On a recent trip to Sweden, of course I had to try meatballs. Here on the Prairies, Swedish meatballs seem to represent the culinary tradition of an entire nation that sent so many sons and daughters to Western Canada in pioneer times. And it’s good to know that Swedish meatballs are still popular in their homeland.
At a restaurant in old Stockholm called Pelikan (established in 1733) the menu is unabashedly traditional. Along with pork knuckle, Baltic fish and mashed swedes, the menu offers the timeless Swedish meatball “as big as golf balls” served with cream gravy, lingonberries and a sliced pickle, a bowl of mashed potatoes on the side.
According to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, about 40,000 Swedish immigrants came to the Prairies between 1893 and 1914, most of them settling first in the United States (primarily Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and the Dakotas) before moving north to homestead in Canada.
Among them were Anna and Olaf Nilson who came from Sweden in 1905. After landing at the Port of Montreal, they took the train to Melfort, Sask., crossing the country with their two daughters in a cattle car. Their first home had been abandoned by its previous owner. The roof leaked. The floor was earthen. Their first cow died in calving. The nearest store was more than eight kilometres’ walk, where they could exchange extra butter and eggs for a few staples such as flour and baking soda. Most of their food they grew, gathered and raised themselves.
The Nilson (later changed to Nelson) family history notes, “Mother stated many times that, if money had been available, they would have returned to Sweden.”
Well, it wasn’t and they didn’t. Despite the hardships — and obvious lack of Baltic fish — they did their best to make the traditional dishes that reminded them of home. Recipes such as thin crisp bread, St. Lucia buns (served at the festival of St. Lucia on December 13), pepparkakar (ginger cookies) and meatballs with cream gravy and lingonberry sauce.
This recipe for Swedish meatballs was given to me by Joan Thompson (née Nelson) of Saskatoon, granddaughter of Anna and Olaf. She got the recipe from her mother Myrtle (née Standberg) whose Swedish ancestors followed a different route to Canada. They first settled in Minnesota and, in 1903, their son Axel moved north to homestead in Canada, where he married his Swedish sweetheart Jenny.
One of 10 children, Myrtle got her first job at 14 cooking and cleaning for a couple of bachelor farmers. Life was hard but they prospered.
By 2011, more than 152,000 people living in the Prairie provinces claimed Swedish heritage, and no doubt, many of them are still fond of Swedish meatballs.
A word about lingonberry sauce: lingonberry is the Swedish word for lowbush cranberry, which grows abundantly in our parklands and boreal forest. You can substitute currant jelly. But if you can get your hands on some lingonberries and would like to make a sauce for Swedish meatballs, you’ll find a recipe on my food blog, homefordinner.blogspot.com.
- 1-1/2 lbs. ground beef
- 1 small potato, peeled and grated
- 1 small onion, grated
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 2 tbsp. cream
- 1 egg
- 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/2 c. dry bread crumbs
- 2 tbsp. butter or oil
Mix everything but the final ingredient. Work the mixture with your hands or an electric mixer until the meat is smooth and fluffy. With damp hands, form into balls. Heat butter or oil in a skillet. Fry the meatballs, turning to brown all sides. Open one meatball to ensure they are cooked through to the centre.
Tip: Shaking the skillet as the meatballs cook helps to keep them round.
If you need to cook the meatballs in two batches, add additional butter/oil if needed. Serve warm tossed with cream gravy or lingonberry sauce or both!
- 2 tbsp. drippings from meatballs or butter
- 2 tbsp. flour
- 2 c. warm chicken or beef stock
- 2 tbsp. sour cream
Heat drippings or butter in a saucepan. Whisk in flour to a smooth paste. Add warm stock, whisking thoroughly to prevent lumps. Simmer and thicken. Remove from heat. Whisk in sour cream.