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.
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.