I think it is about time I tackled the dish most stereotypically associated with Sweden. The mighty… the classic… the evocative… the no-introduction-required…. meatball.
I have deliberately avoided the subject so far, aware that I could not do so for long and dreading it at the same time. Because the issue is this- I don’t know how to reclaim the meatball. I am all too conscious of its connotations: Meatballs paint a picture of a Sweden filled with blond, Volvo-driving Abba-fans who went through Utopian school systems and have 24 hour access to faultless health care. Meatballs never get bored during Ingmar Bergman films. And so on…
(There is also the Swedish Chef of Sesame Street fame, of course. But I actually wrote a food column for my university paper entitled the Swedish Chef, so I’ve made my peace with that particular cultural caper. I’ve embraced it.)
But now I feel ready to set the record straight: the Ikea, factory-style portions are not the meatballs that I grew up with. OK, so sometimes they weren’t all that dissimilar, a nursery-food, fresh from the freezer and served with macaroni and ketchup (and kind of glorious, to be honest). But they also feature in my childhood memories as lovingly home-made, part of the ‘julbord’ (literally- Christmas table, the buffé style meal eating during the holidays) or served up for a special occasion. Because the truth is that meatballs, although not difficult to make per se, do require a lot of patience. It takes a bit of practise to understand the ratio of mince/onion/breadcrumbs and to know when they are going to be too gloopy and stick to the pan. It takes a frying pan you know well and feel confident with. But, above all, it takes time. Meatballs are small and you have to roll each one individually, using the palms of your hands- a messy and slightly gruesome business. And time-consuming.
Meatballs in Sweden are served in all manner of ways, with pasta, in sauces and with different flavours (this Christmas, my godfather made some flavoured with ginger and cinnamon). I have a healthier recipe on file (equal parts mince and lentil), which I serve with bulgar wheat. The possibilities are endless. But if I am honest, I really enjoy serving them with quite traditional, dare I say it, even slightly kitsch accessories- new potatoes with dill (a Swedish staple, but mash is a substitute of equal merit), ‘brown’ sauce (a creamy gravy), grated carrot salad, lingonberry jam (available form the Scandinavian Kitchen) and, finally, some hard bread with strong cheese. Perhaps this is because when I am back in London I do that typical expat thing of actually behaving more Swedish than the Swedes proper.
And so, just for you, here is my grandmother’s definitive recipe (although I find mine never live up to hers). I hope you appreciate it. It makes for about 4 portions, or two hungry people with leftovers (for a meatball sandwich the next day- fantastic, although often served decorated with a slice of orange back in Sweden. Peculiar.)
She has added two secret and imperative ingredients: A stock cube for extra flavour and a pinch of sugar. Apparently the sugar is particularly controversial, but she says she once heard the famous Swedish chef, Tore Wretman, on the radio saying that it’s what he did too and since then she felt vindicated.
You will need:
500 g of lean mince
1 dl* breadcrumbs
1 large egg
2 dl* water
1 stock cube
1 medium sized onion
pinch of sugar
salt and pepper
Butter or margarine
1. First, bring the kettle to boil, put your breadcrumbs in a large bowl. Dissolve the stock cube in the water and pour over the breadcrumbs. Leave to ‘swell’ for about 10 minutes.
2. Grate the onion with the coarse side of the grater into the stock mixture. Add the mince, egg, sugar, plenty of pepper and a pinch of salt.
3. Mix until well-combined. You may want to get your hands in there. At this point, my grandmother tastes the raw mixture to see if it needs more seasoning, but I wouldn’t recommend that. Instead, get your frying pan on a high heat and melt some butter in it.
4. Form a couple of balls, rolling between your palms. They should have a circumference no bigger than a £2 coin. Fry in the pan, turning when brown and crisp on the outside. This should take a few minutes per side. Taste them and see if the mixture needs more seasoning.
5. Form the rest of the meatballs and fry in the pan, tossing and flipping as you wish.
6. Serve with mash or new potatoes, some dill, salad, lingonberry jam and a cream-based gravy sauce. And a cold beer, of course.
* The decilitre is used a lot in Swedish cooking. It is used for volume and basically is the solid equivalent of 100 ml, if that makes sense. So just use a measuring jug and fill up to the 100 ml line unless you have dl measuring cups.