We invite you to enjoy this conversation with Vesterheim Folk Art Education Program Coordinator Josh Torkelson and Nordic Cooking Instructor Kristi Bissell.
An excerpt of this interview along with one of Kristi’s recipes, Roasted Salmon Smørbrød with Creamy Mustard Dill Sauce and Pickled Beets, is printed in the next issue of Vesterheim magazine, which includes a collection of articles and recipes focused on New Nordic Cuisine. The magazine will be out in June 2021 and is a benefit of Vesterheim membership. If you aren’t currently a member, start your annual membership to receive new issues twice each year! Join here.
Visit Vesterheim to experience the New Nordic Cuisine exhibit open through September 6.
Be sure to check for a schedule of Nordic foods classes with Kristi and other instructors here!
Kristi Bissell is a chef and the founder of True North Kitchen, a Nordic food blog designed for the American home cook. She enjoys creating recipes that celebrate her Scandinavian heritage and that present traditional Nordic ingredients in a modern, fresh, and approachable way. In our conversation, Kristi discussed how her work interweaves the “simple beauty” of Nordic cooking into everyday food.
Kristi is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and currently resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She attended the Institute for the Culinary Arts in Omaha and is a self-taught photographer. She is a frequent contributor to Nordstjernan, The Swedish Newspaper of America, and The Norwegian American.
JT: What is the background that brings you to Nordic food? Is it something that you grew up with? Is it something that came to you later in life?
KB: Well, it’s definitely something that I grew up with. My mom’s family was mostly Norwegian, and a little Danish. And then my dad’s family was Swedish, so we had a lot of different influences growing up. I would say that the Swedish and Norwegian foods won out and we didn’t really do a lot with the Danish side of things. I think it was something I took for granted and it was just something we did, particularly during the holidays. A big focus of our holiday table was a Swedish smöråsbord with lutefisk on Christmas Day and all sorts of delicacies. But at the time, I don’t think I had a lot of appreciation for it. It wasn’t until later in life – I mean, much later. I went to cooking school back when I was about 42 or 43 – when I renewed my interest in looking at Scandinavian cuisine in a different way. A pivotal piece of that was visiting the Fika restaurant at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Having that opportunity to see Nordic ingredients being used in really modern and fresh ways was super exciting to me.
JT: There seems to me to be three types of Nordic cuisine: There is Nordic immigrant cuisine that is a time capsule of a tradition, there is New Nordic cuisine, and then I’ve seen you write about the everyday balanced cooking of the contemporary Nordic region. I feel like your work on your blog touches on all three of these. How do you approach these varied traditions? How do you respect tradition but also carry it forward?
KB: I like the way you frame that. Most traditional things are always going to be important because they are the foods that we come back to for comfort or to have that little piece of our family with us as we move forward with our lives and want to share with our young families. I wholeheartedly enjoy developing and sharing family recipes on my website because they are part of my life. However, one cannot live on cookies! So, I think it’s really fun to touch on some of these New Nordic principles. I find that some of the New Nordic cookbooks are inaccessible, particularly to someone like me, who lives in the Midwest. I don’t have access to a lot of seaweed or foams, or some of those unusual ingredients that you sometimes need to find. So, I want to bring the spirit of that New Nordic movement into the American kitchen in a way that’s really accessible, and I want to offer recipes that hopefully people can make with just a quick trip to their local grocery store.
JT: With the New Nordic Cuisine movement, there is a specific manifesto with specific ideas, and I feel like many of them are really evident in your work. One of those is using local ingredients from around your area or flavors from your region. Could you highlight a few ways or a few dishes that you’ve made recently or in the past with this sense of localism?
KB: I like to use whole grains that people often only think of as something for baking. Barley and rye, for example, are two major ingredients that you’re going to find in a lot of Nordic baking, but I like to take barley and cook it and turn it into a salad. I have a warm barley salad with fresh herbs on my site, and I get the most interesting comments from people like, “I had never thought of having barley in a salad before! I’ve had it in soup and in a bread, but never in salad.”
JT: So barley and rye are traditional grains from Scandinavia, right? Rice and potatoes are new, but barley and rye are old-world Scandinavian grains?
KB: Very, very old world. They were just used because they could grow before wheat was made accessible to that climate. When they first started growing rye, wheat didn’t grow well. So, growers were working with grains that would work well with the cold and the wet. They’ve both been around for thousands of years in Scandinavian culture.
As for other ingredients, I have about 12 ingredients that I really like to focus on that are my core. If you go to my blog, there’s a whole ingredient section and that’s where I start from usually. The basics are barley, rye, oats, beets, cucumbers, potatoes, salmon, and cardamom. I’m probably forgetting a few, but I really like to maintain a tight focus because they’re the ones that are accessible to me here. I can get them locally and I know that most people are willing to play around with them in their own kitchen.
JT: It also strikes me that all the things you listed are quintessential Nordic flavors and not just from one particular country. They’re used throughout all of the Nordic countries, wouldn’t you say?
KB: Oh, absolutely, yes, they are definitely things you’re going to find across the board throughout the Nordic region, not limited to any particular country.
JT: Touching back on your background a little bit, you mentioned that you went to culinary school later in life. Was Nordic food something that you discovered as a result of culinary school? Was it the impetus for going to culinary school?
KB: I have always loved to cook. I have been in the kitchen since I was little where I cooked with my mom. So that was where it started, but it wasn’t so much Nordic, it was more just the cooking. I’ve gone through phases of loving French cooking and Italian cooking – I’ve done it all. My first job was as an attorney. I went to law school and I practiced law, but then I took cooking classes at night. I was living in Boulder, Colorado, at the time, and they had a cooking school. I really wanted to have that be a bigger part of my life. And then I ended up having kids and staying home with them. But I was about 42 when my dad died and I was going through a divorce, and I decided, “You know what? Now is the time to start to switch gears and to do this. I’ve always wanted to go to cooking school.” I think that having all of that upheaval in my life made me turn back to some of that family food and to take a look at it again, from a different lens. I found a lot of appreciation for it.
JT: It’s interesting that the family food, in this instance, acted as a literal comfort food. It helped shape your life in a way that has turned into this beautiful blog, teaching, and rediscovering traditions. You mentioned that when you were growing up, you cooked a lot with your mom, and I know recently with Vesterheim you taught a class with your daughter on Swedish ginger snaps, pepparkakor. This class was a webinar and you both showed us how to make these cookies. How do you bring forward these traditions with your own family?
KB: In some ways, my family doesn’t have a choice, because I’m the only cook in the house! I don’t like to push things, so if they’re accepted and loved, that’s great. And if not, we get to move on to the next thing. But there are so many foods like Swedish meatballs or pepparkakor – who wouldn’t love those? They’re amazing! So, some food is so easy to weave in. I can say I have one daughter who loves herring, and the other one wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole!
JT: One of the tenants of New Nordic Cuisine is to bring back different ways of engaging with food, whether it’s smoking or pickling, or other methods of cooking that haven’t traditionally found their way into daily cuisine. If you could do one of those methods that you haven’t done before, what would you want to do?
KB: I’m intrigued by the fermentation process, but that is something that scares me. That would be something I’d like to do in the future. I think it would be really fun to try.
JT: When I dig through your blog, I see so many different traditions. There is Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and I think that there is even an Icelandic recipe. I’m curious if there is something between all of these different Nordic traditions that you find unifying?
KB: I think simplicity. I like that and I see that across the board. There is a simple beauty in it. Which is also how I like to do my photography. Some food photographers have a lot of props and things going on, but I like to focus on the food. I like it to be super minimalist.
JT: I feel like new Nordic cuisine can be a little bit intimidating. But I feel that your recipes are very accessible. And they really do bring concepts, as well as traditional concepts, into the everyday kitchen. Can you talk about that?
KB: I’m so glad you see that because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I think everyday cooking is the backbone of cuisine. A lot of people are eating processed food all week long and then they cook a meal for fun on Saturdays and it’s a big deal! I really like the idea of people being in the kitchen every day and making food from scratch and letting it be simple and easy. I think we have a lot of examples of that with Italian cuisine and French cuisine that you can see if you flip through a culinary magazine. So that’s where my Nordic food interest comes into play with interweaving the idea of everyday cooking. It goes back to the idea that we can’t eat Swedish meatballs all the time. It’s not always December! We can think about Nordic food all year long. It’s also so much fun to look at it through the lens of each season.
JT: Can we dig into the seasonal aspect a little bit? That, of course, is another tenant of New Nordic Cuisine. You taught a class at Vesterheim, Nordic Springtime Supper, and the flavors in that were focused on the seasonal nature of spring, but you also have a bunch of recipes on your blog that are very seasonal. Would you talk about how you use different flavors throughout the year?
KB: I’ve always been a fan of seasonal cooking and I love cookbooks that are organized by month or by season because that’s how I like to think about food. I think that for some of us who have only really experienced Nordic food at Christmas time, it’s very foreign to think about Nordic food in July. And that’s the fun thing about it! You get to take some of these concepts, weave in some of that produce that’s available to you, and make something super interesting and fun and delicious at the same time. For example, I have a series of Danish smørrebrød that is based on garden vegetables and there are some unconventional ingredients. I have an Icelandic skyr sauce that pairs with a garden basil pesto. Weaving all of that together with seasonal produce, whether it’s in your garden or at the farmers market. That’s really where the fun is! I have another barley salad that has fresh corn and olives and herbs, and it’s just so delicious. I’m starting with that basic Nordic staple of barley and adding in these fresh, seasonal ingredients that I could find absolutely anywhere. And barley or rye are pantry items.
JT: New Nordic Cuisine, of course, draws on historic traditions but modernizes them. It’s rooted in the seasons and also the environment. It’s really looking towards what is a sustainable future for food. But interestingly, it’s also harkening back to a time when all that you had available was local ingredients from your local store or grown yourself. I wonder if you have a sense of that circle of time?
KB: Yeah it used to not be an option to not eat locally, but then we really moved into a period of the industrialization of food. I think I grew up in a time where that was the norm. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and we ate a lot of processed foods, and so did everyone. It was just the way of it. But I think that things have worked their way back in the other direction in a lot of ways. But it has to be a choice. Fresh food also brings to mind my mom’s generation. She grew up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota and her parents were almost entirely Norwegian. They grew, they baked, they made almost everything, and they raised their own meat. I suppose that was between 1940 and the early 1970s, or maybe even 1980. And I think that had a big influence on me too. My grandma was pickling absolutely everything and storing it for God knows when. She had jars and jars of everything that she saved for years! That’s only one generation away from me and it was something that I saw personally.
JT: You mentioned that it can be difficult for you to get Nordic ingredients where you live. What are your suggestions for folks who do want to cook with Nordic ingredients and do want to cook with fresh ingredients in their region?
KB: I think the best thing to do is start with some of the basics. Start with learning more about rye grains, learn how to bake Danish rugbrød. I have a couple of recipes for that on my site. And then start making some really awesome open-face sandwiches, in the spirit of Danish-style food. Pile them high with roasted vegetables, or whatever it is that suits you and whatever is delicious to you. And you can mail order practically anything from the internet these days. I order a giant bag of frozen lingonberries and they last me for a good year!