So about a year ago, I was in one of the most idyllic settings in the world:
Majestic snow-capped peaks sliding down into pristine waters. Cool and crisp air, fresh and untainted by urban smog. Colorful village settings where traditional chants can still be heard.
Yes, my friends, I was traversing through the fjords of Norway. A once in a lifetime experience (and I really do mean once, it’s dreadfully expensive) that brought me closer to nature than ever before.
I’m not sure if the same can be said about the food. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of delicious food in Norway, the only problem is that most of it is not that affordable on a student’s budget. Fortunately my brother and I were lucky enough on our first night to wander into a cozy little bar serving up some of the best beer I’ve ever had, along with a selection of traditional Norwegian fare. It was here, where we met the kjøttkaker.
Translating roughly into meatballs or patties, kjøttkaker (prounounced “shyot-ka-kare”) are a member of a family of meatball delicacies that form the backbone of most Scandinavian diets. No matter where you travel within the Nordic states, you are bound to find them. Sweden has its köttbullar, perhaps the best known thanks to the kitchens of furniture megastore, Ikea, and who can forget my favorite place, Denmark, where my host mom prepared frikadeller on a weekly basis. Meatballs are loved in this part of globe, and one would not be able to get at the essence of these cuisines without them.
Most Nordic cooks prepare their meatballs with pork, veal, or a blend of both. Therefore, I was quite intrigued when I came across this recipe using lamb instead of the previous three. Having been eager to make my parents a traditional Scandinavian meal since my return from Denmark, I immediately jumped on this recipe because it’s the only one that my parents could eat (we don’t consume beef or pork at home).
If I must be honest, I’d have to say that Norwegian kjøttkaker taste better than their Swedish and Danish counterparts. I think it has something to do with the spice profile. A generous dose of allspice along with ginger (I actually used fresh to increase its presence) gives a warm, earthy, and well-rounded flavor to these meatballs. Better yet, the gravy or brunsaus, is banging. Sweet and caramelly brown cheese, a product I have written more about here, is combined with tangy creme fraiche, your favorite meat or vegetable stock, the delicious left over lamb drippings from frying the meatballs, and a hefty spoon of cocoa powder. Yes, it’s a chef’s elevation of a traditional recipe, but this gravy will probably be one of the most interesting and unusual (in a good way) ones that you’ll try, and I know you will love it. My mother, with a strong spice-driven Indian palette, normally finds Scandinavian dishes to be a bit too “subtle” for her liking, but she adored these, so much so that she insisted I make them again and again. Not only does that make me happy, but it brings me more joy to be able to share this foolproof recipe with you all, one that does not require any knowledge of Norwegian to make.
Recipe Adapted from Food and Wine
Serves around four people
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 slices of day-old bread
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1 small white onion, chopped
- 2 teaspoons ground allspice
- 1-2 teaspoons fresh ginger (adjust to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 egg, beaten
- salt and pepper to taste
For the gravy:
- 2 cups lamb, beef, chicken, or vegetable stock
- 2-3 tablespoons brandy
- 3/4 cups creme fraiche
- 1/2 cup shredded brown cheese (gjetost)
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- chopped chives or dill, to taste
- lingonberry, black currant, or cloudberry jam
Start out by soaking the bread in the milk for about 10-15 minutes, till it has become all soft and mushy.
In a small pan, saute the onions with the allspice and ginger over medium heat, until softened.
In a large bowl combine all of the meatball ingredients together until well incorporated. I find that one’s hands are the best tools for this process. Form into about 40-rounded, teaspoon-size meatballs.
In a large pan, heat up some oil (about 1 to 2 tablespoons will do) over medium high heat. Once hot, add the meatballs in batches and fry for about five minutes, till they’ve charred and formed a nice crust. If you find that the meatballs are not fully cooked at this point, that’s fine. They will finish cooking in the gravy.
After you have removed the meatballs from the pan, save the drippings and add the stock of your liking, whisking around to release any burnt meatball bits stuck to the pan. Bring the stock to a boil and allow it to reduce by half. Then add the brandy, creme fraiche, cocoa powder, brown cheese, and some salt, if needed. Whisk rapidly to combine and allow the brown cheese to melt into the gravy.
Bring the gravy to a simmer and add the meatballs, simmering and stirring occasionally over low heat for about 10 minutes, until the meatballs have cooked through and the gravy has thickened. Serve over mashed potatoes and lingonberry/currant/cloudberry jam, and garnish to your liking with chopped chives or dill.
- If ground lamb is not available in your area, feel free to substitute with ground mutton, beef, pork, or blend of any two.
- If you don’t eat any of the aforementioned meats, I could imagine this dish working with ground chicken or turkey as well.
- gjetost (brown cheese) can be found at specialty food stores, such as Whole Foods or at online retailers. If it’s unavailable in your area, you can easily substitute the gravy in this recipe with one used to dress Swedish meatballs instead.
- This saucy recipe can also be served over pasta, gnocchi, or spaetzle
- Meatballs in Scandinavia are eaten with a little jam because the tartness of the jam helps to cut through the richness of the meat. I have recommended flavors that are common in the region. If you can’t find any of them near you, cranberry sauce is naturally the next best option.
- Recommended Pairing: A bitter and malty stout, with its notes of dark chocolate and coffee will complement these meatballs perfectly. Look for a Norwegian brew if you can find it!