116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This month I’m going to tackle a comfort food that has been the unfortunate subject of good press. The humble meatball. So many cultures have a meatball tucked away in there somewhere. For good reason. There’s always a bit of scraps to use up, that don’t quite fill a spoon. For those little bits and pieces, most food traditions have come up with the same approach: chop or grind up all the little loose bits, then bind them together into something one can sink their teeth into.
You either end up with a loaf or a meatball. Our modern American references tend to make us think either of Italian meatballs or diner-style meatloaf. The basic idea and techniques are the same. How it fits on the plate and how it fits into a meal are quite different.
Italian and Chinese meatballs are meant to be tucked into a nest of noodles. A meatloaf, terrine or Salisbury steak is meant to behave like an intact slab of meat. Both versions tend to use binders and extenders, like bread or crumbs. The extenders draw the flavor out over more bites. They turn a few scraps of meat into a drawn out feast.
Meatballs with pasta, American meatloaf and hamburgers absolutely have dominated our collective sense of what to expect from this kind of food. Gyros pokes it’s head up every once in a while, as does the Mexican variation on gyros: al pastor taco meat.
And then we have Swedish meatballs. There’s definitely a fad for Swedish meatballs, pushed in no small part by a certain international furniture chain. Come get some flat pack furniture, and hey, we have novelty meatballs, by the way. Something to nibble on while you’re shopping.
Yes, yes, the trend for Viking culture and imaginations of their fashion senses has been a dominant trend for the last several years. But there’s also a fascinating bit of history tucked in here, that goes beyond flat pack furniture and genealogy.
The Swedish meatball is a medieval throwback. It’s not the bright, crisp Mediterranean flavors of an Italian meatball. It’s not the plain, understated flavors of Puritan meatloaf. It’s flavored with meat spices that were rare and sought after a thousand years ago.
Pumpkin spice. Yep, that pumpkin spice. Those were the primary meat flavors in Europe, 30 or 40 generations ago. Nutmeg and allspice. Coriander, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. A pinch of exotic spices that could enliven minced meat and breadcrumbs into something heavenly. It turns out, they weren’t wrong. Pinches and hints of these spices really do transform the mundane into something extra ordinary.
Swedish meatballs preserve this history. Spices are so common these days, so easy to obtain, that we forget how precious they used to be and have kind of fallen into a rut of standard flavors. The nutmeg and allspice flavors mixed with the beef and pork can be surprisingly pleasant. A nice change from the garlic and oregano that seems to find it’s way into everything these days.
When I’m writing recipes, I tend to do my homework and read 20 to 30 versions of it — whatever is out there that I can get my hands on. I especially love old and badly written historical recipes. They can be horribly inaccurate: “add enough milk.” Enough milk to do what exactly? But sometimes you find some great tricks and hacks in there.
So here are the tricks and hacks you want to know to make your Swedish meatballs have a light, fluffy texture and hold together well.
There are breadcrumbs and egg as a binder and some dairy. I find it helpful to mix the cream and egg together, then soak the breadcrumbs in that to soften them up. This turns into a great medium for soaking up the meat juices that render out while the meatballs are cooking. Pre-soaking the crumbs also prevents them from being hard little nuggets inside the meatballs, and helps them hold the meatballs together. The breadcrumbs will “melt” a bit into the dairy and become sticky, kind of like the flour and butter roux you would use to thicken a sauce.
There are onions and garlic in the meatballs, and these seem to shine the best when they are partially liquefied and added as a wet soak with the dairy for the breadcrumbs.
It’s also good to work the meat with some salt before adding it to the breadcrumb “roux.” Roughing up the surface of the ground meat also makes it sticky and helps them hold together. This is the same principle that gyros or al pastor uses to get it to stick together in a loaf. Knead it with the salt or mix it in a big bowl with a big spoon, just get in there and work it to rough it up.
Since we’ll be making gravy with the juices that come out during cooking, it’s really best to fry them in a pan with good fat instead of baking them. Butter or bacon fat are the best. Not only for the flavor, but also for the binding properties when you are making your gravy later. As an added bonus, butter and bacon fat don’t aerosolize when you’re cooking them, so you won’t be breathing oil and it won’t end up leaving a gummy residue on the walls of your kitchen.
The meatballs want to be small. An inch or an inch and a half, to give more surface area when you are browning them up. There is no worry of them drying out while cooking. The cream, onions and breadcrumbs help trap the juices inside.
It’s simple food with a devilishly complex but subtle flavor. Traditionally served with boiled or mashed potatoes and a spot of tart fruit jam. Lingonberry jam would be the most accurate, but tart cranberry sauce is a lot easier to get a hold of in the States. Throw a green vegetable on the plate, like broccoli or kale, and you have a complete meal. This makes a great family style meal.
Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been a professional chef for more than 30 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Serves 4 to 6 as an entree
For the meat:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork (or more beef if you’re not into pork)
1 tablespoon pickling or table salt
For the wet binder:
1 yellow onion
2 garlic cloves
1 whole egg
1 sleeve of Saltine crackers
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black peppercorn
2 to 4 or tablespoons of rendered bacon fat or whole butter
For the gravy:
2 cups beef bone broth
1 cup heavy cream
2 to 4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour (possibly more if needed)
A few sprigs of chopped parsley or chives, to garnish.
Prepare the wet binder first.
Peel the onion and shred it with the grating disc of a food processor. If you don’t have a food processor, you can shred it by hand on a box grater, but that will take forever and bring out the tears. Might be better to use a knife and chop it up real small at that point. Put the wet shredded onions in a medium size mixing bowl.
Peel the garlic cloves. Crush them with the side of a knife and mince them up very small. Add to the onions.
Scramble the egg with a fork. Add the egg and heavy cream to the onions and garlic and mix it all together.
Crush the Saltines crackers into breadcrumbs. You can put them in a Ziplock bag and smash them with a rolling pin. I kind of like to just pop the edge of the sleeve open and crush them by hand right inside there, so I don’t have to wash an extra bag later.
Mix the breadcrumbs and spices into the bowl with the rest of the wet mixture and let it rest.
Work the meat: Put all the meat and salt in another mixing bowl and start working it with a heavy spoon or your hands. Don’t be gentle or shy about it, we want to get it all worked up. When it gets nice and sticky, add the meat and the wet breadcrumb mixture together. Keep mixing and kneading everything together until is evenly mixed all the way through.
Cover with plastic or a towel and let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes or half an hour. This helps everything set together and will make them cook faster in the pan.
Divide the mix up and roll into small balls, about an inch and a half wide. I like to use an ice cream scoop to get a bunch of big even portions, then pull those in halves or thirds to get even-sized meatballs. Line them up on a baking sheet or plate as you go, so they will be handy when they are ready to fry.
Note: if you are serving the meatballs as a meal with potatoes, you probably want to get those ready before you start frying the meatballs.
Fry time: Turn the oven on, put it on a low “keep warm” setting. Get a baking dish or serving bowl ready to hold the meatballs as they come out of the frying pan.
Put a large frying pan on medium heat, add the bacon fat (or butter) and let it warm up a bit. Loosely fill the pan with meatballs. They won’t all fit at one time, but you don’t need to worry about giving them a lot of space. It’s not a steak, we’re not real worried about overcooking them.
Turn them occasionally with tongs or a flat spatula until they are mostly browned up. I put a cover on my pan while they’re cooking to help them steam a bit and cook through. Mostly I don’t want all the juices to evaporate, I want them to stay in the pan for the gravy.
When each meatball is nicely browned up, transfer them to the baking dish and hold them warm in the oven. Add your next batch of meatballs and keep cooking them like the first.
When all your meatballs are cooked, add a couple tablespoons of flour to the pan and mix it up into the fat and juices. Add a little more flour until it looks slightly dry, like wet sand. Quickly mix in a cup of your bone broth and whisk it together vigorously until it is smooth. Add the rest of your broth and heavy cream, stir it until it’s evenly mixed and turn the heat down to low.
The gravy will take a few minutes to thicken up. This is a good time to do some cleanup around the kitchen. Get your potatoes and vegetables dished up and ready for the table. Chop up some parsley or chives to sprinkle on top.
When the gravy is ready, pour it over the meatballs, sprinkle it with the chopped herbs, and bring it to the table to share.
Source: Joshua Tibbetts