One of the best things about living in three states in three years is learning how food traditions differ just within the Midwest.
Growing up in the Twin Cities, comfort food equaled wild rice and chicken soup from the Byerly’s cookbook. In North Dakota, most restaurants served creamy knoephla soup made with dumplings and potatoes. Some Midwesterners call casserole hot dish and hot dish casserole. My friend Donna grew up in South Florida and now lives in a small town hear the Iowa border. The first time someone asked her to bring a “hotdish” to a church potluck, she felt confused, wondering why on earth they would want her to bring a hot (as in temperature) serving dish.
In Minnesota, we always called our favorite state fair food “cheese curds,” but here, they’re often listed as “cheese balls.” I grew up eating cream cheese wontons in Minnesota, but found mostly crab ragoons in Iowa. Ranch dressing seems to be popular throughout MN, ND & IA, but arrives with everything that’s fried in North Iowa. Not that I’m complaining, or anything.
One food that I first tried in Iowa is ham balls. Ham balls are not body parts, but balls of ground ham typically bound together with graham cracker crumbs and egg, and baked in a sweet and sour sauce. Most recipes I found in church and community cookbooks include a can of tomato soup in the glaze. Our local butchers and grocery stores sell pre-cooked ham balls and ham ball/ham loaf mix composed of half ground pork and half ground ham. Last fall when I tried to put my own twist on ham balls. I added panko as a binder and baked them a spicy cranberry sauce, calling them “Iowan Ham Balls.” A couple of readers let me know that although they looked good, the ham balls didn’t resemble what they grew up with and so I called on Val.
Val of Corn, Beans, Pigs & Kids actually served me my first ham ball at a potluck and I thought it tasted pretty darn fantastic. I’ll always remember how Amy Hild commented that she typically didn’t like ham balls, but loved Val’s version. A few potlucks later, Amy wrote about how I always brought the weirdest dishes, but she liked them the best. I must confess that I usually like whatever Val brings the best. She’s a farmer, mother of three young children, and fantastic cook and so I was thrilled when she graciously accepted my request for a ham ball tutorial.
When I arrived at her home, Val greeted me at the front door and ushered me into the kitchen. With a chef’s knife in hand, she stated, “Well, the first thing you need for great ham balls is fresh ham.” I froze and blinked, wondering if she meant we were going to butcher a hog. She laughed and pulled out a small ham for this demo as I sighed with relief. However, they do raise and butcher their own hogs for home consumption.
Val developed her own ham ball recipe and added that this isn’t a dish her mom prepared often.
To begin, Val chops the ham in a food processor. Unlike ham ball mix, hers only contains chopped ham instead of the ground ham-pork combination. To the ham, she adds eggs, milk and graham cracker crumbs. You can crush your own or buy them in a box. The boxed crumbs have a fine texture and are usually located near the pre-made pie crusts.
Then, she forms the mixture into balls. The size is up to you.
Val prepares the sauce by combining one can of condensed tomato soup, vinegar, dried mustard, and brown sugar. She’s also glazed them with her favorite barbecue sauce.
Finally, she bakes the ham balls for one hour.
I know, the tomato soup freaked me out, too. When the dish finishes baking, the sauce tastes more like a sweet and sour glaze. Some ham balls have struck me as too sweet, but these taste just right. I think it’s because Val only uses ground ham (instead of adding ground pork) and combines it with the graham cracker crumbs for a little sweetness.
Her son joined us for a taste test and gave his approval.
For Val’s exact recipe visit her blog at Corn, Beans, Pigs & Kids. Even if you don’t think you like ham balls, her’s might be worth a try!