Before I went vegan, I worked at Swedish restaurant Aquavit, located in midtown New York for a while. This also happens to be where I met my American husband, who worked as a chef there at the time. I fell in love with both the food and the chef, and naturally have fond memories of this particular dish.
Swedish meatballs are different in both size, texture and flavor than Norwegian kjøttkaker, but nonetheless delicious. Swedish köttbullar are smaller, have a round shape and a slightly crispier exterior; therefore more like “balls” than patties. They are also a classic on Christmas tables around Sweden, while Norwegian typically reserve their version for other occasions.
The first time the word köttbullar appeared was in Cajsa Warg’s cookbook in 1755, and before that they were known as frikadellar – often cooked in broth or soup. The meatballs have been said to have been brought from Turkey, but there is no real evidence of that. The Swedish meatballs distinguish themselves from other countries’ version in the spices that are used, as well as the size and the selection of meats.
I was eager to re-create a plant-based example of this dish that would please the most feverish fans of the traditional version (i.e. my husband). I chose to use lentils in combination with mushrooms, which I find usually turns into a favorable rich “umami” experience. The spice that makes the authentic flavor for me is allspice – a must! For added texture I toasted walnuts and panko, alongside with the traditional sauteed red onion for depth of flavor. A second trick is to bake the meatballs in the oven first, then finish them off by sauteing them in a pan on the stove top, which gives that crispy exterior.
Just as important as the meatballs are the mashed potatoes. This is also another way the Swedes differ from the Norwegians; in Norway we serve our meatballs (or more correctly, meat ‘patties’) with whole, boiled potatoes. I must admit I prefer a creamy, buttery mash and had fun making this with vegan butter and cream, (or use a rich non-dairy milk). Use a ricer instead of just hand mashing the potatoes, this created a much smoother, denser and creamier mash.
The other classic condiments are lingonberry jam and pickled cucumbers. I like adding a little “Christmas spices” to both, such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise, ginger and orange peel, but this is optional. Gravy is a must, and in Sweden they like to add a good amount of cream to theirs – I made my own from almonds and cashews, but you can also add a store bought non-dairy creamer (not a coconut based one, I prefer soy or macadamia).
There are many ways to enjoy Swedish meatballs: You can turn them into sandwiches with a side of pickled beets or beet salad, with french fries or spaghetti, or add it into “pytt i panne” – a pan fried dish made with leftovers. Therefore, it is definitely worth making these as you can turn them into a new meal every day. Varsågod!
VEGAN SWEDISH MEATBALLS
1 cup (2.5dl) brown lentils, picked over
1 cup (2.5dll) wild rice, rinsed
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp vegan butter
3 tbsp brown sugar
4 ounces (113g) baby bella mushrooms, sliced
4 ounces (113g) portobello mushrooms, sliced
5-6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 cup (250ml) walnuts, lightly toasted
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp stone ground mustard (or Swedish mustard if you have)
1 tbsp ground flax seeds mixed with 3 tbsp water
1/3 cup (80ml) cornstarch
2 tsp allspice (or more to taste)
1 cup (250ml) panko breadcrumbs
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Start by cooking the lentils and brown rice in separate pots according to package directions. Once cooked, transfer both into a large bowl and set aside.
In a medium saute pan, add the vegan butter over medium high heat, add in the onion and brown sugar with a pinch of salt and cook until the onion is caramelized. Dump the onions in the bowl with the cooked lentils and brown rice.
Wipe out the pan and add a little olive oil or more vegan butter, throw in the baby bella and portobello mushrooms along with the thyme and a pinch of salt and pepper. Saute for a few minutes until browned. Add to the bowl with the lentil-rice-onions. Transfer the entire bowl into the bowl of a food processor along with the walnuts and pulse a few times until the mixture starts to come together, but leave some chunks because you don’t want it to be too mushy – you need some texture.
Place the pulsed mixture back into the big bowl, and add the tomato paste, mustard, flax seed mix, cornstarch, allspice and panko bread crumbs and fold. Season with salt and pepper. The mixture should stick together but not be too dry.
I always like to form a small ball and test- cook it on a saute pan first to see i the seasoning is right before forming the mixture into small balls. This way you can adjust the spices as you wish. Once you’re happy, scoop out the mixture with a ice cream scoop or small spoon and place on a greased sheet tray. You can do this all ahead of time and place the balls in the fridge until you’re ready to cook them off.
Preheat oven to 320 degrees Fahrenheit (110 degrees Celcius). Place the tray with the meatballs in the middle rack and bake for about 20 minutes.
Remove balls from oven, heat up a little oil in a large saute pan and saute the balls in batches, about 6-7 at a time until brown and crisp on all sides. Remove and place balls on a tray lined with paper towels. Set aside until ready to serve or place back in oven to keep warm.
Serve with gravy, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers and lingonberry jam.
PICKLED CUCUMBERS SCANDINAVIAN STYLE
1 English cucumber
1 cup (250ml) water
1 cup (250ml) white vinegar
1 cup (250ml) white sugar
1 star anise
3-4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
6-7 whole peppercorns
4-5 whole coriander seeds
Boil /clean a quart size mason jar, and set aside.
Using a mandoline or other slices, slice the cucumber thin and place them all in the mason jar.
In a small pot, bring the water, vinegar and sugar to a boil, and whisk to dissolve the sugar. Pour the boiling mixture over the cucumbers and place the spices in as well. Let cool to room temperature, and place in fridge. Once completely cool, close with an airtight lid. Keeps in fridge for several weeks.
1 x 12 oz (350g) bag fresh lingonberries or cranberries
3/4 cups (180ml) sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) water
1 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 allspice berry
2-3 whole green cardamom pods
1 x 1 inch (2.5cm) piece of ginger, peeled and sliced thin
couple of orange peels (no pith)
Combine all the ingredients in a small pot over medium heat and cook until berries start to break down and the mixture thickens. Cool completely before transferring to an airtight container and place in fridge. Keeps for several weeks.
BEST EVER GRAVY
1 sweet onion, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
Small bunch of fresh thyme sprigs
1 sprig rosemary
2 tsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
1 oz (25g) dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups (500ml) mushroom stock (from soaking the dried porcini)
3 tbsp flour
2 cups (500ml) vegetable stock
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 cup (100ml) ruby port wine
1/2cup (100 ml) non-dairy creamer or homemade almond or cashew cream
Put the onion, carrots, leek, celery, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary onto a sheet tray and roast everything at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200’C) for 45 minutes
Put the porcini mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with hot water and let them soak for at least 30 minutes to an hour.
Remove the vegetables out of the oven and mash them right on the sheet tray with a vegetable masher
Transfer the mashed vegetables to a large saucepan, turn the heat up to medium and add all the rest of the ingredients (including the mushrooms and broth/soaking water). Be sure to use a coffee filter or other type of filter when draining the soaked mushrooms, as they will carry some dirt or sand with them and you don’t want that in your gravy.
Stir the gravy continuously until it’s bubbling and keep checking for consistency. It will take a while but will eventually start to thicken, so when it has achieved the consistency you want, using a sieve, pour the gravy into another pan and mash the vegetables with a wooden spoon to get all the flavor and liquid goodness out of them. Discard the pulp.
Heat up the gravy in the second pot and add the cream, season with salt and pepper and keep warm until ready to serve.
WORLD’S BEST MASHED POTATOES
2 lbs Yukon Gold Potatoes, peeled and cut in half
3-4 tbsp vegan butter, room temp (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup (2.5 dl) non-dairy milk or creamer, room temp (not coconut, I prefer soy)
salt and pepper to taste
Place the potatoes in a large pot, cover with water and season generously with salt. Bring to a boil and cook for about 20 minutes until potatoes are soft.
Drain the potatoes and lay out on a sheet tray to dry. Once much of the moisture has evaporated from potatoes, put them through a riser into a bowl. Add the vegan butter and non-dairy milk or creamer and combine well. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm until ready to serve. Alternatively, garnish with minced chives.