A really satisfying meal

A meal I had last year at one of Iceland’s fancier (and most expensive) restaurants, where perfectly done beef was served with braised veal that was well on its way to becoming pâté and had an incredible richness of flavour, reminded me of all the times when, as a child and well into my teens, I would stalk the pot when my mother was making lamb pâté and try to nab a little morsel of braised meat that had been cooked for so long that it was beginning to separate into string-like pieces, each bursting with the flavour of meat, onions and salt and saturated with the special flavour braising gives to meat. Unfortunately for the restaurant, the comparison was not in their favour, because while the braised veal – I think they called it veal mousse although I am relatively sure that neither cream, eggs nor gelatin were involved – had a wonderful, rich flavour, it had a mushy, nasty texture that made it impossible to eat it by itself – you needed a piece of beef, vegetable or potato to hide the texture.

A little later I bought a shoulder of lamb and used a couple of pieces to cook vegetable-lamb soup. After the hour it takes to make the soup, the meat was tough and flavourless and I decided I was probably going to end up making pâté from what remained. But yesterday when I was reading Ruth Reichl’s book Garlic and Sapphires, the chapter on beef gave me a hankering after meat, and I remembered the braised veal and lamb. I now decided to try to recapture that fascinating, rich flavour, along with the right texture. I had braised meat many times but never taken it to the stage where it begins to fall apart, so this was a first for me.

I started rooting around in the freezer, rejected some cutlets I found, knowing I could get them cooked and tasting good in about 30 minutes, whereas the lamb shoulder, which I dug up next, would be perfect for braising. I took two pieces and put them in the fridge to thaw, then when I came home today I got them out, cut them down to a size that would fit into the smaller of my soup pots, browned them at high heat in a frying pan and flavoured them with salt and pepper, then dumped them into the soup pot with a quartered onion and little bit of water. Once it was boiling merrily I lowered the heat so that it would barely keep simmering, put the lid on and started the timer.

After 20 minutes I opened the pot, saw there was too much liquid and poured off some of it into a jar. Every 20 minutes I checked on the pot and pulled the bottom piece of meat out and put it on top to allow all the meat to wallow in the increasingly flavourful broth, which I replenished from the jar whenever it was in danger of boiling off. After an hour I decided there was some flavour note missing from the broth, so I added a sliced carrot and a bit more salt.

At the 70 minute mark I took the meat and cut it into smaller pieces and returned it to the pot with the bones. I started cooking the potatoes around the 80 minute mark and decided that I needed a second side dish to serve with the meat, so I got out some white cabbage which I sliced into ribbons. When the potatoes were cooked, I got them out and mashed them, adding milk, butter, sugar and a pinch of salt, and then put them aside.

It was now time to start browning the meat. I poured off the broth which by now could well be called stock, so rich and concentrated had it become, turned up the heat to medium and put some butter into the pot, as the meat was rather lean and there was hardly any fat on it to use for the browning. I also put some into a frying pan for the cabbage.

While the butter in the pan melted and got up to the right temperature, I coated the meat in butter and listened to hear the sizzling begin. I dumped the cabbage into the frying pan and stirred it to get it coated with butter, then turned back to the meat. This I stirred to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and tore it apart with the edge of the wooden spoon and a fork while it browned. To make sure it wouldn’t burn or dry out, I occasionally added a spoonful of the stock. At this stage I was taking turns stirring the meat and the cabbage.

When the smell of cooking cabbage began to rise from the pan, I added couple of dashes of maple syrup to it (you need to be very careful with the maple syrup as too much ruins the dish) and a pinch of salt to counteract the syrup’s sweetness. I stirred the cabbage to coat with the syrup and then removed it from the heat. Then I finished browning the meat, which was now beginning to take on a caramel colour and looked like my mother’s pâté meat does right before she puts it into the grinder. The onions had been completely mashed up and absorbed by the meat, but carrot pieces were still visible as tiny morsels of bright orange among the browned meat. I added the final spoonful of broth, gave it a stir, picked out the bones (carefully licking each before discarding it) and then dumped the meat onto a plate, added the mashed potatoes and the cabbage.

And how did it taste? The mashed potatoes were creamy and mild with a hint of butter, the meat was rich and soft with just the right amount of saltiness and a hint of pepper, but the cabbage was a bit bold – which was surprising as raw it had little flavour – but it was perfectly al dente and after the first explosion of flavour it had just the right amount of sweetness and a mild taste of maple to counteract the first big taste shock. I think the most exquisite moment of the meal came when the liquid from the cabbage – equal amounts cabbage juice, butter and maple syrup – seeped into the meat and was absorbed into it, adding a hint of sweetness to it to complement its rich and slightly salty braised flavour. In other words: it was a very, very good meal, in the way only food cooked at home with love and care can be.

I am just hoping the mashed potatoes will prevent me from getting heartburn, but even if I do, it will have been worth it.

Icelandic roast beef sandwich – Roast beef samloka

I’m feeling a little uninventive today, so I am going to post a recipe for a good sandwich I sometimes buy or make: roast beef.

For 1 sandwich, take 2 slices of bread (white or whole-wheat), put one slice aside and top the other with 2-3 slices of cold roast beef. Smear some remoulade (scroll down to the bottom of the page to see recipe) on top of the roast beef, add 4-5 slices of pickled cucumber/gherkin OR a couple of slices of canned apricots, and about 2 tsp of French fried onions. Top with the other slice of bread and enjoy.

I like this sandwich best when it’s newly made and the onions are still crunchy, but it is quite good even when they have gone soft.

The version with the pickled cucumber is widely available wherever sandwiches are sold in supermarkets and highway diners in Iceland.

Rjómaterta I – Cream Cake I

All kinds of scrumptuous, decorated cakes with fruit, cream and/or sweet icing are very popular in Iceland, and there are plenty of recipes to choose from. Most are based on some kind of sponge cake, or are made with meringue. They are often jokingly called Stríðstertur (Battle Cakes). Hnallþórur is another joke name for these cakes – derived from a character in one of Halldór Laxness’ books, a woman who loved to make and serve these kinds of cake. These creations are as beautiful and tempting to behold as they are delicious and fattening!

Layer 1:
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
2 cups desiccated coconut or Rice Crispies
100 g dark chocolate

Beat together egg whites and sugar until stiff and peaks form. Chop or finely grate the chocolate and fold in along with coconut/Rice Crispies. Pour into a greased, round cake pan (use one with a loose bottom). Bake at 150°C for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

Layer 2:
4 eggs
100 g sugar
50 g flour
50 g potato flour

Whip the eggs until light and fluffy and add the sugar. Continue whipping until light in colour. Sift together flour and potato flour and carefully fold into egg/sugar mixture with a fork. Pour into a greased round cake pan (same size and type as layer 1). Bake at 200°C for 5 minutes and then lower heat to 175°C and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

500 ml whipping cream
1 large can strawberries in syrup
as needed fresh strawberries, chocolate-covered raisins & salted peanuts

Whip the cream until stiff. Mash the canned strawberries and fold into the cream. Spread a portion on top of layer 1. Top with layer 2. Cover the cake with the rest of the strawberry cream. Decorate with fresh strawberries, chocolate raisins and salted peanuts.

Engifermjólk – Ginger milk

Serves 2.

My own invention. This sweet ginger-milk drink is wonderfully calming if you have an upset stomach. Ginger-root is a well-known nature medicine, and is especially recommended for stomach ailments and motion sickness.

250 ml (1 cup) milk
sugar to taste
1,5 cm fresh ginger root OR 1/2 tsp dried, powdered ginger

Peel the ginger and grate it into a saucepan and add the milk, OR put the milk into a saucepan and add powdered ginger and stir to mix. Bring the milk to the boil. Pour through a sieve or tea strainer into mugs, add sugar and enjoy.

-You can vary the amount of ginger according to taste. Just don’t put too much or the milk may curdle.

Caraway coffee – Kúmenkaffi

Brew some good, strong coffee, adding some caraway seeds before brewing. If you grind your own, throw some caraway seeds in the grinder along with the coffee beans. I’m not going to offer any measurements, as people’s tastes vary widely where coffee in concerned, and the amount of caraway should be adjusted to taste.

-For a truly adult version of caraway coffee, make a “Black Russian” with fresh, hot coffee and use brennivín instead of vodka. To add a bit of brennivín (“að gefa út í”) is a tradition still honoured by some Icelanders, and there are stories of caraway coffee sometimes arousing the (happy) suspicion that the hostess has put “a little something extra” in the coffee.

Every-day pancakes – Lummur/Klattar

“Klattar” mean “pats”, an appropriate name for these pats of dough. “Lumma” (the singular form of “Lummur”) is sometimes used to refer to something that is old fashioned, especially when referring to outdated music.

My mother is an expert at making these mini pancakes. Unlike the large, thin pancakes that are served rolled up with sugar or whipped cream and jam, these small, thick ones taste best sprinkled with sugar, still warm from the skillet, with a glass of cold milk. A variation on the basic recipe is fish-pancakes.

150 ml flour
1 egg
1 tsp baking powder
150 ml milk (or more as needed)
1 tbs sugar
25 g margarine/butter
150 ml rice pudding or porridge
1-2 tbs. raisins (optional)

Melt the margarine/butter on the skillet over low heat. Allow to cool slightly. Sieve flour and baking powder together into a bowl. Add sugar and rice pudding or porridge and mix well. Add half the milk and mix. Add the egg and the rest of the milk, and then the melted margarine/butter, and the raisins (if you are using them). The dough should be thick enough not to run much on the pan, and yield thick pancakes.

Heat the skillet to medium temperature. Put the dough on the skillet with a tablespoon. You should be able to fry 3-4 “lummur” at once. Turn over with a spatula. Bake until light brown on both sides.
Serving suggestion:
-Put the pancakes on a plate in layers and sprinkle some sugar on top of each layer. Serve fresh with sugar, jam or syrup.