Categories:Christmas Fish and Seafood History Food HIstory Great Lakes Norwegian Seafood & Fish Recipe Index Thanksgiving
It is said that about half the Norwegians who immigrated to America came in order to escape the hated lutefisk and the other half came to spread the gospel of lutefisk’s wonderfulness.
– Norwegian-American saying
Lutefisk (pronounced LEWD-uh-fisk) is dried cod that has been soaked in a lye solution for several days to rehydrate it. It is rinsed with cold water to remove the lye, then boiled or baked, and then served with butter, salt, and pepper.
The finished lutefisk usually is the consistency of Jello. It is also called lyefish, and in the United States, Norwegian-Americans traditionally serve it for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In many Norwegian homes, lutefisk takes the place of the Christmas turkey. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, you can find lutefisk in local food stores and even at some restaurants. It is a food that you either love or hate, and, as some people say, “Once a year is probably enough!”
During the fall in Wisconsin, people watch their local newspapers for announcements of lutefisk suppers, which are usually held in Norwegian churches. Usually every Norwegian church will host at least one lutefisk supper between October and the end of the year. The dinners have become so popular that lovers of this special cod dish drive great distances, and these are not just people of Scandinavian descent.
The history of lutefisk dates back to the Vikings. On one occasion, according to one legend, plundering Vikings burned down a fishing village, including the wooden racks with drying cod. The returning villagers poured water on the racks to put out the fire. Ashes covered the dried fish, and then it rained. The fish buried in the ashes in the ashes thus became soaked in a lye slush. Later the villagers were surprised to see that the dried fish had changed to what looked like fresh fish. They rinsed the fish in water to remove the lye and make it edible, and then boiled it. The story is that one particularly brave villager tasted the fish and declared it “not bad.”
Norwegian-Americans believe that lutefisk was brought by their ancestors on the ships when they came to America, and that it was all they had to eat. Today the fish is celebrated in ethnic and religious celebrations and is linked with hardship and courage.
Family friend Neil Sticha of Bloomington, Minnesota, persuaded one of his favorite Norwegian cooks, Shirley LaBissonniers, to share her recipe for lutefisk:
First of all, invite brave people over for dinner who do not have misconceptions about this wonderful fish!
Next, go to a store that carries the freshest fish and seafood. Ideally, you would get the lutefisk that they pull out of a barrel (most stores hate those barrels a lot and don’t do that anymore). Second best, it comes skinless and “trimmed” and packaged in a plastic. Purchase the lutefisk a day before you want to serve it.
Take it out of the plastic bag, put it in a large bowl, and cover with ice water. Change this water two to three times (to remove the lye) and keep in the refrigerator until ready to use (if your family will let you). This firms up the fish.
Stovetop Cooking: Lutefisk does not need any additional water for the cooking. Place the well rinsed cod in a frying pan over low heat, (do not use an aluminum pan as the lye in the fish will discolor the pan). Add salt, cover with a lid, and steam cook approximately 20 to 25 minutes.
Oven Baking: Place the well rinsed cod in an ovenproof dish, cover with aluminum foil. Put in a preheated oven at 375 degrees F. for 25 to 30 minutes. The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.
Do not overcook the Lutefisk or it will look like white Jello! The fish will be not brown.
In Minnesota, we allow at least a pound of lutefisk per person, served with hot melted butter.
The two side dishes are riced potatoes and very small cooked frozen peas – no exceptions.
And, of course, you must have Lefse. This is a ritual which we try to repeat as often as possible and as long as we can get the fresh lutefisk.