Meatball Inferno

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Holly A. Heyser


Click here to read Hank's recipe for wild duck meatballs, or click here for his Swedish grandmother's more traditional recipe—adapted to use moose, although you can substitute any red meat.

Yeah, I am still on my meatball bender. A few days after gorging on my Italian duck meatballs, my mum sent me her mother's recipe for Swedish meatballs, also known as köttbullar. Also known as crack.

I had made Swedish meatballs all of once before this experiment, and while they were good, they weren't great; the IKEA ones were better. I never knew my grandmother so I can't remember her ever making Swedish meatballs, but I do have several strong memories of Mum making these little balls of yum long ago, in the ...

... Seventies! Of course we ate Swedish meatballs in the 1970s—everyone did. They were right next to the fondue. But even this was simply withdrawal symptoms of the Swede Ball's heyday a decade earlier. Can't you just see the chafing dish, the Sterno, and the meatballs nestled in that slowly-congealing-yet-somehow-irresistible gravy? Groovy, baby, yeah!

Yet of all the crazy throwback foods of that much-maligned decade, Swedish meatballs are high on the list for preservation. If you've eaten well-made ones, can any among you honestly say you have not stuffed yourself on them? What the hell is it about these meatballs? I've eaten several dozen at a sitting before, only to feel later like an anaconda that swallowed a cow—made of butter.

Butter. Maybe that's it? Every decent recipe calls for obscene amounts of butter. The gravy is part drippings from frying the meatballs in butter, flour, stock and, in some cases, lingonberry syrup or jelly. Still, I've eaten lots of rich things before without succumbing to gluttony.

Maybe it is a Swedish meatball's size. Small. Bite-sized, to be exact. Dangerous. My Italian meatballs are big, honking brontosaurus balls; you need at least three bites to get one down. These little Swedish meatballs are just a tablespoon. That's not so much. Maybe I'll have just one more ...

At any rate, after reading Gramma's recipe I just had to make these meatballs again. But I decided to make my own version an homage to the epicenter of Scandihoovia in North America: Minnesota. The idea started with my friend Elise, who has another hunting friend who had shot a moose this season, although probably not in Minnesota. Elise gave me a big slab of the moose meat, a slab I had designs on.

OK, I have something of a sick sense of humor, so I was waiting to cook the moose until I got a chance to hunt squirrels this year. I wanted to combine the two in one dish. Maybe a Russian-inspired dish, which would of course be called "Rocky & Bullwinkle." Don't get it? You're too young.

But my torn Achilles tendon put the kibosh on that. So I still had this moose, and when the Swedish meatball urge hit me, it was only natural that I use it for them. It was my first time with moose, and I found it a lot like beef—lean beef, to be sure, but it had a fairly coarse grain and was very light-colored compared to venison. I fried up a piece and it was mild, almost sweet. Note to self: save money for a moose hunt someday.

I mixed the moose meat with some pork fat and ground it fine. My mother says Swedish meatballs absolutely need to be ground fine; she's the daughter of a Swede, so I trust her. The dominant flavoring is allspice, but I diverged from the recipe by adding some caraway seeds, too. I happen to like the combination of allspice, caraway, and black pepper.

Even I am not so crazy as to fry these meatballs in pure butter, however. To do so would have required several pounds, and frankly I am on a budget. So I used mostly canola oil, with two tablespoons of butter added for flavor. It worked well enough.

I ate one meatball before I made the sauce. It was a soft, luscious morsel, meltingly tender, with a crisp coating of flour and a real hit of allspice flavor; the caraway and pepper wave hello as you swallow the nugget. Yeah, baby, yeah ... Yes, I actually said that out loud to myself.

As good as the meatballs themselves were, it was the sauce that put the dish over the edge. Most Swedish meatball recipes I've eaten have a nice, thick sauce not unlike Thanksgiving gravy. Nothing special. But mum said köttbullar sometimes has lingonberry in the sauce.

Didn't have lingonberry. Would have to go to a store for that. But thanks to my Minnesota friend Chris, I did have highbush cranberry jelly! I first encountered this northern berry while grouse hunting; Chris told me what they were and I loved their tart, slightly sweet, slightly funky taste. They're not a real cranberry—they are a member of the viburnum family—but highbush cranberries are an excellent alternative to lingonberries.

So I added a bunch to the gravy, then a little cream. I tasted it. Holy crap! The cranberries added a sweet-tart background to the sauce that absolutely transformed it. It went from gravy to something ethereal—if a sauce with probably 1,000 calories per serving can be ethereal. You know what it was? It was, as my friend Jennifer would say, sex on a plate.

I fed Holly some of these meatballs, doused in the Magic Sauce. She closed her eyes, swooned a bit, and said. "I see them." What? "Sky rockets." Huh? "Sky rockets in flight!"

OK, maybe that didn't happen. But she did say eating Swedish meatballs made her feel like a Dancing Queen. Don't get it? You're too young.

Recipe: Wild Duck Meatballs
Recipe: Grandmother's Swedish Moose Meatballs

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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