On a chilly November night not too long ago, I found myself huddled over a plateful of Swedish fare at Tre Kroner in Albany Park. My son’s soccer team had just lost a hyper-competitive sectional soccer match by the slimmest of margins and we were all feeling a little brokenhearted when we wandered into the cozy café.

I savored a pickled herring salad before diving into a serving of comforting Swedish meatballs. In fact, we all ordered exactly the same thing and walked away from the table feeling full and happy. It was an unexpectedly perfect meal and ever since stumbling upon that tiny Swedish restaurant my holiday menu planning has been focused on creating dishes worthy of a traditional Julbord.

A Julbord (pronounced “yuleboard”) is a longstanding Scandinavian Christmas Eve tradition. A buffet laden with pickled herring, savory pate, poached salmon, braised ham and cardamom spiked meatballs beckons holiday revelers to fill and eat plate after plate throughout the evening.

This festive time of year is well suited to grazing late into the night among friends, family and the merry glow of a Christmas tree. No matter what you choose to present on your own personal Julboard you plan leave room for my cardamom meatballs with potatoes, cucumber salad and lingonberries.

Served alongside a fluffy cloud of nutmeg-scented mashed potatoes, a proper plate Swedish meatballs begins with humble ingredients, but transforms into a vibrant and memorable dish thanks to unexpected flavor combinations. A rich combination of beef, pork and sweet spices like cardamom, nutmeg and allspice make up the meatballs. When nuzzled up to herbal notes of fresh dill, sour pickled cucumbers and tart lingonberries the dish becomes a think of yuletide bliss!

These savory meatballs can be made a day or two ahead, cooled and refrigerated. Simply reheat them in the gravy before serving with a duo of traditional garnishes. While I like to enjoy my Swedish inspired meatballs with a steaming hot cup of coffee, they would be equally lovely with a fruity red pinot noir to punch up the jammy lingonberry flavors on the plate.

Whether you are making a simple dinner for a small group or a bountiful julbord inspired feast fit for a larger crowd you can never go wrong when you whip up a batch of Swedish meatballs. They are a classic Christmas comfort food.

Cardamom Meatballs, Swedish Mashed Potatoes, Cucumber Salad and Lingonberries

Serves 6-8 as an entrée or 14-16 as part of a larger Julebord display.

Lingonberries can be found near the jams and jellies in finer super markets.

For the Cardamom Meat Balls (makes 3 dozen)

  • 4 Slices white bread, crust removed and cut into chunks
  • ¾ Cup milk
  • ¾ Cup minced sweet onion (about ½ an onion)
  • ¼ Cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
  • 1-1 ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 pound ground chuck
  • 1 pound ground pork

For the Gravy:

  • 8 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill
  • ½ Cup flour
  • 4 Cups Beef Broth
  • 1 beef bouillon cube or salt to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 heaping Tablespoon lingonberries

For the Cucumber Salad:

  • 1 English Cucumber, sliced into ¼” rounds
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • ½ sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • ¼ Cup chopped fresh parsley
  • ¼ Cup chopped fresh dill
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ Cup white vinegar
  • ¼ Cup cold water
  • ¼ teaspoon coarse black pepper

For the Swedish Mashed Potatoes:

  • 4 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” cubes
  • About 2 Tablespoons kosher Salt
  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ Cup whole milk
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

For the meatballs: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the cubed bread in a large bowl and cover with the milk. Allow the bread to soak for 10 minutes before adding all the remaining ingredients (except the meat) to the bowl. Mix well until a paste forms. Quickly mix in the meat until well combined. With damp hands, for the mixture into 36 (1 ½”) meatballs. Place the formed meatballs on a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake the meatballs for 25 minutes.

For the Gravy: Melt the butter in a large sauce pot. When the bubbling subsides add the shallots, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the dill and pepper; mix well. Whisk in the flour and continue to cook until flour is lightly golden-about 7 minutes. Gradually whisk in the beef broth trying to avoid lumps. Allow the mixture to simmer until it thickens. Add the bouillon cube and stir in the lingonberries. Adjust seasonings and keep warm.

For the Cucumber Salad: Toss the cucumbers with the salt and place in a large bowl. Place a plate over the cucumbers and weigh it down with a brick or some canned goods; set aside for 1 hour. Pour the liquid off the pressed cucumbers and mix with the onion, parsley, dill and lemon zest. Whisk the vinegar, sugar, salt, water, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Pour over the cucumber mix and toss well. Cucumbers can be made one day ahead.

For the Swedish Mashed Potatoes: Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water by 2”. Add salt (up to 2 Tablespoons) until the water tastes like the sea. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes until potatoes are very tender. Drain well and mash with ricer, mixer or by hand. Allow the butter to melt over the potatoes and mix well. Stir in the nutmeg and milk. Season to taste and serve.

To Serve: Serve the meatballs and gravy over the hot mashed potatoes with cold cucumber salad and extra lingonberries on the side. Garnish each serving with dill fronds.

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