My family isn’t Scandinavian, per se, though it’s clear we wish we were. My paternal grandfather was Irish and born in England, while my paternal grandmother was from Ohio, but also Irish much farther back. On my mom’s side, my grandmother’s family came over from Portugal a long time ago, and I don’t know about my grandfather’s family.
In other words, we’re European-ish. But we’re not Scandinavian. If anything, we’re Irish, but I’ve never made corned beef and cabbage myself and I’ve only successfully made an Irish pot roast once, so this blog isn’t quite ready for a real Irish recipe.
My dad’s family has lived all over the world, from Chicago to Copenhagen. In fact, my dad and some of his siblings went to high school in Copenhagen (and yet the only Danish he remembers is “Vi skal spise snart,” meaning “We’ll eat soon.”)
From my Irish grandfather’s English upbringing and his family’s travels, we’ve adopted a weird variety of family traditions. I don’t know where Birthday Mouse came from, but I do know that our Christmas risalamande is one of the family’s Danish traditions.
We called our grandparents (when they were still with us) farmor and farfar (our cousins called them mormor and morfar), the Swedish words for “(paternal) grandmother” and “(paternal) grandfather.”
Even though we may not have any Scandi in our blood (aside from one aunt through marriage), we have plenty of Scandi in our hearts. And so here are some köttbullar (pronounced “hyutt-boo-ler”), Swedish meatballs. The main flavor in the meatballs is the onion, and though the spices are optional, I refuse to make them without allspice. The general recipe is cooked onions, bread, milk, eggs, pork, and beef, fried in butter. Butter is hit-or-miss with frying, unless you have a good cast iron pan (which I do, and I always use cast iron to make these) that can withstand the wear and tear. When I make the meatballs, I end up not needing any extra fat between the butter for the onions and the fat from the red meat, but if you do need to add more fat for frying the meatballs, you can use vegetable oil, a combination of vegetable oil and butter, or just butter (but watch your pan and your heat if you use butter.)
My version of Magnus Nilsson’s recipe has a tiny Mediterranean flair: I deglaze the pan with white wine (you can also use beer) and make a cream sauce from that.
spiced swedish meatballs (svenska köttbullar) and brown gravy
adapted from The Nordic Cookbook, by Magnus Nilsson
4 Tbsp (2 oz) unsalted butter
1 yellow onion or half of one large white onion
1 tsp ground allspice
4 oz milk or cream
1.5 oz stale bread or unflavored breadcrumbs
8 oz (1/2 lb) ground pork*
8 oz (1/2 lb) ground beef
a hefty pinch of salt
a hefty dash of ground black pepper
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour**
1/4 c white wine or light beer
1 c chicken stock
1 c heavy cream (for the sauce)
Egg noodles for serving
*Be sure that you’re not buying pork sausage or anything with the word “country” in the name: that’s breakfast sausage and is already seasoned (and very, very salty.) If you can’t find plain ground pork, or you can’t grind your own, ask the butcher.
**You only need the flour if you aren’t cooking the noodles. The water that you boil the noodles in will get starchy and you can add some of that to the sauce to thicken. If you are serving the noodles, then skip the flour. If you’re using the flour, add it after removing the last of the meatballs and before adding any liquid: flour for making sauces should go into the pan before the deglazing liquid.
Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet on the stove, on medium heat (you can use a different type of skillet or pot if you want, but I highly recommend bare or enameled cast iron.) While the butter is melting, mince the onion finely (because the onion bits will be in the meatballs.)
Add the onions and ground allspice to the skillet and let cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions brown a little bit and turn translucent, about 5 – 10 minutes. Prepare the rest of your ingredients while onions are cooking.
When the onions are done, turn off the heat but leave the skillet as it is, so you can use it to fry the meatballs.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the milk/cream, bread/crumbs, egg, pork, beef, and a hefty pinch of coarse salt and ground pepper.
Add onions to the mixture and combine with a spoon, whisk, or your hands, until the mixture is mostly uniform and you don’t see any dark red/pink spots left.
Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and let the mixture chill in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to let it firm up. With ground meat, it’s best to handle and cook it cold because it holds its shape better. You still need to be careful about internal temperature, for sanitation reasons, and ground meat is generally less sanitary than whole pieces of meat. Make sure your meatball mixture is chilled so the meatballs don’t fall apart in the skillet, but while cooking, make sure they brown thoroughly and cook all the way through.
Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C, in case you need to finish the meatballs in the oven, and set aside a large ceramic baking dish.
Reheat the skillet that you used for the onions, on medium-high, adding more butter or vegetable oil if the bottom of the pan looks really dry.
Use spoons, your hands, or a cookie scoop (the cookie scoop is the safest and most consistent way to scoop the meatballs) to scoop the mixture. If you need to, roll the scoops of meat between your hands to form spheres.
Add the meatballs to the skillet. You should immediately hear sizzling as soon as you put the first meatball into the skillet, but not as much sizzling as when searing steaks. If you don’t hear the sizzling or you don’t see any bubbles around the edge of the meatball where it touches the pan, increase the heat slightly. If you immediately see smoke or the sizzling is intensely loud, reduce the heat slightly.
Add as many meatballs as you can without crowding the pan (they should be able to sit about 2 inches or 4 centimeters apart), let them brown on the bottom, then flip them to brown one more time on a different side. Each batch will probably take 3-5 minutes to brown on two sides.
You can either continue turning the meatballs to brown more than twice, and cook them through entirely on the stove, or you can transfer them to a baking dish and finish them in the oven for 5 – 10 minutes.
Test a meatball by cutting it in half: if it’s brown inside, that meatball and the others in the same batch are done.
When the meatballs are almost all done, start a pot of water boiling for the noodles. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add a splash of olive oil and about 1/8 c (most of a handful) of salt. Add the noodles and cook according to the directions on the package, but save about half a cup of the pasta water for the sauce before you drain the noodles. As soon as you drain the noodles, pour some olive oil on top and toss the noodles and oil together to keep the noodles from sticking while you finish the sauce.
Once all the meatballs are seared and out of the skillet, reduce the heat of the skillet to medium-low.
There should be plenty of fat in the pan from the meat, but if it looks dry or crusty, add a little more butter.
If you’re using flour for the sauce, instead of pasta water, add the flour to the pan and whisk to coat it completely in the oil. Let the roux cook and darken for a few minutes. (If you’re using pasta water for the sauce, save that for later in the process.)
Add the wine or beer and bring to a boil. While the alcohol is boiling, scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the skillet and whisk them into the alcohol. Let the alcohol boil down for 2-3 minutes until the volume is reduced and the liquid is a bit thicker.
Add the chicken stock (if you have pork bone stock, that will also work), and continue boiling to reduce and thicken the sauce.
Reduce the heat to low and slowly whisk in the cream, about 1/4 c at a time. Once the cream is totally incorporated, increase the heat to let the sauce simmer so that it thickens. If you’re using pasta water, add that to the gravy at this point. Let the sauce simmer at medium-high heat for about 5 – 10 minutes, tasting and seasoning occasionally, until it coats the back of a metal or wooden spoon.
Turn off the heat and add the finished meatballs to the sauce to coat them. Serve over the egg noodles.
Smaklig måltid! (“bon appetit”)