Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who Needs to Be Organized When You Can Have (Swedish) Meatballs

Yeah - I can't make these look good in a picture but they taste great.

Once in a while we are struck with the notion that a solution to the chaos otherwise known as our closets, bookshelves and toy storage lies JUST beyond our reach.  That organizational nirvana is only a field trip to New Jersey away.  That such a trip will set us on the path to home organization and feature articles in shelter magazines.   (Alright - the last part is my little fantasy).   That we MUST GO TO IKEA.  In reality a trip to Ikea generally involves some muttered cursing at the hideously crowded parking lot, the pocketing of many tiny pencils, the purchase of a useful item or two, the purchase of a frivolous item or seven and lunch.  And by lunch I mean Swedish Meatballs.

On our most recent foray into the wilds of the Paramus Ikea I was surprised by how truly unappealing the meatballs were to me.   Defrosted and reheated as they always are this batch also had the added bonus of being spongy in consistency and so chewy I considered bouncing them.  Clearly they had spent too much time in a microwave and then on the steam table.  But with a little lingonberry jam and the gravy of dubious origins they were still eaten with gusto by my family.   When we got home I took a look at the ingredients on the bag of frozen meatballs sold in the store that we had purchased on our last trip there.  Oy.  About a week later, confronted with my usual refrigerator staple of ground organic turkey and not wanting meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs or burgers, I decided to make my own Swedish Meatballs.

By using turkey I'm sure I have violated several rules of Swedish Meatball-making but I wanted to make these a little healthier versus using beef or a mixture of beef and pork.  If you try them with another meat please let me know how they turn out.  Numerous recipes exist online, all of them including nutmeg and many including allspice.  This recipe here was the jumping off point for me.   I don't keep allspice in my pantry but I do love cardamom  which introduces a citrus-y note and almost ginger-like taste into the mix.  For the gravy I wanted to keep it simple so I basically made a roux, added broth and, in keeping with my attempt at a healthier alternative, thickened it with a little low-fat sour cream instead of heavy cream which is more traditional (I am likely to have low-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt on hand and rarely, if ever, have cream).   We did buy a big jar of lingonberry jam at Ikea but cranberry sauce works just as well as the sweet accompaniment.  See here for a recipe.

The gravy is tasty so I would recommend serving a side dish that allows you to sop all of it up.  The sour cream (or yogurt) adds a richness and the resulting sauce is silky, salty and just perfect on the lightly seasoned meatballs.  Mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes or egg noodles are a perfect match.  I round out the meal with a salad or some in season roasted vegetables.   One of my recipe testers (OK - a friend who made this recipe) said it's a keeper and that her kids loved it.   She recommends cooking it on a weekend in a double batch and reserving one batch for an easy weeknight dinner.  As a fan of "cook once, eat twice" I endorse this suggestion.

I do have one friend of Swedish origin and I hope to hear from her on this recipe.  I'm pretty sure I've made a mockery of the traditional method but they taste great and don't require a trip to Ikea.  I have a feeling we'll be going back: we're still not organized.  But I don't think we'll be eating the meatballs.

Swedish Meatballs
Yields about 25-30 small meatballs (serves 3-4)
Adapted from Alton Brown

(For meatballs)
  • 2 large slices white bread (A hearty country bread is best.  I tend to use sourdough.)
  • a little less than 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 tsp oil or butter
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped (Basically 1 small onion)
  • 1 lb chopped meat (I have used both turkey and chicken to good results - we're in a dead heat over which is better)
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • a healthy pinch of nutmeg (Freshly ground is best but watch your fingers!)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • salt and pepper to taste

(For gravy)
  • 2 TBS butter
  • 2TBS flour
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth (If not using homemade get something organic and low-sodium)
  • 1/4 cup low-fat sour cream (Fat free won't work.  It will separate and turn grainy.  Don't say I didn't warn you!  You can use low-fat or fat free plain Greek yogurt if you prefer.)
  • A dash or two of Worcestershire sauce (Blasphemy but delicious!)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 TBS chopped dill if you want

  1. Cut or tear the bread into tiny pieces and soak in the milk until all of the milk is absorbed and the bread is soft and mushy. 
  2. Saute the onion in oil or butter until soft and translucent - about 10 minutes - over medium heat.  Season with salt and pepper.  Set aside and allow to cool.
  3. Combine bread-milk mixture, chopped meat, cardamom, nutmeg, egg, salt and pepper and onions in a bowl and mix very well to combine.  If you find it is too sticky add in some breadcrumbs but it shouldn't take more than 2-3 TBS (if any).
  4. Form meatballs.  I like to use a TBS measuring spoon to keep them uniform in size but you don't have to.  I measure using the spoon and then form the meatballs with my hands.  To prevent sticking I just keep a small bowl of water nearby and periodically will dip my hands in the water.
  5. Cook meatballs in a pan on the stove top until browned and just about cooked through (this will require additional oil) or bake in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes (I baked on parchment for easier cleanup and prefer baking as a way to keep these on the healthier side of things).
  6. Using the same pan you used for the onions (and the meatballs if you cooked them on the stove top) melt the 2 TBS of butter over medium-high heat.  While still foaming stir in the flour and whisk to combine well.  It will seize up at first into a very think paste.  Just keep whisking.  Lower the heat to medium and allow this mixture to get a little brown and toasty (about 5-7 minutes) and, in case I didn't mention it, keep whisking.   It will be the consistency and color of runny peanut butter (If we're being technical, what you're making is a roux). You want to give it time to cook so the flour-y taste cooks off.
  7. Pour in a little of the chicken broth and whisk to incorporate the roux and so that no lumps remain.  Slowly add in the remaining broth.  At this point if I have an open bottle of dry white wine I often pour in a bit because what gravy can't be made better with the addition of a little wine?  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and allow to thicken (5-10 minutes).  Stand by and whisk occasionally because you do not want lumpy gravy.
  8. Season with salt and pepper.  Here is where you can stir in the totally inauthentic Worcestershire sauce if you so choose.
  9. Add in the previously cooked meatballs and allow them to simmer in the sauce for a few minutes to cook through and absorb the flavors.
  10. Remove from heat and stir in sour cream until combined.
  11. If using, stir in dill.