Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"That's a Good Life Smörgå"--Swedish Smoked Fish Sandwich with Pickled Cucumbers for Cook The Books: "Yes, Chef" by Marcus Samuelsson

As much as I love foodie fiction, there is something about hearing the story of a well-known and respected chef and learning how they found success that completely captures my interest. With Yes, Chef, a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson, our Cook The Books August/September pick (hosted by Rachel, The Crispy Cook), the journey is particularly fascinating. Born in Ethiopia and ill with the tuberculosis his young mother succumbed to, young Marcus was brought back to health, adopted by a loving Swedish family and raised in Sweden. He trained in Europe, traveled the world expanding his palate, and eventually found his place in the New York food scene. Yes, Chef is an absorbing, honest, and not always flattering look at a young chef and his drive to succeed.

I have to confess that it took me a while to warm to Marcus Samuelsson, who first came to my attention when he competed on Top Chef Masters. I found him to be the potent  combination of too cocky and too whiny that turns me off. It took a few years and watching him mentor and give feedback to less-experienced chefs on Chopped and The Taste that eventually changed my mind. You can tell he really wants to help others succeed. There is an honesty in the book that I appreciate and I liked seeing his growth from boy to chef to man, but some of those less positive feelings did come back in parts where I felt like his story and his hard work to get where he is were somewhat eclipsed by a chip on his shoulder. I don't mean to minimize his struggles with discrimination, nor could I ever imagine what it was/is like to walk in his shoes, but there were times when I wanted him to stop with the poor me attitude and focus on the positive. The best parts of the book for me came from his more humble moments and when his love for his family and the respect he has for his mentors and his staff came through. 

Although I found his restaurant experiences and how Marcus developed his creativity, passion and food knowledge engrossing, it was his early food memories with his family that touched my heart. The lessons he learned in the kitchen of his maternal grandmother or Mormor (cooking with love, carefully building flavors, and making the most of the ingredients you have) made me smile. The pleasures of simple food, best illustrated in his trip with his father to Smögen to work on the family fishing boats, are what inspired my dish for this round--the simple open-faced sandwich with smoked mackerel that his aunt prepared and his uncle's reaction to it.

"In the kitchen Nini had laid out four open-faced sandwiches: sliced boiled eggs, roe paste, mayonnaise, and a sprinkling of chives on a piece of brown bread. With a knife, she quickly filleted the mackerel, dressed it with black pepper and garlic, and topped each piece of bread with the warm, flavorful fish. 

I carried Torsten's plate over to the table, placing it in front of him. He took a bite, and I could see in his face the pleasure he took in the rich simplicity of the meal: the flaky chunks of fish, the velvety texture of the egg, the saltiness of the roe. Then he closed his eyes. "That's a good life," he said."
--Yes, Chef

Between those words that I kept going back to, and honoring my quarter-Swedish blood, ;-) I decided to make a That's a Good Life Smörgå or a Swedish open-faced sandwich. I kept the essence and most of the main ingredients of the one Marcus described--brown bread (rye), hard boiled eggs, mayo, chives and (deep breath) mackerel. 

Why the deep breath? Mackerel and I have an issue. It's a long story involving a slightly tipsy evening at a Japanese-style pub or izakaya with a friend, where a combination of noise, beer and translation had the daily special of raw saba (mackerel) placed in front of us. Had it been smoked, grilled, or even raw and cut in small thin slices, I would likely have no issue, but this one just lay on the plate; it's small head looking up on one end, and it's tail sticking up on the other with the center chopped into chunks. Being adventurous foodies, we gamely egged each other on and managed to eat part of it, washed down by big gulps of beer--but it wasn't pretty and it has made me shy away from anything mackerel-ish in the years since. 

Deciding that I love most all other smoked fish and feeling my smörgå just wouldn't be the same with smoked trout or salmon, I decided to retest the mackerel waters. (The fact that smoked mackerel was significantly less $$$ than my other smoked fish options sealed the deal.) The package I bought was black pepper mackerel--no need for dressing. I have no love for, but no real issues with fish roe, but it was ridiculously spendy for a package that I didn't think I would use up, so I mixed a small amount of capers into my garlicky mayonnaise for a salty feel. For a pop of color and a bit of welcome bite, I added very thinly-sliced red onion and watermelon radish to the mix.

According to Marcus, Swedish food is connected by pickles and jam, and having a serving of pickles alongside rich foods enhances the flavor experience. A Swedish pickle is salty, sour, and quite sweet and follows the 1-2-3 blend of one part vinegar, two parts sugar, three parts water. I used the recipe from his website for Quick Pickled Cucumbers. The flavor of these (sweeter than my usual pickling recipes) reminds me a lot of the pickled cucumbers my mom made for my dad.

Marcus says, "These pickles are second only to lingonberry jam as the favorite Swedish condiment."

Quick Pickled Cucumbers
From MarcusSamuelsson.com
(Makes About 1 1/2 Cups

1 English (hothouse) cucumber
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 bay leaf
2 allspice berries

Slice the cucumber as thin as possible (use a mandoline or other vegetable slicer if you have one).  Put the slices in a colander, toss them with the salt, and let stand for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the water, vinegar, sugar, bay leaf, and allspice in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Rinse the salt off the cucumbers, and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Put the cucumbers in a medium bowl and add the pickling solution; they should be completely covered by the brine. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours before serving.

Notes/Results: While mackerel will likely never be my top menu choice, a smackerel of smoked mackerel on a sandwich or in a spread is on the "yes" list. This sandwich is full of great flavor and texture with the dense dark rye bread, the creamy garlicky mayo, smoky and peppery fish, silky egg and the sharp pungency of the radish and red onion. The sweet and vinegary cucumbers are a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the sandwich. A pretty good life, indeed. ;-)  

The deadline for this round of Cook the Books is tomorrow, September 30th and Rachel will be rounding up the entries on the CTB blog soon after. If you missed this round and like food, books, and foodie books, join us for our October/November round when we will be reading The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, hosted by yours truly. Come join us! 



  1. Smacking my lips over your smackerel smorga! What gorgeous colors. A thoughtful post and a great addition to this round of Cook the Books. Look for the roundup soon.

  2. glad you re-tried mackerel, these open sandwiches sound and look wonderful!

  3. Those watermelon radishes are just the prettiest things! I love smoked mackerel. And grilled mackerel. But yeah, it is not a fish which I think lends itself to the sashimi treatment!

    I did wonder at one point in the book - he says he has no deep race wound and I tried to imagine how different he would be if he *did* have, because he certainly seemed a bit damaged by the discrimination.

  4. Your recipe looks lovely. The colors and the presentation are saying, "eat me" .. love it,

  5. I think Marcus would approve of this dish. I applaud you for trying the mackerel after your earlier experience . I would have used capers too b/c I love their little salty bursts of flavor. Good post!

  6. I could have written this post because my feelings about Marcus Samuellson were very much the same as yours. Another little note is that, I too, am 1/4 Swedish. However I never knew my grandfather as he left my grandmother and went back to Sweden when she was pregnant with my Mom so I know nothing of my Swedish roots. But now, I have this wonderful sandwich to try and I can say it is the food of my grandfather.

  7. Sounds like a perfect lunch. Now I want to try some smoked mackerel.

  8. Your sandwich looks beautiful! Great choice for this book!

  9. I LOVE the photos: gorgeous combination of colors and textures. Your sandwiches come to life on the screen.


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