- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Fish is as fish does, and fish does a lot in Iceland. “Fish has kept Iceland alive for centuries,” says Steinunn Valdis Oskarsdottir, mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and home to 115,000 of the island’s 290,000 inhabitants.

Icelanders insist that eating fish improves social behavior, and perhaps it does. Iceland is a very civilized place, its fierce Viking beginnings notwithstanding.

Halibut, haddock, salmon, herring, tiny shrimp and small, sweet lobsters are abundant, with cod as No. 1. Cod liver oil is even available in a delicate glass pitcher on the breakfast buffet at Reykjavik’s Hotel Nordica.

Herring, too, is pickled, as are rams’ testicles, an Icelandic specialty. Putrid, or rotten, shark is another traditional Icelandic dish. The shark is buried at least three months, after which it becomes rubbery, rotten and very malodorous. It is consumed in small lumps washed down with lots of Black Death, an Icelandic version of aquavit.

But it’s not all fish and fishy adventures: One curious culinary favorite is the hot dog, called “pylsa” or “sheep dog.” It’s made of lamb and pork and garnished with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise and crunchy bits of dehydrated onion. Best hot dog I ever tasted.

Reykjavik’s Food and Fun Festival, sponsored by Icelandair, which flies from Baltimore to Reykjavik, has become an annual event in late February. Chefs from Europe and the United States are invited to cook in the city’s restaurants, one chef per restaurant.

The festival culminates with a competition among the visiting chefs. This year, the dozen invited chefs included four from Washington: Ris Lacoste (then at 1789 Restaurant), Bryan Voltaggio (Charlie Palmer Steak), Barton Seaver (Cafe Saint-Ex) and Kazuhiro Okochi (Kaz Sushi Bistro).

Each of the 12 chefs prepared a fish course, a meat course and a dessert, using only Icelandic ingredients. Each category declares a winner and an overall best chef is chosen. The panel of judges included several of Washington’s top chefs: Jeffrey Buben of Vidalia and Bistro Bis, Jeff Tunks of DC Coast, TenPenh, Ceiba and Acadiana, and Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel’s.

Icelandic ingredients mean fish, of course, but also the superb Icelandic lamb, which is also prepared smoked; duck; and the local blueberries. (Whole Foods carries Icelandic fish and lamb.)

Iceland produces a variety of fruits and vegetables, even bananas, in its greenhouse industry. Meat and dairy products are all locally produced; grain, except for barley, is imported. Home-grown produce is more expensive than the imported variety because electric lighting is necessary all day during the short winter days. Icelanders, accustomed to prices that shock visitors from North America and even Europe, seem willing to pay the extra.

The chefs set out together to a Reykjavik supermarket to purchase the ingredients needed for the competition. Most went for lamb and cod. After filling their shopping carts, the group retired to the Reykjavik Art Museum, where 12 miniature kitchens were at the ready. Each chef was assigned an assistant from the Icelandic Culinary Institute in Reykjavik, and soon the museum was filled with tantalizing aromas as the culinary masterpieces were passed down to the judges’ table.

The institute has produced 135 master chefs. The students prepared a buffet of local specialties (including the rams’ testicles) in honor of the visiting chefs.

My favorite Icelandic meal was a fabulous lunch in the tiny fishing village of Stokkseyri. The local fish processing plant has been converted into an art gallery and museum, and the beachside restaurant, Fjorubordid, is a simple and welcoming country place.

Lunch began with a rich, creamy lobster bisque, followed by lobster tails in the shell, sauteed with garlic, parsley and butter, accompanied by roasted new potatoes and a mix of crisp salads. A dry, light Italian white wine and house-made bread, studded with bits of olive and sun-dried tomatoes, accompanied the meal. Fresh and fabulous.

The beach on the Atlantic coast is empty: no trees, no houses, just black sand studded with millions of small black pebbles. The sand is actually ground lava, hence the color. Unfortunately, the beach is littered with bits of plastic and other debris deposited by the tide.

Aside from the food, the festival focuses on the natural beauty of Iceland, which is about the size of Kentucky. The sparsely populated island is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, warmed by the Gulf Stream. It straddles the mid-Atlantic rift, where the North American and African tectonic plates separate at the rate of almost an inch per year. The separation, rather than cutting the island in half, is actually enlarging it as the rift fills with lava and pure, clear water.

Eleven percent of Iceland is covered with ice, and the island is subject to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In 1963, the island of Surtsey burst from the sea in a spew of lava, ash and steam. Glaciers sit atop the volcanoes, some apparently extinct. Jules Verne placed his “Journey to the Center of the Earth” on the cone-shaped Snaefellsjokull glacier.

Thanks to the underground volcanic activity, Iceland’s towns and villages are heated with geothermal heat, piped in from the hot water springs bubbling out of the earth.

The famous Blue Lagoon provides outdoor swimming in any season. The milky pale blue water, actually runoff from a geothermal plant, is rich in silica, salt and other minerals. It’s relaxing, energizing and fun.

Southern Iceland appears green even in the winter months, the color coming not from grass but from the moss growing on the lava fields that cover much of the island. In the mist and rain, the wild, treeless countryside that somewhat resembles northern Scotland or its wind-swept outer islands, is bleak indeed. Under a blue sky on a sunny day, the island becomes beautiful and welcoming, with snowcapped mountains in the distance.

Like the United States, but on a smaller scale, Iceland has geysers, thundering waterfalls, crater lakes and a rift in the earth. Unlike the United States, where Niagara, Yellowstone, Oregon’s Crater Lake and the Grand Canyon are thousands of miles apart, in Iceland the natural wonders can be seen in a day.

The Gullfoss (golden falls) waterfall thunders 100 feet down into a deep gorge in the river Hvita; the Strokkur geyser bursts from the earth to a height of almost 70 feet every seven minutes or so, while the boiling water in a small crater near Strokkur bubbles away as if waiting for the witches from Macbeth to arrive to stir their bubbling cauldron bubble.

The rift between the tectonic plates can be seen clearly in Pingvellir National Park. The park is also the location of the world’s oldest existing parliament, the Alpingi, established in 930.

When the Vikings arrived from Norway in A.D. 874, Iceland was covered with forests. Gradually the forests disappeared — the taller trees cut down to make houses and build fires, the smaller shrubs eaten by sheep. The government is trying to restore the forests today.

Because Iceland was never part of an ancient land mass, the only native mammal predating the arrival of the Vikings is the arctic fox. The Vikings brought farm animals with them in the 10th century, including the unique five-gaited horse.

Since the 11th century, importation of horses has been illegal in order to preserve the purity of the strain; once a horse leaves the island it is not permitted to return. These friendly, shaggy brown, gray, black and white short-legged horses can be seen grazing peacefully on Iceland’s farmland.

Reykjavik at first glance appears to be a city of square houses with neither character nor style. But the first glance deceives. The city center, the old town, is a charming mix of colors, of 19th- and some 18th-century houses built of wood and covered with corrugated metal. The metal keeps out the cold and moisture, and houses are still constructed this way today.

The municipal reception building, the Hofdi House near the harbor, is an international landmark — this is where Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in October 1986 for the summit that led to the end of the Cold War.

The harbor is a busy place; at the fish processing plant each fish is candled to make sure it contains no parasites. On a hilltop not far away stands the modern cathedral of the Lutheran Church, the predominant faith of the island. An elevator takes visitors to the top for a fine view of the brightly colored roofs of the town below, with volcanoes lining the horizon.

Icelanders like to party; there’s no shortage of good restaurants and bars in Reykjavik.

Eggplant puree

This puree makes a fine snack served with grilled bread, says its creator, chef Barton Seaver of Cafe Saint-Ex in Washington. He has served it under tuna tartare dressed with port wine vinaigrette, as well as with smoked salmon in Iceland and Washington. It also complements simply grilled fish and poultry.

2 large eggplants, cut in half vertically

11/4 cup best-quality fruity extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly oil a cookie sheet with cup olive oil and place eggplant halves cut-side down. Be sure the eggplant is well oiled so the cut side will sear while baking.

Place in the oven and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cut side is very dark and burned. This draws out the bitterness of the eggplant and makes the remaining flesh very sweet.

The skin of the eggplant will begin to sag as it dehydrates. Remove from the oven and let cool until it is easily handled. Turn eggplants and peel off the burned layer on the cut side and discard only the crispy black pieces.

Using a large spoon, scoop out all the remaining flesh, being careful to extract everything. This should leave about 11/4 cups eggplant.

Place the eggplant into a food processor and puree. Slowly drizzle in the remaining olive oil until a smooth mayonnaiselike consistency is achieved. Using the back side of a spoon, push the puree through a fine-mesh sieve to ensure a smooth texture.

Striped sea bass with endive and Gruyere cheese

This recipe is from chef Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel’s restaurant in Washington.

2 6-ounce portions of striped sea bass (or similar whitefish such as flounder, perch, halibut or cod)

1 bunch fresh chopped dill, thyme, tarragon, parsley, chervil or a combination of these herbs

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 egg yolk

1/2 cup dry vermouth

1/3 cup grated Gruyere cheese

2 cups chicken stock

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon Ghent (or Dijon) mustard

2 whole Belgian endive

Extra-virgin olive oil and clarified butter for sauteing

Cracked black pepper and kosher salt, to taste

To make the sauce: in a saucepan over medium heat, place 1 tablespoon butter and shallots and 4 sprigs of thyme. Stir constantly until shallots are translucent, not brown. Add vermouth and reduce by half. Add cream and reduce by half. Remove sauce from heat and pass through a strainer. Add cheese, egg yolk, salt, pepper and mustard.

Gently rub chopped herbs, salt and pepper on both sides of fish fillets. Reserve remaining chopped herbs.

Put clarified butter and olive oil in a stick-proof pan on medium heat. When bubbling, add fish, skin-side down. Push gently on fish to prevent skin from curling up. After skin is crisp, turn fish over and turn off heat.

Bring chicken stock to a boil and simmer endive in stock until tender. Remove endive from stock, pat dry, then saute in butter. Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble: Place endive in middle of plate and top with sauce and place under broiler until sauce bubbles. Remove plate carefully. Place cooked fish, skin side up, on top of endive and garnish with remaining chopped herbs. Makes 2 servings.

Braised leg of lamb with mushrooms and tomatoes

This recipe is from chef Siggi Hall of Reykjavik.

3- to 4-pound leg of lamb, bone in

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil; more as needed

1 tablespoon butter

6 ripe plum tomatoes

4 shallots, chopped

2 or 3 carrots, cut in small dice

1 or 2 celery stalks, cut in small dice

1/2 pound medium mushrooms, halved

1/2 cup white wine

11/4 cups lamb or chicken stock

1 or 2 branches fresh sage

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 or 6 cloves garlic

1/2 cup parsley

Zest of 1 lemon (yellow part only)

Cut a small cross in the skin of plum tomatoes and put them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Transfer tomatoes immediately into very cold water and the skin will loosen so it is easily removed. Sliced peeled tomatoes and arrange them in a medium-deep ovenproof dish large enough to hold lamb.

In frying pan over medium heat, sear leg of lamb on all sides in olive oil.

Remove lamb and place on top of tomatoes. Do not clean the frying pan. In same pan over medium-low heat, add butter and some olive oil, then add chopped carrots, shallots and celery and cook until tender.

Add mushrooms and cook briefly before deglazing the pan with white wine and lamb or chicken stock.

Pour the vegetables and the stock over the lamb and tomatoes. Scatter sage leaves on the broth and vegetable mixture around the lamb. Bake lamb in a 220-degree oven for 11/2 to 2 hours, occasionally basting with the stock during baking.

While lamb is cooking, chop garlic, parsley and lemon zest together. Sprinkle the chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest over the roast during the last 20 minutes of cooking.

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