Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Here in America, the two most popular variations of meatballs are “Italian” and Swedish. I put Italian in quotes because the meatballs we all know and love . . . are actually an American creation. Swedish meatballs are swanky, small and flavorful. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve gone to IKEA once or twice with no intention of buying furniture—I just went for the meatballs.
— Kevin Kessler, The Cookful.com
And Then There Was a Tweet
Swedish meatballs are tender and moist, fragrant and flavorful, enrobed in rich gravy . . . and mired in controversy.
For years, perhaps centuries, plump and juicy Swedish meatballs simmered in skillets, and they never bothered a soul. As long as there were enough meatballs for the family, everyone was content. Then one day Twitter was invented. Someone made a (rather) careless remark about the parentage of said meatballs—and the battle began.
Yes, the official Twitter account of the country of Sweden committed heresy. News agencies around the globe took the bait, hook, line, and sinker quicker than you can say pickled herring. Here’s the tale that was spun:
It all began with Charles XII, who, at the ripe old age of 15, ascended to the throne in 1705.
Despite his youth, he proved to be an accomplished horseman, a keen mathematician, and fanatical in his quest to protect his country’s borders from her enemies. Denmark, Saxony, Poland, and Russia had formed an alliance. He succeeded in driving out the Danes and quickly defeated the Saxons and Poles as well. This would have been the time to seek a negotiated truce with Russia, but headstrong Charles chose instead to invade. He was soundly defeated and fled for refuge to the Ottoman Empire.
Charles and 1,000 of his men settled in the area which is known today as Moldova and spent the next five years honing an allegiance with Sultan Ahmed III. This is how the Twitter tale was spun, that Charles developed a taste for Ottoman cuisine which, of course, included Turkish köfte, spiced lamb and beef meatballs.
Needless to say, Turkish meatballs became more than a heated conversation over the dinner table. A Twitterstorm ensued. Here is a sampling of the fury that rained down upon @Sweden.se:
Riley Morgan of SBS News contacted Dr. Richard Tellström, associate professor of food and meal science and ethologist at Stockholm University for comment. Dr. Tellström leaped to the defense of his country’s beloved dish, claiming that absolutely no evidence exists that Swedish meatballs originated in Turkey.
"It's a sort of fake news definitely. You make something up for a political or a commercial purpose, and you spread the news without doing proper research. It's more likely, considering the linguistic source, that meatballs are French or Italian. Meatballs is historically a very expensive dish, because you have to have fresh meat. We are talking about the top levels of society."
The Word You're Searching for Is Backpedal
In an effort to save face, cover their tracks, or whatever tired cliché you wish to use, the Swedish twitter account issued a retraction and a mea culpa.
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Clearly what we must do is find a stellar recipe for the perfect meatball. We can do this.
Of course, meatballs require meat, but what kind? Turkey (or chicken) lacks the meaty flavor and substance, all-beef would be too tight and leaden, and all pork would be too fatty. The perfect meat is a ratio of 2:1 beef and pork. That meat should also contain a certain amount of fat. No, fat isn't a bad word—everything in moderation. Look for a grind labeled 80:20.
But as with Italian spaghetti and meatballs, meat by itself won't produce the perfect meaty orb. A paste of fresh bread crumbs and milk (a panade) is mixed in to lighten the meat mixture, making it more moist and springy.
Herbs and Spices
The traditional Swedish meatball is packed with spicy flavors, not the hot flavors associated with Asian or Latin American cuisine, but warm toasty seasonings reminiscent of Christmas cookies—allspice, nutmeg, and black pepper play a prominent role.
Simmering Sauce (Gravy)
As with the selection of meats, the liquids that serve as the foundation for the gravy/simmering sauce also need to be multi-dimensional. If one uses only beef broth, the result will be too dark and heavy; all chicken broth will be pale and weak. A combination of beef and chicken broths (homemade if possible) will help create the perfect balance; heavy cream will finish off the sauce so that it is creamy but not cloyingly thick—just enough cream is introduced to provide a luxurious mouthfeel without being too heavy.
2 slices of white bread, crust removed
it makes the meatballs light and moist
1/4 cup milk
mixes with the bread to make the panade
1/2 cup onion
2 tablespoons butter
adds flavor while sauteeing
1/2 pound ground pork
unlike beef you can't overmix it
1 pound ground beef
because it tastes yummy
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
a little heat
1/2 teaspoon salt
brings out the flavors
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
warm spicy goodness
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
more warm spicy goodness
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
a subtle kick of salty/sour to brighten the flavors
1 large egg
holds everything together
3 tablespoons butter
to make the sauce/gravy
3 tablespoons flour
to thicken the gravy
1 cup beef broth
deep savory flavor
1 cup chicken broth
a balance of light flavor
1/3 cup heavy cream
makes the gravy luscious and creamy
1 teaspoon soy sauce
salty umami flavor
1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Tear bread into small pieces. Place in a small bowl and add the milk. Stir with a spoon so that all of the bread is moistened. This is what chefs call a panade (pah-nahd). Let sit for 10 minutes.
- Place butter in a medium-sized saute pan; add the onion and cook over medium heat until onion begins to soften—about 5 minutes. Add the spices and cook about 1 minute more to allow the spices to bloom (become fragrant).
- Place the pork in a large mixing bowl; add the bread/milk panade and the onions and spices. Mix thoroughly. Add the beef, Dijon, and egg. Mix gently but thoroughly.
- Use measuring spoons to help shape equally-portioned meatballs. Each meatball should be made of 1 1/2 tablespoons. You should get about 30 meatballs in all.
- Place meatballs on parchment paper-lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
- In large saute pan melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook for 5 minutes. Flour should be golden in color, not dark; you're not making a roux for gumbo. (See the above photo).
- Stir in beef and chicken broths and stir to blend; continue to simmer until mixture thickens, about 5 to 7 minutes. Lower heat to low and add heavy cream, soy sauce, and apple cider vinegar. Stir to blend.
- Carefully place meatballs in the pan, stirring to coat with sauce; simmer 2 to 3 minutes to heat thoroughly. Don't allow to boil.
- Serve over cooked noodles.
© 2019 Linda Lum