Today is Anna’s Day in Sweden, which is both a name day celebrating people named Anna, and the day to start the preparation process of the lutefisk to be served on Christmas Eve.
OK – my sister is named Anna, so that’s a good start. I’m not going to write a post on her, but here’s her picture from facebook.
Then there’s Anna Harriette Emma Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian or Indian-born British travel writer, educator and social activist, who became well known with the publication of her memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which chronicled her experiences in Siam (modern Thailand), as teacher to the children of the Siamese King Mongkut, fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s 1944 best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam, as well as films and television series based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 hit musical The King and I.
There’s Anna May Wong, the first Hong Kong-Chinese American Hollywood movie star, as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition, which is actually a cheat because she was born Wong Liu Tsong.
There’s also Anna Pavlova and Anna Freud who have posts here, and an alarming number of 19th century serial killers, as well as Russian tennis players and gymnasts. Maybe they are all named after Anna Karenina?
Let’s now turn to lutefisk. Garrison Keillor has this to say about lutefisk in his memories of Minnesota:
Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.
The description “fishlike” is incorrect. It is not like fish, it is fish. His sentiment about it, however, is fairly widespread, including in Scandinavia. There are Scandinavians who love it, and those who hate it. There is no middle ground. I suspect that it is more popular among ex-pats at Christmas nowadays than among those living in Scandinavia where roast pork and roast turkey are common Christmas Eve treats.
Lutefisk is dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling and burbot are also used) treated with lye. The first step is soaking the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH of 11–12. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.
After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked extremely carefully so that it does not fall to pieces. To create a firm consistency in lutefisk, it is common to spread a layer of salt over the fish about half an hour before it is cooked. This will release some of the water in the fish. The salt must be rinsed off carefully before cooking. Lutefisk does not need additional water for the cooking; it is sufficient to place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a very low heat for 20–25 minutes. An alternative is to wrap in aluminium foil and bake at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 minutes. Another option is to parboil lutefisk; wrapped in cheesecloth and gently boiled until tender. Lutefisk can also be boiled directly in a pan of water.
When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately. Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver. Stainless steel utensils are recommended instead.
In Sweden and Finland lutefisk is a part of the Christmas tradition and is mostly eaten with boiled potatoes, green peas and white sauce. Regional variations include a sprinkle of freshly ground allspice or black pepper and the addition of coarsely ground mustard in the white sauce (in Scania). In parts of Jämtland it is served on flat bread along with whey cheese.
In the United States lutefisk is often served with a variety of side dishes, including bacon, peas, pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, and geitost, or “old” cheese (gammelost). It is sometimes eaten with meatballs, which is not traditional in Scandinavia. Side dishes vary greatly from family to family and region to region, and can be a source of jovial contention when eaters of different “traditions” of lutefisk dine together.
Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even in Scandinavia, for its intensely offensive odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock emits almost no odor. The taste of well-prepared lutefisk is very mild, and the white sauce is often spiced with pepper or other strong-tasting spices. In Minnesota, this method (seasoned with allspice) is common among Swedish-Americans, while Norwegian-Americans often prefer to eat it unseasoned with melted butter or cream sauce.
There are many wholly apocryphal stories about the origin of lutefisk. The one that amuses me claims that St. Patrick attempted to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with lye-soaked fish, but rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy.