You know, it occurred to me the other day: I’m a Dane with a food blog, and a relatively large audience, many of whom are not from Denmark. Over the course of almost 65 posts, I’ve covered a lot of dishes, cuisines, tastes and culinary impressions… None of them traditionally Danish!
Danish cuisine? How about organic, free-range pork tenderloin for a start? If you really are what you eat, then I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky free range pig!
That’s a little odd, is it not? Why have I not educated my lovely readers on Danish cuisine? What say you we change that? Right, awesome! Bring on the Danish cuisine! In this case, bring on the pork tenderloin!
Defining Danish cuisine
So, uh, just what is Danish cuisine? Being a man of sound culinary interest, I’m quite often met by foreigners with the question: “So? What is the cuisine of Denmark like? What would a typical Danish dish be?” – And I quite often answer with a resounding “I… Oh… Ermm… Yeah…” I’m not alone, by the way, I’ve heard this type of reply from other foodies as well. It’s not that we don’t know the answer, it’s just that we grew up with our traditional dishes and probably don’t think of them as decidedly Danish. Also, many of us grew up in the 70’s and 80’s where a lot of new dishes from then far-away and exotic countries such as Italy washed over the country and became instantly adopted and traditional, in their own, little decidedly Dane-ified versions. So, when pressed, we sometimes have a hard time coming up with a fitting answer to the seemingly simple question: “Just what is Danish cuisine?”
But I have a plan to set things straight. For the purpose of this post (or series of posts if all goes well), I’ve defined Danish classics as something that every Dane would recognize as typically Danish, something that uses largely traditional and popular Danish ingredients available locally, and – most importantly – something that your Danish grandmother would make – and feel comfortable making, mind you. One such dish is “mørbradgryde” (try saying that quickly three times in a row, I know you won’t!) or more internationally: Pork tenderloin in cream sauce.
This is a dish everybody’s grandmother, my own late grandmother included, would feel comfortable making for Sunday lunch (or dinner) if things were to be a little special, a dish that is still on the menu of probably 9 out of 10 classic Danish guest houses and eateries, and a dish I quite enjoy making myself on a Friday evening when I get home from work and want something nice and hearty that’s comforting and familiar, something that I can throw together relatively quickly yet still feel like I poured some effort and soul into.
Pork tenderloin in cream sauce is, in all it’s simplicity, seared medallions of pork tenderloin, finished and served in a rich, slightly tomato-y cream sauce with bacon bits, sautéed onions and mushrooms. Cocktail wieners, to some, are also traditional and may be added to the dish, if two types of pork are deemed not quit enough. Historically, I suspect, this was done to add a cheap, meaty filler so less of the much more expensive tenderloin would have to be used. It’s a simple dish, but a genius one at that. A dish that balances soft, juicy flavorful pork with the richness of a sweet, cream sauce with a slight tang from tomatoes, an richness and depth from a bit of spice, some subtle smoke and saltiness from a quality slab of bacon and some subtly sweet, meaty notes from sautéed onions and mushrooms.
Pork Tenderloin in Cream Sauce – a beautiful mess!
This, to me, is Danish cooking in a nut shell: familiar, rich, comforting and traditional. And this is one of the few dishes that I’ll confess to actually making the same way every time I make it. Why? Well, for starters simply because it’s a classic that I’ve memorized and perfected to my liking. Secondly, it’s a go-to comfort food for me and comfort food, at least some of it, should be about familiarity and tradition. And lastly, it’d feel a little blasphemous to take something your grandmother would feed you, and shake it up too much. I’ll stick to doing that with other countries’ cuisines. 😉
Fear not, though, that’s not to say I haven’t made a few Johanesque changes to the original recipe. Believe me, I have, but I think I’ve taken this one as far as I can while still keeping it
real authentic. Why this need for change? Well…
I’m not your average grandmother!
Oh, really, you don’t say, Johan, the being male and not having kids part kinda gave you away. No, really, what I mean is that an average Danish grandmother would probably be considered a little more conservative in her cooking than yours truly. She would generally use an array of spices spanning from salt to, well, pepper, maybe with a bay leaf, some dried thyme or a bit of caramel coloring or other non-controversial, familiar things thrown in if things were to get extra fancy and new school.
Me, I don’t play that way in case you hadn’t noticed. I use exotic things like vinegar, hot sauce, dried spices and other bad juju in my cooking. That goes when I cook more traditional dishes as well (gasp!), but when cooking traditionally, I try to do so in moderation and with respect. It’s not kosher, it’s not traditional, but it does add a bit of extra depth and flavor, and that’s enough of an excuse for me! Still, with this recipe, I’ve kept my usual tinkering and messing about to a minimum. For a full, authentic experience, when you read the recipe below just substitute words like star anise, hot sauce, sherry vinegar and Cointreau with blank and you’ll have essentially the dish my grandmother cooked, and what a dish it is:
With a focus on few, simple yet flavorful ingredients, an overload of pork and a good amount of fat, this iconic dish is actually a perfect example of typical Danish cuisine and culinary history and probably one I should have pulled out when people asked me in the past about typical Danish dishes: It’s filling, it’s warming, it’s comforting and it makes use of ingredients that are, by and large, available locally. It’s fancy without being pretentious, makes use of an expensive ingredient but not in a lavish way and it’s the perfect family dish, loved by kids and adults alike. The dish itself may, for all I know, be about as Danish as pumpkin pie, but whether or not that is the case, it has been widely adopted across Denmark, and it goes well in line with some of our most prominent culinary traditions.
Pork tenderloin and cream: A Danish love affair
There are a few, simple, common characteristics about Danish cuisine. Number one: it usually revolves around pork. Danes just love pork. Why? Cost and convenience! Danes, traditionally were farmers and until surprisingly recently, the going was pretty tough in Farmland, Denmark. Cows, as a result, were raised and kept primarily for their milk which was a far more valuable and permanent resource than the meat. Cows would die or be slaughtered eventually, of course, and what a party that would be. But beef, till recently, was a rare treat in the Danish diet. As far as meat production was concerned, pigs were much faster, easier and cheaper to raise, and as a result, Danish meat dishes have traditionally focused around pork, or, at times, a mixture of pork and beef such as the case of traditional Danish meat balls. (Which are surprisingly similar to Swedish meatballs, I might add).
Number two: vegetables! Meat, in the old days, was a scarce commodity and as such, vegetables were widely used as a filler. Onions, carrots and other root vegetables were in popular demand due to their long shelf life, but mushrooms too, were widely used when in season. Most likely for their meatiness and texture. Mushrooms are a great non-meat! This tradition has carried through to modern day and traditional Danish cooking is usually full of (more or less mushy) hearty vegetables.
“So, you’re basically going to explain to your readers that Danish food is an under seasoned, fatty plethora of pork? That’s… Interesting. Well done, Johan, well done!”
– Malene, a particularly sarcastic friend of mine.
One final very traditional aspect that almost all but disappeared from Danish cooking in recent years is the heavy use of butter and cream in Danish classics. One must bear in mind that many classic dishes came about in farming or laboring communities where people worked hard and, as such, craved a lot of calories to burn. Plus, I’d be seriously surprised if people put much thought into the subject of nutrition and health back then, concepts such as heart disease and blood clogs had yet to be invented amongst the general public. Sadly, though, views changed and during the health craze of the 90’s and the 00’s, fat in cooking was heavily stigmatized, possibly even teetering on the brink of being outlawed. Lately, though people are, thank heavens, waking up to the fact that fat is a great carrier of flavor that, if used in moderation, probably won’t hurt anybody and both butter and cream are making a triumphant return. Hurt or no hurt, I don’t care, I love butter and cream and of course my version of an iconic classic will have butter and cream in it. It’s not like I eat it every damn day! And, you know, if eating a little butter and cream on the weekends takes a year or two off my projected life span. Then so be it, at least I’ve had a few good weekends!
Heavy cream, an essential part of traditional Danish cuisine
As you can probably tell, it’s a pretty basic diet, this Classical Danish fare. One consisting largely of pork, vegetables and fat. Simple providers and carriers of flavor working together in perfect, simple harmony… And of course I had to go and mess with that, huh?
Old School vs. New School: Jazzing up an old classic
Well, before we get to our first traditional Danish classic, allow me to just reiterate what it is I’ve done here. I feel almost like a blasphemer screwing around with a recipe that my grandmother has prepared time and time again for family over the decades, yet I really do feel like my minuscule changes are for the better. I’ve tried to maintain the original appearance and taste impressions of the dish, all while adding just a few standard tricks of my own for a little extra oomph.
Changes to the original recipe include adding star anise to boost the meaty flavor, adding a splash of fish sauce as a natural umami source, adding a tiny bit of hot sauce as an, uh, accent and a final splash of vinegar to contrast and cut through the many richly flavored elements of the dish. All of these steps have been taken to create a richer, deeper, more complete (in my mind) flavor profile in the sauce that is such an important part of this dish. But they can easily be omitted for a slightly more one-sided but more traditional and very awesome sauce.
One place where you’ll have to make a decision and a stand, though, is on the subject of orange. My version of pork tenderloin in cream sauce includes the addition of freshly squeezed orange juice along with a shot of orange liqueur. While certainly not traditionally Danish (I’ve yet to see orange trees this far up north), the practice of adding orange to the dish is something that has been going on since the 70’s or 80’s, possibly spurred on by the now infamous Duck l’Orange, and has been practiced pretty widely ever since. It is, however a controversial move, our version of the chili beans controversy, if you will. The choice is yours, but I personally like the subtle exotic sweetness that the orange adds and heck, if it’s been done for 40+ years, I say it’s traditional by now!
Want a more traditional experience? Every ingredient in this recipe labeled as optional is one that I’ve added on my own accord. Ignore these and you’ll literally have the dish that my grandmother would cook for me as a kid.
Danish Classics: Mørbradgryde (Pork Tenderloin in Cream Sauce)
- 1 large pork tenderloin 500-600 grams, preferably organic free range
- 150 grams quality bacon cut into chunks
- 150 grams cocktail wieners
- 1 large carrot finely diced
- 1 large stalk of celery finely diced
- 2 large shallots
- 400 grams of button mushrooms halved or quartered depending on size
- 2 garlic cloves finely diced, optional
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried paprika
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 star anise pod optional
- 1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
- 1 can chopped tomatoes about 400 grams
- 1 teaspoon concentrated chicken stock do not dilute
- 200 milliliters heavy cream
- 1 dash fish sauce optional
- 1 dash hot sauce optional
- 2 dashes sherry vinegar optional
- 1/2 orange juice of, freshly squeezed (optional)
- 1 shot Cointreau or Tripel Sec optional
- 1 knob butter 25 grams or so
- Remove pork tenderloin from the fridge, lay on a cutting board and liberate it of any excess fat and/or silver skin.
- Cut tenderloin into medallions, about an inch thick, and season each medallion generously with salt and pepper.
- Leave medallions to come to room temperature while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Fetch your favorite cast iron pot, dump in the bacon and put it over medium heat.
- Cook bacon until well crispy and fat has rendered out, remove bacon to a blow on the side but keep fat in pot.
- Raise heat to medium-high and brown tenderloin medallions thoroughly on both sides, about 1-2 minutes per side. When thoroughly brown, remove tenderloin medallions and place with the bacon.
- Dump button mushrooms in pot along with a heavy pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally.
- Liquid will quickly render out of the mushrooms and they will start to boil, let them, the water will soon evaporate.
- Once water has evaporated, the mushrooms will start to fry and caramelize. Cook them till thoroughly brown and delicious, then throw in the butter and let it melt and absorb into the mushrooms.
- Remove mushrooms from pot, lower the heat to low and immediately dump in the shallots, carrots and celery along with a splash of cooking oil. Then add the tarragon, thyme and paprika.
- Cook stirring occasionally for about five minutes till soft and fragrant.
- Add garlic and tomato paste and let this heat through for a minute.
- Add chopped tomatoes, bay leaf, star anise and chicken stock, stir everything together and raise heat until pot comes to a simmer, back down the heat to maintain a slow simmer.
- Dump bacon, pork and mushrooms back into pot and add the cream, a dash of hot sauce, a dash of fish sauce and two dashes of sherry vinegar.
- Add cocktail wieners to pot and stir everything to combine.
- Let pot simmer away for about half an hour or until pork is cooked through, then add the juice of half an orange along with the Cointreau and let cook for another couple of minutes.
- Give the sauce a taste and adjust seasoning if needed. If it tastes entirely too sweet, consider adding another dash or two of sherry vinegar to offset the sweetness.
Eat Like a Dane
So, you’ve read about Danish culinary tradition, you’ve read the recipe. you’ve concluded that large amounts of pork, bacon, butter and cream sounds like a pretty good idea (why wouldn’t you?), and you’ve decided to give it a all a go! Great! Now what? How do you serve this, when do you serve this and what do you serve it on top of? Fear not, young grasshopper, the answers are simple!
The first thing you need to do is grab hold of some friends and/or family. Danish food is comfort food and as such is best enjoyed in the company of loved ones. The next thing to do is get a round of beers, well, get a couple of rounds, actually. This, primarily, would be considered a weekend lunch dish (albeit a rather heavy one at that) and on weekends, Danes like a beer (or two) with their lunch. Your favorite lager would do very nicely, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a slightly hoppy brew with some sharp floral notes to cut through the richness and a fair bit of alcohol for a nice bit of warmth and character. If you’re gonna go truly Danish, you’ll also want to get a small glass of Aquavit to go along, but that may be an acquired taste and not necessarily something I suggest experimenting too much with.
Cold beer! To eat like a Dane, first one must learn to drink as a Dane!
Once your friends have been wound up and the first round of beers have been popped, it’s time to either cook or reheat the dish. If you’re having company, this dish can be easily made ahead of time, but exercise caution and use low heat when reheating, you don’t want to overcook pork tenderloin, you really, really don’t. As far as serving, I’d suggest rice to go along. It’s not traditionally Danish (as with orange trees, rice plants are few and far between up here), but it’s acceptable, and it’s a better match than the Danish stable of boiled potatoes. Use white rice, possibly with some wild rice mixed in for taste and texture, or go with a slightly fragrant variety such as Basmati. Jasmin? Not so much, you don’t want anything too flowery with this.
For sides, a garden salad would be nice, or some simple blanched or sautéed green beans. Something simple, green and crispy to counteract the fats and carbs of the rice/meat combo. Danes traditionally like some sour pickled gherkins to go with saucy meat dishes or stews, they offer contrast and a nice, acidic bite to punch through the fatty richness and meatiness. If you have access to a steady supply of pickles or if, like me, you’re crazy enough to make your own, I encourage you to try on this combo as well.
From there on, it’s just to serve everything up. Don’t worry about plating, just put a couple of pots and plates on the table and let your guests serve themselves or each other, it’s the Danish way, even when in finer company. Once everybody have served themselves, dig in and don’t stop until you’re all bursting from consumption of great food and slightly buzzed from consumption of quality beers and your jaws hurt from chewing, talking and laughing… Trust me, it’ll be one of the most memorable meals of your life!