Stealthy Turkey Swedish Meatballs

Growing up in northern Wisconsin, I have eaten my share of Swedish meatballs. Long before I ever saw a ball of meat swimming in a spicy red sauce, I had already eaten scores of those ping-pong-sized morsels floating in a pool of whitish gravy next to the mashed potatoes, green peas and cranberry sauce at Lutheran Church dinners. Though many people say that Swedish meatballs are bland, I think it is more accurate to say that they have a subtle flavor instead of the aggressive spiciness of Italian meatballs.

Traditional Swedish meatballs are made with beef or a combination of beef and pork mixed with bread or breadcrumbs, egg, milk and spices. This recipe substitutes ground turkey for the beef and pork. They are as good as any Swedish meatballs I have eaten in a long life. My family was founded by immigrants from Germany, so my tastebuds may not be as sensitive to authentic Swedish cuisine, but I really doubt you would suspect that these meatballs came from a turkey rather than a cow.

They really are stealthy. Try them on some unsuspecting guests or your family. I’ll bet that they will ask for seconds.

INGREDIENTS:

For the meatballs:
1/4 cup minced onion
1 minced garlic clove
2 T olive oil
3?4 cup breadcrumbs
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. lemon pepper
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1?2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cardamom
2 T chopped parsley
1 large egg
1?2 cup milk
2 lbs. ground turkey

For the sauce:
4 T unsalted butter
5 T all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
Dash of nutmeg
1 cup water
1 tsp. instant chicken bouillon
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream

PROCEDURE:

Clean and mince the onion and garlic. Put two tablespoons of olive oil in a small frying pan and sweat the minced vegetables on low heat until they have softened.

Blend together the breadcrumbs, salt, spices, onion, garlic and chopped parsley. Mix the egg, milk and ground turkey with the dry ingredients until you have a uniform meat mixture.

Preheat the oven to 400º and line a large baking pan with parchment paper. Set a bowl of cold water next to the bowl of meat and the baking pan. Use spoon or other small scoop to measure meat to make one inch balls.

Wet your fingers and form the balls. Place them about a half inch apart in the pan and bake them for about twenty minutes until they are slightly browned. You will have about two dozen meatballs. If you want to check for doneness when you take them from the oven, an instant-read thermometer should register 165º. Simmering the meatballs in the sauce will guarantee that your meatballs are well done. Make the sauce while the meatballs are cooking.

Melt the butter over low heat in a Dutch oven or saucepan large enough to hold all the meatballs with the sauce. Add the flour, salt and pepper and stir the mixture to make a roux. Raise the heat to moderate and stir continuously until the roux is a light brown.

Stir the chicken broth, water and instant bouillon into the roux and keep stirring until the sauce thickens. Reduce the heat and stir in the heavy cream. Put the meatballs into the sauce and allow them to simmer for about fifteen minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning before serving.

Swedish meatballs are usually served alongside potatoes or over noodles. If you prefer noodles, you can cook them while the meatballs are simmering.

NOTES: Use ground turkey thigh instead of turkey breast. Ground turkey breast is rather dry, so you might want to add a little extra olive oil to the meat mixture if you use turkey breast. Incidentally, ground turkey thigh is on average nearly twenty percent lower in calories when compared to eighty-five percent ground beef.

Omit the salt in the sauce if you use salted butter, but taste and adjust the seasoning before you add the meatballs to the sauce in case you think it needs a little more salt.

Snowdrifts and Chicken Gizzard Noodle Soup

When I think of winters when I was young, I think of snowdrifts. Our house was situated in a grove of jack pines along Phipps Road, but most of the land around us then was open to the winter winds. To the south across the road were fields extending nearly a mile and to the west the jack pines ended halfway to Highway 63, replaced by low brush on the north side of the road. West across the highway were more fields that explained why northwest winds blocked the highway at least a couple of times every winter.

Every fall, workmen installed snow fences at locations where the wind could drift snow over highways and roads. The snow fences slowed the wind and caused the snow to form drifts that were often so compact that we could walk on them. These piles of compacted snow were perfect for making snow caves, and unlike the huge piles of icy snow plowed from city streets that can collapse and kill or injure adventurous children, these drifts were only four or five feet high and consisted of snow resembling light and airy pumice. When a cave roof failed, we just crawled out of the mess and made another cave.

The school bus picked us up where Phipps Road met Highway 63, nearly a quarter mile from our house. After there was enough snow to work with, we built a snow fort at the bus stop to act as a windbreak. I used a shovel to cut blocks of snow and my sisters raised the walls as high as they could reach. I would add the last two or three courses of blocks until we had a comfortable defense against the wind and blowing snow.

Unlike today, school officials did not cancel school just because it was a few degrees below zero. Mothers bundled their children in winter coats with caps and scarves plus stockings for their daughters who had to wear skirts or dresses even in winter. My sister Patsy described an incident that occurred after I was in college and she was nine years old. Patsy and her older sister Betty, a senior in high school that year, were waiting in their snow fort. The bus was late, so Betty sent Patsy home to check if school had been cancelled.

Patsy explained, “I ran home and Mom told me that school had just been cancelled, so I ran back to tell Betty. It was twenty below zero. Betty was wearing a dress that day but had nylons on. She didn’t want to miss school. She had perfect attendance in high school.” Such dedication helps explain why Betty became a nurse.

I sometimes think that my siblings and I have a seasonal addiction to cold and snow. We still live in Wisconsin and none of us migrates south in winter. When friends mention that they will be going south and ask us where we go to escape winter, we tell them we drive north to our cabin because we like the snow. To explain, I like to paraphrase a nineteenth-century promoter from Bayfield, Wisconsin, who listed some of the advantages of winter along Lake Superior: “The lake offers wonderful skating, the roads are perfect for sledding and there’s no rain, mud or mosquitoes.”

I sometimes add how wonderful it is to go for a walk when it is well below zero, to hear the distant boom of ice contracting on lakes and wolves howling somewhere along the brook. I try to explain the brilliance of a sky filled with thousands of stars or the magnificence of the northern lights instead of the monotonous glow of lights from city streets.

Friends respond by asking, “How about shoveling snow and not having any golf courses open?” I tell them that I don’t golf but admit that I do get a little tired of shoveling, especially when a snowplow piles a new load across the driveway just after I have cleared it.

Maybe I could persuade them by explaining how wonderful it is to come in from the cold to a house filled with the smell of freshly baked bread or the fragrance of cinnamon wafting from rolls better than the ones they walk by on their way to an airplane that will deliver them to some swamp or desert transformed into a faux paradise for senior citizens.

If that didn’t work, I could mention the mouth-watering perfume emanating from a pot of chicken gizzard soup like Mom used to make for us kids when we came in for lunch after a busy morning excavating a new snow cave. We had chicken gizzard soup pretty often. Chicken gizzards were cheap and made a tasty soup. Jerri and I made chicken gizzard soup when we were first married for the same reasons.

If I told you that this recipe is the one Mom used, I would be lying. My mother apparently had James Beard’s philosophy about soup: “Look in your pantry and refrigerator and make soup.” The soup slots in her recipe boxes are empty or hold recipes that wouldn’t fit elsewhere.

However, I know what she did, so this is a pretty close version.

INGREDIENTS:

3 T bacon grease, lard or butter
1 lb. chicken gizzards
Dashes of salt and pepper to flavor the meat
2 cups chicken broth
7 cups water
3 chicken bouillon cubes
3 medium carrots
3 ribs celery
1 onion (about 2 inches in diameter)
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. salt
4 whole cloves
1/4 tsp. thyme
1/4 tsp. tarragon
1 T corn starch dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
2 T chopped parsley
About 8 oz. uncooked noodles

PROCEDURE:

Gizzards from a market are already cleaned, but I always give them a rinse before starting the soup. Cut the gizzards into small bite-sized pieces and let them dry on a paper towel while you melt the grease or butter in a Dutch oven over moderate heat. Put the meat into the pot and season it very lightly with salt and pepper. Use a wooden spoon to stir the meat occasionally so it does not burn.

After six to ten minutes the meat will have begun to turn brown. Add the broth, water and bouillon cubes and bring the pot up to a boil Reduce the heat and simmer the meat for two to three hours, until the meat is tender.

Prepare the vegetables while the meat is cooking. Cut the stem and root ends off the onion and remove the dry outer layer. Wash the celery ribs and cut off a little of the top to freshen the cut end. Keep the celery leaves to chop with the ribs. You can peel or thoroughly scrub the carrots and cut off the stem and root tips. Chop the onions into a quarter-inch dice. Chop the carrots into quarter-inch-thick rounds or half rounds. Chop the celery into a half-inch dice.

Test the meat for tenderness after two hours. Test a meaty piece of gizzard. Gizzard meat includes a lot of connective tissue which is perfectly edible, but never becomes really tender. If the fork goes easily into the meat, add the vegetables. If it does not, continue simmering the meat for another half hour or forty-five minutes before adding them.

Bring the soup back to a boil, reduce the heat once more and simmer the vegetables until they are tender. At this point you can either raise the heat and add the noodles or let the soup cool if you want to serve it later. Wash and finely chop the parsley and stir it into the soup before adding the noodles. Cook the noodles in the broth until they are done, usually eight or nine minutes.

Serve with bread and a beverage of your choice.

NOTES: Barbara told me that she would never eat gizzards, but she was willing to help me with some memories of winter to introduce this recipe. Our younger sister Patsy also contributed details about her winter experiences that I have used in this and other posts. I thank them both.

Finally, as a know-it-all brother, I am compelled to set the record straight about Barbara and gizzards. I have watched her eating mashed potatoes and chicken or turkey gravy on many Sundays and holidays, and I know that Mom almost always included chopped gizzards in the gravy. Sorry, sis.