Sunday, September 06, 2009

Prussian Meatballs: Echoes from a vanished kingdom

The historic and cultured East Prussian port city of Königsberg ("king’s mountain"), established as a German outpost by the crusading 13th century Teutonic Knights, became wealthy during the Hanseatic League and was later home of the Prussian kings. Königsberg is no more.

Extensively bombed by the Allies toward the end of World War II, the city was captured by the Soviet Army, its German population expelled, and recreated as the Russian city of Kaliningrad. However Prussian meatballs, "Königsberger Klopse" (literally meat dumplings in Low German), live on in the traditional cuisine of Germany.

I first tasted and became enchanted with these huge, elegant meatballs, enriched with spices and minced anchovies, as a teenager. My mother and I were invited to dinner at the home of her boss, a professor from Austria. His wife Edi, a substantial, cheery German woman, had been a soldier during the war, serving as a truck driver and mechanic. Her meatballs, learned during childhood, showed an exotic trace. Cuisines in port cities often do. Curry overtones brightened the otherwise very German caper sauce.

It took some trial and error to reproduce Edi's Prussian meatballs. The recipe serves six plentifully, as is the German custom. Accompany the meatballs with boiled potatoes or noodles.

Consistent with the origins of this dish, beer would be the drink. However, a chilled Riesling, preferably dry or nearly dry, would also pair with the subtly complex flavors.

Prussian Meatballs -- Königsberger Klopse

Meatballs:
4 tablespoons finely minced onion
1 tablespoon canola oil
6 tablespoons quick-cooking oatmeal
1 (2-ounce) can anchovy fillets, including their oil
6 tablespoons unseasoned breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs
2 pounds ground beef chuck or 1 pound each ground chuck and pork

Broth and sauce:
3 cups water
4 slices of onion
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon curry powder (or 1/4 teaspoon each coriander, cumin, and turmeric, large pinch each ground fennel and cayenne)
1 tablespoon flour mixed with 1-1/2 teaspoons canola oil
2 tablespoons capers, drained (rinsed, if packed in salt)
Minced parsley for garnish

Gently fry onion in oil until softened. Transfer to bowl.

With chef's knife on cutting board, coarsely chop oatmeal. Add to bowl. Pour oil from anchovies into bowl. Mince anchovies, and add to bowl. Add crumbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, nutmeg, pepper, and eggs. Beat everything together lightly. Mix meat in well with your hands.

With moistened hands shape six large evenly-sized meatballs. Set them on waxed paper. Chill them if there is time.

In a wide pot, simmer water, onion slices, bay leaf, and salt. Gently place meatballs in the water. Cover pan and steam meat balls 10 minutes over low heat. Carefully turn meatballs with thin spatula. Steam them 10 more minutes. Turn once more, and steam 5 minutes.

With slotted spoon, transfer meatballs to serving platter. Cover loosely with waxed paper, and keep warm.

Remove bay leaf and onion from the broth. Skim off grease. Add curry powder or spices. Boil broth down to about 1-1/2 cups. Reduce heat. Whisk in flour-oil mixture. Simmer 2 minutes, whisking often.

Remove from heat. Stir in capers. Taste sauce, and add salt if needed.

Spoon sauce over meat balls (do not pour from pan, or it be messy). Dust with a little minced parsley.

Serve with boiled, buttered potatoes or egg noodles.

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