Saturday, February 7, 2009

Smørrebrød: Scandinavian Simplicity and Civilization at its best

Perhaps it's the cold weather that makes me think of summer. This entry features food best eaten when the sun is shining and sky is blue - two things which are almost mutually exclusive in London. Take it with a grain of salt that I am posting it in the dead of winter. Tuck this little treat of a nibble away for a nice bright day later in the'll thank me for it. :)

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Once upon a time, in a different life, before blogs and London and Ludovictus the Unborn, I was a Girl Scout. I was a Girl Scout for what most Americans would consider an embarrassingly long time. A long enough time that I still get ridiculed for it by grown adults who call themselves my friends (need I really get into what it was like in 8th grade?). But hey, at this point, I wear my involvement with the GSUSA like Henry wore the proverbial "red badge of courage," I tried to get out of it, but now I feel proud - because one of the many great things GS did for me was give me the opportunity to travel to Denmark by myself when I was 16 years old.

While this trip across the Atlantic held many rites of passage in st
ore (my first airplane ride, my first time in Europe, my first time traveling alone, my first time wearing a full GS uniform into a crowded airport...the sometimes-agonizing list goes on) it also turned me on to what I now consider one of those most-simple but satisfying culinary dalliances in my repertoire: Danish open-faced sandwiches (Smørrebrød).

Back in '97 at the merry old Danish Girl Guide Jamboree, we were required to make our own meals at camp. Lunch was made ahead of time and packed in our knapsacks to take with on hikes or other girl-guide-y adventures. It usually consisted of extremely simple but unbelievably delicious open-faced sandwiches made on dark rye bread (rugbrød) with varied toppings. Some of the most common permutations included:

1. Butter, white cheese and roast ham

2. Danish liver paste (Leverpostej) and sliced cucumbers
3. Butter and Mackerel in tomato sauce

The trick is that you only have one piece of bread, layered carefully and artfully, and then you eat it with a knife and fork. Highly civilized. And quite appealing to those of us who are aesthetically sensitive. Nevertheless, I did not always play by the rules, despite being a Girl Scout.

*insert image of greedy little adolescent Brenda secretly munching on her sandwiches behind a tree before lunch, and maniacally giggling in triumph because she made an extra one just in case the moment took her*

I need hide no more! These days, no longer a Girl Scout (except in my heart), and with a veritable plethora of international ingredients at my very fingertips, I've taken the simple sandwiches of my first Danish experience to another level. I buy Danish pickled herrings (interestingly, Waitrose does good ones), all varieties of canned fish in different sauces, pâtés and terrines made from different animals and vegetables, and cheeses running the continental gamut to use as interesting combos for my open faced goodies. And, being an adult (albeit a very short and bratty one), I can now take my open-faced sandwiches with a small shot of Dill Schnapps or even caviar (we've all seen BIG - kids don't like caviar, no matter how "cultured"), if available to me.

Before & After: Some non-traditional open-faced sandwiches we had a couple of weekends ago.

Last May (once upon a time, in a different life, when I had a paying job...), I had the opportunity to travel to Stockholm for food-related business. My boss and I made a stop at the renowned Östermalmshallen (where all Scandinavian food dreams come true!) and, because he's Danish, ate at their Danish Smørrebrød stall. Suffice it to say I ate so much I almost threw up trying to finish my beef tar-tar sandwich - don't worry, I ate the herring one first - and was only saved by the surprisingly calming effect of the last sip of schnapps which won that battle against the "stomach waging war on me"*. Maybe I was just too proud to admit I over-ordered. I guess we'll never know.

Here is a recipe that reminds me of eating lunch in the Danish su
nshine at the Jamboree and of less-vomity moments at Östermalmshallen. Hope you enjoy it as much as I still do.

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Mackerel and Spicy Tomato Sauce Open-Faced Sandwich
à la Brenda

Makes 2 generous servings or 4 individual sandwiches

The Danes, being very orderly people, have strict protocol when it comes to eating. Herring first. Schnapps with this, beer with that. Butter, then meat, then veg, then sauce. It all gets very complex, though rooted in logic somehow, I'm sure. I've tried to follow the basic mandates with this recipe, but since I'm not even a hair Scandinavian, there is a chance I will commit culinary blasphemy with any one of my ingredients or recommendations. Alas, you can't be perfect all the time! But your Danish open-faced sandwich can...

4 slices Danish rye bread
1 tbsp butter (or enough to butter your bread with)
2 cans Mackerel in spicy (because life is too short not to!) tomato sauce
4-5 large sprigs of fresh dill (this is a MUST)
1/4 cup small red onion or shallot, chopped into small rounds
1/2 lemon
salt to taste
2 shots Dill Schnapps, if I may be so bold

Start by buttering the bread generously (or not, as is your pleasure). Next, place the mackerel on each slice, dividing it evenly, and mashing it (not smashing it) gently to distribute it over the whole surface in chunks. Sprinkle the onion rounds over the fish, then a couple of fresh dills sprigs. Squeeze some lemon juice and salt to taste.

Note the Kool-Aid in the background... :)

Cheers with the schnapps (which you sip, not shoot)! Don't forget to eat this delightful delectability with a knife and fork - anything else would be uncivilized.

*Can you name this Classical reference?! Follow Me on Pinterest

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