Lutefisk mac and cheese? You betcha

December 24, 2014


Traditional dishes sometimes need an update, and that may be the case with the Scandinavian dish that some love and others loathe.

Chris Dorff, president of the 105-year-old Olsen Fish Co. in Minneapolis, thinks the way to save lutefisk is to innovate. The dried-rehydrated fish dish that’s been declining in popularity in recent years is typically served plain, with just salt and pepper, melted butter and a white cream sauce. But Dorff thinks younger people would take to lutefisk if only it were bacon-wrapped, or stuffed into tacos.

I ate my first lutefisk a couple of weeks ago at an Elks Lodge dinner in Brooklyn Park. While the texture left something to be desired, I found it tasty enough with a dousing of that creamy béchamel sauce found in gravy boats around the table. My fellow diners, however, were gobbling it up more enthusiastically than I was. They ordered seconds.

Tablemates Sharon Reisinger and Peg Lawrence, sisters who had grown up eating the dish, brainstormed with me about possible ways to transform lutefisk so that the uninitiated might take to it. But when I threw out the idea of topping a lutefisk hot dish with green beans, they balked. Lutefisk, they said, is meant to be served without much color.

Adhering somewhat to their guidelines, I decided to take a crack at lutefisk in time for the holiday potluck for the Star Tribune features department. If a creamy, white sauce was the only acceptable option, then so be it: I was going to make lutefisk mac-and-cheese.

I combined two recipes from Cook’s Illustrated that complemented each other. First, I baked the cod with a mayonaissey mixture that included Dijon, parsley and cayenne, and then topped it with panko breadcrumbs. I attempted to parbake the fish, since it would be cooked again in the casserole. But some of the thinner parts turned to mush, even after only 15 minutes in the oven. The centers, however, were firm. And tasted great.

Then, using Cooks’ foolproof mac-and-cheese recipe, which also calls for cayenne and some dry mustard, and whatever cheese I had on hand, I folded in the fish and baked it all together. I also brought in an element found in several lobster (or other seafood) mac-and-cheese recipes: nutmeg.

The result? Something like a tuna noodle casserole. It was fishy, but hard to tell that lutefisk was the culprit. And the kick of the cayenne and the mush of the breadcrumbs masked most of the flavor and texture that lutefisk haters tend to object to.

Newsrooms can be hungry places, so I won’t put too much stock in the fact that the entire dish was devoured by the end of the day. On the other hand, there were a good number of Minnesotans who had tried a local specialty for the first time.

As one colleague told me, “It was the least bad lutefisk I’ve ever had.”