Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Helena in The Press Democrat 12/17/08

Part of a Christmas eve julbord feast tradition from Sweden are Swedish meatballs, Jansson's Temptation with shredded potatoes and anchovies and wine-braised red cabbage prepared by Cazadero chef Helena Gustavsson, below, who was born near Stockholm.

From the winter chill of Sweden comes julbord, a flavor-filled midday holiday tradition fit for a hearty Scandinavian appetite

By Diane Peterson

Photos by John Burgess

The Press Democrat

In the cold, dark expanse of winter in Sweden, the season of Christmas, with its festive foods, social gatherings and song, shines like a beacon of warmth and light.

Candles are lit, stars shine in windows and fire places crackles. Along with the Christmas tree and the visit of the Christmas gnome, the holiday culminates on Christmas Eve with the midday smorgasbord known as the julbord.

Helena Gustavsson of Cazadero, who was born and raised in a small town outside Stockholm, shared some of her favorite julbord dishes last month during the Sonoma County Culinary Guild's holiday party.

"The tradition julbord includes three separate tables; a cold appetizer table, a hot entree table and a dessert table," Gustavsson said. "You put a little bit of everything on your plate."

The julbord meal requires a bit of restraint as well as a hearty appetite. It should be treated not as an all-your-can-eat buffet but as a small-plate sampling. "the delight is in being able to go back to the table several times," she said. "You have to pace yourself."

The Swedish feast offers a wide range of flavors and ingredients typical to this Scandinavian country surrounded by the sea. Two of the most popular dishes include the elegant salt-cured salmon known as gravlax and a tasty anchovy and potato dish known as Jansson's Temptation.

And for munching into the wee hours of the night, there are all kinds of yummy desserts and Christmas candies, including a creamy almond toffee known as knack, and nutty high-coca chocolates known as ischoklad. "You have to save room for the desserts," said Gustavsson, who graduated from the San Francisco City College culinary school in 2003 and interned in pastry at Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco.

When she was growing up in Sweden, Gustavsson grew her own vegetables, foraged for berries and mushrooms and helped process the elk that her father brought home from the hunt. "We always cooked together as a family,” she said. "When I went to culinary school in my early 30s, I realized that I already had a good background." After working in the front of the house at Cyrus in Healdsburg and the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, Gustavsson opened her own restaurant, the former Charizma Wine Lounge, in downtown Guerneville. She currently works as the dining room coordinator at the River's End in Jenner.

The julbord - which means "Christmas table" - holds a special place in the heart of all Swedes, who must begin preparing the feast more than a week in advance, in order to cure the salmon and the ham. The cured ham serves as the centerpiece of the cold appetizer table, which is also piled high with mustards, salads, boiled potatoes and deviled eggs topped with caviar. "The ham is like the turkey on the Thanksgiving table," she said. "We serve it cold and sliced."

Gravlax, a uniquely Scandinavian contribution to world cuisine, is an elegant, raw salmon that's been cured with slat, sugar and dill. It is sliced paper thin and served with dark bread and a dill-mustard sauce. "With a whole salmon, you put the salt mixture inside and outside and put the flesh sides together," Gustavsson said. "Before serving, you scrape off the spices and the salt."

Once you've sated yourself on appetizers, the hot table beckons with a hearty array of braised beef short ribs, sausages and the ever-popular Swedish meatballs. According to Gustavsson, there are as many recipes for Swedish meatballs as there are families in Sweden, but most of them call for a mixture of veal, pork and beef. "My mom made them with elk and pork," Gustavsson said.

Jansson's Temptation - made from shredded potatoes and anchovies - holds a place of honor on the hot entree table. There are various stories about how this unusual potato dish got its name, with anecdotal evidence pointing to either a religious zealot of an opera singer. But one thing is for certain: Jansson’s Temptation is a ideal late-night snack for guests who have to go back out in the cold. "It is very tasty and juicy," Gustavsson said. "You shred the potatoes, then add half & half, yellow onions, anchovies, white pepper and salt. Then you put breadcrumbs and butter on top."

Along side meatballs and the potatoes, a humble helping of wine-braised red cabbage provides a satisfying side dish. But for the dessert table, the Swedes pull out all the stops, offering a wide variety of tempting treats, from Creamy Rice Pudding to Chocolate Oat Balls. "The Creamy Rice Pudding is rich and really good," she said. "We take the leftover white rice from the breakfast porridge and mix it with vanilla, sugar and whipped cream."

In Sweden, where ancient Norse myths and pagan traditions still hold sway, Christmas is both the biggest holiday of the year and the longest, extending from the first Sunday in December through mid-January. At the beginning of Advent, the rhythm of life relaxes as family and friends get together over small cups of strong coffee and the spiced wine known as glogg.

On the first Sunday in December, the villages begin decorating, and people put up a few decorations in the home, including special candleholders and a star in their windows. On December 13, towns all across Sweden pay tribute to Santa Lucia - an Italian saint revered for her kindness - with a festival of light that includes parades and processions, singing and special sweets. "There's a lot of music involved," Gustavsson said. "You eat saffron buns and gingerbread cookies and drink the glogg."

On Christmas Eve, families gather to eat at midday then open gifts around 5 or 6 p.m. "We drink glogg and eat nuts and candy in the evening," she said. "Then we play games and watch TV and socialize." The Christmas tree doesn't usually get put up until the morning of Christmas Eve, but it stays up for 20 days, until Knut's day, a week after Twelfth Night. By that time, the leftovers from the julbord are gone and it's time to prepare one last Christmas meal. "We have a party and dance around the tree," Gustavsson said. "Then we throw it out."

See julbord reciepes:
Simple Deviled Eggs
Swedish Meatballs
Jansson's Temptation
Red Wine Braised Cabbage
Almond Cottage Cheese Pudding
Helena's Holiday Glogg

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