Thursday, April 22, 2010

Swedish Meat(less) Balls with Mushroom Gravy

For the early years of my adult life, I lived with a Swede; my children are half Swedish, and I feel attached to Scandinavian culture for many reasons. (These include - but are not limited to - my own English heritage, that whole medieval/Anglo-Saxon/Viking/Danegeld thing, and a truly excellent seminar on Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas, which I took a few years back with the amazing Steve Mitchell at Harvard.) In any case, there's a lot to like - cool folklore, nifty holiday customs, those cute wooden horses, socialized everything, Elsa Beskow stories, aqavit - but the one area where the lovefest starts to fall apart is the food. The traditional Scandinavian menu tends to be heavy on starch, roots, dairy and meat/fish, without a whole lot of seasonings to liven them up; the desserts are nice, but I don't really care about sweets, and [wo]man does not live by princess torte alone, right? This being the case, holiday meals on that side of the family often left me feeling hungry - not to mention tipsy - and while I loved our several trips to the Old Country, and enjoy knäckebröd as much as the next girl, one reaches a point where the dearth of leafy greens and corresponding ubiquity of boiled potatoes seems a reasonable explanation for the berserker phenomenon.

So it seemed somewhat perverse that on a recent, unseasonably cold and rainy afternoon, I was struck with a craving for - of all things - Swedish meatballs. Gravy, noodles, lingonberries, the lot. Now, my (British, married to a Greek) mother has long been famous for her Swedish meatballs, which follow an old-school recipe that entails grinding up pretty much everyone in the farmyard - "Oops, sorry, Thorvald!" - but I clearly wasn't going to do that. Anyway, as with most veganizations, it's really a matter of replicating textures and seasonings, rather than "meat," per se, and meatballs are about as easy as it gets. There are a number of recipes online, many with a specifically Italian or Swedish twist, and there are also some very good ones available commercially, which tends to be my preference in these situations, since I'm A. lazy, and B. as far as I'm concerned this is really all about the gravy.

Google "Swedish meatballs," or even "vegan Swedish meatballs," and you'll get fairly consistent results, but when it comes to the gravy, they're all over the map: some versions are brown, some are red wine-based, some are creamy, and a few feature lingonberries in the sauce, rather than as a garnish. There are recipes that call for onions and/or mushrooms, include dill, allspice, or nutmeg, and others that are completely smooth, and hardly seasoned at all. My mom's rendition is a brown gravy with sauteed onions, and a little sour cream stirred in at the end, so I decided to make that the starting point, and work from there. To my mind, everything is more fun with fungus, so I added chopped mushrooms, and used soy yogurt in place of sour cream; I was also a bit more generous with the spices than most of the traditional models, but we think that's a good thing. All in all, this made for a very pleasant afternoon in the kitchen, and I'm happy to report that the results, served atop of a pile of noodles, with lightly steamed carrots, asparagus, and a dollop of lingonberries on the side, satisfied my deepest quasi-Scandinavian longings, while allowing the denizens of the barnyard to keep on mooing, oinking, etc. (NB that mashed potatoes are also a great vehicle for these; I just happened to be in a noodley mood). The best part? As luck would have it, there was actually some aqavit in the freezer: Skol, baby!

Swedish Meat(less) Balls with Mushroom Gravy
~ 2 12 oz. packages vegan meatballs, cooked according to directions (I like Nate's or TJ's)
~ 2 tbsp. Earth Balance
~ 1 cup diced onion
~ 1 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 2 cups mushrooms, chopped very fine
~ 3 tbsp. flour
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, parsley, dill
~ 1/4 tsp. each: allspice, nutmeg, cardamom
~ A few grinds of black pepper
~ 1 tbsp. vegan Worcestershire sauce
~ 2 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 cup plain, unsweetened soy yogurt

~ 1 lb. noodles, cooked, drained, and tossed with margarine, salt, pepper and parsley
~ A big batch of your favorite mashed potato recipe
~ Lingonberries (or unsweetened, whole berry cranberry sauce, in a pinch)

~ Cook the meatballs and set aside (I bake mine, but if you prefer them fried, go for it).
~ In a large saucepan, skillet, or wok, melt the EB and saute the onion over medium heat, about 5-7 minutes.
~ Add the garlic and chopped mushrooms, dried seasonings, and Worcester sauce; cook another 10 minutes, until the mushrooms are very soft and have released their liquid.
~ Stir in the flour and cook a minute or so, until thoroughly mixed with the vegetables.
~ Slowly begin adding the soy milk, stirring constantly. Continue cooking 5-10 minutes, until thickened (you can raise the heat if this isn't happening fast enough to suit you).
~ Stir in the soy yogurt and combine.
~ Add the cooked meatballs to the gravy, and heat everything through.
~ AT THIS POINT, you can serve the meatballs over noodles or mashed potatoes, OR you can go for the (highly recommended) gusto and...
~ Preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit, and coat a baking dish or casserole with cooking spray.
~ Pour the meatballs and gravy into the baking dish, place in the center of the oven, and cook uncovered for 25 minutes, until the gravy has thickened and the meatballs have softened a bit.
~ Allow to rest a few minutes, then serve hot over noodles or mashed potatoes, with a dollop of lingonberries (or cranberry sauce), and - for the love of Odin! - some vegetables on the side.


  1. Hey, we never did get around to that Aquavit!

  2. My personal preference is for some small red potatoes boiled with fresh dill, and I always had the cream sauce variety. It's too bad even the new fancy kind of Scandinavian food is still very fish- and meat-centric. Oh! And I like your picture choice ;)