What do fish cakes, meatloaf, rice balls, hamburger patties, and chicken nuggets have in common? All of them are made from ingredients which have been ground up or finely chopped. Most involve a combination of meat and some sort of non-meat filler, as well as spices, and most are glued together with egg and breadcrumbs, at a ratio of about ½ cup breadcrumbs (recipe #) to 1 egg.
Balls, patties, and loaves can be made from almost any ingredient. The possibilities include minced vegetables (fresh, frozen, or cooked); raw ground meats; grated cheese; canned tuna; canned or frozen beans; cooked grains; uncooked oatmeal; crushed tofu; chopped nuts; and seeds. The mixture can be made up of whatever is on hand. If the mixture is too crumbly, add more egg to stick it together. If it is too gooey, add breadcrumbs to firm it up.
How much time do you have to cook? If you are in a hurry, form the mixture into hamburger-sized patties. Pan-fry the patties on medium heat for about five minutes on each side. Serve as a sandwich, or on top of some salad greens, or with a side dish, or with a sauce on top.
If you have a little more time, or you are cooking for young children who would prefer finger-foods, make small balls or nuggets. Pan fry them, or bake them. Small shapes freeze particularly well, and can be quickly reheated in small or large quantity under the broiler or in the microwave.
If you don’t have much time to fuss with the mixture, but have time for it to sit in the oven, then squish it into a loaf pan or casserole dish and let it bake in the oven. Depending on the shape of the loaf, this may take an hour at 350 degrees.
In all cases, the food is done when it reaches 165 degrees in the middle. For balls and patties, you may be able to judge doneness by cutting one open to see if the mixture has lost the look of gooey raw egg. If the mix contains meat, when fully cooked, the meat will be gray rather than pink. A thermometer is advisable for loaves - but you may find that after making the same sort of loaf two or three times, there may be visible clues (such as meatloaf pulling away from the side of the pan) that you can use to judge doneness.
Balls, patties, and loaves are a great way to include foods in your family’s diet that are otherwise rejected, such as leafy greens. These recipes are also a good way to use up leftovers, such as cooked grain, or a stump of cheese, or a fresh vegetable that no longer looks its best.
The following recipes are just a small sampling of you can make into balls, patties and loaves. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Tuna Burgers, or Tuna Cakes (quick meal)
These tuna patties can be served on bread, like a hamburger, or as part of a salad or along with side dishes, as a fish cake. A tasty dip can be made for the latter by mixing equal parts of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard.
This makes two patties:
1 small can of tuna
½ cup bread crumbs
½ cup chopped vegetables, such as onion, celery, or red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt, as canned tuna tends to be salty)
(optional) other herbs, such as dill
Drain the tuna. Mix the ingredients thoroughly and form into two patties. Cook in a little oil - if the tuna is in oil rather than water, you can use a tablespoon of that to cook in - over medium heat for about five minutes on each side. Turn the patties carefully, as they are a bit fragile.
Meatballs (make in advance)
Meatballs can be made with any sort of ground meat. They can also be used to sneak some vegetables into the diet of picky kids. Meatballs do take some time to make, but can be made in large batches and then frozen. Meatballs can be served in sauces over rice or noodles, or they can be put in soups or stews, or they can be served all by themselves.
1 pound ground meat
1 cup of oats or breadcrumbs
1 cup of finely chopped or grated vegetables, such as sweet potato, winter squash, kale, mushrooms, carrots, onion, etc.
Mix together all of the ingredients. Roll into 1½ inch balls, and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet or casserole dish with space between the meatballs. (Ground beef will need to be cooked in a container that can hold the grease that cooks out of them, and this grease will need to be poured off halfway through cooking, and again at the end.) Bake at 350 degrees about 15 minutes, or until the meatballs are no longer pink inside. Err on the side of overcooking if you aren’t sure that the meatballs are fully cooked. The meatballs can then be served with a sauce over rice or noodles, or frozen for later use.
Serves 2 or 3 people.
Swedish Meatballs (quick meal)
Make up a batch of Southern Chicken Gravy (recipe #), with the addition of dill. Combine with meatballs or chicken nuggets, and serve over rice, pasta, or egg noodles.
To add additional vegetables to this meal without dirtying extra pots, first sauté some chopped onions and/or mushrooms, then proceed to make the Southern Chicken Gravy on top of them in the same pot.
Meatloaf (make in advance)
Meatloaf is just like meatballs, but instead of being cooked in balls, it is cooked in a loaf pan. It takes less time to prepare, but longer to cook. It is also a good idea to use a meat thermometer when cooking meatloaf.
2 pounds ground meat
1 to 2 cups of oats or breadcrumbs
1 to 2 cups (optional) of finely chopped or grated vegetables, such as sweet potato, winter squash, kale, mushrooms, carrots, onion, etc.
Other seasonings, such as sage or rosemary
1 or 2 eggs
Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly, and put in a loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, which will take about an hour. Serve with ketchup or gravy.
If your meatloaf is made with a ground meat that includes a lot of fat, you will need to remove it from the oven to pour out the grease after about 40 minutes of cooking. Pour out the remaining grease when the meatloaf finishes cooking. You can save the grease for making gravy, or wait until it cools, and dispose of it in the trash.
Leftover meatloaf slices can be frozen for use later. Leftover meatloaf can also be used to make chili or marinara sauce with meat.
Chicken Nuggets (make in advance)
This recipe can be used to replace fast-food chicken nuggets for children. If you make your own chicken nuggets, you can control what sort of filler goes into them, and you can hide vegetables in them. These chicken nuggets have the additional benefit of being baked instead of fried.
These nuggets freeze and reheat well, so you can make lots of chicken nuggets and then have them on hand as a quick frozen meal for kids.
1 pound ground chicken (or turkey or pork)
1 ½ cup grated or finely chopped white vegetable, such as potato, parsnip, or cauliflower.
(optional) 1/2 cup white cheese, such as cheddar or parmesan
1 small onion, grated, or 1 tbsp dried onion
½ cup dry bread crumbs or oats
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
(optional) ½ teaspoon each of garlic powder and paprika
Grate the vegetables finely (using the smaller holes on the grater), and squeeze out as much moisture as possible, if using wet vegetables like potato or onion. (To squeeze water from grated vegetable, squeeze a handful at a time over a bowl or the sink.)
Mix together all of the ingredients except for the meat and egg, using your hands to break apart clumps of grated vegetable. Then add the meat and egg, and finish mixing. Roll into 1½ inch balls - but leave them a bit misshapen for that “nugget“ look. Place on a lightly greased cookie sheet or casserole dish with space between the nuggets, and bake at 350 degrees for fifteen minutes. Serve with ketchup or mustard.
Chicken nuggets freeze very well, and can be reheated in the microwave or under the broiler.
Tofu Veggie Fingers, or “Dip Sticks” (cook in advance)
This is a great recipe for children who are picky about eating vegetables. The results look a bit like chicken nuggets, and can be dipped in ketchup or other sauces. If you call them “dip sticks”, your picky eaters never have to know what’s in them. You can make these in large batches and then freeze them for later.
Specific ingredients and exact measurements aren’t necessary, but for particularly picky eaters, try sticking only with white ingredients.
1 block of firm tofu
2 cups of finely grated or finely chopped white veggies. Possibilities include cauliflower, parsnip, and potato.
1 cup dry bread crumbs and/or oats
1 cup grated white cheese, such as cheddar or parmesan (optional)
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 tbsp white or brown sugar (optional)
1 tbsp vinegar (optional)
Preheat the oven at 350 degrees. Grate or chop the vegetables. If the veggies are particularly moist, squeeze out the extra water.
In a large mixing bowl, crumble the tofu with your hands until it is broken into crumbs. Add all the remaining ingredients until thoroughly mixed.
Squish a large handful of the mixture onto your chopping board. Use a knife to cut it into finger-sized slices, and use the knife to transfer these slices onto a baking sheet. Bake for about fifteen minutes at 350 degrees. Serve with ketchup or other dipping sauces.