Top Chef Canada has celebrated a rich world of cuisines over the seasons, from street- and market-inspired fare to classic French, Italian, Mediterranean and Japanese dishes. Of course, there have also been myriad fusions and new techniques in between.
On Monday night the series revved up our palates for yet another kind of feast when host Eden Grinshpan welcomed guest judge Marcus Samuelsson and chef Emma Bengtsson (of New York City’s two-Michelin star Aquavit) to help guide the remaining chefs through a three-course Nordic feast—served on the Toronto Island, no less.
“[Nordic cuisine] is very raw, it’s very pure, it’s taking what the land is giving and bringing it to the table,” Bengtsson explained to the remaining chefs. “It’s making sure the natural flavours of the food is coming through.”
“The Nordic Cuisine was my favourite challenge because what I know about Nordic cuisine is actually very little,” Grinshpan tells us. “I got to learn from the best of the best. Marcus Samuelsson was able to come in and teach us a little bit about it and eat the food while we were eating it and give his critique. Nordic cuisine has specific ingredients that get used often and the location was beautiful.”
So what are those ingredients and how can you use them like a Top Chef Canada contestant? Let’s have a look at the specific components the chefs were working with Monday night.
Dennis picked this dried fruit, which grows on—you guessed it—roses. Rosehip is traditionally picked in the fall when it’s bright red or orange, and then dried until ready to use (usually in a soup, jam or even tea). It’s said to boost immunity and help heart health, comes packed with vitamin C, and tastes tart, like hibiscus.
Bengtsson advised Dennis to rehydrate his in order to bring out maximum flavour, and then to grind it and use it as a powder. In turn he created a Rosehip-Roasted Venison with Beets, Celeriac, Rosehip Jus and Foraged Wood Sorrel that the judges were down with as a main.
Bengtsson straight up told Hayden that he picked a hard one when he chose lichen as his featured ingredient. The moss varietal is traditionally cleaned off and fried in order to add texture and a slight mushroom undertone to a plate.
Some types of lichen are toxic to humans, although the edible kind has also been used to help fight inflammation. For his part, Hayden wowed the judges with his beautiful Helbredt Oksekød: Cured Beef with Beer Bread, Oyster Cream and Crispy Lichen, propelling him to the night’s big win.
These bright orange berries grow on spiky bushes typically found near sandy soil or on rocky mountain ledges and are packed with vitamins C, B12, A and E, not to mention magnesium, iron and calcium.
Sébastien was tasked with transforming this Nordic superfood into a super dish. He described the fruit as sour and acidic, or basically “lemon juice times 10.” So in order to balance out the flavours, he pared it down with maple syrup, presenting the judges with a Scallop & Pork Belly With Rye Bacon Crumble and Sea Buckthorn Beurre Blanc.
In North America, autumn olive is considered an invasive species as a result of the deciduous shrub’s ability to grow up to 20 feet high and to spread quite quickly. Despite the name, the berries are actually sweet and tart (like lingonberry), and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Paul had some trouble working with his autumn olive juice, and found it didn’t heat up the way he wanted. But he still managed to pull out an impressive dish of Autumn Olive-Marinated Duck Breast with Beet Sausage and Crispy Giant Puffball. The judges, at least, were impressed.
This spice, which is also used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, is slightly more familiar to North American palates. The pods and seeds can be used whole, or it also comes ground up. Cardamom is an antioxidant with a minty, spicy, fragrant flavour that makes it an easy dessert pairing, although it’s also used (sparingly!) in stews and curries.
Wallace, who worked briefly at Denmark’s renowned Noma restaurant, went the sweet route with his dish, and presented the judges with a Cardamom Spice Cake with Fennel, Carrot and White Strawberries.
Most of us have heard of allspice, although we may be hard-pressed to identify exactly what it is. Turns out it’s a spice made from dried pimenta berries, and it has a flavour reminiscent of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. It’s strong and pungent, and in Nordic cuisine it’s sometimes used instead of black pepper in savoury dishes like fish or sausages.
Phil went the opposite route and embraced allspice and the Scandinavian use of veggies in desserts for his dish, which was a show-stopping Celeriac Crepe Cake with Wild Grape Mousse, Crispy Parsnip and Buttermilk.
Benet lucked out when he drew dill, one of the better-known flavours on a Nordic plate. Dill is considered one of Scandinavia’s most important herbs, and it’s often paired with fish and fresh veggies like potatoes and cucumbers. It’s also a standout in Dillkött, a lamb or veal stew.
Benet steered clear of seafood for his dish for the Elimination challenge and coupled the herb with his love of meat instead. He concocted his own outdoor meat house and presented the judges with Moss & Birch-Smoked Beef with Mushrooms, Dill Mayonnaise and Pickled Berries. The plate was Samuelsson’s favourite of the night—he even likened it to “Heart and Abba doing an outdoor concert in one.”
Sorrel may have a fancy name but it’s really just another herb that happens to be popular in Nordic fare. It’s tart and sweet, or as Tania described it when she drew it on Sunday night, it, “Tastes like rhubarb meets apple.”
Traditionally the herb has been used in France both medicinally and in soups and stews, but in Nordic cuisine it’s embraced in a variety of dishes, from pestos and sauces to pairings with mushrooms, meats and fish dishes. Tania showcased the herb in a controversial Root Vegetable Cake with Sorrel Apple Puree, Toasted Oat Ice Cream and Lingonberry Chantilly, a dessert that had the judges spinning. The dish sent her home, but it may have more to do with it being dry and vegan rather than Tania’s creative use of sorrel.
Most martini lovers have probably experienced the juniper flavour of gin, given that the alcohol is derived from juniper berries. But that isn’t the only use for this aromatic ingredient, which is also an antioxidant and good for digestive health. In Nordic cuisine, it’s paired with chicken, salmon and game meats or in sweet dishes like fruit cake, but Bengtsson was quick to warn Renee that a little goes a long way.
With that in mind, Renee concocted a savoury Juniper Panna Cotta with Roasted Buckwheat, Rye Crumb and Parsnip Chips as an appetizer, but the simplicity of it confused the judges, who wanted to see the ingredient pushed a little farther.