Gypsy Kitchens: Potted Potatoes in Edible Dirt

"Your next course is in the flower pot." We were about six courses into the rapid-fire introductory 'snack' portion of dinner at Noma - a dinner we'd nabbed a reservation for three months ago despite a nationwide internet outage in Montenegro, a dinner we'd almost not made it to thanks to the lovely cop who stopped us on the way there for not having lights on our bikes, a dinner at "The Best Restaurant in the World" three years running.   Noma is almost mythic at this point. Do the chefs really forage ingredients from parks and shores around Copenhagen?  Yes.   Do they actually make you eat dirt?  Well, kind of.  The 'edible dirt' filled flower pot, from which perfect carrots and radishes are messily unearthed by hand, is one of Noma's signature dishes.   So, we decided to create our own version as an homage to Noma and New Nordic Cuisine.   Everything in that flower pot is edible.
New Nordic Cuisine is the biggest thing to hit the culinary world since molecular gastronomy and we were lucky enough to be introduced to it at three of the best meals of our lives, Fäviken Magasinet in Sweden and both AOC and Noma in Copenhagen.   In 2004, Noma's founders, chef René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, got all the top chefs and restauranteurs in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark together to discuss the concept of a new cuisine.  The idea was to utilize the fruits of the the Nordic's soil and water and its traditions of food preparation and preservation, salting, marinating, drying and curing.  New Nordic Cuisine is doggedly seasonal and place specific. The ingredients are foraged, collected and farmed. The preparation allows the natural flavors to shine.  "Simplicity" is a hallmark, but the actual execution is anything but simple.  Throwing out any rules from world cuisine, the chefs create something beyond easy explanation or comparison.  Now known as "Nordic."
We began with the dirt.  Noma's was explained as "malt soil."   Like just about every explanation that evening, something utterly complicated was stated as simple fact.   Oh, that's just some carrot leather and parsley snow.   Their dirt recipe is no mystery, a quick google search gave us all the instructions which  require two days, two unconventional flours (malt and hazelnut), beer, sugar and precision.  Our own soil is much more basic and required fewer ingredients and less time.  It's a little odd to look at items in a market and gauge how much they look like dirt, but that's just what we did.  Pumpernickel bread and dried chanterelles were obvious winners.  Roasted pumpkin seeds were added in for flavor, a punctuation of salt and fat. The bits of mushroom provided that dirty, earthy taste all soil should have (right?) and, visually, it reminded us of crumbled dry leaves settling into the earth before the winter frost.  Food dirt shouldn't just be edible, but also enjoyable.
What to plant? The radishes and carrots at Noma could be pulled up by their stems, but our own market had trimmed the green right off their veggies.  We'd just passed harvested potato fields on the bus back to Vejle from Legoland.  The idea of unearthing warm root vegetables on a frosty day also held an appeal.  So, we chose fingerling potatoes.  To complement them and get the aesthetic look we needed, chives were ideal. They were sold in a pot of their own, their roots deep in actual dirt. Once all washed up, their thicker white stemmed bottoms made them much easier to work with than shortened all-green chives would have been.  The potatoes were boiled.
At the bottom of Noma's flower pot was a green goop.  We were instructed to harvest our veggies and then use them to scoop up as much of the goop and dirt as we could.  Our own base layer, served a second function, keeping our potatoes upright and their tops high enough that we wouldn't have to dig around too deeply to grab them.  We used Icelandic skyr, a version of yogurt that is a little thicker, and flavored it with chopped chives, parsley and minced horseradish root - a nod to horseradishy Danish remoulade.  The result was a play on sour cream and onion, the perfect flavor combination for potatoes.  In fact, sour cream would work just as well, as skyr isn't widely available outside of Scandinavia.  As would a thick, plain yogurt.
We spooned the mixture over a slice of bread we'd placed at the bottom of our flower pot to cover up the pesky drainage hole.  Then, we stood our potatoes up in the skyr, submerging them about halfway.  The chives planted deeply to keep them as vertical as possible. When the potatoes are added to the cream, the level rises significantly.  So, you want to be careful not to fill your pot so much that there isn't any room for the dirt.  Enough potato should be sticking up that you'll be able to get a good grasp on it when searching around in the soil.  At least an inch of soil on top keeps them well hidden.  As we sprinkled the dirt carefully between our potatoes and packed it around the chives, keeping them vertical, it felt exactly like gardening.  Then came the harvest.
Things got a little messy.  But that's part of the fun!  It was harder to get a grip on the potatoes than we thought it would be and we definitely wound up getting our fingers gloppy.  The potatoes' skyr-covered bottom halves did an excellent job at grabbing onto the soil on their way up.  So, with a little fishing around and yanking, a fingerling would emerge covered in every ingredient we'd put in the pot.  The Potted Potatoes in Edible Dirt were fun to make and fun to eat.  And if you set one of these surprising dishes out at a dinner party, our Martha Stewart tip would be to write each guest's name on a 'plant tag' and stick it right in there.  Then, bask in the pleasure of saying "Your first course is in the flower pot!"
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