December 11, 2020

Stacey Ballis

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The Midwest Has Balls

A tribute to a holiday tradition, with recipes

The Midwest is as diverse in history and culture as a gathering of nations, which is appropriate, given that you could fit a dozen smaller countries between Appalachian eastern Ohio and the Great Plains.

But almost anywhere you go, you’ll find balls. Maybe a lot of balls.

No other region can claim balls as a more integral, dare I say foundational, part of its culinary identity. I can hardly remember a gathering that hasn’t included balls of some kind: Swedish meatballs, swimming in sour-cream-fortified gravy. Sweet-and-sour cocktail meatballs, simmered in barbecue sauce or the classic combination of ketchup or chili sauce and grape jelly. (My grandmother made the chili sauce version, which seemed fancier and more exotic. I follow her example.) Cheese balls, naturally. Dessert might include melting snowball cookies, or sweet caramel popcorn balls.

The Midwest Has Balls - Quote

Almost anywhere you go, you’ll find balls. Maybe a lot of balls. No other region can claim balls as a more integral, dare I say foundational, part of its culinary identity.

Some Midwestern balls are more geographically specific, including the Mandan corn balls that cooks in the Dakotas have shaped for centuries, Iowa’s sticky, tomato-glazed ham balls, and the deep-fried sauerkraut balls on bar menus in northern Ohio. Add the Jewish matzo balls and Italian meatballs, both well represented in my hometown of Chicago and across the Midwest, and you’re only just beginning to describe the buffet of balls here in Middle America.

Our devotion to balls makes sense. Many of the immigrants who settled these states brought strong sausage-making traditions. Many were frugal, determined to stretch their meat scraps. The same mindset that gave us goetta helps explain how grindings from a ham dinner became ham balls, or why we turn leftover cheese bits into cheese balls.

Our balls have survived, though, as much because they’re convenient as because of tradition. Most balls are quick, one-bowl mixtures, and most freeze and reheat well. They’re easy and delicious. And there you have the ethos behind heartland cooking: We love to feed our families and share food with friends, but we try to do it with minimal fuss. If we love you, we’ll serve you balls.

If you’re new to the tradition, or you’re spending the holidays away from the people in your family who usually handle the cooking, you can get a taste of heartland hospitality with these recipes from Iowa, Ohio, and across the Midwest.

Iowa Ham Balls

Makes 24 2-inch balls or 48 cocktail-sized balls

You’ve heard the saying that the definition of eternity is two people and a ham. Anyone who has ever made a ham for a small family knows that finding effective and delicious uses for the leftovers is a constant struggle. These traditional ham balls can be dinner, served with buttered egg noodles, rice, or mashed potatoes, or terrific cocktail meatballs. They freeze well. Just let them cool completely in the sauce, then transfer them to a zip-top bag. The sauce will help prevent freezer burn.

2 lb. smoked ham, ground coarsely in the food processor or chopped fine by hand
1 ½ lbs ground pork
2 eggs, beaten
1 ¼ cups milk (whole or 2% work best, but use what you have)
1 cup graham cracker crumbs (You can substitute butter cracker crumbs or crushed cornflakes)
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce
1 12-oz. bottle Heinz chili sauce (You can substitute ketchup)
1 cup brown sugar (You can substitute a cup of pineapple or ginger jam)
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 tsp. dried mustard powder

Heat your oven to 375 and place a rack in the center of the oven.

In a large bowl, mix ground ham and ground pork until well blended. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, milk and seasonings. Mix wet ingredients into the meat mixture until well combined, then sprinkle crumbs over the top and mix to form a paste. This method prevents pockets of dry crumbs. Form the mixture into balls the size you prefer. A 2-inch ball is traditional, but for cocktail parties, I like smaller, one-bite versions—about one inch in diameter, or a generous tablespoon. You can use a cookie scoop to help portion the balls.

Place the balls in a greased 9×13 baking dish. Blend all sauce ingredients and pour over the top. Bake uncovered for 75-90 minutes, turning over after the first 45 minutes, then checking every 15 minutes to ensure the sauce isn’t burning. Serve hot.

Ohio Sauerkraut Balls

Makes about 16-24 balls, depending on size

You can imagine that thrifty cooks might have used these tangy croquettes to repurpose a meal of pork roast and sauerkraut generations ago, binding the main ingredients with leftover mashed potatoes or breadcrumbs. They’re worth making from scratch. This is an ideal appetizer, especially for game day, served with mustard for dipping. Be sure to take some time to squeeze the kraut dry. It makes a difference in the balls’ final texture.

Ball mixture
3/4 lb. leftover pork chops or pork roast, ground coarsely in the food processor or chopped fine by hand (You can substitute chopped cooked bratwurst, about three links worth, or even shredded corned beef)
4 tbsp. grated yellow or white onion
1 14-oz. can sauerkraut, drained, squeezed as dry as you can manage, and chopped fine
2 tbsp. breadcrumbs or dried potato flakes
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. ground white pepper
¼ tsp. garlic powder
Pinch ground nutmeg
2 tsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 heaping tsp. stone-ground mustard

Breading and frying
2 eggs
¼ cup milk
1/3 cup flour
1 cup fine breadcrumbs
½ tsp. of kosher salt
¼ tsp. of ground white pepper
Canola oil, for frying

Mix all the ingredients for the balls in a large bowl until well combined. (Clean hands do the best mixing.) Let rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Once the mixture is firm enough to work with, shape your walnut-sized balls. I use a small cookie scoop to ensure they are all the same size, then roll them with slightly moistened hands to make them round. You can wrap and freeze the mixture for future balls, so I often make a double batch of the blend and freeze half to save time for the next event.

In a shallow bowl, blend the eggs with milk. Place the flour in another shallow bowl and the breadcrumbs in a third to create a breading station. Season the breadcrumbs with salt and pepper.

Dredge the balls in the flour, roll them in the egg mixture, then coat them in the breadcrumbs. Arrange them on a sheet pan as you bread them. Heat about a half-inch of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Pan-fry the balls in batches, browning on all sides, about 3-4 minutes. You can also deep-fry at 350 degrees if you prefer. Drain on paper towels on a rack over a sheet pan. Hold uncovered in a 200-degree oven until it is time to serve. Serve with mustard for dipping, or make a mustard sauce with whole grain mustard, sour cream, lemon zest and chopped chives.

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Midwestern Cheese Ball

Makes one large cheese ball, serving 12-16 people

A cheese ball is versatile. It can be savory or herby, spicy or mild, plain or fancy. This recipe allows you to follow your heart (and the contents of your pantry). Buttery crackers (think Town House) are the classic accompaniment, but you wouldn’t be wrong to use Saltines. Pro tip: Save some of whatever you roll your cheese ball in. Any amount of leftover cheese ball can be gently re-formed and re-rolled in the garnish before storing, and can make a second appearance.

16 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temperature
2 tbsp. mayonnaise or sour cream
4 oz. medium-hard to semi-hard cheese, shredded finely (Cheddar is the classic choice, but use what you like)
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp onion powder
1 tsp. lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Mix-ins and coatings (see recipe)

Mix the ingredients in your stand mixer with the paddle attachment until smooth. The result should be moldable, but not so firm that you can’t spread it. If it turns out too solid, add another tablespoon of mayo or sour cream to get the texture you like.

Form your mixture into a ball (or balls) and roll it in anything you like. I recommend choosing up to three ingredients from the following categories, for a total of between ¼ and 1 cup of coating:

  • Something oniony (sliced scallions, minced chives, minced shallot, caramelized onion, crispy French’s fried onions)
  • Something fresh (an herb or combination of herbs, or shredded vegetables: parsley, basil, cilantro, dill, carrots, zucchini)
  • Something sweet (dried fruit, sun-dried tomatoes, crystallized ginger)
  • Something savory (chopped prosciutto, bacon bits, salami, dried beef, pork cracklings, chopped toasted nuts)
  • Something spicy (red pepper flakes, chili crisp, minced fresh chili peppers, a favorite spice blend, a dash of hot sauce)
  • Serve with the crackers or bread of your choosing.

Midwestern Popcorn Balls

Makes about 12 balls

This sweet treat is as much fun for adults as for kids, made much easier by using the microwave for the complicated part. Feel free to add mix-ins such as nuts, M&Ms, or sprinkles.

10 cups popped popcorn, lightly salted, (I pop my own stovetop, but microwave or even store-bought bagged is fine)
1 stick butter, cut into pieces for easier melting
1 cup light brown sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Pinch of sea salt

This is a recipe where setting everything up in advance is crucial, because once you start, things move fast! Have a baking sheet ready, lined with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Place the popped popcorn in a large oven-safe bowl or roasting pan and hold it in a 250 degree oven while you make the caramel. You’ll have more time to make the balls if your popcorn is warm.

Add the butter, brown sugar and corn syrup to a large, microwave-safe bowl. Cook on full power for one minute. Stir carefully and cook for two more minutes, then stir again. That will give you a chewy popcorn ball. If you like a crunchier ball, or you just want to make some killer caramel corn, cook for one more minute. Just be warned: Crunchier balls have to be formed faster, since the caramel sets fast, so that style is better if you have at least two to four people forming them.

Remove the bowl of caramel from the microwave. Carefully stir in the baking soda and vanilla, which will make the caramel foam up, and immediately pour the caramel mixture evenly over the popcorn, mixing with a spatula until well-coated. Allow the mixture to cool only slightly, just so you can handle it. Grease your hands with butter, and gently shape the popcorn into roughly 2-inch balls. Place the completed balls on the prepared baking sheet, making sure they don’t touch. Let them cool completely. Wrap each ball with plastic wrap or waxed paper, or store it in a zip top bag or airtight container. Probably stored, hey will keep at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.


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