Everyone's A Chef - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Everyone’s A Chef

Everyone’s A Chef

Published September 22, 2014

Fine Icelandic cuisine made simple at Salt Eldhús

Larissa Kyzer
Photos by
Matthew Eisman

Fine Icelandic cuisine made simple at Salt Eldhús

I walk into Salt Eldhús (“Salt Kitchen”) on a rainy summer afternoon that feels chilly enough to be fall. Shaking off in the vestibule, I’m met by owner Auður Ögn Árnadóttir, who shakes my hand cheerfully and invites me to help myself to a cup of coffee and one of her homemade, rainbow-hued macaroons–her specialty.

A completely self-taught chef with a background in retail, event planning, and interior decorating, Auður opened Salt as a “teaching kitchen” in 2012. Since then, her (Icelandic-language) classes–ranging from a macaroon workshop to classic sauce and cheese-making courses, as well as guest-taught sessions on regional cuisines such as Thai, Moroccan and Japanese–have become quite popular with locals.

Believing that “the best way to get to know any country is through your taste buds,” Auður has also designed an English-language “Local in Focal” course for foreigners. (No eye rolling–Icelandic food can be really good.) These courses have been a hit as well. In fact, in May, ‘Food and Travel’ magazine named Salt one of Europe’s 50 Best Cookery Schools.

everyone's a chef by matthew eisman4

Into the kitchen

I sip my coffee and gobble macaroons as the other participants begin to arrive: an Icelandic couple (there to scope out the course on behalf of travelers), and an enthusiastic North American couple from Canada and the US, respectively. Aprons donned, Auður outlines our menu.

With the weather being as it is, she’s decided to “whip out a tried and tested autumn meal,” which will begin with an ocean trout and pressed potato salad starter, move on to a “more modern take on the classic Sunday roast” (a leg of lamb, that is), and end, she smiles, with her granny’s pancakes with stewed rhubarb and skyr cream. “I try to incor-porate skyr into every meal,” she laughs, explaining the various health benefits of the much-beloved staple as she hustles us into the kitchen.

With no more than six participants in each class, “Local in Focal” is designed to be intimate, but Auður’s kitchen is still spacious and airy, with half a dozen wood cooking stations spread around the room, each with its own four-burner gas stove. Her design prowess shows itself in the details: the bundt pan pendant lamps, the robin’s egg blue standing mixers, the crystal chandelier that hangs over the dinner table in the back corner, and which she admits she found on the cheap during a visit to the States. It’s a warm, comfortable shabby-chic vibe which similarly inflects her hands-on yet relaxed teaching style.

Potato-crushing giants

Divided into two or three cooks at each station, we start, somewhat unexpectedly, at the finish, mixing the pancake batter so that it has time to settle. There’s not much to this, but it needs to be done in a specific order, and the liquid only pulsed ever-so-briefly in the blender. “The blender,” Auður muses. “That’s the best invention since, I don’t know–toothpaste.”

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Our dessert now well in hand, we start preparing the pressed potato salad and the ocean trout, the former of which will involve the absolutely delightful process of crushing (cooled) potatoes with our fists, like giants, and the latter of which will introduce us to the unexpectedly easy, but impressively elegant sous vide cooking method. (For those who don’t spend a lot of time loitering around food blogs or watching cooking shows, sous vide is basically just slow cooking your ingredient in a sealed bag submerged in a hot water bath, so that it comes out extremely tender.)

Although there are many small tasks that would be a lot for one home cook to juggle, it must be noted that it is occasionally difficult to find enough for five people to do in the kitchen–chopping shallots and boiling rutabagas are pretty much one-person jobs. But as the various scents start combining and our dishes start coming together, no one is complaining.

Once our ocean trout has cooked to a velvety, melty texture, we’re ready to plate our appetizer. Auður shows us how to artistically mold the potato salad under the fish, top with cucumber sprouts and trout roe, and garnish with what she jokingly refers to as the pièce de résistance: Icelandic pylsusinnep (“hot dog mustard”–surprisingly good in this con-text). Once we’ve assembled our dishes–none of which look quite as nice as hers–Auður leads us to the table in back, where she pours us all a glass of wine and we tuck in, immensely proud of ourselves.

Really good housewives

Although I’m already a bit food-drunk, I could have easily eaten another full appetizer. But it’s time to get back to the kitchen and quickly sear our lamb entree–tender filets which we’ve marinated in fresh angelica and will serve with quick-pickled beets, rutabaga puree, and an angelica jus. Again, we assemble our frankly gorgeous plates; again, we sit, enjoy some wine and are impressed with our apparently boundless culinary talents.

“Again, we assemble our frankly gorgeous plates; again, we sit, enjoy some wine and are impressed with our apparently boundless culinary talents. “

We’re well on our way to being completely stuffed, but not so much so that anyone is willing to forego dessert. We North Americans, used to more robust, pillowy pancakes, briefly look askance at the thin liquid resting in the blender before our chef assures us that everything is as it should be. “In the old days,” she explains, “flour was scarce, a luxury commodity. Women prided themselves on how thin their pancakes were–if you could see through them, you were a really good housewife.”

Each of us then takes a turn at the griddle, pouring a paper-thin layer over the hot surface and trying to replicate the “lacy” quality of Auður’s example pancake. It’s a skill that even the Icelanders among us had some difficulty mastering, but full disclosure: the relative laciness makes no difference when it comes to taste.

We spoon out heaping dollops of cream on the pancakes before folding them into quarters and serving them alongside small cups of the stewed rhubarb we made earlier. Finally full to bursting, the table descends into a comfortable conversation about Icelandic tourism policies and the changing face of downtown Reykjavík as we linger over our wine.

Making my way to the door a bit later, with a folder of the day’s recipes in hand, I’m surprised to see that three hours have passed. I feel like I’ve been both host and guest at my own dinner party–had all the pleasure of cooking and eating delicious food, without any of the hassle of washing up after. Not a bad deal.

everyone's a chef by matthew eisman

Salt Recipe

Ocean Trout sous vide with shrimp and pressed potato salad

Ocean Trout Sous Vide

  • 600 g (22 oz) ocean trout fillet (smoked optional)
  • 2 tbsp gravlax mix: 2 parts sugar + 1 part fine sea salt
  • 2 tsp dill, finely chopped
  • A pinch white pepper
  • Vacuum pack/freezer bag
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • Salt & white pepper
  • Cucumber cress / Borage cress (can substitute other cresses or parsley, as desired)
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) Nordic sea shrimp
  • Arctic trout roe
  • Icelandic hot dog mustard (pylsu-sinnep)

Season the fish with gravlax mixture, chopped dill and white pepper.

Place the fish in a vacuum bag and fully seal. Bring a large pot of water to 43 °C (109.4 °F). Use a meat or candy thermometer to check the water temperature. Place the fish packet in the water and cook for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, take the bag out of the water and allow to cool. (If desired, you can also bake the ocean trout fillet in an oven set at 43 °C (109.4 °F) until the internal temperature of the fish is 43°C (109.4 °F).)

Pressed Potato Salad

  • 500 g (18 oz) new season potatoes
  • 200 g (3.5 oz) sour cream
  • 3 medium shallots
  • 3 spring onions
  • 2 tablespoons dill, chopped finely

Boil the new season potatoes in their skin in salted water with dill stems and a small knob of butter.

Let the potatoes cool (this can be done one day in advance).

Cut the shallots into small cubes, finely slice the spring onions and chives, chop the dill tops.

Mix the sour cream with the onions and herbs, season with salt & white pepper.

When the potatoes are cold, crush each one with your hands to release the starch and make it creamy, stir in the sour cream mix and mix well.

Assembly and serving

Using a 5 cm ring mold, press the potato salad into a perfect circle 3 cm high on a plate. Place Nordic sea shrimp on top.

Using a squeeze bottle, make a thin, decorative line of Icelandic mustard on one end of the plate.

Place a spoon of ocean trout roe atop the potato salad, with the shrimp (optional).

Cut the ocean trout into chunks and place on potato salad base as well, add a pinch of birch smoked salt and top with cress, borage or parsley.

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