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Lapskaus – a Norwegian recipe for comfort food

Lapskaus is a hearty Norwegian beef stew known to everyone in the country as a reliable every day dinner choice that never disappoints. Easy to throw together using leftover vegetables, meat and stock and the stew can either be light or dark. Regarded as one of the most popular classics in Norway among both young and old, each household will claim they have the ‘true’ recipe for lapskaus.  Light means the broth is clear (chicken or vegetable broth or water is used), and the stew consists of both smoked and fresh meat, onion, bacon and potatoes. The “dark” or German version is made from leftover meat, onions, potatoes, vegetables and a gravy is included.  My mom would make the dark, German kind – and I don’t really feel I have eaten lapskaus unless the gravy is present.  It separates it from any other “stew” out there, makes it rich with layers of flavor and more importantly, brings back many fond memories of times spent with my family around the dinner table.   I should mention there are several theories as to what light and dark lapskaus is and consists of – but this is my experience having come across the two versions. Regardless,  there’s nothing more fulfilling and comforting than a bowl of lapskaus, preferably paired with a full bodied red wine of your choice (Norwegians love their Amarone).

Every country has their version of “beef stew”, each one interpreting and showcasing the history and culture of the people making and eating it.  This is what I love about food – it not only nourishes you, but it tells a story. About your family, your town, your region and country.  Countless times I have turned to recipes and research around food to help me make myself feel closer to my family and friends in Norway, whom I see too seldom. Lapskaus definitely is one of those dinners that warms my heart, and will also warm the body on a cold winter night.

According to gastronomy historian Henry  Notaker,  lapskaus is originally a German dish, served on ships for the sailors and fishermen.  The stew, sometimes also referred to as “storm stew”,  dates back further than the potato, and back then, it was supposed to consist of meat and what we called “ship biscuits”. These relatively neutral tasting biscuits (also sometimes referred to as “school biscuits”) are simply made from spelt flour, baking soda, syrup, egg and sugar.  They were often softened in water and salty meats or bacon were added to them. Not exactly haute cuisine, but this was a typical ship-board staple in the 19th century. Here’s a photo of the boxes used to carry these famous biscuits on board the ships:

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The background for the name lapskaus is uncertain, however it is thought to have origins in the Dutch labskaus and the English lobscouse, which might again have come from the term lob’s course, meaning “a dish for strong men”.  Lapskaus is a similar word as saus (sauce), suppe (soup) and grøt (porridge), which all translate to  “a messy mixture of something”, or – a hodgepodge.  Further south, German labskaus (also lapskaus) originated from the northern parts of Germany like Bremen and Hamburg, and consisted of ox meat, potatoes, herring, onion, rutabaga and spices.

Funnily enough, there was a street in the Norwegian-American working class neighborhood of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn in the 1920s, called the Lapskaus Boulevard. This street, located around 8th avenue, got its name because of its many shops and restaurants selling lapskaus, lefse, lutefisk, komle and other Norwegian traditional foods.  At the time, over 100,000 Norwegians lived in the area. Today, ironically the street has been re-named “Little Hong Kong”, and Norwegians are a minority among mostly Chinese, Arabs and Americans.

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Today, lapskaus competitions are still being held in this area and across other Norwegian-American communities in the U.S., where we can see the many varieties and interpretations of this dish.

It’s  worth mentioning that both here and in Norway, lapskaus can also refer to a wonderful fruit salad, mixed with whipped cream, nuts, and/or vanilla custard. This makes for a lovely, light dessert, and a perfect ending to a heavier main course.

Below is the classic recipe for lapskaus from my family. You can also try adding in sausages and bacon (a favorite among kids), or  add in other herbs and garlic for a different flavor profile.  Sometimes lamb and fish will be substituted for beef,  and sour cream might also be added into the stew for a tangy touch. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with this base recipe, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do!

MY MOM’S INCREDIBLE LAPSKAUS

1 1/2 lbs beef stew meat, cubed

1/2 Vidalia onion, sliced

2 tbsp butter

2 carrots

2 parsnips

4 Yukon Gold potatoes, diced into 2 inch  cubes

2 cups sauerkraut (make your own or you can buy it already in stores)

1 small bag frozen peas

For gravy:

2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp flour

3 cups beef stock, heated

Handful Fresh herbs chopped (rosemary, thyme, oregano)

Here’s my homemade sauerkraut ready to get cooking  — 1 head of cabbage, 1-2 tbsp caraway seeds, 1 cup water, 1 apple peeled, cored and diced and season with salt and a splash of apple cider vinegar.  Let simmer/cook down about 30 minutes until cabbage is wilted.

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Season beef cubes with salt and pepper.

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In a large heavy pot over medium-high heat, add butter (or oil) and place cubed meat in one single layer, be careful not to overcrowded.

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You may have to sear the meat off in two rounds. Saute until golden brown, about 1 min each side.  Remove meat and set aside.  Add 2 tbs of butter,  add in onions, saute for 3-4 minutes until the onions begin to soften. Whisk in flour until combined, and gradually add in beef stock. Whisk until it starts to thicken:

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Add in the vegetables, sauerkraut and herbs, season with salt and pepper.

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Cover the pot and let simmer for about 2 hours until vegetables are cooked through and tender.

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Check on it from time to time, but resist from stirring too much, so as to not break up the vegetables. If the stew seems to thick, you can add some water or additional stock.   Note: add in the peas just near the end, about 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with flatbread or your favorite, crusty loaf!

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