When I was four years old, I got my first kitchen job. My grandmother Britt let me slice cucumbers. It’s one of my earliest memories; I stood on a box in her kitchen and used a dull table knife to cut the vegetables. It was a good job for a young child; we used sliced cucumbers for the pickles we always had with my grandmother Doris’s meatballs. When I was little, I thought the meatballs were huge, but now I think they only seemed that way to a small child.
I included those meatballs in my new book, The Nordic Cookbook. I collected the recipes from home cooks all over Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Åland and the Faroe Islands. (People ask about the difference between the Nordic region and Scandinavia. The answer is that only Sweden, Norway and Denmark are considered part of Scandinavia.) There’s a popular Saturday radio show in Sweden called Meny—it’s iconic, it’s been around forever—and I asked people to send in their recipes. I got more meatball recipes than just about anything else—several dozen of them, some handwritten on index cards, many exactly the same even though the people who sent them described them as treasured family recipes.
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As I wrote my book, I discovered that meatballs highlight the diversity of Nordic cooking: Our cultures are quite similar but also fundamentally different. In Denmark and Norway, cooks make meatballs from ground pork, but my Swedish grandmother’s version has ground beef, too; they’re not too heavy or too dry because she added boiled potato. We always had those meatballs with lingonberry jam, but in Denmark, they’re often served in a curry cream sauce.