It’s winter and times are uncertain — and we could all do with some hygge right now. You might have heard about hygge, a Danish word that’s made a splash beyond its Nordic borders. It’s an appealing term, albeit linguistically challenging (pronounced WHO-gheh). The meaning, however, is hardly challenging.
Hygge is an intrinsic notion of comfort, warmth and coziness that transcends borders and language. It’s not so much an object as it is a state of being. Hygge and its adjective, hyggelig, can refer to a gathering, a meal, a conversation or simply a collective and communal moment, enhanced by good will and simple yet pleasurable things, such as flickering candles, fleecy blankets, a cup of tea, an uplifting conversation or delicious homemade food. Hygge is nondenominational, nonjudgmental, undemanding and egalitarian. No wonder it’s so popular. We all need a dose of it.
Which brings me to meatballs.
If there is any food group that evokes intergenerational and international comfort, it’s meatballs. Not only do they simply taste great, meatballs are in nearly every cuisine and enjoyed by children and adults alike. Your mother likely made meatballs, and so did her mother. They are the epitome of comfort food, burrowed into our culinary DNA, establishing a baseline that transcends economy, class and the ages.
And, as with most comfort food, meatballs are an efficient means to stretch inexpensive cuts of meat by jumbling the ingredients with herbs and spices, and braising them in rich and robust sauces and stews, ladling them over noodles, swiping them in dipping sauce and piling them into double-fisted sandwiches. There is a recipe for everyone and every preference, including vegetarian with beans and legumes.
Eating them is unpretentious, comforting and immensely fulfilling, and bets are that you’ve been nibbling on meatballs since you were old enough to wrap your fingers around them. So, while I cannot light a fire or knit mittens for you, I can at least share a meatball recipe with you and wish you a hyggelig meal.
In keeping with the origin of hygge, these lettuce wraps are inspired by Nordic cuisine with straightforward, no-nonsense spices and garnishes. I’ve taken the liberty to substitute cranberries for what would be lingonberries, which grow prolifically in Sweden. Lingonberries can be tricky to find here, unless you live next to an IKEA. Cranberries provide the same tart kick, and you might even have some left over from Thanksgiving.
Spiced Meatball Lettuce Wraps With Cranberry and Dill
Makes 24 to 28 meatballs
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 sprig rosemary
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, such as panko
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
1/3 cup fresh dill, chopped, plus extra for garnish
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more for garnish
Olive oil for pan-frying
Butter lettuce or little gem lettuce leaves
Sour cream or whole-milk European-style plain yogurt
Prepare the compote: Combine all of the compote ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the berries break down and the compote thickens, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, discard the rosemary sprig and cool.
Prepare the meatballs: Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is soft, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly, then add the remaining ingredients, except the oil. Gently mix to uniformly combine without overmixing. Using your hands, form the meat in 1-to-1 1/2-inch meatballs. Arrange on a plate and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the meatballs in batches without overcrowding. Cook until browned on both sides and thoroughly cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain and repeat with the remaining meatballs. Keep warm.
To serve, place 1 to 2 meatballs in the center of a lettuce leaf. Top with a small dollop of compote and sour cream. Garnish with additional black pepper and dill sprigs. Roll up and eat.
Lynda Balslev is a San Francisco Bay Area cookbook author, food and travel writer and recipe developer.