“Apart from taking lýsi (cod liver oil), kjötsúpa is the best cure for short-day depression and a vitamin boost for those suffering from a relentless cold.”
— “Winter Soup“
Winter is the time to make kjötsúpa, a traditional lamb soup that’s like Iceland in a bowl, and we were impatient to recreate it following our trip there last spring. Fragrant with the sweet earthiness of winter vegetables packed into a nourishing lamb broth, this warming soup is a delicious sum greater than its humble parts. We’re always alert to dishes that can be localized with our own ingredients, and from the first spoonful, we knew we’d be able to source it almost entirely from the Winter Farmers’ Market. As for its claim as the best cure for the season’s short-day depression and relentless colds, all the better.
Like most traditional dishes, kjötsúpa is one based on home cooking, and what one would have on hand — a bit of lamb that’s left clinging to bones, vegetables that store easily over winter, and a broth that makes itself while the soup simmers away. Each ingredient is cut small enough to fit in the belly of a spoon, yet chunky enough to feel substantial when eaten, and is added in stages to keep the flavor of the individual vegetables clear. The rutabaga is important for balancing the richness of the lamb; turnips may be substituted, especially Gilfeathers if you can find them (they’re actually another rutabaga), but will contribute a different flavor. While this soup can be served when ready, letting it sit overnight allows you to skim the extra fat off, and the flavors to more fully develop. We’ve been imprinted to prefer kjötsúpa without grains, though, at the discretion of the cook, many suggest adding a handful of rolled oats, barley, or brown rice for a creamier, or more porridge-like texture.
A note on the dried herbs: We used Villikrydd, a wild herb mix that we happened to bring home with us. It contains Arctic thyme, birch leaves, bog bilberry, bilberry and juniper, and is meant to go well with lamb. There’s a deep culture in Iceland of using herbs medicinally, and we wonder if this is part of this soup’s legendary healing powers. More readily accessible substitutes would be parsley, thyme, bay, celery or lovage.
Kjötsúpa — Icelandic Lamb Soup
2 pounds lamb shoulder (preferably with some bone)
6 cups water, plus more if necessary
2 teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 onion or leek, chopped
1 – 2 tablespoons mixed dried herbs (see note above)
1 pound rutabaga (or turnips), peeled and chopped
½ pound carrots, peeled and chopped
½ pound potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 cup chopped green cabbage
– Trim some of the excess fat off the meat, and cut into chunks. Place it in a large pot, add 6 cups cold water and heat slowly to a boil. Skim the broth, then add salt, pepper, onion, and dried herbs. Simmer, partly covered, for about 45 minutes.
– Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables. They should be chunky, large enough that each piece is a separate spoonful. Add the rutabaga, carrots and potatoes to the soup, and continue simmering for 15 minutes more.
– Add the cabbage and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, or until all the vegetables are tender. Lift the meat out from the soup, and separate out the bones, sinew and excess fat. Chop the meat up into bite-sized pieces and add them back into the soup. If needed, add a cup or two of more water, and adjust seasonings. Let soup sit overnight for flavors to develop. Garnish with fresh parsley or chives, if available. Serves 4 to 6 as a main course.
Adapted from “Icelandic Food & Cookery” by Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, and “Into the North” by Inga Elsa Bergþórsdóttir and Gísli Egill Hrafnsson.