You cannot taste purity, as a matter of course, it being the absence of the adulteration or alteration common to the production or preparation of our food.
But the converse is true about many of the foods of Iceland. This small island nation — population 365,000, one-third the size of Colorado — is so keen on the purity of its foodstuffs that it is as if they appear on your plate free of the hand of man.
And that, you can taste.
I have eaten the lamb of New Zealand, of Western Colorado, of a small farm in Pennsylvania where the newborns graze on fronds of grass interspersed with wild garlic and onion. I’ve eaten the pinkest of gigots from a rural butcher south of Paris and an expertly grilled rack splayed on the plate by a gifted California chef.
But Icelandic lamb outdoes them all. What is it that people find difficult about lamb? Its incense-like taste, particularly when concentrated or mature? In Icelandic lamb, that taste whispers. It’s even better after a swallow, as if it were more aroma than flavor.
The deliciousness of Icelandic lamb comes to be because the animals are bred, born, suckled and grazed (the latter, in mountain pasture, never in any fenced enclosure) wholly untouched or fed or doctored by human hands (but for being fed winter silage). If a lamb dies, it dies because a wild fox attacked it, or because it was weak and was deigned to die. Wholly natural, wholly pure.
Alas, Iceland’s lamb is not readily available hereabouts. However, an abundance of the island’s fish is.
That is because the U.S. headquarters of Niceland Seafood, the major importer into this country of Icelandic fish, is in Denver. Frequent trips to DIA allows Niceland (and its wholesale partners, such as Seattle Fish Company, the region’s largest supplier of fresh fish) to scatter its flight-fresh seafood into dozens of markets and groceries throughout Colorado.
The Icelanders raise a lot of Arctic char (when using Roman letters, they sometimes spell it “charr,” as if the word were pronounced by an eye-patched Viking), in farm pools of their famously pure water, the temperature just above freezing. They harvest the fish when it grows to the size of a large trout, with flesh colored the fuchsia of coho salmon and the lateral bones just emerged (those bones melt when cooked, such a killer idea). Indeed, the taste of Arctic char is said to be a cross between that of trout and salmon.
And what flesh these fish have: oil-rich and lubricious, like butter with gills. These fish need little additional adornment, which is, when you think of it, the greatest compliment that you can pay a protein.
Filets of Icelandic char are particularly good for a “papillote” preparation, a little piscine package of parchment paper roasted for just a few minutes, then opened at each plate for both heady steam and tasty treat.
Icelandic char is available year-long. So is the mainstay of the arc of Iceland’s fishing history, cod. (Peak season for cod is now, September through March.)
The cod caught off the coast of Iceland is fattier and sweeter than that from the Pacific, owing to its diet of small crustaceans and wee fish and shellfish. It cooks as do all codfish. That is to say, steaks of it turn a beautiful opaque white throughout, flaking thick and large, as if a glacier calved on the plate.
One happy facet of Icelandic cod is how it retains a significant degree of moisture even after being baked, seared or steamed. It’s adaptable to many recipes, and today’s for it is for fish tacos.
Icelandic Arctic Char in Papillote
Makes 1, easily multiplied.
- 6-8 ounces filet of Icelandic Arctic char
- 2-3 thin slices lemon
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- Pinch each of salt and pepper
- 1 pat unsalted butter
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Fold in half 1 large square of parchment paper, then open it back up and lay it seam side down. Along one side of the seam, place the lemon slices, then the fish filet skin side down, the thyme, salt and pepper, and the butter.
Fold the paper back over itself, then seal the edges in tight narrow folds and twist and tuck under the ends to make a leakproof packet. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 12 minutes.
If you wish to add a small amount of any vegetable to the packet while you assemble it (such as baby spinach, julienned leeks or carrots, asparagus, cherry tomatoes), do so of course, but add 2-3 minutes cooking time.
Icelandic Cod Tacos
Makes 6 servings or 12 tacos.
- 1 16-ounce bag shredded cabbage and carrots
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1-2 pounds Icelandic cod steaks (quantity depending on appetites)
- Olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon each ground cumin and chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon each dried oregano and salt
- 12 (or more) 6-inch flour tortillas, warmed
Make a coleslaw: Stir together in a bowl the shredded cabbage and carrots, the onion, mayonnaise, cider vinegar, salt and pepper. Set aside in a cool place or the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place cod steaks on a lightly oiled baking sheet; brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with the cumin and chili powder, the dried oregano and salt; let rest 10 minutes. Bake fish until cooked through, turning once midway, about 12 minutes. Flake with a fork in a bowl. Fill the heated tortillas with shredded fish; top with the coleslaw.
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