One of the most famous gothic horror classics is Dracula, written by Bram Stoker, published in 1897, and retold by Hollywood too many times to count. Stoker claimed that the story came from his own mind, however, scholars have suggested otherwise. While visiting the University of Budapest, Stoker met with Professor Ármin Vámbéry who was an expert on the Ottoman Empire. The professor, supposedly, suppled Stoker with tales of the empire, Vlad the Impaler, and the horrors of war during the 14th century.
Vlad was ruler of Wallachia which is actually south of Transylvania, but both part of the country of Romania. Previously, during his father’s reign, he, and his brother Radu, were held hostage by the Turks. Vlad, after becoming king himself, was finally able to defeat the empire, but many years later on, and via betrayal, was captured by the Turks again, and beheaded. Hmm, perhaps a bit of history on the Ottoman Empire would explain Vlad’s leaning towards his own horrific acts of torture.
The Ottoman Empire, aka the Turkish Empire, controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was brought down, at the end of WW2, for being aligned with the Nazi regime. The empire was mainly Islamic Caliphate/Muslim, but also contained Christians, Jews and other religious minorities. However, during its 600-year existence these non-Muslim subjects endured discrimination, persecution, torture and death. Anyone reading, or listening, to the daily world news will probably think, “Nothing seems to have changed much in that regard.”.
Leaping into the 18th century, King Charles XII of Sweden, ended up living in the Ottoman Empire after his assault on Russia ended in mass defeat. While there, he lived a better lifestyle, more suited for a king, than Vlad had endured; and that included feasting on Turkish cuisine. Once he returned to Sweden, he brought with him a recipe for “little meatballs”. The recipe for kötbullar, or Swedish meatballs, first appeared in print in the 1760s, Guide to Housekeeping for Young Women, by the cook Cajsa Warg. Warg worked for a family that had been close to the king, and her book also contained the first recipe for the dolma-like stuffed cabbage kåldolmar. What is dolma? Short or medium grain rice mixed with ground lamb (or beef), finely diced vegetables, tomato paste, pomegranate molasses and spices, wrapped in grape or cabbage leaves, and boiled till liquid is fully absorbed. King Charles also introduced his subjects to sherbet and Turkish coffee; the sherbet was a hit, the coffee, not so much.
Traditionally, Swedish meatballs are served with boiled or mashed potatoes, and lingonberry jam. Why the jam? Cultural superstition! While the foods of the Turkish empire were intriguing, the people were considered to be heathens, and unclean. The Swedes believed that using lingonberries would ward off all types of cancer, and other deadly infections, that they might “catch”. Sounds ridiculous now, but this was the 18th century, and medical sciences were not very advanced.
Since the meatballs are served with a brown gravy, substitutes for potatoes are rice or noodles; with pickled cucumbers as a side dish. Of course, lingonberry jam is still a staple. The meatballs are generally made with ground beef and pork, similar to making Italian style meatballs. However, using ground turkey, instead of the pork, brings a more savory flavor to the meatballs, but that is my experience anyway.
For the Meatballs:
2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork (or ground turkey)
1 cup whipping cream (or whole milk)
1 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 eggs beaten.
1 small onion, finely diced
2 tsps. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
3 tsps. ground black pepper
6 Tbsp. butter.
4 Tbsp. flour
1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbsp. beef bouillon
In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients for the meatballs, except butter. Mix together well, with hands, and do NOT overmix. Form the meat mixture into 1-inch balls (1-inch ice cream scoop is helpful).
In a large skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of butter on medium heat. Place meatballs into skillet, leaving room between each for turning. Cook, and turn every 1-2 minutes, to brown all exposed areas. Remove to paper towel covered plate to drain excess fat.
To make the gravy, whisk flour into the hot drippings remaining in skillet. Whish in cream and bouillon; simmer, on low heat, until thickened. Add salt & pepper to taste, but should not actually be needed.
Makes 50 meatballs, and 10 servings.