The last time we went to Holland, my husband and I both got really nasty sick halfway over the Atlantic. It was the worst gastro-intestinal virus I’ve had in years, certainly, if not ever — and we spent the first 48+ hours of our trip in bed, shivering and miserable.
When we finally felt well enough to eat, my husband’s aunt sent over groentesoep met gehaktballen — a vegetable soup with meatballs. It was like gezellig in a bowl: salty, with beefy broth, spoon-sized meatballs the size of marbles, and some vegetables I was still too muzzy-brained to identify. It was probably the happiest a bowl of soup had ever made me feel (with the exception of this potato soup with truffles I ate in Maastricht one time, but no soup’s ever gonna top that).
A couple of months ago — around the time the weather got cold and I started thinking about Dutch food — I became determined to reverse engineer this soup. I knew the two main components — soup and meatballs — and I asked my mother-in-law about it, what was in it, how it was made, et cetera. She told me in the Dutch supermarkets, you’d usually buy pre-chopped soup vegetables, cover it with water, and add a Maggi bouillon tablet or two, along with the meatballs.
Seemed simple enough, I reckoned.
I started with the meatballs, finding a couple different recipes for gehaktballen, and then came up with the following:
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 1 egg
- 2 slices bread, crusts removed, torn into small pieces
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
Cover the pieces of bread with milk and let soak until soft. Squeeze out excess milk and add bread to bowl, along with remaining ingredients. Mix well.
I formed the meatballs with a small melon baller, and I think that was maybe a little too big. They should be about the size of a rounded teaspoon. I started by browning a couple of them in a pan, until I realized the meatballs were probably poached in the soup instead. No matter; I ate the browned ones while I cooked.
I simmered the meatballs in about 4 cups of water in the soup pot, along with a bouillon tablet. Here’s what I did next:
- 4 leeks, quartered and sliced 1/4″ thick
- 2 carrots, quartered and sliced 1/4″ thick
- 1 large waxy potato, peeled and diced
- 1 tsp. pepper
- 1 tsp. thyme
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 2-3 bouillon tablets (I used a combination of beef and vegetable)
- 8-10 cups water
Combine all ingredients. Simmer 45-60 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
I started with the leeks and carrots and let those simmer together. I didn’t want to add any potato, because I always make way too much soup, and freezing what’s leftover becomes out of the question with the addition of potato — however, I evidently added one bouillon tablet too many and really needed a potato to make it less salty.
The meatballs — while really good — just didn’t have the texture I remembered. I think instead of a meatball with eggs and bread, those meatballs were just seasoned meat, more like these.
Still, the end result came really damned close to what my husband and I remembered. The leeks were soft and almost buttery-tasting. The carrots added a note of sweetness. Even the potatoes were okay, although I don’t think I’d add them again, along with a couple of changes I think I’d make.
But for now, here it is — groentesoep met gehaktballen: the beta version, stable but not ready for general release just yet.