Let’s take a break from current events and go on a little trip to Iceland! One that takes place mainly in our kitchens.
I had the good fortune to visit this fascinating and beautiful country back in 2011, spending a week in Reykjavík with a side trip to see the attractions of the Golden Circle. I loved my time there, and although I haven’t had the chance to go back yet, Iceland has continued to have a special place in my heart. Below are a few more of my photos from that trip (click on any photo to open a slideshow view).
One of the things this tiny island nation is known for is its literary output, with one of the world’s highest numbers of authors per capita (one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book). In the years just after my visit I read a couple of novels by Halldór Laxness (Iceland’s Bell) and Sjón (From the Mouth of the Whale), but I didn’t get to any further Icelandic literature until this past December.
In France, a major general strike began early in December 2019 and lasted nearly until the end of January. This meant very few metros and buses were running, and even when they were, the prospect of squeezing into one and possibly getting crushed by the other sardines did not appeal. So I decided just to lay low and not really go anywhere (except by foot) until it was over. As an introvert, I didn’t see that as much of a sacrifice, especially since it was also pretty cold and miserable outside. Of course, if I’d only known what was to happen just a couple months later, I would have gone out more…
With my extra free time I began reading even more than usual. I delved into an Icelandic novel I’d found in the street, Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, which turned out to be the first in a trilogy. Many parts of this story fit in perfectly with my situation, following solitary characters who had to trudge across hostile frozen landscapes (not totally unlike my 35-minute trudges through December rains and heavy air pollution to reach my Japanese class). But the story drew me totally and completely into Iceland and reawakened my passion for the country. See my review of the book here.
As you know, one of the things I often do when I’m enthusiastic about a book or film is to make a recipe inspired by it! And this was no exception.
I looked online for an interesting Icelandic recipe and found something called plokkfiskur, which is a blend of mashed potatoes, onion and mashed fish mixed with a creamy béchamel type sauce. The dish originally hails from Norway, as do the people of Iceland themselves, if you go back far enough in history. To veganize it, I replaced the fish with artichoke hearts (a very good suggestion by my mom) and wakame seaweed. And if I do say so myself, the result is really delicious! It’s like a very gourmet twist on mashed potatoes, and could be served as a side dish or a main dish, depending on the portion.
A side note about the name… plokkfiskur, I read, means “mashed fish” and since there isn’t any fish in my dish I should really call it… plokkþistilhjörtur? (as þistilhjörtu is the word for artichoke). That seems kind of fun to pronounce! But I’m unsure of how the case ending should be handled, and there could be other details I’m unaware of, so for now am just using the original term in those handy quotation marks. So if you’re an Icelander yourself, or just know the language well, please feel free to suggest an alternate name for this dish!
Icelanders commonly eat plokkfiskur with rugbrauð (rye bread), which in some parts of the island is actually baked right in the ground using geothermal heat! You can see how it’s done here:
After some Googling, I learned it was possible to replicate this baking method with hot water in a slow-cooker, or even in a conventional oven inside a large pan of water (much like Boston brown bread). I followed a vegan recipe for it that I found on a blog that has since unfortunately disappeared and made some adaptations of my own. My first attempt at it was quite successful and I was absolutely delighted with the bread, which I have now remade several times. One of the interesting things about it is that it contains absolutely no oil, but due to the cooking method comes out very moist. And although it contains molasses and a bit of sugar, it isn’t a sweet bread. It goes well paired with either savory or sweet things.
I realize you may not happen to have a slow-cooker, or it might not be the right size or shape for a loaf pan (although you can get creative here and use a container of a different shape), so feel free to bake it in a conventional oven or simply use store-bought rye bread. But I wanted to include the recipe here for anyone who wants to attempt this culinary adventure. It follows the main recipe below.
- 10.5 oz (300 g) firm potatoes, peeled
- 9 oz (250 g) canned artichoke hearts (weight after draining)
- 3.5 oz (100 g) white or yellow onion, diced (1 medium onion)
- 1 heaping teaspoon dried wakame seaweed
- 1 cup (236 ml) soy milk plus more if needed
- ½ bouillon cube
- 3 tablespoons flour
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- small bunch chives
Serve with rye bread (store bought or homemade with the recipe farther below).
Start by peeling and chopping the potatoes. Boil for 20 minutes or until tender.
While the potatoes are cooking, continue preparing the rest of the ingredients. Dice the onion and sauté them in a little olive oil until translucent (do not allow to brown).
Incorporate the flour, stirring well to coat all the onions.
Add the soy milk, stirring well. Crumble the bouillon into the milk once it heats up, and add the white pepper. In combination with the flour, the milk will form a kind of béchamel sauce. You may need to add a bit more milk than the one cup, if the result is too dry.
Combine the seaweed with a bit of cool water (it will plump up and double in size in a few minutes).
Add the potatoes and then the seaweed to the pot.
Slice the artichoke hearts into quarters and gently incorporate into the mixture.
You now have a delightful gourmet and slightly oceany tasting mashed potato dish! Top with fresh chives after serving.
Icelanders often scoop some of the plokkfiskur onto their rye bread to eat them together.
Geothermal rye bread
Makes 1 loaf
- 1½ cup (150 g) rye flour
- ¾ cup (94 g) all-purpose wheat flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup (236 ml) soy milk
- 3 tablespoons molasses
- 2 tablespoons sugar
Equipment needed: electric slow-cooker large enough to fit loaf pan (or a large stovetop stockpot and a container that can fit inside it).
This bread may just change your life!
Start by sifting all the dry ingredients into a bowl.
Add the molasses to the soy milk and whisk to incorporate it fully. Be sure to do this as a separate step rather than mixing the molasses straight into the batter.
Prepare your loaf pan with a piece of baking paper (or oil the inside well). Fold the molasses and soy milk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir only until you have achieved a homogeneous consistency. Be careful not to overstir.
Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan, and spread it around to an even level. Cover the top with a piece of aluminum foil.
Fill the slow-cooker with boiling water (this one takes 3 liters), or else fill it with water and allow enough time for it to preheat. It is very important for the water to be around 90°C before you add the loaf pan. If the dough is heated too slowly, the baking powder and soda will not be activated and the bread won’t rise. My slow-cooker heats to around 90° to 95° on the high setting, but yours may be different. You can check the exact temperature using a candy thermometer.
In my slow-cooker, the baking process takes about 18 hours. Since the lid does not form a complete seal, the water evaporates down after a few hours, so I try to time the baking so that I can check it every few hours and refill with hot water as necessary. To check if the bread is done, stick a toothpick in it, both in the middle and the sides. With this method, unlike in an oven, the bread begins baking from the center outwards so the sides and ends are the parts that will not be done if the bread is not yet ready.
When you have confirmed that the bread is indeed baked all the way through, remove it from the slow-cooker and allow it to cool. Unmold it onto a cutting board and you’re ready to slice and serve it! It can be used with either savory or sweet things – serve it with the plokkfiskur above or with vegan butter and jam.
To learn more about Iceland, I recommend checking out the All Things Iceland podcast, created by American expat Jewells, who also happens to be vegan! She can also be found on YouTube and Instagram. I also enjoy the Stories of Iceland podcast by native Icelander Óli Gneisti Sóleyjarson. And I of course highly recommend reading the authors I mentioned earlier, as well as (one day, when it’s possible) visiting Iceland yourself.