Cooking in the Land of the Midnight Sun: Nina’s Welcome Dinner

Sweden

We arrived in Sweden shortly after Midsummer’s Eve, when all of Sweden celebrates the long hours of daylight. Actually, they seem to celebrate all summer long, and why not? We were welcomed to Nina and Jogge’s lovingly restored home on an old farmstead in the north of Sweden at the endless end of a perfect sunny day. Nina’s welcome dinner was a pure Swedish Summer meal and a celebration of local and seasonal food, served out-of-doors in the bright sunlight of early evening. The table was an array of colors: a big fat pink salmon, golden yellow new potatoes, deep red beets, a green salad of young lettuce… and fresh strawberries and ice cream for dessert, followed by strong black coffee.

Nina and Louise

Nina’s menu reflected the best offerings of the early summer farmers’ markets in Sweden. The first of the local harvest is so fresh it glows. When I recreated her meal back in North Carolina, I went to the garden and dug “yellow finn” fingerling potatoes and pulled a bunch of young beets. I didn’t have a big fat salmon, so I baked a big fat trout that Drew caught in the pond.

Swedish Flowers

 Salmon Roasted with Blue Cheese 

Nina prepared a whole boned salmon fillet, 2 to 3 pounds. She made cuts through the flesh down to the skin every two inches or so and filled the cuts with blue cheese (she said it was “green cheese”–a local specialty). She roasted this beautiful fish in a hot oven, along with the potatoes and beets.

Oven roasting method: Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. In a small saucepan, melt 4 Tbs butter. Add 4 Tbs olive oil, 1/3 cup white wine or dry sherry and 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice. Warm gently. Pour 1/2 the mixture into a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold the salmon. Lay the salmon in skin side down and sprinkle with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour the remaining butter-lemon mixture over the top. Sprinkle with 3 or 4 tsp finely chopped fresh tarragon, parsley, fennel fronds, or thyme. Cover the pan with foil and roast 10 to 12 minutes. Check the thickest part of the fish for doneness–it should be slightly translucent in the middle. If it needs more cooking, remove the foil and return the pan to the oven for a few more minutes. Transfer the salmon to a platter and spoon the pan juices over the top. Or, as Nina did, mix the juices with crème fraiche to make a sauce.

Grilled or Sear-Roasted Salmon Fillets 

When you don’t have a whole fish or side of salmon, these are simple, quick, and delicious ways to cook fillets or steaks:

Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill. Choose center cut salmon steaks or thick fillets with skin on. Rub the fillets with olive oil and season lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill the salmon directly over medium-high heat, 2 1/2 to 3 minutes per side, until just cooked through.

To sear-roast, heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in an ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat.  When the oil is shimmering hot, place the salmon fillets in the pan skin side up. Sear for 2 minutes, without moving. When the fillets are nicely browned, flip them over and transfer the pan to the oven. Roast until barely cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes.

Lovely Toppings for Salmon

CornGrilled Corn Salsa-Salad: You will need 2 or 3 ears of unhusked sweet corn, 1 medium red onion cut into 1/3-inch slices, and 1 large red bell pepper.  Rub the onion slices with olive oil and grill the corn and onions over medium heat until beginning to brown, 6 to 10 minutes. Grill the pepper until charred all over, 10 to 12 minutes. Cover the pepper with a cloth while it cools to make it easier to peel. While the vegetables cool, make a dressing: mash 1 garlic clove with 1/4 tsp salt to make a paste, add 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1 1/2 tsp cider vinegar, 1 minced jalapeno or serrano chile, and 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. Cut the corn from the cob and chop the onion.  Peel, seed, and chop the pepper. Put the vegetables in a bowl and add 1 Tbs chopped fresh oregano and 4 Tbs chopped cilantro or parsley. Toss with the dressing; add salt and pepper to taste.

Fresh Plum or Peach Salsa: In a bowl, toss 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion and 4 finely chopped tomatillos with 2 Tbs fresh lime juice and 1/2 tsp coarse kosher or sea salt. Let sit 30 minutes. Add about 2 cups diced firm plums or peaches, 1 or 2 finely chopped jalapeno or other hot chile, and 1 Tbs each chopped basil, mint, and cilantro. Toss and add more lime juice if needed.

Red Pepper Relish: Heat 1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a skillet with 2/3 cup finely chopped sweet or red onion and 1 cup finely diced sweet red pepper. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and sauté 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in 2 tsp minced garlic and a pinch (or more) red chile flakes.  Add 1 tsp red wine vinegar and 2 Tbs balsamic vinegar; cook another minute. Transfer to a bowl and stir in 1/2 tsp freshly toasted and crushed cumin seed.

Fennel Salsa: Remove the tough outer leaves from one small fennel bulb; quarter and slice the bulb 1/4-inch thick to make about 1 1/2 cups. Sauté the fennel in 1 1/2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil until tender-crisp, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and combine with 1/2 cup diced celery and 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion. Toss with 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, 1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, and 1/2 cup finely chopped fennel greens. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Roasted New Potatoes 

Fingerling Potatoes

Heat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Wash and dry 2 pounds smooth-skinned yellow potatoes (German Butterball, Yellow Finn, Russian Banana, Yukon Gold…) Use whole small potatoes or cut larger potatoes in halves or quarters. Toss with 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil to coat well. Place on a large roasting pan and sprinkle with 1/2 to 1 tsp coarse sea or kosher salt. Roast the potatoes about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, until tender inside and golden-crispy outside.

Roasted Beets

Beets will take almost the same cooking time as the potatoes in a 425 degree F oven. Wash, trim and peel 1 pound beets (about 6 to 8 medium beets). Cut them into 1-inch wedges and toss with 2 to 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. Arrange in a single layer in a baking dish and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp coarse kosher or sea salt. Roast the beets 15 minutes, flip over, and continue roasting until tender, another 20 minutes. Nina put rounds of goat cheese in with her beets to get toasted and soft during the last minutes of roasting.

I like to combine roasted beets with thinly sliced red onion, quartered cherry tomatoes, and chopped fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, chives…) and toss with a with a balsamic-citrus dressing: Whisk together 4 Tbs fresh orange juice, 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp fresh lemon juice or wine vinegar, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1 Tbs walnut oil. Drizzle over the roasted beets and top with toasted walnuts.

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