Meatballs are the cupcakes of the world of meaty main dishes

September 25, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Meatballs can vary in type of meat used, flavor profile and cooking style. Here are samples of cashew chicken balls  made with cheddar cheese and already-cooked chicken  and a Mexican-style meatball, made with raw vegetables and meat that is first fried and then cooked in a chipotle sauce.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Meatballs are the cupcakes of the world of meaty main dishes — little bundles of flavor and texture that can be plain or fancy, zesty or bland.

And everybody who makes meatballs has a favorite flavor profile — Italian meatballs, barbecued meatballs, Thai meatballs.

Luke Fogle, kitchen manager of Mountain Gate Family Restaurant and Catering in Waynesboro, Pa., said his catering customers like his Swedish meatballs.

"We blend hamburger and sausage together, and we use our own special sauce," he said. "It's almost like a mushroom-flavored white sauce."

Roger Martin, owner of Penn Avenue Meats in Hagerstown, has two meatball recipes on his website,, a cheese-stuffed pizza meatball and a hamball.

"We have a recipe for hamballs that uses graham crackers. That adds a layer to the color and adds a neat second taste," he said. "Meatballs are seasonal. Ham is good with cool weather."

The rules for meatball recipes are strict. Some cooks use breadcrumbs or an egg to bind meatballs together. Some use bread soaked in milk. Some cooks say a better binder is a little salt — it breaks down proteins and allows them to bind. And some cooks don't use any binder at all.

Chefs also differ on cooking method. Some prefer to fry their meatballs on the stovetop. Some bake or broil their meatballs in the oven. And others cook their meatballs in a sauce.

Martin offered his tips for meatballs that won't fall apart. For beef meatballs, use lean beef — at least 85-percent lean, Martin said. Roll meatballs one at a time to help keep their shape. Make them no larger than an inch in diameter so they cook thoroughly. And before cooking them, chill them in the fridge.

Martin said he's done a lot of variations on the meatball theme. His Swedish meatballs contain cream cheese, milk, parsley, thyme and sometimes nutmeg. He makes barbecued meatballs with quick oats, chili powder, onion and evaporated milk.

In fact, he added, any meatloaf recipe also will make good meatballs.

"Making meatballs is a better, simpler dish than making meatloaf and slicing it thin," he said.

Fogle said there's room to experiment when it comes to meatballs.

"Meatballs are a versatile thing," he said. "You can really make up what you want to do."

I decided to make a balls-in-barbecue type of dish. So I pulled frozen, homemade salsa, chipotle sauce and bean broth from the freezer. The chipotle sauce was exceedingly hot, so I made the meatballs mild. But I also wanted the meatballs to have some other flavor than extreme spicy heat. So to the hamburger, I added minced mirepoix, the traditional French flavor mixture of onion, carrot and celery.


1 1/2 pounds ground beef

1 cup apple sauce

1 cup cooked rice

1/2 cup chopped onions

1 1/12 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

16-ounce can tomato sauce

Mix all ingredients except tomato sauce and shape into 14 to 16 balls.

Place meatballs in 13-inch-by-9-inch-by-2-inch baking pan. Pour tomato sauce over balls. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

— Courtesy of June Stolins of Halfway, member of TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) Md. 308

Chris' Fireballs

1 1/2 cups corn-tomato salsa (see cook's note)

2 cups very hot chipotle sauce (see cook's note)

2 cups black bean broth (see cook's note)

1/2 onion, minced

1/2 stalk celery, minced

1 carrot, minced

1 pound ground beef

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

Put salsa, chipotle sauce and bean broth in a pot on the stovetop and heat until simmering.

While sauce is heating, mix minced onion, celery and carrot together, then mix thoroughly with meat and salt. Form about 30 meatballs 1 inch in diameter — no larger than a ping-pong ball.

Heat wok or cast iron pan over high heat. Put half the olive oil in the pan, then half the meatballs. Brown the exterior of the meatballs by carefully rotating the wok or pan, or use a fork to keep balls turning. Be gentle to try to maintain round shape.

When meatballs are browned, in 5 to 7 minutes, transfer to simmering sauce with oil. Scrape pan, put in remaining oil and remaining meatballs and repeat cooking process.

When all meatballs are in sauce, transfer sauce and meatballs to slow cooker. If sauce is too thin, leave lid off to allow evaporation; if too thick, add just enough water to achieve desired consistency. Cook for 60 to 90 minutes on high setting.

Serve over rice or potatoes.

Serves 4.

Cook's notes: In place of salsa, chipotle sauce and bean broth, use about six cups — 48 ounces — barbecue sauce or other tomato-based sauce.

— Chris Copley, assistant Lifestyle editor

Cashew chicken balls

1/2 cup finely diced cooked chicken or turkey

1/2 onion, finely chopped

1/8 pound sharp Cheddar cheese, softened

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1/2 cup finely chopped cashews

Thoroughly combine all ingredients except chopped nuts in a bowl.

Using a teaspoon, scoop out chicken mixture to form balls. Roll in cashews and chill. These may be made ahead.

Makes 16 balls.

— A recipe by Bill Soulis in the 25th anniversary edition of "A Collection of Treasured Regional Recipes," a cookbook published by the Historical Society of Washington County. Copies may be purchased by calling 301-797-8782.

Pizza meatballs

1 pound ground chuck (see cook's note)

1 cup Italian-style bread crumbs

1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons dehydrated minced onion   

1 teaspoon garlic salt

Dash of freshly ground pepper

4 ounces mozzarella cheese

15-ounce jar pizza sauce

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine ground chuck, bread crumbs, milk, onion, garlic salt and pepper. Mix well.

Cut cheese into 24 cubes, each approximately 1/2 inch square. Cover each cheese cube with about one tablespoon of meat mixture, carefully sealing all around.

Place meatballs in a lightly greased 13-inch-by-9-inch-by-2-inch baking pan. Bake uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes or until done.

Cook's note: Roger Martin of Penn Avenue Meats suggests using ground beef with no more than 85-percent fat content.

— Courtesy of Penn Avenue Meats, north of Hagerstown

The Herald-Mail Articles