I think you will like this:

    http://doves2day.blogspot.com/2015/09/whole-hog.html

    Reply

  5. Trackback: Fjord Shrimp with Andreas | skinny girls & mayonnaise
  6. erik zobler
    Oct 28, 2015 @ 20:04:03

    I am 1/2 Icelandic and trust me you are wise to leave the rotting shark alone…

    Reply

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