I fervently hope you have at least one recipe in your arsenal that your family is just mad about. In my case, I guess that might be… tacos? Or perhaps, pardon the sub-par photography, pot pie. For my mom, this recipe is a take on Swedish meatballs from an old cookbook with a faded gold cover. Populated by numerous, lightly ethnic recipes from various European and Mediterranean regions, the cookbook is most stained and marked (Mom makes adjustments in the margins with pencil) on the “Myrna’s Meatballs” recipe. On the facing page is a photograph of a woman (Myrna, I guess) with well-teased chestnut hair, large glasses, and a round face, in the process of lighting candles over a nicely stocked dining room table.
The meatballs themselves, with their mixture of beef and pork seasoned with warm spices and draped in rich brown gravy, are definitely a take on the Swedish smorgasbord classic, and my family is nuts for them. Every year when we plan our Christmas menu, the one item that doesn’t change, it seems, is these meatballs. This past year, because the plan was all rolled appetizers, the meatballs didn’t fit the theme. Rather than skip them, however, they became Christmas Eve dinner instead. Christmas was saved. For Christmas 2015, we’ve already decided the theme will be “food on a stick” (because, I mean, what else would we do while eating the current year’s offerings than plot options for next year’s celebration?). My sister has already excitedly declared that we’ll just stab the meatballs with toothpicks, and that’s one dish done.
I must confess: I like these meatballs quite a bit, and I enjoy them when they show up in the Christmas spread, but they aren’t quite on my deathbed menu. They are tender and tasty, and the gravy in particular – depth and extra richness imparted by a mere teaspoon of instant coffee powder – is a savory treat. But something about the meatball itself made me want to fiddle.
In one of those lovely coincidences the universe sometimes hands out, the Cooks Illustrated issue in my, well, my bathroom magazine rack (what?) just happened to contain a Swedish meatball recipe, and though many of the ingredients were the same as Myrna’s immortal list, the procedure was different enough to catch my attention. Since one of the things – I think – I wanted to adjust about the family meatball of choice was the texture, it seemed fortuitous to combine-and-conquer.
The main difference in the CI version of Swedish meatballs is the way the meat is prepared. Mom and Myrna knead together the pork, beef, a handful of parsley, spices (plenty of black pepper, as Mom is always telling me), lightly sauteed onions, and breadcrumbs soaked in milk (called a panade) in a bowl before forming soft balls. Taking a cue from sausage making, CI recipe tester J. Kenji Alt instead vigorously paddles the pork in a stand mixer with spices, baking powder for lightness, and the traditional sopping panade. A touch of brown sugar goes in too, for a background hint of sweetness. Grated onions and salt join this combination, and the whipped meat paste is only lightly combined with ground beef. This results in a tender, light meatball with a sort of springiness, achieved by stretching the meat proteins in the pork as it is paddled into a paste-y emulsion. It also more evenly distributes the fat through the meat, which seemed worth imitating.
In my version, because I also wanted to minimize the number of dishes I was going to make N. wash (our version of an egalitarian kitchen: whoever cooks, the other one has to wash up. You can guess how this usually works out), I decided to go for the food processor instead of the stand mixer. I was going to use it to make fresh breadcrumbs anyway, and decided relying on it to grate my onions and mix up the meat would keep things easy. In retrospect, this seems counter-intuitive – wouldn’t the blade tear apart the meat proteins, rather than elongating them? Yet it did produce a pleasing texture.
Mom (and Myrna) brown their meatballs in a few tablespoons of butter, then finish them by simmering them in the gravy for half an hour. The CI version, on the other hand, does more of a shallow fry in vegetable oil, cooking the meatballs completely and then just running them through a quick turn in the sauce. I decided, again, on a slight compromise. I used less oil than the CI recipe, and browned the meatballs on all sides, opting to use my electric skillet so I could control the oil temperature. Once the meatballs were golden and felt almost crisp, I drained them, whisked up the sauce in the same skillet, and returned them to the gravy for the requisite half hour simmer. Any opportunity to add flavor seemed like the right thing to do.
When we couldn’t take the aroma anymore (the dog kept appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, wagging and smiling. Their eternal hope is so encouraging and so sad), I boiled up some egg noodles, tossed them with butter and parsley, and ladled on the main event.
I don’t think I’m allowed to say that my meatballs were better than Mom’s. But they were very, very good. I think the textural change – a subtle tenseness to the exterior that burst when you bit through it, and a tightness to the meatball that was somehow not at all dense – was an improvement. I also added a reserved squeeze of dijon mustard to both the panade mixture and the sauce, and that, along with the bare hint of sweetness from the brown sugar, was a good choice.
But in addition to the texture and the minimal flavor upgrades, I think the nest of buttery noodles made the dish. When we eat these meatballs at Christmas time, they are usually part of a large spread – one little corner of a plate full of wildly varied appetizer items. Here, resting atop an eggy bed, glazed with thick gravy, we really had a chance to appreciate their deep, warm flavors.
Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs
Makes 25-30 1-inch meatballs
1½ cups bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ of a large onion)
1 tablespoon butter
½ pound ground pork
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + 1 tablespoon for serving
⅛ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ pound ground beef
1 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1¼ – 1½ cups beef broth
salt and pepper to taste (taste first; sodium content in beef broth may vary)
- Using the disc shredder of a food processor or a box grater, grate the onion and cook it in 1 tablespoon butter over medium low heat until tender and translucent but not browned. Set aside to cool.
- While onion cooks and cools, use the regular blade of a food processor to create 1½ cups bread crumbs from 1-2 slices of bread (stale is fine). Combine the bread crumbs, the milk or half and half, and 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard in a small bowl and let soak for 5 minutes.
- Add the ground pork, cooled onions, ¼ cup parsley, salt, baking powder, brown sugar, and spices to the food processor. Squeeze out the soaked bread and add that as well. Process for 1-2 minutes into a smooth, homogenous mixture. Pause to scrape down the sides as needed.
- Dump the pork and bread paste into a large bowl and add the ground beef. Using your hands or a spatula (but hands work better), gently fold the beef into the pork mixture until just incorporated. With moistened hands, form generous tablespoon-sized balls (about 1 inch) from the meat mixture.
- Heat oil in a straight-sided skillet to 350F, or until the first meatball sizzles when cautiously dipped in. I used my electric skillet to help monitor the temperature. Fry the meatballs, turning as needed, until brown on all sides – about 5 minutes. Remove and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate or tray while you make the gravy.
- For gravy, carefully pour out the remaining oil in the pan, but leave any browned bits behind for extra flavor. These are called fond. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then sprinkle in the flour and whisk together. Let flour and butter cook for 1-2 minutes into a loose, lightly golden smear. Stir in the instant espresso powder, the brown sugar, and the dijon mustard. Add the beef broth, whisking constantly to deter lumps. Continue to whisk slowly until mixture reaches a simmer and thickens to a gravy consistency. Taste for seasoning, keeping in mind flavors will intensify as it continues to simmer.
- Add the meatballs to the gravy in the pan, cover, and cook over low to medium low heat for 30 minutes, basting the meatballs occasionally.
- Serve hot or warm over buttered egg noodles, mashed or boiled potatoes, or with toothpicks for an appetizer or smorgasbord spread. Sprinkle the final tablespoon of parsley over the starch or the meatballs themselves for a little brightness.