Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recipes from Iceland

This week we’re eating hákarl. To prepare, I buried a poisonous shark in my gravel driveway and then let it sit there for several weeks, putrefying in its own juices. Then I dug it up and hung it in a shed to dry in the bitterly cold California winds. Then I chopped it up into surprisingly delicious-looking cubes and passed it out to people who bother me.

I’m just kidding, and now I feel like I have to apologize to any Icelanders who may be reading this. I’m just really sorry, I can’t get my mind around hákarl.

This meal does not include hákarl.

Yes, hákarl is a real thing. Icelanders like to eat putrefied shark, or at the very least, they like to give it to people who bother them. I like to think it’s mostly the latter, because that’s the only option that makes sense in my otherwise tiny mind.

I am not making hákarl. I’ll do fresh meat of almost any kind, but once you add the word “putrefied” to the mix, well, I’m just not going there.

This is hakarl. It looks quite benign, doesn't it?
I've heard it tastes like ammonia and has a blubbery texture. Yum!
Photo Credit: Flickr user RtotheJ.

Iceland actually has a special place in my heart, because one of my favorite kinds of horses hails from there: the aptly named Icelandic Horse. Not to be confused with ponies of any kind, despite their small stature. Don’t ever call them ponies. They have short-horse complexes.

Icelandic horses are cool because they are gaited, shaggy and seriously cute. They’re on my top 10 list of horses I’d like to own one day, which is silly really since I don’t actually ride either of the two horses I actually do own.

See what I mean? Photo Credit: Flickr user Stuck in Customs.

More about Iceland: it’s cold, it’s the most sparsely-populated nation in Europe, it has glaciers, volcanoes, and a language that you can’t actually speak unless your tongue is very acrobatically inclined. By at least one account, Iceland has the second highest quality of life in the world, which I suppose doesn’t take hákarl or the temperature into account. Iceland has one of the highest concentrations of geysers in the world, in fact the word “geyser” actually comes from the Icelandic verb “geysa,” meaning “to gush.” It is also home to the world’s largest bird breeding ground, which hosts millions of puffins, gannets, guillemots and razorbills. Imagine the guano.

Sulfur pools in Iceland. Photo Credit: Flickr user Stuck in Customs.

Icelandic cuisine is quite what you would expect—lots of meat, which you can raise pretty easily in a cold climate, and very few herbs or spices, which you cannot easily raise in a cold climate. Seafood is also popular, and so is puffin. I couldn’t get puffin, so I chose a seafood-based menu for my culinary trip to Iceland. Here it is:

Fiskibollur (Fish Balls in Pink Sauce)
(from Jo's Icelandic Recipes)
  • 1 large fillet boneless cod or haddock  
  • 1 medium onion 
  • 2/3 cup flour 
  • 1/5 cup potato starch or cornstarch 
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt 
  • 2 eggs 
  • milk, as needed 
  • 1 cup water 
  • 1 1/2 tbs. flour 
  • 1/3 cup milk 
  • 1 tsp fish stock powder 
  • 2 tbsp ketchup

Icelandic Brown Bread
(from the Icelandic National League of North America)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar 
  • 1/2 cup molasses 
  • 2 1/2 tbsp shortening 
  • 1 tsp salt 
  • 1 cup boiling water 
  • 1 cup cold water 
  • 1/2 cup powdered milk
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ 
  • 4 1/2 cups whole wheat flour 
And for dessert:

Döðluterta með karamellusósu (Date cake with caramel sauce)
(also from Jo's Icelandic Recipes)

For the cake:
  • 8 oz pitted dates
  • 1 tsp baking soda 
  • 4 oz butter, softened
  • 5 tbsp sugar 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1 1/4 cup flour 
  • 1/2 tsp salt 
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla 
  • 1 1/3 tsp baking powder 
For the sauce:
  • 7 tbsp butter
  • 1 /2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup cream
To make the bread, pour the two cups of boiling water over the brown sugar and molasses, shortening and salt. Let the shortening melt, then give it a good stir. Now add the cold water, then the powdered milk, wheat germ and 2 1/2 cups of the flour. Add the yeast, mixing well. Gradually add the rest of the flour.

Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (an hour or so). Divide into two loaves and transfer to pans. Let rise for another 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. When ready to bake, turn the oven down to 350 degrees and put the pans inside. Let bake for one hour.

Now make the dough for the fish balls: 

Put the fish and the onion in a food processor and pulse until you get the equivalent of a fine chop. Mine actually made it to the paste stage.

Now mix in the dry ingredients, stirring until well-incorporated. Finally, add the eggs and milk. The dough should stick together, but should not be overly-thick.

Shape the dough into balls about the size of ping-pong balls. Melt some butter in a large pan and fry the balls on all sides until golden and cooked through.

Now make the sauce: move the balls over to one side of the pan and add a little bit of water. In a small cup, mix the flour with the milk. When the water in the pan reaches the boiling point, add the milk and flour, whisking quickly to prevent lumps. Now add the fish stock and the ketchup. Cook for another five minutes or until thickened. Serve with boiled potatoes.

Finally, the cake:

Start by putting the dates in a pan with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let stand for three or four minutes. Add the baking soda and mash up the dates with a potato masher or a fork. Now I don't know if these dates would have become such a nice paste without the baking soda, but they sure did become a nice paste. That's what you want.

Next, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs, one at a time. Beat slowly so they don't curdle. Mix in the dry ingredients and the vanilla extract, then stir in the dates.

Butter a springform pan and pour in the batter.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40. Injures, or until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 
Let cool slightly, then release from pan.

While the cake is cooling, make the sauce: just mix together all the ingredients and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. When the sauce browns a little it's ready. Slice the cake, pour over and serve.

The fish balls we're good, but of course I couldn't get my kids to eat them because the only fish they will eat is battered, deep fried and previously frozen. The sauce was a nice addition, needed I think because the balls themselves didn't have a ton if flavor. 

My bread was sadly doughy. Totally my fault, because I think I used too much water and then I didn't bake it long enough. I really feel like I want to make this bread again, because the flavor was really nice. But we couldn't eat the whole loaf because it was just dough.

But the cake ... Mmmmmmmm it was seriously good. The date flavor was delicious and the caramel sauce was really buttery and yummy, and I'm afraid I got caught hiding in the kitchen and eating it with a spoon. It was good. I would happily make this cake again.

So sadly, no hakarl graced our plates this time, nor will it ever, even if someone hides it in a date cake and mails it to me. But I have to say I was pleased with Iceland (if mainly for the dessert) and I didn't even need to putrefy anything.


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