Plokkfiskur—not a pretty word, not as fun to say as fiskeboller, but it is easy to make and very satisfying to eat. A classic Icelandic dish, it translates as fish stew, but it’s not a stew in the traditional sense.
I ordered it on my very first trip to Reykjavik at a restaurant on Austurstraeti. This was 2004 and the capital was already well-known for its extreme party-music scene. My waiter matched my impression of a typical Icelandic guy—tall-skinny-twenty, too hip to waste his time on me. He didn’t bother greeting me when I walked in or ask me what I wanted when I sat down; he just came up to my table and stood in front of me with his pen and pad ready to take down what I ordered. “Let’s see,” I said, eager to draw out my conversation with someone, anyone. My traveling mates hadn’t arrived in town yet, and I was feeling lonely. The B&B I stayed in was owned by a Thai couple who had their language skills maxed out from learning Icelandic and German—their kids kept running interference for them. When I asked a bunch of questions in English, they looked at me as if I were a new kind of headache. They handed me a map and circled where restaurants were and pointed to the door.
I wasn’t taking any chances that people would understand me when I sat down in a restaurant. I said to my too cool to greet me Icelandic waiter, “Beer? One?” holding my index finger in the air. He stared out the window not looking at me. “What kind?” he asked and handed me the beer menu. Tad moody, this guy, but he was my first contact with a real native, so I chalked it up to an urban chic temperament. I looked at the list, “Ummmm, what do you recommend?” I gave the menu back to him. He took his time looking it over. “Do you like light beer?” he asked. I said sure, just to keep it simple, even though I like dark bitter beer. He recommended a Danish one, Carlsberg. Seeing I was on better footing, I ventured, “And what do you recommend to eat? I’m dying to try a fish dish.” Then I thought, dying to try may be too colloquial, and the meaning might get misconstrued, so I simplified it by taking out verb contractions. “I have heard the fish in Iceland is superb, that is, excellent. I would like to try a typical Icelandic dish.” He took the same amount of time, going over the menu with his finger, thinking intently. “It’s…all pretty typical fare. If you’re hungry, I think you’ll like this, Plokkfiskur. It’s… ” – okay, he knew his contractions – “heavy, filling, a kind of stick-to-your-ribs meal, but it’s my favorite.”
It was the most conversation I had had all day and I needed to extend it, even though I saw his attention flag and wander over to a group of young Icelandic women that any young Icelandic waiter would want to move on to. But I wasn’t ready to let him go, and I couldn’t help but notice that his English was muy bien, even though his accent was odd, a bit flat with long vowels. “You speak English well, and you get all the idioms. Where did you learn it?” He looked over at the laughing Icelandic girls longingly. “I’m American,” he said, “I’m from Ohio. I’m studying at the university here.”
“Me too, I’m American, too.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” he said, in exactly the way my son would say to me, “Yeah, no shit, mom.” We got on like old pals after that and since he was American, I didn’t hesitate to annoy him and ask a bunch of questions about Iceland. My Plokkfiskur was served in a long ramekin, oozing with melted cheese, too hot to eat for twenty minutes and way too much for one typical person. But I am a clean-the-plate enthusiast and ate the entire meal.
I tried to catch my waiter’s eye on my departure, but he was being warm and friendly to the group of young Icelandic women. They were all laughing. And I had to wait another twelve hours for my friends to get to town. While Reykjavik is an easy place to navigate, it’s not a city I enjoyed being alone in, particularly on my first visit.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, and because ♥-day falls close to the Icelandic mid-winter feast of Thorrablot (what’s that?), I invited a group of best friends over and made Plokkfiskur. It’s not fancy food—it’s a casserole to the table dish. Below is my best-guess recreation of that meal I had in Reykjavik. I’m not sure if it would qualify as true Plokkfiskur, since that calls for using leftover fish. And who typically has or wants three or four pounds of leftover cooked fish around?
My Plokkfiskur Recipe
- Go to Costco (this line all by itself redeems me in my mother-in-law’s eyes), because they sell haddock from Iceland there and true to Costco warehouse size, they sell it in huge amounts, 3- 4 lbs. at minimum.
- Grease a baking dish. Set oven temperature to 375 degrees.
- Cube the fish into small chunks and layer in baking dish. Dice one or two onions, spread over fish. Add salt and pepper. Throw on a cup of bread crumbs. Dot with butter.
- Sprinkle on a ton of grated cheese, at least two or three fistfuls. In Iceland they use a mild, creamy cheese that is similar to Gouda or Edam. But if you’re anywhere within the northeast US, the best cheese to use is Orb Weaver Farmhouse cheese (also available mail order). This is a creamy farmhouse Vermont cheese that is high in butterfat and melts into gobs of rich, gooey delightfulness – and, full disclosure, I’m terribly fond of the cheese makers. (Hi, Marg! Hi, Mar!)
- Stick dish in oven for 30-40 minutes until golden brown and bubbly on top. Serve with buttered potatoes and lots of cold beer.
- Share with at least eight friends and practice saying, “Thorrablot, Plokkfiskur.”
- Eat until you’re full and then, if you’re me, eat two more helpings until you feel your stomach distend and you have to move from the table to the couch for a long, dreamless, winter nap.