Yeah, I am still on my meatball bender. A few days after gorging on my Italian duck meatballs, my mum sent me her mother’s recipe for Swedish meatballs, also known as köttbullar. Also known as crack.
I had made Swedish meatballs all of once before this experiment, and while they were good, they weren’t great; the IKEA ones were better. I never knew my grandmother so I can’t remember her ever making Swedish meatballs, but I do have several strong memories of mum making these little balls of yum long ago, in the…
…Seventies! Of course we ate Swedish meatballs in the 1970s — everyone did. They were right next to the fondue. But even this was simply withdrawal symptoms of the Swede Ball’s heyday a decade earlier. Can’t you just see the chafing dish, the Sterno and the meatballs nestled in that slowly congealing-yet-somehow-irresistible gravy? Groovy, baby, yeah!
Yet of all the crazy throwback foods of that much-maligned decade, Swedish meatballs are high on the list for preservation. If you’ve eaten well-made ones, can any among you honestly say you have not stuffed yourself on them? What the hell is it about these meatballs? I’ve eaten several dozen at a sitting before, only to feel later like an anaconda that swallowed a cow — made of butter.
Butter. Maybe that’s it? Every decent recipe calls for obscene amounts of butter. The gravy is part drippings from frying the meatballs in butter, flour, stock and, in some cases, lingonberry syrup or jelly. Still, I’ve eaten lots of rich things before without succumbing to gluttony.
Maybe it is a Swedish meatball’s size. Small. Bite-sized, to be exact. Dangerous. My Italian meatballs are big, honking brontosaurus balls; you need at least three bites to get one down. These little Swedish meatballs are just a tablespoon. That’s not so much. Maybe I’ll have just one more…
At any rate, after reading gramma’s recipe I just had to make these meatballs again. But I decided to make my own version an homage to the epicenter of Scandihoovia in North America: Minnesota. The idea started with my friend Elise, who has another hunting friend, and he had shot a moose this season, although probably not in Minnesota. Elise gave me a big slab of the moose meat, a slab I had designs on.
OK, I have something of a sick sense of humor, so I was waiting to cook the moose until I got a chance to hunt squirrels this year. I wanted to combine the two in one dish. Maybe a Russian-inspired dish, which would of course be called “Rocky & Bullwinkle.” Don’t get it? You’re too young.
But my torn Achilles tendon put the kibosh on that. So I still had this moose, and when the Swedish meatball urge hit me, it was only natural that I use it for them. It was my first time with moose, and I found it a lot like beef – lean beef, to be sure, but it had a fairly coarse grain and was very light-colored compared to venison. I fried up a piece and it was mild, almost sweet. Note to self: Save money for a moose hunt someday.
I mixed the moose meat with some pork fat and ground it fine. My mother says Swedish meatballs absolutely need to be ground fine; she’s the daughter of a Swede, so I trust her. The dominant flavoring is allspice, but I diverted from the recipe by adding some caraway seeds, too. I happen to like the combination of allspice, caraway and black pepper.
Even I am not so crazy as to fry these meatballs in pure butter, however. To do so would have required several pounds, and frankly I am on a budget. So I used mostly canola oil, with two tablespoons of butter added for flavor. It worked well enough.
I ate one meatball before I made the sauce. It was a soft, luscious morsel, meltingly tender, with a slight crisp coating of flour and a real hit of allspice flavor; the caraway and pepper wave hello as you swallow the nugget. Yeah, baby, yeah… Yes, I actually said that out loud to myself.
As good as the meatballs themselves were, it was the sauce that put the dish over the edge. Most Swedish meatball recipes I’ve eaten have a nice, thick sauce not unlike Thanksgiving gravy. Nothing special. But mum said köttbullar sometimes has lingonberry in the sauce.
Don’t have lingonberry. Would have to go to a store for that. But thanks to my Minnesota friend Chris, I did have highbush cranberry jelly! I first encountered this northern berry while grouse hunting; Chris told me what they were and I loved their tart, slightly sweet, slightly funky taste. They’re not a real cranberry, they are a member of the viburnum family, but highbush cranberries are an excellent alternative to lingonberries.
So I added a bunch to the gravy, then a little cream. I tasted it. Holy crap! The cranberries added a sweet-tart background to the sauce that absolutely transformed it. It went from gravy to something ethereal – if a sauce with probably 1,000 calories per serving can be ethereal. You know what it was? It was, as my friend Jennifer would say, sex on a plate.
I fed Holly some of these meatballs, doused in the Magic Sauce. She closed her eyes, swooned a bit, and said. “I see them.” What? “Skyrockets.” Huh? “Skyrockets in flight!”
OK, maybe that didn’t happen. But she did say eating Swedish meatballs made her feel like a Dancing Queen. Don’t get it? You’re too young.
SWEDISH VENISON MEATBALLS
This is a Swedish meatball recipe adapted from one given to my mother from her mother, who was a Massachusetts Swede. They call these meatballs Svenska Kottbullar, and they are traditionally served with a lingonberry sauce. In Scandinavia, the meatballs are sometimes made with reindeer, so I did not think it a stretch to switch to moose. You could use any red meat.
In keeping with the Nordic theme, I switch out lingonberries, which I do not have, with highbush cranberries, which my friend Chris sent me from Minnesota. Moose and highbush cranberries share the same habitat, and there is a golden rule in cooking: What goes together in life can go together on the plate. You can by all means use lingonberries, but you can also click over to Earthy Delights to buy highbush cranberry jelly online.
Serve these little meatballs in the sauce over mashed potatoes. A salad or sauteed greens would round things out.
This is a large recipe, so you can either halve it or freeze extra meatballs after you brown them.
Prep Time: 2 hours
Cook Time: 45 minutes
- 4 slices of stale bread, crusts removed
- 2/3 cup milk
- 2-3 pounds venison (or beef, lamb, elk, moose, etc)
- 1 pound pork fat or beef fat (preferably pork)
- 2 eggs
- 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 grated yellow onion
- 1 quart beef stock or venison stock
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/2 cup highbush cranberry or lingonberry jelly
- Butter or oil for frying
- Chill the moose and pork fat until it is almost freezing by sticking it in the freezer for an hour.
- Cut both the meat and fat into 1/2 inch chunks.
- Grind through your fine die in a meat grinder. If you do not have a meat grinder, you can use a food processor, set on pulse. Don’t crowd the processor and chop the meat in pulses until you get something that looks like ground meat — it will not be as good as with a grinder, but it is easier than hand-mincing everything, which is also an option.
- Put the meat in the fridge.
- Pour the milk into a pot and set it on low heat.
- Cut the crusts off the stale bread and break it into pieces. Add it to the pot. It will begin to absorb the milk. When it does, turn off the heat and mash everything into a paste. Let it cool to room temperature.
- In the meat bowl, add the salt and spices. Crack the eggs into the bowl, then pour the bread-milk mixture in.
- With clean hands, gently mix everything together. Do not knead it like bread, and do not squeeze things together. Just gently work the mixture — think cake, not bread.
- When it is mostly combined — you need not get everything perfect — grab a tablespoon and scoop up some. Roll it into a little ball with your palms, not your fingers.
- Gently roll the meatballs in the flour; you’ll probably need about a cup. You may need to re-shape them before putting them onto a cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.
- When the meatballs are all made, get a large pan ready; I use a big, old cast-iron frying pan. Fill it with a little less than 1/4 inch of oil. I use canola oil with a little butter tossed in for flavor. Bring it up to temperature over medium-high heat. When a drop of water splashed in the oil immediately sizzles away, drop the heat to medium and add the meatballs. Do not crowd them.
- You want the oil to come up halfway on the meatballs. Add a little oil if need be; don’t worry, you can reuse the oil. Fry on medium heat for 3-5 minutes. You are looking for golden brown.
- Turn only once. The other side will need 2-4 minutes.
- When cooked, set the meatballs on a paper towel or wire rack to drain. They can be used right away or cooled and then refrigerated for a week, or frozen for several months.
- Once the meatballs are cooked, drain all but about 3-4 tablespoons of butter/oil from the pan. Over medium heat, add an equal amount of the flour left over from dusting the meatballs.
- Stir to make a roux and cook slowly until it turns a nice golden brown. Think coffee with cream.
- Add the stock gradually and turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir well to combine and add more stock or some water if need be — you want this thicker than water, thinner than Thanksgiving gravy.
- Taste for salt and add if needed.
- Put the meatballs in the pan, cover and cook for 10 minutes over medium-low heat.
- Add the lingonberry or highbush cranberry jelly to the pan. Let it melt and then mix it in gently. Coat all the meatballs with the sauce.
- Cover and cook another 10 minutes over very low heat. Add the cream and just warm through, maybe 3-4 minutes.
- Serve over mashed potatoes or with German egg noodles.