Comfort Food for Finns
Finns and their friends gathered on St. Urho's Day around steaming pots of soup for a dose of camaraderie seasoned with good-spirited competition. Such was the scene Sunday at the sixth annual mojakka cook-off at Cloquet's Northeastern Hotel.
Six years ago, Tim Winker was dreaming up a way to raise money for his local animal shelter when he hit on the idea of a mojakka contest.
"You see chili cook-offs all over the U.S., but I figured that if you're up here living among the Finns, you might as well make mojakka," he said.
Mojakka (MOY-uh-kah) is a traditional Finnish dish usually built around root vegetables and either beef or fish. The beef version is called lihamojakka and the fish version is called kalamojakka.
Diane Sargent said the soup was an economical, nutritious meal that many Finnish families living in the area came to rely upon as a staple.
"Typically, people would use a cheap cut of meat, and the big thing was the root vegetables they harvested from their own gardens. Mojakka was made out of whatever they had on hand," she said.
Olli Rahkola, a judge at Sunday's competition, recalls growing up with the satisfying dish often at the center of his family's table. He was the youngest of seven children in an Esko household, where Finnish was the primary language.
Mojakka should have a certain consistency, according to Rahkola.
"You don't want it thick like a stew, but you don't want it too watery either," he said.
Rahkola is partial to a hearty helping of vegetables in his mojakka. He also is particular about the seasoning, favoring the natural goodness of fresh ingredients along with allspice and pepper.
Brenda Denton of Duluth, who took top honors for her kalamojakka Sunday, said it's important to start with a mild-tasting fish, such as lake trout, and it must be fresh. This base can then be richened.
"It's really the evaporated milk and butter that gives it that warm, creamy feeling you want," she said.
Keith Bong's beef and venison lihamojakka was judged the best in its class at Sunday's cook-off. It was loosely based on a recipe handed down to his partner, Linda Smith, from her grandpa, Urho Rooni, of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"My grandpa, my grandma and my mother are all gone, but the smell of mojakka in our house this morning brought me back," Smith said. "There are certain smells that just remind you of home."
Participants in Sunday's competition were all asked to bring at least six gallons of mojakka to the event.
Not all the mojakkas were strictly traditional. Ken Waletzko of Willow River, based his prize-winning soup around smoked salmon and included a few interesting twists in the dish, such as capers and stuffed olives. Based on the positive feedback he received, Waletzko said he may even consider adding mojakka to the product line of his frozen pizza business, Kettle River Pizza.
Fred Anderson of Cloquet made caribou mojakka this year, expanding on a wild-game theme he began exploring last year, when he cooked up a prize-winning batch of ruffed grouse and spruce hen mojakka.
For her part, Sargent made a chicken-based dish she dubbed: cock-a-doodle-doo mojakka.
To accompany the mojakkas, Sargent also baked 20 loaves of a flatbread called rieska (REE-es-ka). Sargent first brought some of the bread to the event six years ago, and the response was so overwhelmingly positive that she has been bringing it ever since.
"All the old Finns just went nuts over it," she said.
In all, about 125 people attended Sunday's mojakka cook-off, said Edna Murto, a volunteer for the Carlton County Friends of Animals, the beneficiary of the event. Attendees were asked to contribute $5 each, with all proceeds going to support the organization and its animal shelter.