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Having a ball: Family's holiday fare also make good year-round staple

Ham balls are placed on a waxed paper-lined cookie sheet for freezing.1 / 2
A recent Sunday night meal included ham balls, mashed cauliflower and green beans.2 / 2

If I had to pick one food — just one — that embodied my family’s food traditions, that dish would, without a doubt, be ham balls.

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Ham balls were what Mom served at most holiday meals and family gatherings.

When Bryan and I got married 21 years ago, ham balls were the entrée for the reception.

Ham balls are what my nieces request when they come home to visit.

Guess what was on the menu last week for my sister’s belated Christmas celebration in Colorado? You got it — ham balls.

Yes, the Rickers clan is pretty much cuckoo over ham balls, especially during the recently passed holiday season.

But ham balls weren’t on the Christmas menu at my house this year. They came a bit later. Last week, I made a double batch of ham balls out of the remnants of our Christmas ham, thereby stashing away several meals in the freezer. As well as being a good special occasion food, ham balls are good year-round fare.

And, since Bryan and I are only two mouths to feed, I have developed an alternative method of preparing our family fave in the slow cooker in a smaller batch than the full recipe.

For those of you who are unacquainted with the culinary joys of ham balls, I am sharing the full recipe (also found on page 139 of the Dorthy Rickers “Mixing & Musing Cookbook” — the most stained and tattered page in my well-worn copy) with alternate instructions for the slow cooker.

Here are also some tips from the kitchen for making the absolute best batch of ham balls:

* Because I often use leftover ham, I process it in the food processor, pulsing it to ensure I don’t get it too fine. But the personnel behind the meat counter are usually willing to do this job for you when you buy the ham.

 * I also use the food processor to crush up the crackers. The resulting crumbs help to clean all the bits of ham out of the processor bowl.

 * THE KEY (yes, this is the most important thing I can tell you about this recipe, or any meatball) to good ham balls is not packing them too tightly. You must have a gentle touch to ensure they are moist and tender.

 * I use an ice cream scoop to portion out the ham ball mixture and get a uniform size. Then I use my hands to lightly smooth it into a round form.

 * Ham balls can be made in advance and frozen before baking. To freeze, place on a waxed paper-lined cookie sheet. Once the ham balls are frozen solid, they can be transferred to plastic freezer bags.

 * I have also made miniature ham balls for appetizers. Use a smaller cookie scoop to form the mixture and keep the cooked miniature ham balls warm in a slow cooker.

Ham Balls

2 pounds ground ham

1 pound lean ground pork (not pork sausage)

2 cups cracker crumbs

1 cup milk

2 eggs

Dash of pepper

For sauce:

½ cup vinegar

1 cup water

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

Lightly mix ham, pork, crumbs, milk, eggs and pepper. Loosely shape into balls (again, it is important not to press the meat tightly).

Arrange ham balls in a single layer in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, then turn.

Combine vinegar, water, brown sugar and mustard; pour sauce over ham balls and bake for 45 minutes longer, basting frequently.

Note: If ham balls have been frozen, let thaw in the refrigerator before cooking.

Slow cooker method: Heat a skillet over medium-high. When hot, coat lightly with cooking spray and add the desired number of ham balls to the pan. Brown ham balls on all sides, turning gently and watching carefully so they don’t burn. Add more cooking spray if necessary to prevent sticking.

Place browned ham balls into the slow cooker. Cover with sauce mixture (I generally halve the sauce recipe if making 8 to 12 ham balls and cut back on the water since the sauce won’t thicken as it does in the oven.) Cover and cook on low for 5 to 6 hours (or until you are ready to eat!).

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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