R. R. 9/52 – Janssons Frestelse

Continuing on the theme of scalloped food, I thought I’d try one last example of wintry, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food before we were completely engulfed by Spring and rendered incapable of eating anything but tender shoots and unfurling leaves.  The fickle finger of foodie Fate has this week settled upon a dish by the name of Jansson’s Temptation or Janssons Frestelse as it is called in Sweden, the country of its origin.  For the duration of our discussion, however, we shall use the latter form in reference to the dish because, in my opinion, “frestelse” is the far superior word.  Frestelse.  Pronounced “freh – stell – suh.”   I encourage you to try, as I have to great effect, using this exciting new term by way of greeting.  As farewell!  In assent!  In protest!  Shouted at the top of your lungs as a battlecry!  Like me, I think you’ll find that it’s a multi-faceted and nuanced word that ought to be incorporated into common parlance postehaste!

Now, back to the topic at hand.  This week’s novelty was essentially a pan of scalloped potatoes.  Ahhhhh.  Did the mere mention of these potatoes conjure up fond memories for you?  Did you immediately grow wistful and nostalgic for the good old, humble family fare that mother used to make?   If it did, then I’m afraid that we can no longer be friends.  The phrase “scalloped potatoes”, especially when used in conjunction with the question, “What are we having for dinner tonight, Mum?”  never failed to strike fear into my heart as a young lass.  I wouldn’t even utter its name within earshot of my mother for fear of reminding her of the horrid concoction; to speak its name was to invoke it.   Monsters under the bed I could outrun, but there was just no escape from Mother standing guard at the dinner table.  I remember sitting alone at the table with a plateful of uneaten, rapidly congealing scalloped potatoes before me, sobbing my tiny heart out and defiantly vowing never to cook, eat, or force anyone else against her will to eat the casserole of all evil when I was big and all grown up.

Poor Mum.  She was always so hurt that I couldn’t eat those fracking potatoes.  Everyone else that ate her potato scallop loved it – my brother always listed it as his favourite food and, to my chagrin, always requested it for his special birthday dinner.  Rationally, I don’t understand what it was about the dish that induced such a visceral response.  I loved potatoes, the main ingredient.  Onions, while I wasn’t their biggest cheerleader, I could get down my spindly neck.  Cream?  Well, what kitten doesn’t love cream?  All lovely ingredients on their own, or in various different configurations, but, if put all together in one dish and baked up in a pie, they transform into a fresh and potent batch of Ninsbane.

Imagine then, if you will, my horror when, in the early days of our courtship, Him Indy revealed that his favourite dish was “Jansson’s Frestelse.”  Wanting to know more about the likes and dislikes of the object of my affection, I pressed him for further information.  Just who was this Jansson person and what was the moral dilemma with which he grappled?  Obviously, we know what tempted him – the mysterious dish with no solid clues about its ingredients in its name  –  but from what did it tempt him away?  The stage?  His family?  A life of nutritional purity?  If asked post-temptation, would Jan assert that it had been worth the fall from grace or would he admit to being disappointed?  Him Indoors complied with a presentation of his understanding of the dish’s components and construction, and, listening to his description, I felt my blood grow cold.  Not only was what he described practically a blueprint for scalloped potatoes, but it was a blueprint for scalloped potatoes with anchovies.  Why would anyone do that?   Why add fish to a dish that was horrible enough in its own right?!  That was no Temptation!!  That was a Punishment!!!  That was Nightmare on a Plate!!!  Jansson had clearly lost the plot and could therefore not be trusted.  Happily, it wasn’t a dealbreaker and we advanced to the next stages of our Ever After, but H.I. married me with the understanding that like five, Jansson’s Frestelse was right out.

Fast forward to a few years later when, in my quest to eat fish, I investigated an unfamiliar name tacked on the end of the FSA’s list o’ fishy goodness:  the sprat.  As it happens, the Sprattus sprattus is a little herring-esque fish which, when tinned, is none other than the piscean component of the popular Scandinavian dish called – no prizes for guessing, folks – Janssons Frestelse.  Curious about my old foe Jansson, I read on.  In Sweden, the Frestelse is a dish that traditionally, but not exclusively, served at Christmas and sometimes at Easter.  It’s also a favourite hangover-prevention food or nattamat, (another great word, in my humble opinion) meaning “night-food,” served after an evening of high spirits and indulgence.  According to H.I., it is also considered a “walking food,” served to departing guests in order to gird their loins with starch and fat before their long journeys home in the snow.  A common misconception, probably born of mistranslation and english-speaker’s assumption, about this recipe is that the fish tucked into the dish’s layers is the anchovy.  The Swedish word for sprats being “ansjovis”, it’s not difficult to see how the word, and thus the recipe, has routinely been misinterpreted.  (Funnily enough, the Swedish for anchovies is actully sardellen, which in turn lends itself nicely to misinterpretation!)  Apparently, it’s very important for the the authenticity of the dish to use these sugar and spice-cured sprats rather than the salty, mediterranean anchovies.  Not that this meant much to me as a fish-doubter –  I was prepared to dislike both sprat and anchovy equally.  Still, I needed an omega hit for the week, and I thought I might as well go along with crazy ol’ Jansson.

I sourced my spratsovies from a lovely, little shop in London, called “Totally Swedish.”  Apparently, the correct sort of fish is also available from IKEA, but, since I’m not within hurling distance of a big blue and yellow shop, I simply HAD to go into London (by way of the Emma Bridgewater shop, of course).  If ever you’re in the vicinity of Crawford Street, it’s worth poking your nose into Totally Swedish, not only for some ansjovis, but for the stacks of crispbread discs in a rainbow of flavours, boxes of pepparkakor, and painted, wooden butter paddles.  The service was warm and attentive, and the young ladies behind the counter were friendly, helpful, and completely unruffled when greeted with a  resounding “Frestelse!”  Locating the ansjovis in the chiller section, I was completely won over by the cheerful, little tin with its border of gold, field of bubblegum pink and trio of happy, smiling red fish rampant.  If I could somehow enlarge the tin faceplate and tack it up on my kitchen wall as art, I would do so!  How could anything evil come from so fair a face?

Once back at home, I carefully peeled back the lid, to get my first look at the smileyfish.   Jostling for space in the tin were several flat, silver bellied fish suspended in a pale pink liquid.  I hesitated.  Was it my imagination or was that fish’s smile starting to look a bit sinister?  The pink liquid was unsettlingly familiar, and the connotations were not good.   I had a  vague recollection of Jo-beth Williams being covered in a translucent pink goo after going through the portal in Poltergeist,  followed by the mental image of the river of pink slime from Ghostbusters 2.  Had I picked up a bad batch?  Did I get the tin of mislabeled surströmming?  A wary sniff revealed the unexpected but unmistakable aroma  of cinnamon and cloves!  Granted, I knew that the sprats were preserved in salt, sugar, and spices, but I hadn’t expected them to smell so strongly of Christmas.  That’s why those fish were grinning – it’s difficult to pull glum faces in the presence of such wonderful scents!  Placing my trust in the smiling sprats of yuletide, I put aside my misgivings and cracked on with the dish.

And my verdict?  I’m pleased to announce that the Frestelse has earned itself a place in my Saved File.  I now understand why it was the young H.I.’s favourite food in all the land.  It was a doddle to make, it smelled divine as it baked, and once out of the oven, it looked like I’d spent ages hovering over it.  It was comfort food at its best; it was very filling and substantial,  it was creamy, velvety, and yes, starchy – Atkins devotees need not apply  – and best of all, not at all fishy.  Be warned that it’s truly addictive!  Serve it as a side dish, as part of a smörgåsbord or even as the main dish; it’s just that versatile.

Given my positive reception of this scallop, one might be forgiven for thinking that it was time to give my mother’s Scallop of Doom another try.  At a recent family gathering, Mum nonchalantly tried to serve it to me.  There was minimal fanfare with no cajoling, no calling of attention to the scallop-hating freak, and nary a thunderous look in attendance.   Eyeing my opponent, I squared up to the plate, confident that my tastebuds had evolved sufficiently to overcome whatever animosity they may have previously held.  Feeling curious eyes upon me, I casually put a forkful into my mouth….and instantly regretted it.  The spontaneous tide of bile that my younger self experienced each and every time she tried to eat those potatoes rose up and threatened to overcome me.  Suppressing a chuckle, Bud resurrected another of our childhood rituals – the delicate and covert transfer of Nin’s share of the tatties to his plate.

And if you’ve managed to read this far, congratulations and apologies.  I do run at the mouth at times, it has been said!  As a reward for your perseverance, I offer you the challenge of a little Easter treasure hunt.  The first person to correctly name the Easter themed Swedish drink that H.I. swears is the only thing to wash down a plateful of Frestelse will receive one little, Swedish cookbook, recently purchased at the aforementioned London shop.

Janssons Frestelse

Ingredients

1-2 tbsp butter
2 large onions
5-7 large, floury potatoes (I used Maris Piper)
1 tin of Swedish sprats, 125g  (about 7-10 fillets in total), curing brine reserved.**
1 – 2 cups cream (use half milk and half cream for a *slightly* lighter version)
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tbsp butter, cut into pieces
1/4-1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs

** If Swedish ansjovis are absolutely impossible to find, I’ve since learned that one can use regular, tinned anchovies, so long as they are well rinsed and then soaked in milk to reduce excessive saltiness.  Fresh anchovies, however, are not welcome in this dish.

Procedure:

1.  Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.

2.  Slice the onions thinly and, in a frying pan, gently soften them without browning in the butter.

3.  Peel the potatoes and slice them thin.  In accordance to H.I.’s preference, I sliced mine in thin rounds, but other cooks have advocated shredding, grating and even julienning them.  Personal preference!

4.  Lightly grease an oven-proof dish.  Layer the potatoes, onion and the fish fillets, making sure that you reserve enough potato for three layers.  Start with the sliced potato; cover the bottom of the dish with a layer and then add half of the sautéed onions.  Overtop the onions, carefully lay out half of the ansjovis.  Repeating the process, arrange another layer of potato with the remainder of the onion and fish on top.  Finish with one last layer of potato.

5.  Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the potatoes, and then decant the reserved sugar-brine preserving liquid from the ansjovis tin.  (Yep, that’s right!  Be brave and tip the pink ectoplasm right on top of the tatties!)    Pour the cream over the casserole just until its white tideline can be spotted rising through the potatoes.  Depending upon the size and configuration of your dish, you might not need to use the entire amount of the cream.  Dot the top with butter, sprinkle it the breadcrumbs, and then pop it, uncovered, into your preheated oven.  Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and the crumb top is golden brown.

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