Norway's Boiled Foods: An Unexpected Pleasure


Alfa-Betty Olsen

Not so very long ago, 8th Avenue in Brooklyn was known as Lapskaus Boulevard in honor of the Norwegians who were the dominant ethnic group there. Lapskaus is a country stew— potatoes, meat (especially salted meat), carrots, and maybe turnips or other vegetables. It's a good way to use leftovers: sometimes it is referred to as "anything goes." There's plenty of room for improvisation, yet it is always lapskaus. It was supposedly a 19th-century staple aboard ships, and the joke was that it would stick to your plate and not fly in your face no matter how rough the sea got. That's because of the potatoes. Cooked for a long time, they get heavy, you know.

My father, Alf Olsen, lived to be 93, and from the time he was in his late eighties up until he went into a nursing home at the age of 90 I would visit him every other day in his apartment, which was a block away from Lapskaus Boulevard, and I would bring good eats. At that time the neighborhood was beginning to change. The Norwegian population was dwindling. My generation had moved out. There was a vacuum. The local subway, the N train, was a direct line to Manhattan's Chinatown, and because that's the way people migrate within New York City—they follow the subway lines—my Dad's neighborhood was becoming a new Chinatown.

A Chinese gentleman bought The Atlantic Restaurant, a Norwegian Restaurant on Eighth Avenue. He kept the Norwegian workers and the Norwegian menu and added Chinese workers and a Chinese menu. And he brought something new to the formerly Norwegian restaurant: takeout. It was wonderful. I could bring Alf a big Norwegian dinner already made—meatballs, boiled potatoes, and creamed cabbage was his favorite. One night I brought a wonton soup. The good kind. The kind they make in Manhattan's Chinatown with lovely pork dumplings in it. Alf made it his own. He added boiled carrots and boiled potatoes, which absorbed the salt from the soup. The boiled carrots added sweetness. My dad had created lapskaus from a Chinese soup. Yes. You see, "anything goes" works.

I went looking for The Atlantic Restaurant last week. It is no longer there. The neighborhood is very intensely Chinese, and there are no Norwegians left to order or take out anything from a Norwegian menu. The area is now known as Little Hong Kong. There are lots of restaurants, but I couldn't even make out which storefront or restaurant was once The Atlantic. I did end up with a very nice Chinese lunch and I started to think about Alf's wonton soup additions and about boiled food. Yes, in Norwegian cooking there are some entrees that are boiled food. I mentioned this to a friend, who was stunned, horrified, and nearly speechless. "Boiled Food, peuch. "

I know. It does sound terrible, but there are a lot of exceptions that should not be overlooked. Of course the first thing that comes to mind is chicken soup, which is after all boiled chicken. But let me tell you about a few other things. Boiled codfish for example.

My mother made that. Way back in the day, she studied cooking very seriously in Oslo, with a chef who had cooked for the Kaiser when he came to visit Norway. And what did he make for the Kaiser? He made boiled codfish. He claimed to have boiled it in champagne, but I'm not sure that would have worked. I think he was embellishing his legend.

Nevertheless boiled codfish is something wonderful. But you must have very fresh fish. Fish fresh from the sea. It is codfish unadorned, codfish as plain as codfish can be. First you put water in a big pot. Then you add a lot of salt to mimic the ocean. When it comes to a roiling boil, you put the fish in it. It stops boiling momentarily and then when it comes to a second boil you turn off the fire. After the codfish sits in the very hot water for five to 15 minutes, depending on how large a piece it is, it is ready. Put a little melted butter on it and you're all set. You want to have it with boiled potatoes and green peas, either dried or fresh. It's a treat.

Sad to say, these days it gets harder and harder to find really fresh fish. And, really, there's nothing as good. It is the elemental taste of fish. A communion with the sea.

Something else my mother used to make was a pork cold cut that began by being boiled. She would take a pork loin and boil it in salted water, then take it out, stud it with cloves, put it in heavily salted water, and let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. After that you can slice it thin and serve it cold on a plate with boiled potatoes or serve it on bread as an open sandwich. Don't eat the cloves. Take them out and leave them on the corner of your plate.

Norwegians aren't the only ones who make boiled entrees. Think about it: there's bubble and squeak, the Irish corned beef and cabbage. There's the New England boiled dinner. Bagels are boiled, you know. And let's not forget pasta marinara. You see, boiling is a perfectly respectable way of preparing food. I can tell you one thing you never want to boil though. A nice filet mignon. Never.

Cooking methods and ingredients are a function of geography: the climate, what grows where, what the locals hunt and fish for, and which cooking utensils go with the lifestyle. Nomads are not going to drag around big ovens. We call food from other countries "ethnic food." But aren't we ethnic, too? I mean to those other ethnics we're ethnics. I wonder if there are any soul food restaurants in any of the capital cities of Europe? Or any specializing in Southern cooking. There should be.