Cooking that connects us (plus a vague Swedish meatball family recipe)
I don’t actually remember learning how to cook, but I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty that one of the first meals I made was likely Swedish meatballs with gravy, mashed potatoes, and any veggie we had on hand.
My maternal grandmother’s parents immigrated to northern Canada as homesteaders from Sweden in the 1910s. They made meatballs and they taught my grandmother, who taught my mother, who taught me. Someday, if I have children of my own, I’ll teach them too. It’s a family tradition passed down from generation to generation, each person adding their own twists and personality to the recipe.
As with many family recipes, my family’s Swedish meatballs are one of my top comfort foods, the thing I eat when I’m sad, lonely, or homesick in any way. They taste like home. They’re only one of a handful of recipes that connect me in this way, sharing the list with my mom’s European-style piecrust (using hot water and room temperature butter), homemade mac and cheese (always start with a roux, use extra sharp cheddar, and add dried mustard), apple cider donuts, and popcorn with lots of butter and salt.
While all these foods are comforting, they also signify special occasions; food to mark birthdays, holidays, sleepovers, and the changing of the seasons. My mother even made roughly 500 mini Swedish meatballs for my wedding, a true act of love only someone who’s made meatballs by hand could ever comprehend.
I’m sure I’m not the only one with family recipes or meals like these. Maybe it’s just because I’m always game to talk food, but I love hearing about the meals that feel like home to people. What’s even better is when people share that treasured meal, offering a warm welcome into their family’s traditions. In the interest of spreading the hominess, I tried to put together a somewhat coherent recipe you can make in your own kitchen. As with all family recipes, it’s unfussy, imprecise, and can be easily customized to the cook’s own tastes.
Yield: Varies depending on meatball size, but generally enough to fill one 12-inch cast iron pan
1 lb ground beef (you could also use pork or a mix of the two)
Roughly 2 tbs tomato paste or ketchup (if you use ketchup, reduce the amount of salt you add at the end)
5-6 Ritz crackers, crushed (or any other cracker you like or breadcrumbs)
1 large onion, diced
A couple tbs of dried basil, oregano, and thyme (my mom often used the premade Italian seasoning blend)
1 tbs good quality salted butter
1 tsp Better Than Bullion (I like using the garlic one)
2 tbs whole milk or cream
1 tbs flour (I’ve used rice flour with good success too if you’re trying to go gluten-free)
A dash of Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, combine the meat, tomato paste, egg, cracker crumbs, onion, herbs, and some salt and pepper. Use your hands to combine until the mixture is uniform. It sounds gross to use your hands here, but it really does help ensure the mixture’s even and there’s something weirdly nice about the tactile process of combining everything this way.
Form the meat mixture into uniformly sized meatballs and set them aside on a plate while you heat the butter in a large cast-iron pan over medium-high heat.
When the pan is heated and the butter’s melted, place the meatballs in the pan in one layer (I personally like to arrange them in concentric circles from the outside in), leaving a half-inch or so between the meatballs so you can turn them easily.
Allow the meatballs to cook undisturbed until the bottoms have browned well, about 5-6 minutes depending on how hot your stove is (just check them occasionally). Flip the meatballs onto their sides, rotating them every couple of minutes until the outside of the meatballs is browned on all sides.
Slowly pour water into the pan until the meatballs are submerged about 2/3s deep. Whisk in the Better Than Bullion, milk/cream, and Worcestershire. Remove about 2-3 tbs of the liquid to a small mixing bowl and whisk in the flour (to avoid it from clumping in the pan). Pour back into the pan with the meatballs and stir to incorporate.
Reduce the temperature to medium-low, cover, and let simmer for 15 minutes or so until the gravy’s thickened and the meatballs have cooked through (remove one to a plate to check if the center’s cooked through). Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Off heat and serve over mashed potatoes (I’m partial to this recipe) with a veggie (I love crisp green beans, sauteed lightly in butter and garlic). Enjoy!
Do you have any recipes passed down in your family? What foods taste like home to you?