This, as the title says, is a tale of the mutant meatballs–or, how recipes sometimes develop a mind of their own.
That can only happen when you’re unprepared, as I was today. I knew I had ground beef to cook, but was preoccupied with something else all morning and didn’t give much thought to HOW I’d fix it. We’d had meatloaf last week, I didn’t want hamburgers–and I was running out of time. Swedish meatballs, I thought–even though I’ve never fixed them in my life. But, a little nutmeg should do it, right? How long could it take?
I went online, found a recipe, and printed it off. And that’s where the fun began. I won’t print the recipe here–you can find one on your own–but I will confess all the permutations that developed along the way to our mutant meal.
First, Swedish meatballs are supposed to be baked, and I didn’t have time for that. Browning them to doneness would have to do. Second, the recipe includes bread crumbs soaked in cream. I didn’t want to take the time to make the crumbs, and I didn’t have any cream. So, I crushed up some soda crackers. A crumb’s a crumb, right?
Then I noticed that the meat is supposed to include ground pork. Right. I didn’t have any of that, either. Could a bit of pork really make a difference? I hoped not, as I proceeded without it. Since I had the salt, pepper, nutmeg allspice and ginger, I was still feeling fairly hopeful.
I heated the pan, and began pinching off portions of the meat to shape and brown. When they were done, I’d be adding some flower to the drippings and then some beef broth. I headed to pantry to get those ingredients ready–and found no beef broth.
At this point I let loose with a loud wail, and George came running.
“I don’t have any beef broth,” I howled. Nor chicken broth. How about the vegetable broth I’d been collecting in the fridge, he suggested. No, no, no, that just wouldn’t be the same. I was getting frantic. And stubborn.
Finally, he pointed at the canned soups.
“How about mushroom soup?” he said, a bit of desperation creeping into his own voice. Mushroom soup? MUSHROOM SOUP? Ick! I was not in the mood to be consoled with second- or third-choice ingredients, nor to be adventurously experimental for which I usually pride myself.
But the meatballs were finished cooking, the drippings were sizzling, and I had to add SOMETHING to that pan. I reached for the soup, still muttering under my breath “ick, ick, ick.”
I swirled the soup around, thinned it with a little bit of milk, then added some plain Greek yogurt–because of course I didn’t have the sour cream the recipe called for. I probably would have made that substitution anyway, but at this point every ingredient change was hitting me like a mortal wound to my culinary heart.
Finally, I plated our meal and called George to the table.
“Here you go, Swedish meatballs–such as they are,” I said, determinedly ungracious about what to me was a total fiasco.
George took a bite, his face impassive. Then he took another.
“Well, I don’t care what you call them. These are GOOD!” he said. And I, grudgingly, had to agree. While I couldn’t quite call them the real thing, they were tasty. I admitted it to George.
“If you hadn’t suggested that soup, I’d probably still be standing in the middle of the floor, wringing my hands,” I said.
For some reason this brings to mind an episode of the science fiction show “Babylon 5,” where the alien G’Kar has invited a fellow Narn to his quarters for dinner. His guest is delighted that G’Kar had managed to import breen, a Narn delicacy, for this meal.
“It isn’t actually breen,” G’Kar confesses. “It’s an earth food. They are called Swedish meatballs. It’s a strange thing, but every sentient race has its own version of these Swedish meatballs. I suspect it’s one of those great universal mysteries which will either never be explained…or which will drive you mad if you ever know the truth.” (For the full effect, click here and watch the clip for yourself.)
I wouldn’t go so far as to say my mutant meatballs would drive a dinner guest mad if he knew the truth, but I think their precise identity would stump even the Narns. I console myself with the thought that maybe there’s a sentient race out there who fixes theirs exactly like mine.