Dark nights, cold weather, a glittering pine tree and a cozy wood fire are much more congenial to Scandinavian food than to refried beans or pad Thai.
That's why I quit cooking Asian and Mexican dishes at Christmas. I now revert to my Danish roots. Even the house takes on a different look.
Down from the mantle come the Indian elephants, the Balinese wood carving, the plump brass Buddha. Up goes a line of smartly suited antique Danish wooden soldiers topped with tall fur hats. Little \o7 julenisser\f7 (Christmas elves) peer out from unexpected places. Bright Danish runners line tables and cabinets, and once I taped a row of paper Christmas figures from Denmark around the entire dining room.
The celebration starts with a trip to Olson's Delicatessen and Gift Shop on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Weekends are lively as Scandinavians crowd into the store to buy Christmas supplies. We pour ourselves coffee and sample all the good things set out--herring, red cabbage, meatballs, salami, ginger cookies and more.
Soon my basket is loaded with \o7 medisterpolse, \f7 a pale pork sausage; Goteborg sausage, which resembles salami; lingonberries from Sweden, and coarse pearl sugar to sprinkle on cookies. If the cardamom bread hasn't been sold out, I'll get that too, and perhaps a bottle of \o7 glogg \f7 base.
The \o7 medisterpolse \f7 will appear at my annual Danish dinner. This impromptu event fills in any free evening on the holiday calendar. It's a simple meal of sausages browned in butter, small boiled potatoes sprinkled with dill from the garden, spicy red cabbage and lingonberries. The wine this year will be a light, fruity nouveau Beaujolais, a perfect match for these flavors. Afterward I'll have buttery Danish cookies, made from an old family recipe.
The part of this meal that I enjoy the most is cooking the red cabbage. I try a different recipe each year. The combinations seem endless, and some are rather complicated. However, the simple version that I served last Christmas was one of the best. It appears in "Good Food in Sweden," a cheery yellow book with a cover photo of a plump and smiling housewife cutting up ingredients.
First published in Stockholm in 1984, the book was translated and released in the United States in 1989 by Bergh Publishing of New York. Oskar Jakobsson collected the recipes. The red cabbage comes from Skane, which is Sweden's southernmost province.
The original recipe calls for margarine or goose fat and bacon rind. I substitute butter and cut-up bacon slices for these ingredients. In The Times' Test Kitchen, the recipe was tested with duck fat (it's difficult, maybe impossible, to find goose fat here) and bacon rind, which is too fatty for me. The flavor was wonderful, but I think my version tastes just as good.
RED CABBAGE (From "Good Food in Sweden")
1/3 cup margarine or goose fat
1 large head red cabbage, shredded
1 large onion, sliced
3 apples, cut into wedges, peeled
1 (6-ounce) piece bacon rind, cut into thin strips and lightly browned
1 1/2 to 2 cups water
2 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Melt margarine in Dutch oven. Add cabbage and onion and brown lightly. Add apple wedges, bacon and some of water. Simmer, covered, until cabbage is tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add more water occasionally. Season with molasses, vinegar, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
Each serving contains about:
144 calories; 612 mg sodium; 6 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.41 gram fiber.
\o7 Note: \f7 Substitute 4 to 6 slices bacon, chopped, lightly cooked and drained, for bacon rind.