At the little island in the North of Norway where I grew up we mostly had fish for dinner. My father was captain on a fishing boat, so we had a huge supply of fish at home. We ate boiled fish, fried fish, cured fish, smoked fish and semi-dried fish. So much that I was fed up with fish.
Our food was Norwegian and other cuisines were foreign to us. I first tried pizza and spaghetti in the beginnings of the 80s when I made my first feeble attempts at recreating what I learned at primary school. I made “Bolognese” by frying onions and minced meat in tomato paste, a thick and rather unpleasant sauce that to me was heaven. It was a taste of Italy and of my liberation.
I travelled home to my mum in the North this February. I did not see the Northern lights, but I saw the sun. February is the month when the sun returns after leaving the Northern hemisphere in winter darkness. The first days of my stay there was a mild snow blizzard, leaving a gentle layer of snow crystals on the windows.
When the snow blizzard ended, I found what I was looking for in the old wooden shed. A kicksled. I kicked my way on quiet roads, just me, the sea and the sky, passing houses, many now empty. And suddenly a moose and its calf crossed the road in front of me. Because of the deep snow the moose trekked down to the sea. The other day another moose with two calves ran elegantly pass our house and into the woods.
Outside the kitchen window the birds were chirping and devouring bird seeds. Flocks of redchested bullfinchs and green tits. An old blackbird now and then. Inside I was cooking, like I always did when I was at home. I made my “Nordic usuals”, bacalao, fish soup, reindeer stew but also lasagna and panna cotta. I made the food I know will be appreciated. The food where the stomach is not settled until one, two and three refills are done.
Even today olive oil or garlic have never really entered my mother’s kitchen. I try to tell her that she must fry her food in rapeseed oil and slather the finished meal with olive oil. But it is like speaking a foreign dialect. It takes time to learn. My mother though, is not adamant when it comes to trying new food, at least not the food I cook to her. The minute however, I use garlic, even slow roasting the bulb until caramelized and sweet, she notices the smell. -What is that smell? Is it garlic? My mother and my other family members could smell garlic from any distant room in our house.
My mother would make large batches of homemade fishcakes and fishballs. They were usually made with minced haddock mixed with milk, salt and a grating of nutmeg, but one was fried (fishcakes) and the other boiled (fishballs). Of all the fish we ate my favourites were fish gratin with macaroni and fishballs in white sauce, a sauce I later learned was named béchamel. Sometimes my mother would make soup with vegetables and fishballs. It has been years since I ate my mother’s soup, but I still cling to the habit of using fishballs in soup. It has become my every day fish soup.
I always make the soup with staple food and remains from the fridge. Carrots, celery sticks, potatoes, a splash of cream or sour cream – and dirt cheap peas from the freezer. The only thing that needs to be bought is the fishballs (or fish), leek and fresh herbs. It takes a mere 15 minutes to prepare and fry the vegetables before boiling the soup for another 15 minutes. Just make sure you use floury potatoes to keep the cooking time short.
I know fishballs may sound odd, but they also exists in France where they call it quenelle. Do not hesitate replacing fishballs with fish, but if doing so increase the amount of fish stock to 700 ml. Also note that the shrimps I use are northern preboiled shrimps. A simple and quick fish soup with cheap ingredients. Serve with crusty bread and a few shrimps for a comfy delight.
And mum, there is no garlic in this soup.
Everyday fish soup (makes 3–4)
2 big carrots
2 sticks of celery
500 ml fish stock
2 floury potatoes
1 package fishballs (500 g) or 400 g fish
4 generous tbsp sour cream (or heavy cream)
100 g frozen peas
dill and chives
about 20 northern shrimps (optional)
1. Wash and peel the vegetables. Cut the carrots and celery into small squares and slice the white part of the leek.
2. Add the oil to a big pan. Fry the carrots and celery gently for 10 minutes, then add the leek and continue frying for 5 minutes.
3. Add the fishballs (and stock) and the fish stock. Bring to boil.
4. Cut the potatoes in large squares and add to the pan. Boil for 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, peel the shrimps.
6. When only 5 minutes remain, add the sour cream and peas.
7. When the potatoes are done, take off the heat and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the shrimps, chopped dill and chives. Let the soup rest for 5 minutes to let the cream sink a bit, colouring the soup.