This week sees Swedish Michelin-starred chef Niklas Ekstedt in London as he takes the reins at Carousel for a week-long residency. And today also sees the launch of his new book, Food from the Fire. A huge star of the Scandinavian restaurant world, he is best known to UK audiences from his guest appearances on Saturday Kitchen; he was even mooted as a possible replacement host after James Martin’s departure. This new book, his first published in English, marks his increasing presence in the UK, despite not having a restaurant here.
As the title suggests, Ekstedt’s book is about cooking purely with fire – no gas or electricity – as they do at his Michelin-starred restaurant EKSTEDT in Stockholm. They only use Scandinavian wood in order to give the food a unique character. This means a more elemental style of cooking – open flames, smoke, wood-heated stoves, and a Flambadou iron, a cone-shaped cooking tool for searing meat and fish with flaming fat, and my favourite component of the kitchen.
This idea of a return to Scandinavian cooking roots – fire and iron – came to Ekstedt during a family holiday to the island of Ingarö in 2011. There he was cooking with open fires. At the time he was becoming increasingly tired of the growth of technology in the kitchen, something that was very much the case at El Bulli, and The Fat Duck, where he had spent time working; the chef’s workplace was beginning to look like a gadget factory. Luckily for us, he was due to open EKSTEDT, but still searching for something different to be its driving principle. He took this idea and ran with it to great acclaim.
Traveling to Stockholm to try this unique style of cooking is not, of course, overly convenient, so this book is a blessing. It doesn’t require you to be an expert at building fires or cooking on them; for those of us that don’t camp or have a working fireplace at home, Ekstedt takes us through the five steps of building a fire pit – from where to put it to the actual construction, the wood to use, and how to light it. He also takes us through the five different “analogue” cooking methods that can be used when cooking this way – wood, fire, smoke, cast iron, and fat.
Each part of the book is peppered and illustrated with Ekstedt’s own experiences of using these techniques and working out how food reacts to them – after all, using these methods is not an exact science, and each time you do they can behave differently. Before you get to the meat of the book – the recipes for “Small Dishes” and “Large Dishes” – there is a substantial section on “Basics”, covering salts, spices, pickles, dairy, and bread. Initially this may seem an odd inclusion in a book about cooking with fire and its elements, but actually it does makes sense. The idea of cooking with fire is about returning to a more old-fashioned and traditional form of Scandinavian cooking, widely used until electricity became generally available. It is still used in more remote areas, and salts, spices, pickles, dairy and bread are all central parts of traditional Scandinavian food preparation, used to extend the life of ingredients for winter, and thus in much of the actual cooking. Hay Salt is something I definitely want to try.
The Small Dish section is just one vibrant dish after another. Ember-cooked gravlax, juniper-smoked salmon with homemade sour cream, a variety of smörgåsbord, smoked vendace roe (a frequent ingredient used at EKSTEDT), hot dogs, grilled artichokes with juniper butter, seaweed-steamed scallops, and flamed oysters – these are what the Flambadou is for, and the photos of it in use by Max and Liz Haarala Hamilton are stunningly raw. Most importantly from the point of view of the book, it’s the perfect way of introducing you to cooking in this “analogue” way. Nothing is too complicated and many dishes can be made using the oven or a BBQ.
The Large Dishes continue the quality but up the complexity. The beef Rydberg and the venison meatballs certainly stand out, along with the lamb and hasselback potatoes, and lamb with brussel sprouts. While the meat dishes are impressive, the fish cannot be ignored; how coul you resist a recipe for whole grilled turbot, or cast-iron pan-fried lobster with saffron mayonnaise?
The desserts are unsurprisingly stodgier, given the cooking techniques, but in a good way – I refer you to doughnuts with ember-baked apples and maple syrup, and blueberry crumble. They are all perfect for cold winter days. The finale of the Food from the Fire is a surprise, but a lovely one at that – fika, recipes for traditional biscuits eaten at fika gatherings – the uniquely Swedish coffee meet-up, comparable in cultural status to a British afternoon tea.
Food from the Fire may not be the only book on the market right now that’s about cooking with open flames – Ben Tish’s Grill, Smoke, BBQ comes to mind – but it is certainly the most stripped back in terms of methods and ideology. Even more importantly, its dishes are far and away the most inspiring and creative. It’s very much a personal tale of discovery and wonder that the book aims to help you share in. It draws you in, giving you a real sense of the man and just why cooking this way is so special – a must-have for anyone interested in reinvigorating more traditional techniques, the way that wood and flames can impart and enhance flavour, or in Nordic cuisine generally.
Food from the Fire by Niklas Ekstedt Published by Pavilion Books Photos by Haarala Hamilton ISBN: 9781910904343 RRP £25.00 Available from Amazon