Chef Gísli Matt has been eating plokkfiskur, a signature Icelandic whitefish and potato hash, for as long as he can remember.
“When I was growing up, my dad always made it,” says Matt, who owns the restaurants Slippurinn in Vestmannaeyjar, a city on the western volcanic islands of Iceland, and Skál, based in the country’s capital of Reykjavík. But Matt is quick to add “[my father] has his particular version of making it that’s completely different to mine.”
In Iceland, plokkfiskur is ubiquitous, but never made quite the same way. Recipes vary widely from one family to another. Sometimes it takes the form of a stew, other times it’s more of a hash.
The dish has long served as a hearty and convenient way to make use of leftovers and scraps. Usually, plokkfiskur includes the same basic ingredients: milk-poached whitefish, mashed potatoes, cooked rutabaga (known as “swede” in Iceland), béchamel sauce and sweet rye bread.
The version his father made when Matt was growing up approaches plokkfiskur as a sort of mash that also incorporates curry powder and a Hollandaise or a bearnaise sauce. “He tops it with some grated cheese—a lot of people in Iceland do it that way,” he says. “It’s very delicious, but it’s just totally different to how we do it [at Slippurinn].”
At the restaurant, Matt uses both smoked and fresh cod for depth and added texture. “I’ve actually been tweaking it for a very long time. Ever since I started as an apprentice,” he says.
He’s made a few additional changes over the years as well—and he still likes to play around with the recipe now and then. In his latest iteration, instead of cooking the rutabaga, he leaves it raw and slices it very thinly. Rather than serving it with a slice of rye bread, he tops it with toasted rye crumble. This is also the version of the dish that you’ll find in Matt’s new cookbook, Slippurinn, a celebration of traditional Icelandic cuisine and culture, as well as the contemporary style for which the restaurant has become known.
“We always have plokkfiskur on the lunch menu and regulars come for it,” says Matt. “It kind of ticks all the boxes. What’s more comforting than mashed potatoes and fish and butter and onions?”
Read on to learn how to make this Icelandic staple.
It’s no surprise that a classic comfort food recipe from a Nordic island would include fresh fish. But at Slippurinn, and when making the dish for himself, Matt likes to do things a bit differently. “Usually we add half and half of smoked fish and not smoked fish, and usually it’s cod, which is like by far the most popular fish in Iceland. And this is a perfect dish for off-cuts. You wouldn’t buy the fine filet or fine loin and put it in this.”
Can’t find fresh fish filets? Not to worry: Matt says that frozen filets will work just as well.
Plokkfiskur is particularly nourishing and comforting thanks to its base of potatoes and rutabaga. Matt likes to serve the dish like a hash. After boiling the potatoes and cooking the fish, he takes care to drain them very well before mixing them together.
“If both the fish and the potatoes are quite wet, then you end up with a kind of a soup,” says Matt.
Sometimes he also likes to experiment with different preparations of the potatoes, including frying or roasting instead of mashing them—a great option if you’ve got leftover spuds in the fridge.
THE SAUCE AND RYE CRUMBLE
Béchamel sauce gives this dish the signature creamy quality that has made it a staple in Iceland. In the basic version of plokkfiskur, “You basically boil the potatoes separately and put it in the béchamel sauce, and it’s mashed,” Matt says. “Then you either boil or bake the fish and you also put it in the same mash.”
However, he also mixes in some horseradish (“it goes hand in hand with potatoes”), butter, dill oil and fresh dill. “You get the creaminess, obviously, from the béchamel and all of that, but then with adding the herb oil, it just gives it a lot of freshness,” he says. “And the horseradish adds a little spice.”
The traditional preparation of the dish typically calls for cooked rutabaga, but Matt prefers to leave it raw, slicing it into thin strips that add some textural crunch to contrast the creamy potatoes instead. “I’ve never really liked cooked swede,” he says. “It’s just a bit too sweet for me. At Slippurinn, I really like the crunchiness that comes from the raw swede, which contrasts with the softness of the fish stew.”
Lastly, he adds a bit of rye crumble on top to complement the rutabaga’s crunch and to pay homage to the traditional sweet Icelandic rye bread that’s typically served alongside a heaping portion of plokkfiskur.
Smoked Cod Plokkfiskur with Raw Swede and Rye Crumble
- 1/3 loaf Rye bread
- 40 g Butter, melted
- 300 g Smoked cod
- 300 g Fish trimmings
- 500 ml Milk
- 2 Bay leaves
- 1 large White onion, diced, trimmings reserved
- 120 g Butter, divided in half
- 75 g All-purpose flour
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- Sea salt & black pepper
- 550 g Small potatoes
- 1 small Swede (rutabaga)
- Grated fresh horseradish
- Dill oil*
- Dill fronds, chopped
For the Rye Crumble:
Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray (sheet pan) with parchment paper.
Process the rye bread in a food processor until it makes a fine crumble, then toss it in melted butter and salt and bake on the prepared tray for 10 minutes.
For the Poached Cod:
Poach the smoked cod and fish trimmings in the milk with the onion trimmings and bay leaves in a pan over medium heat until gently cooked and beginning to flake, about 12 minutes. Remove the cod with a slotted spoon and let it cool.
Strain the poaching liquid and reserve for the béchamel.
For the Béchamel:
In a large sauté pan, sauté the onion (not including the trimmings) in 60g butter over medium heat, then add the flour. Cook for 4 minutes, then add the reserved strained poaching liquid and cook until a very thick béchamel is formed. Season the béchamel with salt, black pepper and nutmeg.
Meanwhile, boil the small potatoes in a pan of water over medium heat, then drain and crush roughly. Gently fold the potatoes, 60g butter and flaked cod through the béchamel, taking care to not break apart the cod flakes too much.
Turn the rutabaga on a Japanese turning slicer to make fine noodles, then shock in a bowl of ice water to maintain a firm crunch.
Plate the fish stew and garnish with the swede, freshly grated horseradish, dill oil, dill fronds and the rye crumble.
- 100 g Dill
- 150 g Vegetable oil
- 100 g Parsley or spinach
- In a blender, combine the dill and oil and blend for 5–6 minutes on the highest speed.
- Strain the oil and return to the blender.
- Add the parsley or spinach and blend again until a vibrant green.
- Strain through a fine-mesh sieve or a coffee filter and let it cool down.
- The oil can keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or be stored in the freezer for up to 1 month.