“Christmas is the Scandinavians’ antidote to darkness, their way of breaking winter’s hold. Nowhere is it celebrated quite so warmly — or with so much light and food — as in this northern corner of Europe.”
“The Cooking of Scandinavia,” 1968
My daughter, Sarah, lives with her husband and children in Bockenheim, Germany. Her Swedish friend Linda Palm lives in Lidkoping, Sweden, with her husband and daughters. She helped inspire this article and her husband contributed his recipe for Swedish meatballs. The food for this celebration contains lots of “pickled” flavors, seasoning from dill and cardamom and a healthy profile. I purchased some of the prepared items — crackers, marinated herring, sprats, nonalcoholic gloegg — from the Swedish IKEA store in Hicksville.
The Swedish smorgasbord served on Christmas Eve is called the “Julbord,” meaning literally “Christmas table.” As guests arrive they are given a glass of warm gloegg. Gloegg is a version of mulled wine consisting of red wine, vodka and spices that are slowly simmered and garnished with orange slices and raisins. You may also clink glasses with a toast of ice cold Aquavit.
The food is served on sideboards, kitchen counters or a long table. We begin the cold foods with a house-made gravlax (cured salmon) as the centerpiece, accompanied by dense rye bread and crackers. This is surrounded by sliced headcheese and assorted marinated herring (in sour cream, in dill marinade, in mustard sauce, in garlic sauce). Pickled beets with horseradish and red onion, pickled vegetables with gherkins, deviled eggs with salmon caviar, some blue cheese and a creamy goat cheese round out the cold table.
After conversation and a sparkling wine to wash everything down, we proceed to the hot table. The centerpiece is a mustard-crusted smoked ham with applesauce and lingonberry jam. This is surrounded by little Swedish meatballs and a scalloped potato/anchovy dish called “Jansson’s Temptation.” A dry riesling is the wine of choice for the hot food.
After a little time for digestion, the dessert is a rice porridge with a whole almond in each portion for good luck.
Here are some recipes to prepare this festive meal:
On the day before the meal, combine 1 cup vodka with 2 cinnamon sticks, 10 whole cloves, 1 piece of peeled fresh ginger and 1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds. Before serving, heat one bottle of merlot and stir in 1/2 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. When the sugar dissolves, strain the vodka into the wine mixture. Serve in small cups, each with a slice of orange and a few golden raisins.
Begin the gravlax by purchasing a boneless, skinless side of salmon three days before the meal. It should weigh between 2 and 3 pounds. For the cure, crush 1 tablespoon peppercorns and 1 tablespoon coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle (or with the blade of your chef’s knife on a cutting board). Combine this with 1/2 cup coarse salt and 3/4 cup sugar. Line a shallow pan with plastic film and place one-third of the salt mixture on the bottom. Place the salmon on the salt mixture and sprinkle the rest on the top. Place 2 bunches of fresh dill on the salmon and moisten it with 1/4 cup vodka. Cover with plastic film and weigh it down with a heavy pan or full cans of food. Refrigerate 48 hours, turning the salmon over once and draining off any excess liquid.
At serving time, scrape the seasoning off the salmon and slice thinly on the bias. Serve with honey mustard and capers if desired.
Heat 3 cups cider vinegar with 3 cups water, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup coarse salt, 1 teaspoon crushed mustard seeds and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Simmer 15 minutes and set aside.
Separately, cut fresh cauliflower, carrots, red and yellow bell peppers, celery and broccoli into bite-sized pieces (not too small). Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook each vegetable separately, removing it with a slotted spoon when it is just barely cooked. Finish by cooking 12 small beets with their skins on in the same water. Place all the vegetables except the beets into the pickling liquid in a large stainless steel or glass pan. Peel and cut the beets into bite-sized pieces and place them in a small container with pickling liquid, a sliced red onion and a tablespoon of horseradish. Let all of the vegetables marinate overnight.
Boil 1 dozen eggs for 15 minutes and plunge into ice water. Peel the eggs and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks with a small knife and place into a bowl. Mash them with a fork and stir in 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce and 2 tablespoons mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stuff them back into the cooked egg whites. Place a small spoonful of salmon caviar on each portion and garnish with a piece of fresh dill.
Start with a fully cooked, bone-in, pre-sliced ham of good quality, sized according to the number of people being served. Unwrap it and place it in a small, shallow roasting pan on a rack. (Do not use the glaze that may be included.) Cover the ham with aluminum foil and roast at 275 degrees until the internal temperature is 140 degrees (2 to 3 hours, depending on size). When ham is fully heated, remove it and mix together 1 beaten egg with 1/4 cup grainy mustard. Spread this mixture over the ham and sprinkle 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs over all. Place back in a 400-degree oven just before serving. Serve with a bowl of applesauce and a bowl of lingonberry jam.
Grate 1 large onion with a box grater (large holes). Strain any accumulated onion juice and sauté the onion in 1 tablespoon butter until soft. Remove and cool. Remove the crusts from 6 slices of country white bread and cut into small dice. Place the bread cubes in a bowl with 1/2 cup milk. Combine 1 pound ground beef with 1 pound ground pork. Add the onions and the soaked bread to the meat along with 2 beaten eggs, 1 teaspoon ground allspice, 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and 1 tablespoon honey. Season with 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon ground white pepper. Mash this mixture thoroughly with your hands until well combined.
Spray a sheet pan with no-stick and roll the meat mixture into balls a little smaller than a golf ball. Place each meatball on the sheet pan and roast at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until fully cooked in the center. Remove to a clean pan with a slotted spoon.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and stir in 1/4 cup flour. Cook for 3 minutes to make a roux. Whisk in 3 cups beef broth and bring to a boil. Fold in 1 cup sour cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve alongside meatballs or pour it over them. Garnish with chopped dill.
Peel and quarter one large onion and cut it into thin slices. Sauté in 1 tablespoon butter until just soft. Set aside. Peel and cut about 3 pounds of Long Island potatoes into thin slices. Place half of the onions in the bottom of a shallow casserole. Cover the onions with six coarsely chopped anchovies. Cover this with sliced potatoes. Make another layer of onions, anchovies and potatoes. Sprinkle each layer with 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg. End with a layer of potatoes. Pour 1 1/2 cups heavy cream over all.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a sauté pan and stir in 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs. Spread the bread crumbs over the top layer of potatoes and place in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour. If it begins to brown too much, cover with foil.
Place 1 cup white long-grain rice in a strainer and pour 3 cups boiling water over it. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a saucepan and stir the rice into it. Stir in 1 cup water and bring to a boil, stirring, until water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Add 5 cups milk and simmer slowly until rice is very tender, about 45 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon butter. Stir in 2 beaten eggs, the zest of 1 lemon, and 1/2 cup golden raisins.
Place this mixture in a casserole and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon cinnamon mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve in small dishes or crocks, each with a whole almond in the bottom.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].