Swedish meatballs. On a stick.

Three years ago my best friend from high school, my son, and I went to the Deerwood Summerfest. My friend and I saw that this small town street fair was happening on our way to pick up my son from day camp. To be more precise, my friend saw that it was happening. What I noticed was a table from which Lutheran ladies were selling Swedish meatballs. On the way back to the cabin, we stopped, got out of the car, and walked around; I with single-minded plans of scoring some of those Swedish meatballs.

We got to the table that had had Swedish meatballs on it. It was empty. There was a woman there packing up the sodas (well, actually, she was packing up the pops because if you call soda soda in Minnesota it takes people a minute or two to know what the hell you’re talking about; if it’s fizzy and it’s in a can or bottle and it’s not beer, it is pop). I asked her what happened to the Swedish meatballs.

“Oh, well now,” she said, “those were only for sale until four.”

“What time is it?” I asked, thinking that it was, maybe, barely four o’clock.

She looked at her watch and sharply drew in her breath, “Oh, yeah, it’s four-oh-three.”

“Oh,” I said, clearly disappointed and adopting my native accent, “and so I guess you’re all out then?”

“Well I don’t know about that,” she said, “but it’s four-oh three.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an interaction that has haunted me for three years. Three years of three minutes keeping me from my dream of Swedish meatballs made by small town church ladies. And you just know those Lutheran church ladies of Deerwood, the town in which the hardware store sells not one but two models of lefse makers, know how to make a Swedish meatball right. A lady who was that judgmental about my thought that she might sell me meatballs just because there were meatballs left to sell when the sign plainly stated “10-4″ is just the kind of lady who is going to know how to make a Swedish meatball. She is going to make it old school and there will be plenty of cream in the mix and butter in that gravy because that is how you make them, cholesterol and newfangled ideas be damned. These meatballs will be bought and eaten by her neighbors and she knows what she would think about them if they didn’t make the very best meatballs possible, so she’s going to make that extra effort to make sure the meatballs are perfection. Church-centric cooking and baking in Minnesota are competitive sports as much as charitable activities.

So when my mom and I took my son to Deerwood Summerfest last week you know I was looking for those meatballs. We walked past the Lutheran church and my heart sank. Nada. No table, no church ladies, no meatballs Swedish or otherwise.

Luckily my son wanted to play the carnival games in the park, a spot from which we could see that there was something going on behind the church. While my mom got my son a corn dog, I hightailed it to the tented tables in the parking lot of the Salem Lutheran Church, traded my cash for tickets, walked right up to the lady overseeing the crockpot, and came into the possession of two Swedish meatballs on a stick, a small cup of gravy for dipping, and a baggie full of homemade lefse – not to mention change from the five I handed over to pay for the lot of it.

The meatballs were tender and moist and light. The gravy tasted as much of butter as it did of browning meatballs, just as it should. The lefse was still warm and thin enough to see through plus I managed to snag one that hadn’t had Parkway margarine out of squeeze bottle smeared all over it.

Best of all, and this goes without saying to all the transplanted Minnesotans out there, was, of course, that the meatballs were served on a stick. As every Minnesota State Fair goer knows, putting food on a stick, while seemingly just a practical way to serve food to people who are aimlessly milling around, has the unintended consequence of making said food taste better. Is it the woodsy flavor imparted by the stick? The attention one needs to pay while eating to make sure the whole thing doesn’t tumble onto one’s clothes? The knowledge that food-on-a-stick means you’re at a fair of one sort or another? These are questions I leave greater minds to answer. All I know is that now that my food fantasy of scarfing down Swedish meatballs on the mean streets of Deerwood has been fulfilled my next Minnesota food goal is to try some of that walleye-on-a-stick at the ballpark everyone is talking about. That fish has got to be delicious.


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Getting my mojo back with Swedish meatballs

Oh my. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? Regular readers will remember that my dashing husband doesn’t eat much meat. So when he’s out of town, I tend to cook up some meat-heavy meals for Ernest and me. But this trip of his has coincided with an uncharacteristic utter lack of interest in cooking on my part. So it’s been leftover soup and frozen pizza and taquerias. Until yesterday. I got it back. I no more know where it came back from than I know where it went, but my cooking mojo has returned. I got a bee in my bonnet about Swedish meatballs, the good homemade kind, of course. I tried to get Ernest excited about them – Swedish meatballs! I exclaimed, little tiny spiced up meatballs! Ernest got a look for horror on his face.

“No, Mama, I don’t want those!”

“What do you mean?” I asked, “Why wouldn’t you want meatballs?”

“I want plain meatballs, not Swedish.”

“But honey, Swedish meatballs are pretty plain… wait, you’ve never had them before… what do you think they are?”

“Mama, I don’t like sweet meat!”

Fair enough. I don’t much like sweet meat either. The Swedish versus sweetish difference was described and everyone was on board with the great meatball dinner of 2009.

We didn’t have any cream in the house, so I made the sauce without it. I wouldn’t say I liked the sauce better, but I did like it just as much as the creamy version. Just as much. So just as much that I ended up dousing my escarole salad with the gravy. And then had a second huge helping of the escarole in order to drown it in even more gravy. 

Not Sweetish Meatballs

In a standing mixer with the paddle attachment, soak 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs in 3/4 cup milk or broth for a few minutes. Add 1 lb. lean ground beef (I used some wonderfully flavorful pastured beef from Clark Summit Farms, but these have so much great seasoning any old ground beef will do; also, you could get crazy and use half ground beef and half ground pork – that would be delic too), 2 Tbsp. minced onion, 1 Tbsp. minced parsley (if you like), 1 tsp. kosher salt, 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, and 1/2 tsp. ground allspice. Beat on low to combine. Increase speed to medium and beat until sort of fluffy looking, about 5 minutes. 

Wet your hands with cold water and form tiny little meatballs. Re-wet hands as necessary to keep the fluffy meat mixture from sticking all over the place. Put the finished meatballs on a baking sheet or cutting board that you’ve sprinkled with some more cold water to keep them from sticking to that.

Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a large frying or sauté pan. Add meatballs – in batches if needed – and cook, turning and shaking as need to brown on as many sides as possible. Transfer meatballs to a paper towel-lined board or plate. Add 2 Tbsp. flour to the fat/liquid in the pan. Cook, stirring, until flour turns golden. Add 2 cups beef stock or use chicken stock as I did (it worked just dandy). Cook, stirring, to make a smooth sauce. Increase heat and reduce to make a thick sauce. Add 1/2 to 1 cup cream to this if you’re so inclined and cook to reduce and thicken a bit. Whether you add the cream or not, taste and add more salt and pepper to taste. 

Return meatballs to the pan to warm them up again. Serve immediately. We had extra, which I froze. I’m sure I’ll be telling you how that turns out at some point.

This recipe makes quite a bit of sauce. Enough so you can cover some roasted or steamed potatoes and plenty of salad along with the meatballs.

Ernie eats
cooked it

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No, it’s not a normal suitcase

Yesterday I embarked on a week-long ski trip with my extended family. Good times will surely be had by all (knock on wood). I couldn’t help but snap a shot of my suitcase before I closed it. Along with the ski boots and ski helmet and long underwear and wimpy knee brace (it’s a psychological thing, I know) and toiletries and flip-flops for wearing to the hot tub and power cords for my laptop and camera were a pork shoulder roast, a top sirloin (thanks Clark Summit Farm!), chocolate samples from the fancy food show last week, a sample-size collection of flavored salts, a panne forte (essentially an Italian fruitcake) someone sent me in November, and a copy of King Corn I’ve been meaning to view and review (for Local Foods) for almost a year now. And what you’re not seeing are the pounds upon pounds of California citrus I had packed in my carry-on (I didn’t want it to get bruised!).

I know. I’m nuts.

And yet much less nuts than is years past, as my beloved sister-in-law reminded me once we arrived at our destination. A few years ago I packed my 7-quart Le Creuset pot, several pounds of duck confit, some garlic sausage from Fatted Calf, and containers of frozen broth, beans, and lamb stew in order to cook up some cassoulet for everyone. Sure, I’ve been teased mercilessly about it by my family ever since, but their eyes glaze over ever so slightly every time they talk about it.


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Sometimes dinner is about something else

I thought I’d be writing today about heritage breeds, humane animal husbandry, and a wee bit of brining. I went to a press event last night on just those topics. It was well organized, informative, and delicious. And yet, my attention was split.

You see, I sat with people who know a lot about food and, in particular, a lot about the food world in San Francisco. They are plugged in and knowledgeable and interesting and reminded me that I don’t care about restaurant openings, which spaces are available, and who is thinking about going where. Believe me, I’ve tried to care. I just don’t.  I do, however, care about urban gardens. We all had a lot to say on the subject. It made for lively dinner conversation; things were going well.

And then the subject morphed to kids. And schools.

Some of them also send their children to private schools. One does so because the public school their child was assigned to was “in the ghetto.” I’m not even kidding. That is a quote. Where, may I ask, dear internets, is the “ghetto” in San Francisco? There are schools that aren’t great, to be sure. And there are projects. But where is the “ghetto”? Don’t tell me. I think it might be my neighborhood.

The public school assignment system in SF is insane. One person last night recounted his inability to see his child through the process, and instead just opted for the private school that accepted his child. The lottery system as it currently exists is daunting, bizarre, inscrutable, and opaque. It needs to be fixed. However, after some discussion, he recounted how, like me, he knows many people who saw it through and ended up with the schools they wanted.

I’ve done it on several school sites, I did it in a now long-shelved radio interview for “Philosophy Talk,” and now I’ll do it here. I’ll come out as pro-public schools. Rabidly so, one might say. I am a product of public schools. I believe strongly in their importance as the foundation of democracy. That’s right: the god damn foundation of democracy. I was pushed over the edge, however, by a friend years ago who said: “if a school isn’t good enough for your kid, why is is good enough for anyone else’s kid?”

Touché. Words to live by. Someone at dinner last night, someone I like and respect very much, someone I’ve always looked up to, to be honest, said “well, San Francisco schools are a lost cause.” She said it as one would say the sun rises in the east. As undebatable fact. As fixed and determined as the place of dry-farmed heirloom tomatoes in the average foodie’s wet dream. Internets, this person fights the fight against all kinds of food problems, all kinds of sustainability issues, all kinds of labor issues. But her local schools? She was willing to write them off.

It made me want to cry.

When asked,  I mentioned where my son goes to school. The table agreed, “that’s a great school!”

People, it’s a San Francisco public school. If they are a lost cause, how is one of them great? And it’s not one that’s great. It’s dozens. Dozens of them are amazing schools. But, it ends up, in some eyes they are a lost cause.

There are public schools in this country where I would not send my child, don’t get me wrong. Without a real depth of knowledge, I’m guessing those in Wasilla, Alaska might not be my cup of tea. And who knows what will happen as my son gets older? But I digress….

I’ve said it at dinner parties, I’ve said it on the radio, and I’ll say it here: If people were willing to put half the time, money, and energy into public schools that they do into private schools there would be no discussion of “lost causes” and “not good enough”. Public schools would be good enough for everyone. And then instead of elitist, classist, racist crap we’d have a real meritocracy and some shit would get done.

Yes, I realize this had very little to do with dinner. My apologies.

was served

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Portland hunger

I was invited to move to Portland last night. And I’m thinking about it. Of course, I’ve thought about it before. (Wait, I did it before! Wait, does going to college someplace count as “moving there”?) I’ve even floated the idea by my dashing husband. His response: “I love to visit Portland.” I know what that means. That means there’s no way in hell he’s moving there.

If I did live there I would spend a lot of time having drinks at the Secret Society Lounge. Up a non-descript, “I’m going to my therapy appointment” staircase and into a cozy, grown-up bar with a slight speak-easy feel. The breeze blowing in the open window on the warm but not sweltering summer evening made the well-crafted drinks taste all the better.

squashblossom.jpgchurros.jpgThen I would head downstairs and go next door to Toro Bravo for dinner. Amazing tapas: oxtail croquettes, mint-stuffed squash blossoms, green olive radicchio salad, squid ink fideos, churros e chocolate. A dish called “drunken pork” was a particular favorite. Chunks of meaty, juicy pork wrapped in bacon served over big but not bitter fava beans. I forgot to ask what made the pork so drunk, but I’m guessing it was gin.

That I ate anything following the afternoon of eating I had was a testament to the power of the human stomach. I split a burger, half a rack of ribs, and a charcuterie and sausage plate for lunch, then stopped in at Ten 01 for some Thai sticky ribs around 5. Of course, my friend had dragged me to “corepower yoga” earlier in the day. Have you heard of this? It’s flow-style yoga in a sauna-hot room (not Bikram!) with sit-ups and various core-building Pilates-mat-work-esque worked into the proceedings. Since my idea of a good time is long swims in cold water by myself, listening to someone tell me what to do in a dark room with a bunch of sweaty people was not so much up my alley, but it was an amazing work-out and I did feel all high afterwards, which was nice. I also felt hungry. Very, very hungry. Burger, ribs, and sausage hungry. Oxtail croquettes and drunken pork hungry.

ordered it

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Finally! Spring cuckoo!

My Very Tall Cousin Sam came to dinner last night. The evening was marked by two big events. First, Ernie let go a bit too soon while showing off on his trapeze for Sam. He gashed his head on the pea gravel and bled profusely. Sam, who was in town for a job interview, carried Screaming Ernie up the back stairs to the kitchen trying simultaneously to comfort the child and, understandably, not to get blood all over his nice clothes. Once we got the blood cleaned up we all realized the cut was small. Ernie was back outside with Very Tall Cousin Sam within three minutes.

Second, I perfected the spring vegetable couscous (cuckoo!) that has haunted me lo! these many days. We ate it with grilled peppers and spicy Italian sausage from Boccalone, a cured meat CSA in the Bay Area (what won’t they think of next…).

sausage and pepper

cooked it
fava beans

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So that’s the reason

I recently developed a ribs recipe for Sunset magazine. I can’t tell you anything else about them except the whole story got shelved and won’t run until next year, if ever. I probably shouldn’t have revealed as much as I have, certainly not as much as I’m going to. I had to cook a lot of ribs in the process. More ribs than we could eat. So I stored a bunch of them in the giant freezer we have in the basement that just may be my favorite thing about our house. My husband went to a talk and was getting home late, so to the freezer I and my one useful hand went.

Ernie and I sat down to eat the ribs together. After many silent minutes of focused gnawing and inhaling, I thought we should have a bit of dinner conversation.

“These are good aren’t they?”

Ernie continued to bite and chew but nodded his head in agreement.

“Do you like how they’re spicy but sweet at the same time?” I said, trying to lure him into a more detailed compliment of my efforts.

“Mama,” he replied, slowing down his speech with great patience and sounding like it was he who was talking to the child, “I like them because they are meat.”

Oh, okay then.


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Thwarted again

The food at a food writers conference is, admittedly, better than at many professional conferences, but the buffet still plays a key role. And where there is a fancy resort buffet, there is a carving station. Here’s my strategy when confronted with a carving station: using every bit of charm I can muster, I chit-chat with the carving master before asking if perhaps they have a little end morsel of prime rib tucked away somewhere–an almost-burnt piece of crunchy, concentrated meat. The strategy paid off last night with an entire end cut. I was thrilled until I returned to the table only to realize I couldn’t cut my food. The salad was crunchy. But it wasn’t meaty. Not one little bit.

carving station
ordered it

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