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A window on Norway

Times Staff Writer

It’s the rare cookbook that reads like a travel journal and a cultural history as well. But in “Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking With Andreas Viestad” (Artisan, $35), Viestad, a journalist and TV cooking show host, takes the reader on a witty and insightful tour through culinary and cultural Norway. He interweaves recipes with such observations as, “I am often asked how people can live in a place as cold as Norway.... The only answer I can think of is cod and potatoes -- the gastronomical equivalent of luck and resilience.”

The book is a companion to Viestad’s public television series, “New Scandinavian Cooking With Andreas Viestad.” The show is running in Huntington Beach, San Jose and San Bernardino, but not yet in Los Angeles.

Viestad’s Norway is a country frozen in a simpler time, where a romantic light glows on the rituals of fishing, cooking and eating. But syrupy nostalgia it’s not. He balances the sweetness in the text with his tart, self-deprecating humor and fresh takes on traditional recipes. Unlike many authors eager to popularize a “new” cuisine, Viestad documents the region’s staples, but isn’t hampered by orthodoxy. Italian, not Norwegian, anchovies will work fine in a broccoli salad, and mock aquavit substitutes nicely for the real thing. (He’s even got a recipe for do-it-yourselfers that involves infusing potato vodka with a mixture of caraway, fennel, dill, anise and coriander seeds.)

He illustrates how lowly root vegetables such as rutabagas, celeriac and potatoes become the basis for stocks, salads and side dishes. Soup, which seems a necessity in a frozen climate, gets unusual garnishes such as orange zest, or additions of goose stock and chopped fresh chervil. Most recipes are accompanied by menu suggestions, and for the literary, compact riffs on the lore of lobsters or lingonberries.

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The heart of the book is, not surprisingly, seafood. Chapters with engaging essays on scallops, mussels, crayfish, lobsters and pollock let us in on the rhythms and rewards of living in a watery, icy environment. There’s the glory, for example, of catching crayfish at midnight from the river and by morning, having them for breakfast with white bread and a tall glass of orange juice.

There are a dozen preparations of salmon. His salmon gravlax is cured with salt, sugar, fresh dill and aquavit or brandy. Whether Viestad is slow-baking salmon with soy sauce and ginger, cutting it into carpaccio with lingonberries or crusting it with spices such as coriander and fennel seed, he offers commentary that tracks the origins of foreign ingredients and their acceptance into contemporary Norwegian cooking.

The delicious, simple salad of green beans, celery root and tropical mango (popularized by Pakistani immigrants) is in keeping with that food fusion. On the other hand, a novel update on berries with custard using bay leaves to flavor the custard was created out of necessity when the author ran out of vanilla.

“Kitchen of Light” is a pleasure to read and beautiful to look at thanks to lush photographs by Mette Randem, who captured not only food, but the country’s rugged countryside. The recipes are a welcome addition to contemporary tastes. Those long winters in Oslo evidently have bred in Viestad a sensitive, observant soul who can freely discourse on the social relevance of salmon fishing, the contributions to traditional cooking made by a 19th century women’s rights activist, and even on the use of pantyhose and neckties to bind wild sheep’s legs during shipping. Viestad offers a perspective on Norwegian food that takes in an appreciation of history and natural history as well as dining.

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*Green beans and peas with celeriac and mango

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 6

1 pound green beans, trimmed

1/2 cup shelled green peas

1/2 pound celeriac, peeled and cut into matchstick-size pieces

1/4 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

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1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Sea salt

Sugar

1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/4- by 1 1/2-inch pieces

1. Cook the green beans in boiling salted water for 3 minutes. Add the peas and cook for 3 more minutes. Drain and transfer to a bowl. While the vegetables are still hot, add the celeriac and mix well.

2. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar and mustard. Season with salt and sugar to taste; mix well.

3. Pour the dressing over the beans, peas and celeriac. Toss. Add the mango, mix gently and serve.

Each serving: 175 calories; 4 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 105 mg. sodium.

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*

Summer berries with bay leaf custard

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6 (makes 1 2/3 cups)

5 large egg yolks

1/4cup superfine sugar

1 cup whole milk

1 1/4cups heavy (whipping) cream

2-3 bay leaves, preferably fresh, plus 4 to 6 for garnish (optional)

2 pounds mixed berries: blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, currants, stemmed and hulled

1. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar until pale and thick.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine the egg yolk mixture, milk, cream and bay leaves. Heat gently over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens enough to leave a velvety coating on the back of a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes (or to 175 degrees). Do not let the mixture boil or it will curdle.

3. Remove the custard from the heat, and continue stirring for 2 more minutes. Leave the bay leaves in the custard while it cools, then remove them.

4. Place the berries in dishes, pour the custard over, garnish with bay leaves, if desired, and serve.

Each serving: 343 calories; 6 grams protein; 28 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 25 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 251 mg. cholesterol; 50 mg. sodium.


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