Noma grown at home: plants for new Nordic feasts
by Tom Moggach
credit: Astrid Westvang
We’re a funny lot, the Brits – we work long hours, then slump on the sofa to watch chefs on TV or read their cookbooks. Some of the trends they start are impossible to recreate at home (anyone for molecular gastronomy?) but one cooking style is perfect for keen gardeners – new Nordic cuisine, which celebrates the simple wonder of plants.
Noma restaurant in Copenhagen first sparked this phenomenon. Its young chef, René Redzepi, worked magic with wild foods, creating visually dramatic dishes using ingredients such as green strawberries, verbena oils, wild herb gels and frozen redcurrant juice.
Famous dishes include a raw beef tartare with wood sorrel, tarragon and juniper. Or how about a sublime dessert of wild blackberries with a sweetcorn ice cream?
Some recipes, of course, involve a few fancy techniques. But the underlying ethos is eminently achievable at home: gather plants and present them simply on the plate, with a nod to their natural environment.
So where to start? First, think about what you can gather on your doorstep. “The whole new Nordic philosophy is about using what’s around you,” explains Danish chef Christoffer Hruskova of North Road restaurant in London.
“The simple link is to wild plants and wild ingredients, which we sometimes call ‘weeds’,” he says. Chickweed, fat hen, dandelion, bittercress, nettles and wild garlic are some common examples.
As a rule of thumb, harvest the new growth – this will be the most sweet, tender and succulent. “Many of these weeds you can eat raw,” says Hruskova. “Pick, wash, and that’s it.” With certain plants, such as sticky cleavers, it’s only the boiled young shoots that are edible.
You may find edible weeds already growing on your plot. If you need help to identify them, invest in a guide such as Food for Free by Richard Mabey or The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler.
I have plenty of chickweed and dandelion popping up amongst my lettuces, for example. Other plants, such as wild garlic, can be gathered and then cultivated – I now have a patch in a shady spot.
Always taste the plants, Hruskova advises, before pairing them with other ingredients. Chickweed, for example, has a mild oniony flavour that goes especially well with grilled red meat.
For cultivated fruit and vegetables, experiment with those plants that have different edible parts offering contrasting textures and flavours. With garden peas and broad beans, for example, the shoots, fruits and flowers can all be eaten, and are all distinctly different.
To go the extra mile, you could even try to grow plants that are more common in Nordic countries, such as the cloudberry (Poyntzfield Herb Nursery) and sea buckthorn (Pomona Fruits and others) which produces tasty orange berries. Or how about green strawberries (Kore Wild Fruit Nursery)? At Noma, these are thinly sliced and paired with nasturtium leaves in a dish of fried Dover sole with new potatoes, beach cabbage and a sauce of brown butter, shallots, parsley, capers and wild garlic.
In the kitchen, another classic Nordic tactic is to pickle produce while it’s in season for use later in the year. At North Road, for example, they harvest the unripe fruits of wild garlic and elder, pack them for a month in fine salt, rinse, dry and pickle them in vinegar. “They are like small capers but ten times more tasty,” says Hruskova of his favourite elderberries.
Try playing around with the texture of more chunky plants too. Shaving vegetables into slivers works brilliantly for beetroots, carrots, courgettes and asparagus.
To take this a step further, pickle them for extra crunch and flavour. Mix two parts vinegar (white wine or cider vinegar, for example) with one part water and one part sugar. Taste for sweetness, adjusting as desired, and add spices as you wish. Note that this type of pickle will only keep for a few days.
Creative cooking, Nordic-style, is an inspiring way to enjoy the best of what grows around you. This way of eating is, of course, nothing new – but their chefs celebrate nature’s beauty and turn simple dishes into works of art.
Tom Moggach is author of The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing and Cooking in the City (Kyle Books, £16.99)
Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi (Phaidon, £35)