In New Jersey, winter is not considered the most wonderful time of the year. After the Christmas lights come down and the New Year’s Eve ball has dropped, it is a long way to the first signs of spring. Typically, Americans escape freezing December weather to more tropical destinations. Maybe Mexico, Turks and Caicos, or even sunny Florida at the very least! However, my husband had a different kind of radiating light on his mind: the Northern Lights. Last winter he had learned that there is a decade-long cycle for the lights and that they were going to be at their peak. While I could not fathom traveling to colder, darker place I realized this was bucket-list item that we could not pass up.
As my husband and I touched down in Iceland we were greeted by all-consuming darkness and biting, cold wind, but the hope of seeing the northern lights burned within us. As night fell after a day of exploring Reykjavik, we suited up to drive out into the deep night to chase the Northern Lights. Our gracious guide drove us for hours upon hours but the fog and clouds never allowed the lights to peek out.
Although the Northern Lights were not visible that night, the local Icelandic fare provided a bright spot. To pull us out of the dark mornings we relied on “skyr,” which is comparable to Greek yogurt, although not technically yogurt. As we explored throughout the day we found “the best hot dogs in town.” In Iceland, hot dogs are a big deal because they are made from lamb in addition to beef and pork. Of course, I had to order one with “everything on it,” including crunchy deep-fried onions.
For some people lamb would be an adventurous dish, but to us it is an already familiar and beloved. Lamb is popular and tasty in Iceland. In looking for something unique to our palates, we came across puffin, a cute bird that looks very much like a penguin. I will admit it was hard to consider consuming this bird. The other option was fermented shark. Needless to say, we chose the puffin. We treated ourselves to a smoked puffin (that reminded us of pastrami) with a blueberry Brennivin sauce. Brennivin is a locally-made spirit otherwise known as “black death.” As I sipped the Brennivin shot I ordered, I expected to immediately regret it, but I was pleasantly surprised by the anise flavor — and it eased the pain of another night of not seeing the Northern Lights.
On day 3, icy rain poured down on us, the fog was heavy, and the ride in our monster truck jeep became more dismal by the minute. As we drove around the south coast, we managed to visit impressive waterfalls and have a trek to a glacier. Finally, we took a break at a local lunch spot with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of the snow covered mountains. I ordered a cup of hot chocolate to try to thaw out. Staring at the menu, I was drawn to Icelandic Meat Soup. Our guide mentioned that meat soup was his favorite meal. He shared, with a wistful smile, his memories of his grandmother’s cooking. Our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of our soup. Appearing through the steam was the sight of hearty potatoes, carrots, and lamb in a clear broth. Soon enough, the disappointment of our weather tribulations began to melt away as I began to understand that one good meal could change the tone of a trip.
That night, the clouds started clearing and we took a chance by going out and again chasing the elusive lights. Fortunately, this time we were successful, much to the delight of my husband. But, for me, the brightest lights were not seen in the sky, but rather on my plate.
Icelandic Meat Soup
- 2 tablespoons) olive oil
- 1.3 kg (3 pounds) lamb shoulder chops
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary
- 1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1/2 tablespoon of thyme
- 78 ml (1/3 cup) white wine
- 3 large white potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 3 carrots, peeled and chopped into about 12 mm (1/2 inch) pieces
- 2 rutabagas, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- Chopped parsley, for garnish
- In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Add the lamb to the pot and brown on both sides. Remove from the pot and reserve.
- Lower the heat and add the garlic. Let it sauté for about 2 minutes, then add onion, rosemary, oregano, and thyme. Sauté until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the wine, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Let it simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Add the lamb back to the pot. Add 1.5 liters (6 cups) of water, or enough to cover everything. Simmer, covered, for 45 minutes.
- Skim the fat from the surface, and continue to simmer until the lamb is tender and falling off the bone, about 45 more minutes. Remove the lamb from the pot and cut it away from the bone, discarding the bones. Pull or cut the lamb into small pieces.
- Add the root vegetables to the simmering broth, and season with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. If necessary, add just enough water to cover. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Return the lamb to the soup to reheat, and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve and garnish with the remaining parsley. The flavor of this soup improves if allowed to rest, refrigerated, overnight. Reheat before serving.