Nordic Family Kitchen: Seasonal Home Cooking
Book Review: Nordic Family Kitchen: Seasonal Home Cooking by Mikkel Karstad with photography by Anders Schonnemann. To be published on 7 October 2021 by Prestel. Preorder from Amazon here. From £19.00 depending on the seller.
[Disclosure: Prestel provided me with an advance copy this book for the purposes of this review.]
I love a beautiful cookbook. Even now, when I’m trying to practice minimalism, my bookshelves are groaning with gorgeous cookbooks – both old classics, almost falling apart with use, and glossy new finds that still have that satisfying crack in the spine when I open them.
In this super saturated market, if you’re not a household name, it’s extremely difficult to bring out a successful cookbook. Tim Anderson has done it with his fabulous Tokyo Stories and Vegan JapanEasy cookbooks (both of which I have and love), Kay Featherstone and Kate Allinson have done it with their Pinch of Nom cookbook and Joe Wicks has done it with his health-conscious series of cookbooks. I think that if you’re not a celebrity, you have to have a very strong point of view, already shared by a tribe, to be successful in this field.
It’s into this competitive environment that Mikkel Karstad has stepped with his book Nordic Family Kitchen. Karstad was the culinary advisor to the extraordinary team at NOMA restaurant and his cookbook embodies his cooking values and aesthetic – simple fare, embellished with freshly foraged plants. Karstad’s intention with this book is to show families how to make easy, healthy and sustainable meals with lots of meat free (by which Karstad means red meat free) cooking.
Nordic Family Kitchen, in keeping with Karstad’s Nordic heritage, has the obligatory Scandi aesthetic – white spaces, handcrafted, minimal with beautiful and dreamy, slightly over exposed photos by Anders Schonnenmann. If that’s your bag, then you’ll already love this book.
But there are some aspects to this book that I found a bit puzzling. Not least of which is the way the recipes are organised. The 75 recipes that make up this book are organised into 10 chapters whose titles include the meals they’re for (breakfast, lunch, dinner), the ingredients they might use (eggs, pasta), the techniques (baking) and the places where the ingredients might be found (garden, orchard, forest, beach).
There are four separate organisational ideas here – each one is a lovely way to organise a recipe book – but put them altogether in one book and it’s not one thing or the other. Given Karstad’s emphasis on foraging, I think it would have improved the organisation of the book, not to mention emphasising its unique selling point, to focus on places where ingredients are found. This would also have tied in nicely with NOMA’s strong and famous commitment to foraging close to home.
My overarching impression of the recipes in this book is that they are both too complicated and too simple, at the same time. What I mean by this is that most of the recipes fit the formula of, “familiar thing plus the not so familiar thing”.
The familiar thing-aspect of the recipes will often be something uncomplicated like toast, fish, flatbreads, baked potatoes, porridge, pasta, fried eggs, roast chicken. The “not so familiar thing” will be something like junket, sweet cicely, fried rapeseed flowers, preserved apples, wild garlic flowers, bronze fennel, sunflower leaves…
Many times, the “not so familiar thing” will be something that has been freshly foraged. The problem with this is that quite often, the “not so familiar thing” in a recipe will also be the “not so easily obtainable thing” – especially in October in the Northern Hemisphere. You will have to wait until summer before you can even think about making many of the recipes in this book in the way that Karstad has written them. Even in summer, getting some of the ingredients won’t be so straight forward – at least in the UK.
Perhaps Copenhagen is bursting with ready to pick and edible (i.e. not sprayed with pesticides) rapeseed flowers, bronze fennel, bladder wrack, vervain, wild rose petals, spruce, cornflowers, marigolds, sunflower leaves and sweet cicely. But if you want to forage for these things in the UK, it will need to be a very carefully planned outing that may involve a botanic garden or two.
The problem with this is that if you skip the “not so familiar thing” in each recipe because you can’t get it at the moment, or at all – then all you have left in the recipe is the familiar thing that anyone who cooks won’t need to buy a new recipe book for. While not all recipes in Nordic Family Kitchen are like this, of course, enough are to make it a real challenge to recreate many of these recipes in the UK, in the way they’re written.
Another observation is that this is not a book for those who are avoiding gluten or want to cut down on their wheat consumption. I counted 37 recipes (out of 75) that use wheat as an important ingredient and that doesn’t include those recipes that include bread as a serving suggestion, have buckwheat or spelt as a garnish or use a little flour to help with frying.
Reading through this book also made me wonder whether it was rushed to publication.
In his forward, Karstad gives a bit of a talk about growing up on a farm, foraging for food and how he’s brought the practice to his own family. I was expecting a little bit of book-chat at the start of each chapter – sometimes an author’s beautiful anecdotes are the only reason I read a cookbook. But in Nordic Family Kitchen, we only get a very, very short paragraph of chat before the start of each place-chapter that is, before the chapters on garden, orchard, beach and forest. No chat or anecdotes to start off the other six chapters. Every European chef on the planet has stories about breakfast, lunch, dinner, pasta, eggs and baking – I would have liked to hear Karstad’s. I wonder why they weren’t included.
There are a couple of other things about this book that gave me pause: Do we really need two identical recipes for grilled fish with herbs for different species of fish? Can we just leave out the seaweed from the recipe for seaweed flatbreads so that we can make all the recipes that call for plain flatbreads as an ingredient? Probably. But it would have been courteous to tell the readers that specifically and to provide a page number reference. What is wrong with the index – when there are so many recipes that include bread yet the index lists only one next to the bread entry? If you’re going to go to the trouble of making granola from scratch (as I do, every month), then why have recipe measurements that make only 4 servings of granola - that’s only enough for one breakfast for Karstad and his family?
If you love the Scandi aesthetic or you were a fan of the NOMA restaurant or even if you’d like to have a glimpse into the way a top chef eats and feeds his family, then you will love this book. But do I think that this cookbook will be useful as a reference to make family meals here in the UK? No, I don't think that I do.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might like to read my post on foraging for wild garlic called Wild Garlic: Warding Off the Demons You might also enjoy my recipe for tropical ice cream, in a post called Farm Life: Tropical Ice cream.