In Praise of Smørrebrød

Nordic cuisine has ascended in recent years to join the culinary pantheon of fine dining, a welcome broadening of the traditional European references for modern American experimentation. Such a re-emergence of Nordic influences generates an interesting confluence in the Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where immigrants settled a few generations ago.  They brought with them a great number of culinary traditions, including the open faced sandwich – smørrebrød. In the simplest form, this is a specific style of rye bread, spread with butter, and topped with meats and accompaniments, eaten with a fork and knife. These sandwiches were a traditional lunch offering, and the butter was intended to keep the bread from getting soggy under the toppings. The name literally means “butter bread” in Danish.

If you want a more in-depth description of the current Danish traditions, the blog – danishsandwich.com goes into the more formal service traditions as well as the line-up of sandwiches that have become somewhat standardized in Denmark. We would rather refer you to a passionate expert, than try to do justice to the tradition in this short piece. And while we’re referring to experts, we’d also recommend the blog and cookbook from Brett Laidlaw, Trout Caviar, which is where we started our more in-depth reading on these Danish open-faced sandwiches.  He views them as a canvas for expression of his love of local ingredients and local traditions. Throughout both his cookbook and his blog, he captures much of what we consider Great Lakes Cuisine.

The particular local love we wanted to express on our version of smørrebrød was for smoked meats. We have explored the smoked meat topic before, but we made a recent pilgrimage to Wittenberg, WI to the temple of all that is smokey, meaty goodness – Nueske’s.

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After you walk in through the wooden doors, you are greeted by exquisite aromas of smoked meats and visions of endless meat cases of sausages, bacon, and pork chops. There are free samples of buttermilk and Sprecher Root Beer.  You can buy a hot dog for $1.50. This is like smoked meat nirvana.  And if you sneak in to the back room off to the left of the main room, there are two low, refrigerated open coolers of odd and ends, the bacon ends and the sausage casing mishaps. This is where we found Thick-cut Bacon and Smoked Liver Pate.  Our impulse purchase was a small package of smoked chicken. We also found Rubschlager’s Rye and 10 year aged cheddar and blackberry jam and more than just a little bit of campfire happiness.  The result of the happiness was this:

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We took great liberties with the traditional preparations, but stuck to the rye bread, butter starting point. It may not be apparent in the pictures, but we actually quartered the slice of bread, so each open-faced sandwich actually became a two-bite appetizer. Herring is traditionally the first served and we honored that with our offering here.

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The pickled herring is prepared by Bay View Packing Company in Milwaukee, WI. They use imported Atlantic herring, which is not related to the lake herring of Lake Superior (Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl from Minnesota Monthly details the differences here with great piece of culinary history). We topped each piece with a dill cream, pickled onions and pickled green peppercorns (in place of the more traditional capers). A fresh sprig of dill would have been a nice addition.

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Our smoked chicken was diced fine and prepared as a chicken salad with plumped currants, celery, and candied, spiced walnuts. We used a malt vinegar mayonnaise which took on the smoky flavors of the chicken when the flavors were allowed to meld overnight. Topped with a slice of pear and additional candied, spiced walnuts, this was a sweet and tangy, smokey and rich bite.

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Our final sandwich was Three Little Pigs – a smoked pork liver mousse on roast pork loin blanketing a piece of smoked, thick-cut bacon. The inspiration for the mousse was actually two different sources.  We had a version of Fedt (Danish for “fat”) based on the recipe at danishsandwich.com which came out wonderfully using the Nueske’s bacon drippings, apples, and onion caramelized together, then pureed. Discovery of a recipe from Amy Thielen’s cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, for braunschweiger mousse was another inspiration. She uses mascarpone cheese whipped into braunschweiger to add richness and and a velvety texture. So of course we whipped our fedt into our smoked liver pate.  This, my friends, was goodness. The topping is finely diced, house-pickled red onions and watermelon radish. And our happiness was complete.

Find your happiness, express it through food. Traditional and new. Simple and complete. This is Great Lakes Cuisine.

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