Sweet and Sour Mustard Meatballs

Fall is my favorite season, as it is for many. Cooler air and beautiful colors in the trees are most welcome, in spite of knowing there will be Midwestern blizzards to come all too soon.

A change in seasons also means a change in cooking habits. Recipes for bountiful salads, ripe tomatoes, fresh berries and peaches all get retired for a few months, especially if you do your best to eat only what is local and seasonal. Instead, the heavy saucepots get pulled out of dusty corners, ready for chili and soups and stews.

One of those dishes I hunger for as soon as cool weather hits is this Sweet and Sour Meatball recipe. It came to me from a charming Polish grandmother who spoke only a few words of English and suffered from a number of medical maladies, which kept her from being able to do her own cooking. But she was determined to teach me some of her traditional dishes “from the old country,” and I was enthusiastic to learn.

Through a lot of charades –and a whole lot of laughter—we spent many Sunday afternoons in her kitchen. She sat on a kitchen stool, pointed and said things I didn’t understand, while I tried to guess what her instructions, never written down of course, might mean as I chopped and stirred. My greatest joy was when she tasted something upon completion and her eyes shone, and she clapped her bent arthritic hands to let me know I’d done it right. Charades has never been more rewarding.

Needless to say, her recipe included making these meatballs from scratch. I admit that I often take a shortcut and use frozen pre-cooked meatballs, but I’ve given instructions for both ways to do it.

I am especially fond of the sweet and sour flavor profile and here it is achieved by blending common yellow mustard, vinegar and brown sugar with the addition of whole allspice berries. Once the sauce has simmered, you should taste and adjust with more sugar or vinegar to get the balance the way you would like it.

I was once on a great cooking adventure in Ireland where attaining allspice became quite a challenge. Our ingredient lists had been submitted in advance for the things we would need to serve several hundred guests. Upon arrival, some things just had not come through in translation; allspice was one of those things. I was presented with a packet of some kind of ground spice mixture which I was assured “has all the spices in it”…. not quite the same thing!

Allspice is a flavor often present in Eastern European dishes but not often found in our daily meals, except sometimes as one of the many spices in something like peach or pumpkin pie. But whole berries are available in most baking sections of regular grocery stores or from online suppliers.

The Spice House, my favorite source for all kinds of spices, has this to say about it:

“Harvested in Jamaica from 40-foot pimenta trees and named because it is reminiscent of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg all at once, allspice berries lend a rich, warm flavor to barbecue sauces, jerk seasoning, gingerbread, and apple pie.”

The whole berries last a very long time, years in fact, so invest in a jar and you will be ready for this dish to warm you all through the fall and winter, no matter how much snow falls where you are!

Sweet and Sour Mustard Meatballs

Serves 4 -6

  • 3 strips bacon, chopped in small pieces
  • 3/4 cup very finely chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons flour

For the sauce:

  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 4 Tablespoons yellow mustard
  • 10 whole all spice berries
  • 3 Tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 20-ounce package pre-made meatballs (see note below)
  • 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

1. In a 5-quart deep pot, cook the bacon over medium heat until lightly browned and it has rendered its fat. Add onion and continue to cook, stirring until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the flour and stir for 1 minute.

2. Add all sauce ingredients, lower heat to medium low and stir to dislodge any browned bits from the bottom. Cook for 2 minutes. Add the meatballs and lower the heat to simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Boil the potatoes and crush slightly with a potato masher. Serve the meatballs and sauce over the potatoes.

Note: The original version of this recipe from that Polish grandmother includes instruction for making the meatballs from scratch. I often opt for the frozen version to save time, but here is the original if you would like to make them yourself:

  • 1-1/2 pounds ground meat – a mixture of pork and beef if possible
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 large onion, grated or chopped very fine
  • 1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup bread crumbs

1. Mix well and roll into 1” balls. Drop into a bowl which holds the flour and bread crumbs and roll to coat.

2. Brown in the bacon drippings in batches, removing as they brown. Add all sauce ingredients except the flour to the same pan and simmer, scraping up bits from the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook and serve as above.