Smørgåsbord Step 14: Make meatballs

Two years ago, we started blogging about how to throw a smørgåsbord in several thousand easy lessons, and recently a loyal smørgåsbord attendee, our good friend Katja, asked me where to find the meatball recipe on the blog.

Well, the sad truth is that we never quite got that far in our smørgåsbord blog. Meatballs are always something we make either that day or the day before, when we’re just too swamped to do any journalism. But it’s a great recipe, so herewith, Norwegian meatballs!

“Not Swedish meatballs?” I hear you gasp.

Nope, Norwegian meatballs. These are the meatballs that came down to me from my grandparents and great-grandparents, and they’re Norwegian, not Swedish. They’re probably not too different, though–it’s not like the border between the two countries kept food traditions on each side. If they’re different than your Swedish meatball recipe, it’s probably because they’re also different from other Norwegian meatball recipes, and you’ll probably find a Norwegian version of your Swedish meatball recipe, too, if you look hard enough.

That said, we did have a Norwegian vs. Swedish meatballs contest one year, because V is Swedish, and her recipe is different from mine. Still, it probably would have been more accurate to call it Vang’s vs. Williams’s. If you’re curious, the big differences are that mine use a mixer and heavier spicing, and hers use cream.

This is an amalgam of Beatrice Ojakaangas’ recipe and what I remember from my gramma’s recipe. It’s a pretty forgiving recipe, so certainly you should free to mess around with it, resting assured that nothing will go too terribly wrong. The recipe is for a massive party-sized batch, and since my measurements are vague anyway, you shouldn’t have any trouble scaling it down. It’s more of an approach than a recipe, really. 

Norwegian Meatballs, jultide smørgåsbord edition

Start with a very large mixing bowl. This batch feeds several dozen people at a smørgåsbord, or probably a large family as the main attraction of a normal meal. I usually double or triple it, depending on how many people we’re expecting. When in doubt, go larger; we have rarely had leftovers.

Preheat oven to 400˚F.  

  • 2 c breadcrumbs (I use matzoh meal, or I buzz actual matzohs up in my Cuisinart; a gluten-free alternative is to buzz up dried shiitakes and then rehydrate them in hot water)
  • 2 c milk

Let stand. Add:

  • 2 large onions, minced (coarsely chop, then use the Cuisinart)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2-1/2 t salt
  • 3/4 t nutmeg
  • 3/4 t allspice
  • 1/3 t cloves
  • 1/2 c flour
  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork

Using an electric hand-held mixer (or a gigantic stand mixer), beat at high speed until light and fluffy. The idea is that you’re stretching the fats around everything else, and the result is cohesive, tender meatballs instead of tough meatballs that fall apart. 

You could melt butter in a hot skillet and fry the meatballs, but when you’re making this big a batch, it’s much easier to oven-fry them. When you pan-fry them, it’s boring to wait for one pan at a time, but it’s hard to keep up with more than one pan at a time. If you get the slightest behind, the result is a tremendous amount of smoke, and even an 1800 cfm vent won’t be able to keep up with it. This means that your smoke alarm is going to start blaring and keep blaring, your security service is going to phone you, you’re going to have to open every window, and still you’re going to be dealing with a smoke alarm for quite some time. You’ll have to explain to the security people that your house really isn’t on fire, even though the alarm won’t stop, and they’ll only dimly understand why meatballs are a perfectly sensible explanation for the problem. Meanwhile, dealing with windows and alarms and phones will cause you to burn at least half a pan’s worth. Ask me how I know this. 
To oven fry them, lightly oil (or spray Pam-like substances on) 3-4 large jelly roll pans or similar. You definitely need a pan with a lip, because these puppies express. Using a small ice cream scoop, several spoons, your hands, or whatever, make small meatballs, say 1″ diameter. Squish them into tight rolls on the pans. Roast 10-15 minutes until nicely browned and firm. Use a large, stiff spatula to lift them from pans into a crockpot (or large stockpot). Scrape and drain any drippings into a large saucepan that you have standing by. Repeat until done. Once done, use a scant amount of beef stock (see below) to deglaze the pans into that saucepan of drippings. 
Next, make gravy: 
  1. Have healthy pinches of all the meatball spices (see above) mixed and standing by. 
  2. Heat about 3-4 c beef broth to a boil and then hold at a gentle simmer. (I use a high-quality beef stock base, but bouillion would probably do the job)
  3. Bring drippings and 2 sticks butter in the large saucepan almost to a sizzle, over high heat. 
  4. Slowly stir in 1-1/2 c (or more) of flour and your spice mixture. Ideally you will have made lefse earlier and saved all the browned flour that you brushed off the lefse griddles and lefse. If not, you might consider browning the flour in a separate pan in advance of this step. My grandmother swore that browning the flour is crucial, but I’m not sure I agree. My aunt learned that the answer to the question, “How long do you brown the flour?” is “Until the smoke alarm goes off.”
  5. You’re making a roux. Cook and stir continuously with a large, long-handled whisk, until what you’re seeing is a dark, shiny, smooth glop. You might need to add more butter or more flour to reach the perfect balance. Making roux is a bit of an art; you might want to learn more about it before attempting this recipe. Be careful, because making roux is also a self-burning hazard. 
  6. Once your roux is beautiful and perfect, slowly start dribbling the hot beef stock into the roux, whisking furiously. The goal is to end up with gravy, not roux-lumps in broth, and this requires slow, steady addition of nearly-boiling liquid to the roux. When you’ve gotten at least a third of the broth into the roux, you can switch directions and dribble the roux-mixture into the rest of the stock, continuing to whisk furiously—again, this is because you want to make gravy instead of roux-lumps in broth. 
  7. Once all the roux and broth are combined, continue to cook while stirring until the gravy is clear and smooth. The goal is to cook out any starches, and the way to tell is you’re done yet is by tasting it. If you taste flour or feel flouriness, keep going. When it’s smooth, rich, beefy, and yummy, you’re done. 

Pour the gravy over the meatballs in the crockpot or large stockpot. If serving immediately, heat through and call people to the table. If serving the next day, cover, refrigerate, and turn the stockpot on high about two hours before serving time. 

If you try this recipe, be sure to leave a comment here about how it works out for you. I hope you enjoy it!