I was inspired to right about this special day from old times in Norway, as I’ve recently noticed how the sun rises earlier and stays later in the day, making me feel ready to bid winter adieu and get ready for longer, brighter and lighter days.
Sunfest, or “Solfest” as we call it in Norwegian, is a date that is difficult to pinpoint, because it varies from town to town whether the sun is completely gone during the winter, and when she returns.
Like all other life, humans are also dependent on the life and the energy the sun gives us, and this was felt even more so in earlier times, when the only light people had were the day light (i.e. no electricity). In many counties in Norway, it has been a long standing tradition to celebrate the day the sun returned, especially in small towns where the sun is gone for a long time during the year.
There is an old custom all over Norway where one would place a dab of butter in the window sill, and let the sun melt it. “Sun, sun, give me summer butter, here is some winter butter”. From the town Selje, the following story is told: “The first time the sun shone after she had been gone mid-winter, mother spread butter on the wall where the sun shone, and greeted her ‘welcome’. From another town called Davik, the tradition of placing the butter in the window sill was customary the first day the sun shone, and here it was around February 8th. If the butter melted, the year would be a good one both weather wise and generally. This was a day filled with lots of happiness, dance and and songs about the sun. When the sun is gone for months at a time, it’s definitely worth celebrating its return!
Here is a photo of Svalbard, where the sun’s return is typically celebrated around March 8th:
Photo Credit: Kristin Sørdal
On this day, it was fitting to serve something colorful and good, a dish you could make in one pot, with ingredients that most people have in house or can easily get during this time of year. Since root vegetables are in abundance in Norway around this time (and also in New York, where I currently live), I wanted to throw a variety of these in a pot with some vegetable stock and barley (“bygg” in Norwegian), which is the most traditional and widely grown grain in Norway. We also use barley flour/meal in the popular potato dumplings “raspeballer” as well as in waffle batters, in addition to adding it to soups, salads and even breakfast porridge. I soak the barley in cold water a few hours before cooking it, which makes it easier to digest, but it’s not necessary.
Not only is this soup colorful and extremely tasty, it is also super healthy! Many studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant foods like barley decreases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and overall mortality while promoting a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy and overall lower weight. It’s a great source of fiber, potassium, folate and vitamin B6. The same health benefits and nutrients can be said for the root vegetables in this soup. Basically – eat your root vegetable soup and you will do your body a huge favor!
I added a beet to the soup, which colored it this really pretty red color almost like a Russian borscht, and also adds an extremely deep earthy flavor, which reminds me of home. If you don’t want to add this flavor or color to your stew, simply omit it.
Some people would freeze fresh herbs from summer over the winter, thaw it and serve on top of the stew. Today, we luckily have access to fresh herbs year round. You can use dill or parsley, or even fennel fronds (typical in Norwegian soups), whichever you enjoy. This makes a HUGE batch, which you can freeze and reheat in just a few seconds and have a delicious, hearty and healthy meal on your hands at any time! Velbekomme!
NORDIC BARLEY AND VEGETABLE SOUP
1 Vidalia onion, chopped
1 leek, white part only, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 celery stalk, diced
10 cups vegetable stock
4 cups water
a handful of fresh thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
1 cup barley, soaked for a couple of hours in cold water
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 parsnips, peeled and diced
1 small celery root, peeled and diced
1/2 small rutabaga, peeled and diced
1 turnip, peeled and diced
1/2 small head of red cabbage, sliced thin
1 beet, peeled and cubed
small bunch of kale (or Swiss chard or spinach), roughly chopped
freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste
fresh herbs, such as dill or parsley, lemon wedges to serve
In a BIG soup pot, heat a little olive oil, add the onion, garlic, celery and leeks and season with salt. Saute for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the barley and coat well, then throw in the veg stock, water, bay leaves and thyme. and stir. Add in all the root veg including the cabbage and beet, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add in the kale and nutmeg, season with salt and pepper and cook for another 5 minutes.
Garnish with fresh herbs and serve with a lemon wedge and some great, Norwegian bread!