In Scandinavia, Christmas dinner is served on Christmas eve. It tends to be a buffet-style feast of all matter of loveliness served throughout the day and into the eve for passing guests. Spiced ham, smørgåsbord, smoked and pickled fish, caraway and fennel flavoured homemade breads, the anchovy-spiked potato gratin Jansson’s Temptation, salmon gravadlax, beetroot, horseradish and celeriac remoulade will likely make an appearance.
This classy dish is reminiscent of all those festive Scandinavian flavours. Imagine enjoying it on Christmas eve
among the pine trees in a candle lit wooden lodge somewhere in Sweden with a shot of Aquavit or gløg and a roaring log fire.
Else, this is a beautiful starter that would look very impressive on any dinner menu throughout the festive season.
Buttery smoked eel is much underrated and underused in the UK. It’s not always easy to get hold of either.
My favourite online fishmonger provides beautiful thick fillets prepared by Dutchman Willem. It arrives frozen and vac packed, but the quality is such that you’d never know.
Beetroot, apple, crème fraiche and horseradish are the perfect bedfellows. Beetroot works with horseradish. Apple works with beetroot. Smoked fish works with horseradish. Crème fraiche works with smoked fish. Smoked fish works with apple.
And then there is the unexpected hint of vodka. Which works with everything.
The textures marry well together too. There’s the crunch from the garlicky fried bread. The bite from the tartare. The oozy creaminess of the horseradish crème fraiche.
Hot, fresh, crunchy, smokey, creamy, earthy. It all blends, but each mouthful is different
And the colours! Ruby red, virginal white, mellow green and earthy brown. A picture on the plate. Which is why it is worth spending a little time on the presentation of this one.
I served this as part of a “Flavours of Autumn” menu.
Tartare of Beetroot and Apple, Smoked Eel Toastie and Vodka Horseradish Crème Fraiche
Tartare of Beetroot and Apple, Smoked Eel Toastie and a Vodka Horseradish Crème Fraiche (serves 4 – GF LC RSF)
I had already settled on the components of this dish and what it would look like, when I spotted a Belgian TV recipe that was pretty much aligned with my own musings.
But it added a few twists to my version, such as the addition of tarragon instead of my usual thyme or dill, the boiling of the beetroot with spices, instead of my usual oven roasting, and the addition of a crunchy toastie. Thank you VTM.
I stuck with my horseradish crème fraiche instead of the Camembert cream suggested in the Belgian recipe though, as it works so well with all the other flavours and textures. And I was still Camembert-ed out from the indulgent baked Camembert a few weeks back.
You could use ready-cooked beetroot if you’re in a rush. You could also swap smoked eel for smoked salmon or mackerel.
Either way, 2 beetroot preparation tips from the Belgian TV chef that I’d like to share with you: drenching your wooden chopping board with water before handling the beetroot prevents the beetroot juices getting into the wood grain too much. And rubbing your hands with a little oil prevents the juices discoloring your skin. Who knew!
200 gr smoked eel
Some tarragon, finely chopped and a few sprigs for garnish
1 small eating apple, peeled, cored and very finely chopped
1 tbsp rapeseed oil or olive oil
2-3 tbsp apple cider or red or white wine vinegar
½ red onion, very finely chopped
2-3 slices of (GF) bread
2 cloves of garlic, unpeeled, bashed
3 tbsp Natvia or sugar plus a dash if the tartare is too tart
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
6 cardamom pods
250 gr raw beetroot, leaves removed, washed and scrubbed, halved if large
1 tbsp black or white peppercorns
1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
150 gr crème fraiche or sour cream (preferably the full fat variety)
2-3 tbsp creamed horseradish
½ -1 tbsp vodka (optional)
Cook the beetroot with the sugar, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, peppercorns, cardamom and 2-3 tbsp of vinegar in enough water to cover until tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Drain (reserve the cooking liquor if you think you’ve ended up with too much beetroot for the tartare recipe, as you can keep the beetroot in this liquor in the fridge for quite a while and use as needed).
Place the beetroot in a bowl of cold water. When cool enough to handle, scrape the skins off with a pairing knife while in the water. This prevents the red juices getting everywhere. Set aside.
Mix the crème fraiche with horseradish and vodka (if using) to taste. Put into a piping bag (optional) and chill until needed.
Mix the apple with the red onion, 1 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar and some chopped tarragon. Season. Cut the beetroot into tiny little pieces, or pulse a few times in a mini food processor. Combine with the apple mix. Check the seasoning and add a tiny dash of sugar if it’s too tart or a little more balsamic if not tart enough.
Portion the eel into 8-12 pieces depending on size and thickness.
Cut the bread into 8-12 strips about the same size as the eel pieces. Heat a non-stick frying pan on medium-high with 2-3 tbsp oil. Add the rosemary and garlic. Fry the bread until crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper or a clean J-cloth.
Spread or pipe a little crème fraiche onto each toasty. Top each with a piece of eel.
Spoon or quenelle a little beetroot tartare onto each plate. Spoon or pipe on some horseradish crème fraiche
Add 2-3 eel toasties to each plate and decorate with a little tarragon.
Any leftover tartare is great in a smoked salmon or smoked mackerel salad or sandwich the next day. If you have some horseradish crème fraiche or celeriac remoulade left over from the venison dish as well, all the better.