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Sleekly Swedish, hold the horse

An examination of a family tree usually reveals tangled roots, a twisted amalgam of genetic histories, nationalities, religions. The end result: we’re mutts.

I like to ponder my muttiness.

I was doing online research the other day, scouting for info on the Swedish side of the family. Isberg is a Swedish name: Ice Mountain — something familiar to denizens of the frozen north. Kind of like an Englishman with the name Greenfield. Or Dampspot.

Growing up, I was made acutely aware of my Swedish ancestors on special occasions, particularly via foods offered at holiday dinners. After all, nothing will make you more proud to have Swedish ancestors than a heapin’ helpin’ of lutfisk.

There was the food, and there was Uncle Bud, who concentrated intensely on his father’s Swedish forebears, to the exclusion of his mother’s more mysterious predecessors. Uncle Bud was Swedophile to the max and, if there was any question whether there were Vikings in the closet, the doubts were erased when we read the Swedish salutations soaped on the windows of his house as we arrived for the Christmas Eve smorgasbord.

“God Jul!” (this from folks who never darkened the door of a Christian church). “God kvall,” “Valkommen.”

Then, the food and drink: inlagd sill, julskinka, Janssons frestelse and glogg (too much julglädje and you’re trashed and need a ride home).  And my fave, köttbullar. Oh, my, even I was willing to be a Swede for the evening if I had unrestricted access to köttbullar. And Bud made it well.

So, with this in mind, you can imagine how thrilled I was to go to an IKEA store.

If you were raised with the stock delusions of the American pseudo-Swede (longboats, berserkers, the triumph of the Northmen, blah, blah, blah) IKEA is a game-changer.

There’s not a Viking in sight.

Kathy forced me to go to the IKEA store in Denver by noting that reluctance would be a sign our relationship had eroded to nothingness, a meaningless habit. She resorted to extremes to get me to shop with her, comparing me unfavorably with dorks who, in her opinion, are at their mates’ command.

I grumbled.  I went.

The joint is huge, and blue. With immense yellow letters on the side of the building: IKEA.

Blue and yellow. Get it? I like the two colors on the Swedish flag. Love those colors on the uniforms of the Swedish Olympic hockey team. On a huge building, they’re a bit much.

In the place of Vikings, I find a gaggle of IKEA staff members, each wearing a yellow and blue shirt. Many of the staffers are teens. Many of these are obviously perched as high on the employment ladder as they will ever ascend.

The place is a warehouse for a wild variety of goods — all done up to look sleek, modern … Swedish. You know: minimalist, functional, subdued. Some might say repressed.

And most of it is crap.

IKEA is the Scandinavian Pier 1. Writ large. Very, very large.

We wander the narrow pathways of IKEA for what seems to be days. There are no aisles in the store (very chic), rather, the customer meanders along a winding lane on the second floor of the building that takes him or her from one themed section to another, from Living Room to Household Storage, from Kitchen to Bedroom. From one pile of crap to another.

The joint also features set pieces — dwelling spaces of a particular size, replete with all the cheap crap you need to make it look minimalist, functional, subdued. Swedish.

If, for example, you live in a 200 square-foot Dumpster or a shipping container, IKEA displays a sleek way to furnish your space. Got a 500 square-foot windowless walkup? How about a bunk bed for you and Lars? Does your apartment include a kitchen? If so, try a few of the crapboard cabinets. Sleek, aren’t they?

There are bins and tubs and boxes and shelves crammed with geegaws and cheesy utensils, and the lanes seem to stretch to an unreachable horizon.

And there’s another story to the building! The first floor contains all the cheap crap, boxed and ready to go. You select what you want as you wander the second floor showrooms, you pick up the cheap crap on the first floor. You can’t get out of the building without passing through the maze.

Every few minutes, as I drag my fatigued carcass into yet another Nordic set piece, a goof in a stained blue and yellow shirt appears and asks if I am finding everything I want. Oh, yes. Yes, indeed I am.

Just when the angst nears a peak, Kathy and I stagger around a gentle bend in the lane and we arrive at the IKEA food area. I am hesitant to call it a restaurant and, with its sleek, subdued and modernist cafeteria process, it is hardly a cafe. Let’s call it the IKEA Fuel Space.

And what does the IKEA Fuel Space offer the famished shopper?

What else? Cheap crap.

Including the company’s evil facsimile of köttbullar, aka the Swedish meatball.

I give these wads o’flesh the onceover, each meatball identical to the others packed with it in the steamtable tray. They bear a resemblance to Uncle Bud’s köttbullar, but something is amiss.

Perhaps the difference is due to the fact these meatballs were produced in a factory somewhere in, say, Slovenia. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the ingredients used in the monster-store version are not the pure, lovingly handled ingredients in Uncle Bud’s creation.

Horsemeat, anyone?

That’s right. If you pay attention to the news, you know there was a horsemeat scandal involving IKEA köttbullar. Seems some do-gooder, spoilsport science geek decided to test a batch of the meaty morsels and … oops … equine DNA.

I imagine there were hordes of Swedes, Danes, Swiss, etc. who cared less.

I would have cared less, if I had eaten them.

Why? OK, horse lovers, hold on to your saddle horns: I’ve eaten horse.

That’s right: I ingested horsemeat — a slab of what, for many upper middle class American women, passes for a divine being. Did it in France, at a small boite, at lunch, having wandered away from family.

Nearly ate a hunk at a little Swiss cafeteria in Lugano just north of the Italian border during a side jaunt from Lago Maggiore. Thanks to a shrill alarm sounded by Kathy, Miss Quadri-lingual, she, I, and a gaggle of American tourists were spared the shame of enjoying Trigger cutlets in a savory gravy. Served over spaetzle.

I avoided the horse at IKEA. In fact, I avoided any of the foodlike products dispensed in the Fuel Space, opting, instead, to haul Kathy to a nearby Japanese restaurant where I enjoyed a spicy tuna roll adorned with roe while she made faces at the food.

Big Blue and the köttbullar stuck in my mind, though.

I decided to give the meatballs a go. I am a big fan of meatballs, of all sorts. I eat very little red meat these days, and a meatball is a great way to enjoy a limited amount of well-seasoned cow and/or pig and/or lamb flesh. Or…

Eaten this way, meat becomes a side — an accent gracing a portion of carbs or veggies, topping a bread raft, an element in a tasty sauce.

The köttbullar are simple. Like Swedes.

These little beauties demand ground beef and pork in equal portions, say a pound each. Some folks add ground veal but, since I’ve already nauseated a significant number of readers by suggesting horsemeat is a viable protein, there’s no need to drag baby cows into the mix.

I’ll need three slices of cheapo white bread. No artisanal stuff here, folks. Cheapo white bread, crusts removed. Torn into pieces. (The rest of the white bread can be pulverized in a processor, dried and left as crumbs in a ziplock bag until they are thrown away a year later.)

The hunks of bread are soaked in a quarter cup-plus of half and half.

Half of a medium white onion is finely minced and cooked in butter until soft, then removed from the pan. When cool, the onion is added to the bread along with beaten egg yolks (three yolks if the eggs are small, two yolks if large).

Here’s where the arguments start: the spices.

No question, some ground nutmeg is going in. For sure there is salt and pepper.

Allspice?

Cardamom?

Parsley?

Ginger?

Me, I am staying on the minimal, traditional line: 1/4 teaspoon-plus ground nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon-plus ground allspice. Maybe, just maybe, if I get a wild hair and I’ve been drinking glogg, I’ll add a teensy bit of finely chopped parsley and a bit of minced and smushed garlic. If I was using horsemeat, I’d toss in some cardamom.

This all gets mixed up well, almost to a pasty consistency. These babies must be dense. They are not light fare.

Form balls with a tablespoon and a half worth of meat per ball.

Cook in neutral oil and butter over medium heat until the balls are browned, then pop them in a 200 oven on a covered plate.

Take the temp under the skillet down to medium low and add flour to the drippings in the pan to make a roux. Cook the flour taste out of the mix. You want a light-colored roux — beige — not a mahogany roux. There are no Swedes in the swamps.

Slowly add beef broth to the roux until it is on the very thick side of the gravy you wish to produce, then thin the mass with cream until you reach the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Put the meatballs in the pan with the gravy, coat well and, hoo boy, yah sure, you’re ready to go! Try the meatballs and sauce served atop a pile of buttered, parslied egg noodles. Write some goofy Swedish sayings on your windowglass with soap. Wear a yellow and blue T-shirt.

Before I get to work on a batch of köttbullar, I need to find the right pan for the job.

If only I had purchased that snazzy, sleek, Swedish non-stick pan at IKEA.

I’m such a Kötthuvud.

This story was posted on June 6, 2013.