Throughout graduate school, I spent my free time planning a dream trip. Iceland. At the time, flights were amazingly cheap so we saved our pennies to go on an 11-day self-drive tour, circumnavigating the country. Two days after my board exams, my husband and I boarded a red-eye flight across the Atlantic. Since we wouldn’t check into our hotel until late afternoon, we spent our first morning exploring Reykjavik on minimal sleep and a whole lot of adrenaline.
Eventually, we stopped to eat. We took our brunch at Cafe Loki, an adorable cafe in downtown Reykjavik’s, just across the plaza from the famous Halgrimskirka Cathedral. Jet lagged and groggy yet so deeply happy, I took my first bite of Icelandic food – plokkfiskur, the country’s national dish. It was rich, savory, cheesy, creamy, and a little bit salty…and I’ve been daydreaming about eating it again ever since. Maybe it was just because we were so tired, or maybe because it was the gustatory fulfillment of dreams long-held, but that plokkfiskur was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
So…what is plokkfiskur? Technically, it’s a fish stew, but I think most Americans would consider it more of a casserole. Made with the simplest of ingredients – potatoes, onions, whitefish, flour, milk, and cheese — it was standard winter fare in the rugged countryside, and has evolved into a staple Icelandic comfort food. The recipe below can be adjusted for gluten-free or dairy-free needs (see the “notes” section of the recipe card), and the entire recipe is naturally nut-free.
If you would like a video tutorial of how to make plokkfiskur, check out this video, in which an Icelandic mother-in-law can show you the ropes. (Even if you’ve got this recipe figured out, it’s still worth a watch for the sheer wholesome entertainment value. She seems like a lovely person!)
How to make plokkfiskur (Icelandic fish stew)
The first step: cook your fish. I used frozen cod filets because they were affordable, available, and of good quality. You are welcome to use any whitefish you may have on hand. Place the fish filets in saucepan over medium heat and cover with water. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the fish is flaky. Drain and set aside; if making this dish dairy free, reserve 1 cup of the liquid for later use.
In large pot, cover your diced potatoes with water and bring to a boil. Cook them until they are fork-tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. I like to use this same pot (my enamel Dutch oven) to cook the rest of this dish, to avoid having to wash an additional pot. (Lazy or efficient? You decide.)
Melt your butter over medium heat. Add the diced onion and sauté until translucent, before mixing in garlic.
Next, stir in your flour and cook until the mixture bubbles. (You could easily substitute a gluten-free all-purpose flour here with no ill effects.) Slowly stir milk into your flour mixture. If you or a family member is lactose intolerant, you can substitute the reserved 1 cup of fish cooking liquid. This is actually an authentic method of making this dish, as milk was not always available for plokkfiskur during the depths long Icelandic winters.
After adding your milk or fish broth, add in the mustard and white fish. Break apart the fish as you stir it into the mixture. Stir in potatoes until the mixture is roughly homogenous. Season to taste with white pepper. You can transfer to bowls and serve it now (especially if you need it to be dairy-free, or just want a one-pot meal!), or continue on for au gratin treatment.
Transfer your plokkfiskur to a heatproof baking dish (8”x8” or 7”x10”) and sprinkle with shredded cheese. I used havarti, but any mild white cheese will do. Herrgård is a Scandinavian cheese available at a certain Swedish furniture store which would provide a thoroughly authentic flavor.
Once you have covered with shredded cheese, place the pan under the broiler set to high heat for 2 minutes, or until the cheese starts to caramelize.
Remove from the oven and serve hot. For an authentic presentation, serve with rye bread and grass-fed butter. (Smjor butter was truly the best thing I ate in Iceland. If you live on the American East Coast and can find it at your local Whole Foods, buy some. Enjoy it. It’s incredible!)
Iceland is a beautiful, welcoming country, with kind people and some of the most spectacular landscapes the world over. I would go back in a heartbeat…and daydream about planning another trip on a bi-weekly basis. If you’re planning to visit Iceland, let me know in the comments; I’m always happy to share some of the resources I unearthed while planning this adventure. And, as always, if you made this recipe at home, please tag @WhiskAverseBaking in your social media posts! This recipe is particularly dear to my heart, and I’d love to share your joy in making it.
If you’ve made plokkfiskur and are looking for more cozy, international recipes, you might enjoy my recipe for borscht – a Russian beet stew.
Plokkfiskur (Icelandic Fish Stew)
- 1 pound potatoes peeled and diced
- 2 small yellow onions diced
- 1 clove garlic diced
- 1 pound white fish filets cod, haddock, or pollock
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour can substitute gluten-free flour
- 1 cup whole milk can substitute fish broth
- ½ teaspoon salt plus 2 tablespoons for cooking fish
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard optional
- White pepper to taste
- 1 cup shredded Havarti cheese
- Place fish in saucepan over medium heat and cover with water. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the fish is flaky. Drain and set aside. If making your dish dairy-free, reserve 1 cup of this broth for later use.
- In a large pot, cover diced potatoes with water and bring to a boil. Cook until they are fork-tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Melt butter in a saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and saute until translucent, before mixing in garlic.
- Add flour and cook until the mixture bubbles.
- Slowly stir in milk and mustard before adding the white fish. Break apart the fish as you stir it into the mixture.
- Stir in potatoes until the mixture is roughly homogenous. Season to taste with white pepper. You can transfer to bowls and serve it now, or continue for au gratin treatment.
- Transfer to heatproof baking dish (8”x8” or 7”x10”) and sprinkle with shredded cheese. Place under the broiler set to high heat for 2 minutes, or until the cheese starts to caramelize.
- Remove from oven and serve hot. For an authentic presentation, serve with rye bread and grass-fed butter.
- Most traditional recipes omit the garlic and only some include the mustard. Season to your own taste!
- If you have an Ikea nearby, you can substitute herrgård cheese for the havarti, for a more traditional Scandanavian flavor.
- For a dairy free version, you can omit the cheese and substitute the whole milk with 1 cup of the water in which the fish was boiled.