Thursday, March 30, 2006

Gluten Free Swedish Meatballs

Ilva's recent gluten-free recipes reminded me that I haven't posted one of my gluten-free triumphs yet: Swedish meatballs. What reminded me of it is she uses ricotta cheese in several of her gluten-free recipes, and it's what I use to replace the bread crumbs.

delicious gluten-free Swedish meatballs My daughter isn't extremely sensitive to gluten, so she can give in to temptation sometimes. But the bread crumbs and flour in Swedish meatballs gave her trouble.....and she loves Swedish meatballs so much I was determined to find a totally gluten free recipe. And you know what, I think it's better than the traditional recipe (sorry, Gramma)!

The process of making meatballs without bread crumbs is different than with them, and it took me a few tries to get a good procedure down. The good news is it's a lot easier to work with - these meatballs just don't seem to get tough with a lot of handling, which is good because my children love helping me form the meatballs and they're not pros at it yet.

For the benefit of those learning to cook, I've included a lot more pictures than I normally would. The photos show a double recipe of Swedish meatballs which is probably more than most people would ever need to make (we have teenage boys to feed), so don't freak out when the pictures and the quantities in the recipe list don't match. Amounts are approximate, especially the spices - adjust them up or down to suit your taste.

Gluten-Free Swedish Meatballs - my own recipe, adapted from my Swedish gramma's recipe

Makes about 3 dozen meatballs

1 lb. ground beef, at room temperature
1/2 lb. ground pork, at room temperature
1 medium onion, minced
1 egg, at room temperature
1/4 - 1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
1/2 - 3/4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
8-12 oz. ricotta cheese

oil, for frying the meatballs

2 - 4 C. half and half
1 - 3 T. cornstarch
1/4 C. cool water

Why do I say have the meats and eggs at room temperature? They blend together much easier than when they're cold. Also, I use my hands to mix them, partly because getting the right texture is important, and working with a lot of cold meat freezes them fast!

Place meats in a large bowl and set aside. Mince the onion. It's really important to get very small pieces, otherwise they can fall out during the frying and leave holes in your meatballs.

first step in chopping onions I start by chopping all the onion first. Let the onion's layers help you with this! The first cut is the most important for that - instead of cutting at the onion's "equator" into halves, cut it in half from its "poles", or root and stem ends. It's hard to explain the difference in words, but if you halve the onion equator style, you get two spirals that need three series of slices to turn into chopped onion. The other way takes only two, and it's much neater. The picture shows an onion halved along its poles, and then sliced. Notice that each layer could be separated from its neighbors for near-instant onion slices. It only takes one more series of cuts, perpendicular to the first set, and I've got chopped onion! Holding the onion slices together in the half-onion shape as much as possible makes the second set of slices easier. Once you're done with that second set of slices, you'll have a pile of chopped onion.

Minced onions on the left, chopped ones on the right Once the onions are chopped, I work with a small portion at a time to mince them. Using a chef's knife, with the tip as a pivot point, chop the onions while moving the wide end of the knife in an arc through the pile. Regroup the onions and repeat as needed until all of that portion is uniformly minced. Repeat until all the chopped onion is minced. Mincing does take some time, but for some recipes it's important to do it. Not just for the texture, but also because it helps the flavor of the onion to meld better with the other ingredients.

meats, onion, and egg before mixing Add the onions to the meat in the mixing bowl. Add the egg (remember, I made a double recipe, that's why there are two eggs in the picture); sprinkle the spices over all. In this picture, you can see the difference in the meats; the beef is darker and more cohesive, and the pork is pink and separates easily when removed from the package. Using both meats is very important, to help the texture and the flavor. I don't make any meatballs with just ground beef any more - they just don't taste as good.

blended meats, egg, and onions Using your hands, mix the ingredients until well blended. The motion I use is kind of like kneading bread dough, and although it sounds gross to put your hands into uncooked meat and raw egg it's much faster than using a spoon. As you can see from the picture, the meats are well blended, the onions are well incorporated and you don't see big jaggy chunks of onion sticking out of the mixture. If you do find some like that, just pick them out.

Meatball mixing completed! Add the ricotta cheese. How much you'll need depends upon how far you want to stretch the meat, and how much fat your meat has. You can add some and blend, and add more if necessary; I use the full amount (or very close to it, I usually don't measure). The mixture will be a light pink and quite cohesive. (It reminds me of that scary-looking ham salad my mom used to buy for our lunches when we were kids - is that stuff still made?) The mixture should not stick to your hands.

Forming meatballs Form the mix into meatballs, trying to keep the size as uniform as possible. I think I use about a tablespoon of mix for each meatball, scooping it up and rolling it gently to form an approximately round meatball. If you're cooking solo, I don't recommend trying to form meatballs and cook them at the same time; it's too easy to burn them. Put the meatballs on a cutting board or platter that you can set beside your skillet.

Heat a skillet to medium-high. A cast iron is ideal for this because it browns the meatballs nicely, much better than a nonstick skillet. Add some oil (I use peanut oil because it doesn't add any flavor and has a high smoke point) and swirl to coat the skillet. Once the oil's hot, add several meatballs, leaving room between them. After a minute or two, turn the meatballs to brown a different spot. Continue that process until the meatball's exterior is no longer pink. Don't worry about making sure they're cooked all the way through, because they'll be simmering in gravy and will cook more then.

cooked meatballs being held while more are fried Once they're cooked, remove the meatballs so that you can fry more. Since I use a nonstick skillet for the simmering, I just put them in it. You could also use a crockpot for simmering. If you'll be reusing the frying skillet, put them on a large platter or something that's big enough to hold them all. It doesn't matter if they cool some. At this point, you will probably start to be visited by people who want to sample the meatballs - they smell so good while they fry! Add more oil to the skillet, and allow it to heat up before adding meatballs as necessary to keep meatballs from sticking. If the pan juices and onion bits start to brown too much through the frying, scrape them out and add to the holding meatballs. They flavor the gravy, and you don't want it to taste burnt.

simmering meatballs Once all the meatballs have been fried, pour any remaining pan juices and bits of meatball over the held meatballs. If you're reusing the skillet, clean it and return meatballs to it. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add half and half - more if you want a lot of gravy, less if you don't. Bring to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low, cover the skillet, and allow the meatballs to simmer gently for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. (If you allow the gravy to get too hot, the dairy proteins coagulate into gloopy strands. It will still taste fine - the gravy just won't look very nice.)

thickened gravy for gluten free Swedish meatballs Before thickening the gravy, check the seasonings, especially salt. Add more salt, pepper, or nutmeg as needed to your taste - but don't go overboard, as the thickening will intensify the flavors some too. If you've added 2 C. of liquid for the gravy, stir 1 T. of cornstarch into cool water for a medium-thick gravy; if you added 4 C., use 2 T. If you want a thicker gravy, use a bit more cornstarch. (For a very informative page on using cornstarch as a thickener, see Miss Vickie's all about cornstarch page.) Stirring gravy gently, add cornstarch slurry and allow to cook for about a minute. Remove from heat.

My mom serves her Swedish meatballs with noodles. You can buy gluten-free noodles, but my family likes rice or mashed potatoes better with their meatballs. I usually serve them with a green vegetable or a salad. I don't have a pretty picture of my meatballs plated because I probably would have been killed if I had delayed dinner to take one. The kids love these meatballs.

If you don't need 3 dozen meatballs for a single meal, you can remove some meatballs and gravy before you add the cornstarch and freeze it. After it's thawed, heat gently and proceed with thickening as usual. Make sure you account for the reduced volume of both dishes when you measure out your cornstarch!

Interesting variation on a wellknown theme! I'll try this, thanks!
Wow! This is great! I have honestly never had Swedish meatballs, though I have wanted to try them for some time. I've actually only had Italian meatballs 2x and I've never made them myself - I think a remedy for all of this is in order!
Thank you both. I hope you like them Michelle! They're my favorite but I know I'm biased. I use this basic recipe for Italian meatballs too, just changing the spices and meat, and they always turn out really good also.

Please let me know how the recipe works for you!
I may have to steal this recipe.
Thomas, it's all yours. (And I'm sorry that the law won.)
KQ - I miss you! I hope life isn't too crazy for you. Just sending you a few warm thoughts from Oregon.
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