Chef’s pantry | Aquavit

06 Nov 2016
3 min read
Emma Bengtsson is the Swedish chef behind two-Michelin-starred Aquavit in New York City. Here, she reveals both her cultural and East Coast favourites.
“Herring is very important to me!”

I like working with products I’m familiar with. I grew up on the west coast of Sweden and therefore have a lot of familiarity with Swedish produce and condiments. Fortunately, I’ve found a lot of the ingredients I used back home in New York. Being as local as possible is important to us at Aquavit and we’re fortunate to work with such talented, like-minded purveyors in the United States. I want to make food that is approachable, so being comfortable with the ingredients, however humble they may seem, makes a big difference.

Mushrooms are so versatile and there are so many different kinds to cook with. At Aquavit we get ours through the R.L. Irwin Mushroom Company, a Washington D.C.-based purveyor that has been in the mushroom business for decades. I like buying from them because they’re a family-run business and they really know their stuff. At the restaurant we have a number of dishes with mushrooms at their heart, like the Poached Blue Egg with Cultivated Mushrooms, Danish Cheese, and Consommé. When I cook at home, I visit a mushroom purveyor at the Columbia Farmer’s Market on Sundays, which is a lovely walk from my apartment in Harlem. The farmer from Madura Farms is based outside of the city and has some of my favorite mushrooms including Maitake, for the earthy and almost gamy flavor or the King Oyster, which is woody yet sweet and has a meaty texture.

When I arrived in the States I was delighted to find a similar reliance on bacon as we do in Scandinavia, where we use it a lot. I think it was a cheaper meat option back in the day, and I always remember it in traditional Swedish dishes like blood pudding. For Aquavit, I source bacon from Schaller & Webber charcuterie store on Second Ave and 86th Street. I find myself recommending it to many people looking for good meats and hard-to-find imported condiments. The bacon I buy there is great to work with ($14 per pound) and the store has been there for a long time and has a wonderful old New York feel that is hard to find these days.

Herring is a very important ingredient to me. It has always played a central part of Scandinavian culinary heritage and Aquavit has been serving a version of pickled herring since the restaurant opened in 1987. I love working with the fish because it’s so versatile, and I like the resulting salty-sweet-acidic balance of a dish when herring is the star. Right now we have a Matjes Herring on the menu with Trout Roe, Red Onion, and Sour Cream at the restaurant. I like buying herring from ACME Smoked Fish, a purveyor in Brooklyn that’s been in business for four generations and sources fish in the most sustainable way possible. They have already-pickled herring, but we do our own pickling at the restaurant, mostly with ättika vinegar from Sweden.

Another Scandinavian staple I can’t live without is lingonberries. Fortunately there are delicious American-grown and wild lingonberries in Alaska and Canada. I buy mine in larger quantities from Northwest Wildfoods at $40 for 3 pounds of fresh and frozen wild lingonberries. I’ve used the sour berry in desserts, but it mostly makes appearances in savory dishes, like the Venison Carpaccio we have on the menu.

When I go back to Sweden, I fill my suitcases with Swedish candy to bring back to the United States. I find Scandinavian candy much more flavorful than the American kind. Fortunately, it’s getting easier to find all my favorite sour candies in New York—there are a few stores downtown (Sockerbit, The Sweet Shop) that specialize in European candy, and then there’s a small Swedish furniture store chain that carries authentic candy called Ikea. I don’t have any Swedish candy on the menu at Aquavit, but I keep a hidden stash in the kitchen for a late night snack.