Step 4: plan shopping and time-line

Once the menu is sketched (it can and likely will change somewhat over the coming week), we figure out the shoping list. We always get lots of stuff at Nordic House as well as Costco and your basic grocery store (Albertson’s or Andronico’s), but this year we had to figure out where to get our German stuff. Victoria used The Google (as our only President calls it) to figure out some options, but we didn’t get any clear-cut answers, so we decided to take it to a higher authority: Katja, my German-born friend and colleague in the localization industry, who lives in San Jose.

Saturday around dinner time, I rang her up and asked, “Who’s that German butcher you were telling me about?”

She chuckled and replied with certainty: “Dittmer’s!” She also provided sage advice about the menu, and we had a lovely chat, and then she wished us a good “slide” into the new year: “Einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!”

So a trip to Dittmer’s and Nordic House is in the plans for Tuesday. (I think it should be Nordic Huset, but I suppose that might confuse their neighbors. We’ll try to get to Costco today, though, so we can get the giant hunks of salmon marinating for the graved laks. You only need three days for a good graved laks (aka gravlax), but I think a week is better.

At left is the shopping list so far. This year’s list is deceptively brief and manageable-looking, but that’s only because Jane is taking care of about a third of the stuff herself and has her own lists (which perhaps she’ll publish here shortly), and because we’re getting good at throwing smørgåsbords and have already been stocking up on a bunch of the basics. We also have probably forgotten a couple dozen things and will be making many a last-minute trip for forgotten items. Traditionally we end up borrowing obscure ingredients on Saturday from our next-door neighbors Jaryn and Pete, too. (Jaryn is the maker of the beloved deviled eggs; I have yet to try one because they’re always demolished early on. This year she hinted she might dress them up in little dirndl skirts.)

Next we figure out the schedule of events. Lots of the items need to marinate, stew, soak, or otherwise get started well in advance, so first we fill in the must-start-soons. Then we fill in the other menu items, saving Friday and Saturday for the most perishable and/or most complicated or hard to store items. At lower left is the time-line thus far. This is subject to a lot of change, and by the end of the week it’s unlikely to look anything like this. Perhaps we’ll post before and after photos of the timeline about a week from now.

Our final act of planning was to taste the German schnapps items. It’s become a tradition to serve one Norwegian akevit plus an akevit from the guest country. We asked Katja’s advice about what would be the German answer to akevit. She in turn asked some friends, and on their advice, we tracked down some Doornkaat (a German gin) and Gilka Kaiser Kümmel (a German caraway liquor bearing vague resemblance to Scandinavia’s akevit) at the Mountain View BevMo. We all thought the Doornkat gin was pretty harsh (Jane compared it to isopropyl alcohol and made ready to rub some on her arm in case any injections were imminent), but the Kümmel was interestingly sweet. A second sip of gin after tasting the Kümmel was quite pleasant, though, proving once again that taste is greatly dependent on context. We decided they’ll do! They’ll also both be better at the usual serving temperature, which is right out of the freezer.

Step 3: plan menu

&tLast night, Jane came over and we held our planning session. Naturally this requires cocktails (gin gimlets, in this case). While we’re at it, here’s a recipe for a better gimlet: pour a generous shot of Tanqueray or Bombay Dry gin per person into a shaker filled with crushed ice, squeeze in half a lime per person, and add a dashlet of Rose’s lime juice per person. Strain into martini glasses and serve. No pictures, sorry.

The goal is to plan a menu with a reasonable distribution of the four food groups: sweet, starchy, savory, and alcoholic. We also try to balance offerings from the “host” and “guest” countries. Norway has always been the host country, and after the first year we cycled through the other Scandinavian countries as guest countries. Having completed the cycle, we decided to make a brief excursion to Germany. We’re developing quite a collection of cookbooks, flags, and so on. After listing the obvious items (lutefisk, lefse, gløgg, gravedlaks, and flat breads), we start flipping through the cookbooks and picking out the rest of the menu.

If you want to be surprised by the offerings when you arrive, stop reading right now!

This is what we came up with:

The E’s and J’s indicate which household is taking primary responsibility for making the item, shopping for the ingredients, and so on, not in that order. It’s a little misleading, though, because many of the things marked “E” are prepared not by Victoria and me but by all three of us here at our house. Jane will be moving in for the weekend on Friday evening, and we’ll be doing a lot of cooking together.

How to throw a smørgåsbord in 10,000 easy steps

Next Sunday, Jane and Victoria and I are throwing the sixth annual-but-for-one-year smørgåsbord, this time featuring Germany as the guest country. We’ve decided to document the whole process here on the blog, complete with photos and recipes.

Step 1: send out invitations

We always email the invitations, modern women that we are. This year I made my second attempt to use evite for the process and once again gave up in frustration: the evite system for designing custom invitations was (a) too confining, (b) too buggy, and (c) too frustrating. I don’t think I got as far as the part where you basically share the contact information for everyone you know with a company whose business is advertising. Of course they’re required by law not to share contact info without permission blah blah blah, but if I recall correctly, theirs is an opt-out system where all your invitees are automatically subscribed to their spam unless they notice on their invitation an opportunity to opt-out. I’ve been on and off evite’s spam list many times from getting invited to other people’s events, and I don’t want to do that to our friends, so email it is.

We pretty much invite everybody we know, so if we know you and you haven’t gotten your invitation, you’re invited, too, and we’re sorry that we either screwed up your email address, don’t have it, or somehow failed to include it.

This year’s invitation began:

Jane, Erin, and Victoria
request the company of your pleasure for the sixth
traditional Norwegian post-Christmas open house, or
Jultide Smørgåsbord VI,
Sunday, 7 January 2007, 3-9pm
at [Erin’s house]

Having Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and finally the dreaded Sweden as “guest countries” for Scandinavian variety worked out well in previous years. But since we can’t find windsocks for the Faroe Islands or Samiland, we’re declaring the first Scandinavian cycle complete. To mark this accomplishment, we’re taking the bold step of inviting GERMANY to join Norway on the culinary stage. (I know, it’s shocking, but Victoria is Swedish and German, Jane is German and Norwegian, and I’m Norwegian and German, and there are some really fabulous foods associated with Weinachtszeit.)

In keeping with tradition, we’ll be featuring lutefisk (that truly revolting Norwegian fish concoction, the piece of cod that passes understanding) and lots of other traditional Norwegian and German Christmas favorites that are actually good—yummy, in fact. Most are beige. If you’d like to bring something, I’d suggest your favorite Norwegian or German delicacy, if you have such a thing or enjoy culinary research. Easier still, you’re welcome to bring some cheap red wine to dump into the gløgg cauldron, or decent drinkable white wine or German beer, Norwegian akevit, or perhaps a good German gin, which our good friend Katja and her parents decided would best represent Germany’s answer to akevit. Or just drop by.

Spouses, etc., are also invited. The house is not kid-proofed, and there will be lots of adult beverages, but if you’re not worried about that, I’m sure the younger set will have a good time harrassing the two cats and slipping treats to the black lab. We’re not sure how she feels about lutefisk, though, so nobody should count on her help there.

Suggested attire is good Lutheran dressy casual. (Norwegian sweaters and so on. Lederhosen and Loden are also acceptable.)

The only Norwegian you’ll need to know is “Nei, takk!” (rhymes with “rye rock”): “No thanks! No lutefisk for me! Please no!!!” The German for that is, “Nein, danke!”

*** PLEASE REPLY so we know how much lutefisk not to make. ***

Step 2: Collect RSVPs

Since we don’t use evite or a similar service, we have to request that people RSVP by reply email.

Now, I don’t want to offend my/our readership here, but I have to say, our community is shockingly bad at this. In past years we’ve had only about a 50% reply rate. Most of the people who reply do so accurately–that is to say, they really do or do not show up in accordance with their promises, and they do let us know about others they’re bringing along (the spouses, etc.–we only attempt to send one invitation per household, because even that’s hard enough). And then there’s the other 50%. Some come, some don’t, some reply weeks after the event. Granted, if the invitation arrives while you’re out of town and you’re not one of those who checks email from away, this is very understandable, but 50% non-reply? Come on!

Note to the good 50%: well done. Thank you. We look forward to seeing you. Many of you write charming, witty replies, and these we especially enjoy, although we usually get too bogged down to reply to your replies.

Note to the other 50%: We’re still glad to see you, but what’s up with this?

Anyway, our system is to keep a spreadsheet with columns for who, yes, no, and maybe. Names go under who, a number goes under Yes, No, or Maybe, and sometimes a number goes under Yes and another number under No for tag-alongs whose availability is as-yet undetermined. Given the 50% non-reply rate, we usually take the number of yeses, plus half the number of maybes, and add about a dozen to estimate how many people’s worth of paper bowls and non-biodegradable cups, forks, and so on that we need. Although our invitation pleads for a reply so that we can estimate the amount of lutefisk not needed, in fact it’s about the disposable dishware and flatware.

As for the lutefisk, we always make exactly one hunk of it (we buy ours frozen at Nordic House in Oakland), and we always have about a third left over, cold and soupy looking in the bowl. This year we’ll find out for the first time whether cold leftover lutefisk is too disgusting even for a black labrador retriever to eat. (The cats have never been interested. Lutefisk is nominally a fish product. Go figure.)

Never try to show off in the kitchen

Every so often I get a little too big for my britches and try to make something basic into something fancy, just to show off. Case in point, last summer I needed to make something to take to a potluck picnic. Everybody loves meatloaf, but few of my generation seem to know how to make it, which is in itself a bit of weirdness that would qualify for its own blog post someday, so I decided I would make a meatloaf. I didn’t want them all to think I was a lame cook, though, so I decided to make a tri-colored spiral meatloaf. I got ground turkey, ground pork, and ground lamb, and I seasoned each differently. The lamb was Greekish, with lemon zest and oregano. The turkey was Middle Eastern, with cumin, garlic, and so on. I can’t remember what the pork one was supposed to be. All of them had salt and pepper, of course. I spread first the pork, then the turkey, then the lamb in a big rectangle, jelly roll style, then rolled then up into a spiral, whacked off hunks the size of my loaf pans, and baked.

What a lame meatloaf. The color differences were too indistinct for the spiral to be noticeable, unless you were really looking for it, and the flavorings sort of blurred together too, so the result was a weird dark-beige-on-light-beige spiral with a horrible muddle of herbs and spices. Only the lamb had a respectable amount of fat in it, so the overall loaf was dry, too.

(Note to food stylists: if you’re going to put an artichoke on the plate before photographing, use a raw one. Cooked artichokes are delicious but ugly.)

Next time I made meatloaf, I used the recipe God gave us: fatty hamburger, salt and pepper, a bit of oregano. Since I’m gluten intolerant, I used minced shiitakes instead of milk-moistened breadcrumbs, but I hardly think that qualifies as a massive departure from the sacred meatloaf recipe passed down through generations. I mooshed it all together with my bare hands, globbed it into a loaf pan, baked, and served with ketchup. It was way better.


It’s time to update the old-fashioned. An old-fashioned is, of course, a marriage of bourbon, bitters, water, sugar, and some fruit–usually a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry. Updating the recipe to take advantage of kumquat season, we get a new-fashioned: bourbon, a few dashes of bitters, several squeezed kumquats, and a kumquat garnish. Shake it with lots of crushed ice, strain into a sugar-rimmed martini glass, and you get a cold drink with just enough water from the melting of the ice. Garnish with an artistically carved bit of kumquat.