Gypsy Kitchens: Norwegian Fiskeboller

When we visited the Stavanger Canning Museum, we talked with a docent about various fishy things - King Oscar sardines, canneries in Poland, the difference between cross-packed and single layer. After a while, the conversation turned to fiskeboller: what are they? How do you eat them? Do we have to cook them?  How come we've never heard of them before?
Intriguing, cylindrical cans sit with the sild and brisling on Norwegian grocery shelves.  Inside are flat, white, oblong things, almost like huge almonds packed in salty water.  The man at the museum gave us serving directions.
"We don't cook them," he said, in the straightforward manner of Norwegian men.  "We don't make them.  We just buy them in the cans and open them."  How should we eat them?  "With potatoes and carrots."  That's it? "And béchamel sauce."  Béchamel sauce?  "And nutmeg.  Don't use the water in the can."
Fiskeboller are made from white fish, flour, milk and eggs.  They're a little springy, benign tasting and fairly characterless - you could call them bland, fishy dumplings.  Still, they're a very enjoyable thing to make and eat on a rainy day in a campground bungalow.
So, with rented kitchen equipment and lots of curiosity, we set about trying to come up with a more exciting combination than the one our museum friend offered.  Béchamel sauce on fishballs with potato seemed a little too colorless, so Broccoli was substituted for the starch and the sauce got spiced up a little.  We found some very nice chanterelles at the local supermarket - very fresh, wonderfully intact - some thyme and a jar of mustard. The trick would be getting it all hot, cooked and smooth at the same time.
Start by cooking the mushrooms with onion separately - this so that the chunks wouldn't get in the way of de-lumping the flour.  At the same time, make a simple white sauce with butter, flour and milk.  We stirred in coarse mustard, nutmeg, chives and thyme to the mix just as it thickened, then combined the mushrooms and some of their liquid.  It's probably possible, with a practiced hand, to do this in one pot - softening the mushrooms right into the sauce - but playing it safe isn't a lot of extra work.
Cooking any kind of white sauce is an inexact operation, especially on a campground hotplate.  It turned out maybe even better than we expected, with depth and character not always found in these kinds of glop.  We learned that the best employment of the sauce with the balls was to stir the fiskeboller right into the béchamel - the dumplings are resilient and didn't break at all, and it's a good way to heat them up from pantry temperature.
And that was it.  In the soft light filtering through the drizzle, our plates were like mid-century visions of "easy housewifery."  Something about Scandinavia begs for muted colors and reserved roles on the tongue.  In a wooden cabin near the sea, with tall pines behind us and a September chill in the air, the meal felt perfectly appropriate... staid, warm, a little fishy and as timeless as a can on a shelf.
Here's a recipe for our Mustard and Chanterelle Béchamel Sauce.
- 2 cups milk
- 1/4 onion, finely chopped
- Large handfull chanterelles or other delicate mushrooms, quartered
- 3 tablespoons white flour
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons course mustard
- 3 - 4 sprigs fresh thyme, de-stemmed
- Chives
- Salt

- In one pan, soften mushrooms and some onion in a little butter.  In a separate pan, soften rest of of onion in rest of butter.  In yet another pan, warm milk until almost bubbling.
- Stir flour into onions and butter, working until smooth.  Add chives and thyme.  Cook lightly, without browning, for a few moments.  At milk and stir vigorously until there are no flour clumps, maintaining a low heat.  Add mustard, salt to taste.
- Cook mixture over low heat until thickened, about three or four minutes.  Try not to boil.  Stir in mushrooms and some (or all) of their extruded liquid, then check for the right viscosity.  When appropriately saucy, remove from heat and serve quickly.
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