A Norwegian family Christmas First comes a festive rice pudding. Then there's pork, maybe fish. Most important, says a Bucks County clan, is gathering to observe the old ways.

Posted: December 18, 2003

In the land of the midnight sun, Christmas traditions go back more than a thousand years.

For the Bartow family of Furlong, Bucks County, those deep Norwegian roots remain in evidence each Christmas Eve, renewed and strengthened by repetition.

These days, the family gathered at the Bartow table stands at 14, with Lori and Jim Bartow; their children - Nicole, 16; Michele, 13; and Jimmy, 11; Lori's sisters, Kristy Corino and Karen Detweiler, and their families; and the women's parents, Mary and Roy Djuvik.

"In our family, the whole evening is traditional," Lori said. "The family gathers. We have the rice pudding and a traditional pork roast dinner. Santa comes and the kids open their presents."

It's also a time to use the Norwegian cut-crystal decanter passed down from Lori's Norwegian great-grandparents, along with serving pieces and decorative items from Norway.

Norwegian food writer Andreas Viestad, author of Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking (Artisan Books, $35), calls Christmas dinner the most important meal of the year in Norway - the one time when everyone (no matter how modern) returns to their roots.

"They lay aside . . . whatever else they eat the rest of the year and cook what they grew up with, the way Mother made it," Viestad says.

The Christmas menu varies by region. Along the coast, the main course is usually fish - fresh cod or halibut. In eastern Norway, pork rib roasts and Christmas sausages are favored. Smoked and dried mutton ribs are a specialty in western Norway.

In the far north, there's bacalao (dried salted cod) and for hard-core traditionalists, rakfisk (fermented trout) or lutefisk (dried cod reconstituted in lye).

But most widely enjoyed all over Norway is the pork rib roast, or ribbe.

The Bartows have adapted their menu, featuring a more formal crown roast of pork with sausage dressing. And of course, the one indispensable dish, rice pudding.

They also serve boureg, a cheese- and phyllo-layered appetizer pastry that acknowledges Jim Bartow's Armenian ancestry, and green beans with slivered almonds, an American staple.

While fish and seafood are prevalent throughout Scandinavia, fish dishes are not part of the Bartow tradition. Lori's father, who lived in Norway as a child, has no taste for the standard smoked and fermented fish recipes.

Typical Norwegian accompaniments would be boiled potatoes, spiced cabbage, mashed rutabaga, apples, prunes and lingonberries (a cranberry kin).

The essential pudding

Or the meal might include a simple salad of pickled beets, apples and onions, all thinly sliced and served at room temperature with a dressing of equal parts sour cream and mayonnaise.

As for that rice pudding - it's the one essential menu item on every Norwegian Christmas menu, and has a single almond hidden in one portion. The lucky recipient gets a sweet reward, traditionally a marzipan piglet. The Bartows have adapted that tradition, passing up the sweet and giving a small gift instead, usually a new Christmas ornament.

In Norway, the pudding or Christmas porridge was once reserved for the elf Nisse, a costumed trick-or-treat character whose persona was eventually folded into the St. Nicholas legend. Nisse, or St. Nick, comes knocking at the door on Christmas Eve with a sack of gifts and the question: "Are there any good children here?"

The porridge may be served during the day while the main meal is being prepared or as the finale at dinner or, as here, to start the Christmas Eve meal.

A second dessert

After dinner, there are gifts to be opened and a second dessert of Christmas cookies to be savored. Just as some cultures serve seven or 13 forms of fish on Christmas Eve, the Scandinavian tradition calls for seven kinds of cakes and cookies.

Christmas Day is left open for church and family visits. Or a leisurely Christmas brunch buffet. Many take the period from Christmas to New Year's as vacation.

Though centered on Christmas Eve, observances in Scandinavia continue for a month.

Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson recalls his grandmother starting her Christmas cooking in October. In Sweden, he says, the celebration begins on Dec. 13, St. Lucia Day, and continues through Epiphany, Jan. 6.

In his book Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine (Houghton Mifflin, $45), Samuelsson takes one of his favorite tastes of Christmas, glogg (the spiced wine that Swedes drink warm around the fire), to create a special poached pear dessert.

"[The flavor] reminds me of family and happy times," said Samuelsson, who is chef-partner at Aquavit in Manhattan.

Both Viestad and Samuelsson interpret traditional dishes in fresh new ways. A taste of that lighter Scandinavian fare follows, to complement Lori Bartow's pork roast.

Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at mmarter@phillynews.com or at 215-854-5743.

Norwegian Christmas Rice Pudding (Riskrim)

Makes 6 to 8 servings about 1/2 cup each

1 cup long-grain rice

2 cups water

3 to 4 cups milk, as needed

1 almond, whole

Butter, sugar and cinnamon (or cinnamon-sugar), to taste

1. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the rice and water; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and continue to cook, stirring often, until all the water is absorbed.

2. Gradually add 1 cup of the milk, stirring until the liquid is absorbed. Repeat with another cup of milk and continue adding milk as it is absorbed until the rice is soft and the consistency of thick porridge, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

3. Set out individual bowls. Put the almond in one dish and spoon pudding into all. Shuffle the dishes. Serve at random. The person who gets the almond receives good luck and a special treat or gift, traditionally a marzipan pig.

4. Add butter, sugar and cinnamon to pudding, to taste.

Note: For dessert versions of this Christmas Rice Pudding, cooks add vanilla or almond extract, butter, sugar, chopped almonds, raisins, even beaten eggs to make the dish more flavorful and substantial. And the requisite whole almond is stirred into the pudding. Such puddings are usually chilled in a baking dish, cut into squares, and served with a red fruit sauce made with raspberries, strawberries or lingonberries.

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 141 calories, 5 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 46 milligrams sodium, 0.3 gram dietary fiber.

Rosemary Cod With Vanilla-Scented Mashed Rutabaga

Makes 4 servings

4 cod fillets, 8 ounces each, skin on

2 pounds rutabaga, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice

1 vanilla bean

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Fine sea salt

4 small sprigs fresh rosemary

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1. Soak the cod in ice water or put under cold running water in a colander for 20 minutes. Pat dry with paper towels.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the rutabaga and cook until soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain well.

3. Return the rutabaga to the pan to dry completely over low heat, 1 to 2 minutes. Puree the rutabaga in a food processor or food mill and return to the pan.

4. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and add to the mashed rutabaga. (Save the hull to add to a canister of sugar to make aromatic vanilla sugar.) Stir in the butter until melted. Season with salt to taste. Keep warm.

5. Meanwhile, make a small slit in the skin of each cod fillet and gently insert a rosemary sprig. Season well with salt and pepper and rub with oil. Put in a roasting pan in the oven. Roast until the fish flakes easily, about 15 minutes.

6. Serve each fillet on a large scoop of mashed rutabaga.

- From Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking With Andreas

Viestad (Artisan, $35)

Per serving: 503 calories, 43 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 160 milligrams cholesterol, 272 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.

Aquavit Sorbet

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 cup superfine sugar

2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (colored rind only)

2 1/2 cups water

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2/3 cup aquavit

1. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, lemon zest and water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil over heat for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice and set aside to cool.

2. Strain the syrup into a bowl. Add the aquavit and place the bowl in the freezer. Every 30 minutes, remove and stir briskly with a fork or beater until mixture is completely frozen.

3. If the sorbet is frozen hard, transfer it to the refrigerator to soften briefly before serving.

Viestad (Artisan, $35)

Per serving: 184 calories, 0.7 gram protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams sugar, 0.006 gram fat, no cholesterol, 3.8 milligrams sodium, 0.25 gram dietary fiber.

Crown Roast of Pork With Cornbread-Sausage Dressing

Makes about 12 to 14 servings

1 crown roast of pork, 16 to 18 ribs, about 8 to 9 pounds (see note)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 teaspoon each: ground sage, tarragon and salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

For the Dressing:

1/2 pound hot sausage

1/2 pound mild sausage

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter

2 cups chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

1 small green bell pepper, chopped

1 pound cornbread stuffing mix

1 can (16-ounce) chicken broth or as needed

1 can (10 3/4-ounce) condensed cream of chicken soup

1 large egg, beaten

2 to 3 teaspoons sage

1 can (4-ounce) diced mild green chilies

1. Remove meat from refrigerator 1 hour before cooking.

2. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the garlic, oil, sage, tarragon, salt and pepper to a paste and rub over the roast.

3. Stand the roast, ribs down, in a shallow pan. Place in the oven. Reduce heat setting to 325 degrees. Roast until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the meat registers 150 degrees (about 2 1/2 hours). Baste occasionally.

4. Prepare the dressing: Cook the sausage in a skillet. Drain and reserve the fat. Set aside the sausage. Combine the fat and the butter in the pan over medium-high heat and saute the onion, celery and bell pepper until soft, about 7 minutes.

5. In a large bowl, mix the cornbread stuffing, vegetables, chicken broth and soup, egg, sage and chilies. Add more broth if needed. Transfer to a casserole or baking pan and bake at 325 degrees until heated through, about 40 minutes.

6. When roast nears 150 degrees (about 30 minutes before it is fully cooked), take it from the oven. Pour off pan juices and reserve to make gravy, if desired. Turn the roast over and spoon the dressing into the center. (Serve excess separately.)

7. Return the roast to the oven, rib ends up, for about 30 minutes or until the meat thermometer registers 155 to 160 degrees. Remove and let rest 10 minutes before carving.

Note: Order the roast (trimmed, shaped and tied) from the butcher based on the number of guests. A small 12-rib roast will serve 6 to 8. For a larger family, figure on 16 to 20 ribs.

Per 2-rib serving: 1,110 calories, 73 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 81 grams fat, 245 milligrams cholesterol, 1,335 milligrams sodium, 1.6 grams dietary fiber.

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