When you think about the cultural influences that determine the foundation of Pacific Northwest regional cuisine, think Scandinavian.
When we talk about Pacific Northwest cooking, we logically discuss the ingredients first. The local bounty is impressive. Seafood, dairy foods, livestock and game are complemented by an abundance of berries, tree fruits, pulses and grains, affording this region a particularly rich larder on which to draw. But when we think about the cultural influences that determine how we handle all those good things, we tend to focus on the more exotic forces that make our regional cuisine stand out.
In recent decades especially, as a celebration of “New American Food” has highlighted this region’s cuisine as one of the country’s more intriguing, food and travel writers have focused on the Asian and Native American traditions to distinguish our culinary habits from mainstream American fare.
But I have always felt that the foundation of our regional cuisine might be something else. Think Ballard.
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In the hundred years between 1830 and 1930, 2.5 million people emigrated from Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland to North America, and a disproportionate number of those immigrants settled in this part of the country. An article in the 2007 “Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink” points out that those Scandinavians might have had more impact than most people realize. Finnish women, for example, typically trained in home economics before emigrating and worked as cooks when they came to America. (Technically, say the editors, Finns are not Scandinavians, but the food is very similar to that of Sweden, Norway and Denmark).
Certain foods familiar to all Americans — such as Danish pastry, split pea soup with ham, and the cold-smoked salmon known as gravlaks or lox — are essentially Scandinavian dishes. Specific dishes aside, it seems to me that a subtle but tangible Nordic aesthetic governs Pacific Northwest tastes.
One look at “Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad,” convinced me that my long-held hunches were correct. Published by Artisan with ethereal photographs by Mette Randem and an introduction by Marcus Samuelson, the superstar Scandinavian chef behind New York’s Aquavit, Viestad’s book looks almost as if it could be the latest book on Cascadian food by any up-and-coming chef from Portland, Seattle, Vancouver or Anchorage.
From Mussels with Aquavit Cream and Tarragon to a spirited cordial called The Devil’s Rhubarb, this food and these drinks look and taste eerily familiar. Not only that, but the landscapes and the portraits look like they could have been shot between my home on Bainbridge Island and Olympic National Park a few hours’ drive west, with a stopover in Poulsbo, the largely Norwegian community along the way.
It’s not just that the ingredients and the people are kind of similar, it’s that cooks in both regions have a peculiar way of combining things that seems as if they could be plucked intact from one region to the other. There are qualities of clarity and creativity in the dishes of both regions that strike a chord. I mean, doesn’t Monkfish with Bacon, Mint and Wild Mushrooms sound like something from our corner of the world? How about Wilted Spinach with Smoked Salmon and Raspberries; Squab with Pistachios and Chanterelle Potatoes; Summer Berries with Bay Leaf Custard? Viestad’s book is punctuated with brief essays that afford insight into both the culture of his native Norway and his own personal history. His grandfather was a man of few words who kept bees, and the recipe for Baked Apples with Honey and Ginger that follows the essay almost conjures the old man in a cloud of honey and apple steam. A tribute to Hulda Garborg, the author of a 19th-century cookbook called “Heimstell” (Housekeeping) who “advocated modern causes such as women’s rights and free love,” serves as a reminder that the liberal tradition was not born on the West Coast in the 20th century.
Essays on Christmas traditions, Aquavit and a foray into the Austevoll archipelago in western Norway to hunt wild sheep helps Northwest readers remember that Norway is substantially different from Washington after all. Still, it sounds like a place where any of us might feel at home and enjoy the food.
Greg Atkinson is an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recipe: Asparagus Sautéed in Butter and Mustard
Be sure to measure out all the ingredients in advance. The asparagus is initially seared in a hot, dry skillet. Once you add the butter, it will start to brown quickly so you’ll want the mustard and lemon juice in easy reach to slow down the cooking process and form a delectable glaze around the asparagus spears before the butter can burn.
1 pound young asparagus
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add the asparagus and cook for one minute.
2. Reduce heat to medium and add the butter. When the butter has started to brown, add the mustard and the lemon juice. Season generously with pepper.
3. Cook gently for 5 to 7 minutes, turning the asparagus every now and then. The asparagus should be tender but still firm inside.
— Adapted from a recipe in “Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad”