Pheasants & Barley: idealized Nordic cuisine, it’s what’s for dinner

Tonight’s dinner menu is brought to you by this beautiful coffee table decoration that doubles as a cookbook:

Upon hearing that dinner was going to be a frittata (boring — I love breakfast for dinner as much as the next gal but when you eat an egg sandwich almost every morning, doing it again ten hours later just seems uninspired), I opened cookbook nearest my hand for some more out-of-the-ordinary inspiration. That cookbook happened to be Fire and Ice, a cloth-covered photo-essay-cum-“home-cooking”-expedition through the Great White North.

The book itself is decidedly aspirational, representing not so much how the people of the Nordic countries probably actually eat on a regular basis*, what with their short summers and plethora of lutefisk**, but rather the à la mode American fascination with what we perceive hygge to be: a curated minimalist, impeccable, rustic-urban aesthetic that is somehow personified by pictures of cured, micro-farmed salmon arranged artfully on a tray of birch bark and snowshoes, and littered with juniper berries.

In many ways, this book is an example of making poor food rich: curing meats and fish were always ways to preserve them into months or times of scarcity; crackers a way to use grain so that it wouldn’t spoil; Salt-and-Ash Baked Celery Root a way to use fire ash, fire, and a gross root vegetable in a very efficient, low-waste way. Now, finding beautiful cuts of meat (and risking the waste of a bad cure since modern man can’t do anything right), finding time to make crackers, or even having a fireplace or wood stove to create ash to cake onto veggies are privileges that, realistically, don’t represent the history of most of these foodways. But selling sustenance food as sustenance food doesn’t get cover blurbs from Nathan Myhrvold (whose compendiums go for $500), René Redzepi (whose three-season restaurant charges $375/person), Dan Barber (Blue Hill Farm), and Ruth Reichl (who needs no introduction).

Fire and Ice highlights so well the vibrance of Nordic cooking broadly writ (lingonberries, lemon, elderberry, salt, rhubarb, currants, snow), that it completely obfuscates the fact that the realities of cooking seasonally in a cold climate (as anyone here in Maine can tell you) get dull and bland and full of drudgery as early as mid-January. Seriously, if I see another spaghetti squash I am going to cry. It does, however, function incredibly well as a piece of touristic propaganda. If the invasion of hipsterism and general FOMO by hyper-American blondes appropriating hygge (and yet not knowing how to pronounce it) does not yet have you convinced that Norway/Iceland/Sweden/Finland***/Denmark are the and the only places to be this season, this book will push you over the edge.

As a photo essay, it features idyllic, tranquil seasides, lake-sides, mountainsides, and forest-sides — dreamscapes away to which you will be spirited, should you just be able to execute a perfectly-herbed fresh cheese, or an expertly-cured duck breast.

You know what they say about people who live in grass houses…

Perhaps if we, the humble under-employeds and regular types of people, could cook food this beautiful, maybe we could discover our own inner Nordic food goddesses. Maybe we will magically find ourselves transported to a grass-covered dwelling, maybe we will miraculously be covered by socialized health care, maybe we will mash both our root vegetables and our mundane, everyday problems into oblivion.

So, to cook: I open this book to the Meat & Poultry section, because if I’m cooking dinner for the whole family then I have to include a meat, otherwise my dad will be sad. No one wants to make my dad sad. On the very first page of this section, of this book which is about “Classic Nordic Cooking” (its own subtitle, indeed), is a recipe for Braised Pheasant with Juniper and Cabbage.

No mention, however, of what you might be able to substitute for pheasant, or where one might find a pheasant, a bird which at least in my mind only lives on medieval serfdoms in 1950s England. Some of the other recipes in this section feel a little more attainable, at least in terms of feasibility of procurement — Buttermilk-Marinated Leg of Lamb with Parsley; Savory Beef Patties; Stuffed Cabbage Rolls — but I don’t love red meat, and venison and duck don’t seem like they’ll be any easier to track down than a pheasant, so I might as well start with the tough stuff. After several phone calls to local butchers and grocers, though, I give up on my pheasant dreams and settle on substituting with Cornish game hens, the only other game fowl that seems even remotely, well, purchase-able.

Hopefully the people of Nordicland won’t begrudge me my laziness in not buying a shotgun and waiting until next pheasant-hunting season, since I’m hungry today. And actually, once the sparsity of pheasants was rectified, the rest of the recipe is pretty straightforward. It has a short ingredient list and procedure, both something that can be a rare find in books that tout “authenticity”, in which long, hard-to-find ingredient lists and intricate, mostly-unnecessary instructions are the norm. (“Authentic” food cannot be cooked, after all, if one has not had at least three panic attacks at four separate grocers.)

In the meantime, as I wait to prep and ultimately braise my stand-in pheasants and their acoutrements, I needed something else to round out the meal. Turning forward in the book to the bread section, eschewing crackers, crispbreads, and crackers, because effort, I deemed Barley Rolls — with a dollop of rye flour and a generous quotient of ground (in a coffee mill, because I am lazy) coriander seeds (which I have leftover from that time I owned a bread business) — the perfect accompaniment to a dish intended to be gamey, foresty, moist, herbaceous, and redolent of the Scandinavia I’ve only seen on Instagram. (As point of disclaimer, I don’t find yeasted breads to be burdensome or onerous or particularly difficult. The key is just giving yourself (and the dough) enough time.)

And for dessert? As a last minute addition to a wintry, monochromatic spread, Blueberry “Rooster”: intended as a pie-like situation with fresh blueberries, I substituted the frozen, foraged wild blackberries and black huckleberries from the freezer, which serves also to open up freezer space for its next residents. Dinner isn’t a success if I haven’t used up at least one thing that had been sitting around for too long.

I am the rooster, coo coo coochoo.

The “pheasants” (or hens) themselves actually were quite easy, and I would definitely try the method again. As always, trying harder to clean out the larder than to follow a recipe verbatim, I substituted some dry hard cider for the chicken broth called for, and though I’m sure it gave the final dish a different flavor, it was still delicious. Cabbage, game meat, and apple is just as autumnal a combination, if not more so, as cabbage, game meat, and broth. However, cooking time once they went from stove to oven took double what the recipe suggested, but this was likely due to a number of factors: nearly twice as much meat, a heavy pot, and a not-awesome oven. Overall verdict was that the hens were a hit. So much so (and we were so hungry) that I failed to get a picture of them.

In disappointments, file the following: by the time the hens were actually done, the rolls weren’t warm anymore, which is a sub-par way to enjoy dinner rolls. However, having snuck a warm one prior to dinner, I can tell you that they were delicious. I can’t say I’ve worked with barley flour before, nor am I particularly familiar with its flavor, but between it and the coriander the rolls had a warmth and earthiness of flavor that also went very well with butter and (strawberry basil) jam for breakfast. Staunch support all around for these little nuggets.

Rolls ‘n’ jam

And the rooster looked nothing like a rooster, naturally. The recipe called for medium rye but I only had dark (whole) rye so it definitely had more crunch and crumbliness than it should have. I also over-salted the dough (I never trust cookbook baked good salt content, though perhaps I’ve learned my lesson in this case), and the high seed quotient in both huckleberries and wild blackberries didn’t give my grainy rye flour any assists. But overall the flavor was summery, lovely, a change of pace, full of vitamins, and — dare I say it — a little woodsy. Would I try this again? Yes. Differently? Probably.

To be honest, prior to this endeavor the only thing I’d made from the book was the salt-ash-caked celery root, and then only because I needed to do something with a celery root. Perhaps it was my distaste for both celery root and ash that was speaking, but I wasn’t overwhelmed.

This second foray convinced me that this book is worth something beyond its stunning pictures. It took a bit of courage to talk myself into cooking from it, because I find a lot of those über-stunning pictures (as in so many cookbooks these days) intimidating. If a pheasant in a pan can be this beautiful, there’s no way I could make it. And the reality was that my hens bore little resemblance to the image of the scrawny yet majestic game bird abed her pan of bacon-laced cabbage, perfectly browned and crisp on top of her noble breast, and decorated post-braise and -broil with fresh thyme leaves. When you actually braise cabbage and birds, you get a pretty Soviet-looking mess of wet cabbage and drippy bird, with a few choice bits of browned onion and bacon thrown in for good measure. But at home, I don’t really eat for beauty. I eat for taste. And this is a recipe that seems both simple and reliable enough — and makes good use of a head of cabbage — that I’d definitely try it again. Assuming I can find a pheasant.

* To be fair, I don’t really know, since the only one I’ve been to is Iceland. But it’s definitely not the most hospitable place for agriculture. Although yes, lots of fish.

** I did love the fish stew. And also “happy marriage cake”, a kind of rhubarb oatmeal crisp/cake situation that I keep meaning to make.

*** Dear Finns: Do you consider yourselves Nordic? NB: The Finnish language is unrelated to that of any of the other countries in this book.