March Madness Over Reuben Meatballs

By Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

Daffodils, daylight saving time, green drinks, Lent and basketball: March is upon us. Everyone likes something different about this month, but I think we can all agree (at least us Midwesterners), it’s time to put out the welcome mat for the official arrival of spring.

Many people would consider Corned Beef and Cabbage the dish that best represents March; however, some have mixed opinions about this Irish dish. Like most foods, it likely has a lot to do with how it’s prepared.

When I mentioned Corned Beef and Cabbage in in a recent conversation with a gentleman I had just met (what can I say, I bring up unusual topics!), he immediately wrinkled up his nose and said, “Oh, I HATE that! Just the SMELL of the cabbage cooking in our house would drive me outside!” He probably would be willing to try it if he wasn’t so overwhelmed by the odor (see note below the recipes for tips on avoiding excess odor when cooking cabbage).

I wish I had asked him if he liked Reuben sandwiches. After all, isn’t a Reuben just Corned Beef and Cabbage between slices of rye bread? Sauerkraut replaces cabbage, Swiss cheese melts over the beef and there’s that tangy dressing either inside or beside the grilled goodness.

Thinking about the flavors that combine to make a Reuben such a tasty sandwich makes me want to turn it into a meatball. Therefore, I deconstructed the traditional Reuben sandwich and created a meatball recipe that captures its essence. In my opinion, meatballs deserve more credit – they’re easy to make, convenient to serve and freezer-friendly.

The main meatball ingredients are like the sandwich – beef, rye bread, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. There are quite a few additional ingredients needed to make this taste like a Reuben and not just another meatball. The spices are essential in bringing out the “corned” or salt-cured flavor. Eggs hold the mixture together. The carrots, onions and celery that are added to the pan before baking mimic the flavor corned beef would have obtained in the brining process.

You can buy Thousand Island dressing, but it’s easy to make. Tossing the dressing over some shredded green and purple cabbage, carrots and onions (or a prepared slaw mix) makes an amazing side dish and brings the cabbage element to the plate without any cooking or unwanted smells invading your kitchen!

Reuben Meatballs with Thousand Island Coleslaw

  • 2 teaspoons caraway seed, toasted
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 cups sauerkraut
  • 8-10 slices of rye bread
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon stone-ground mustard
  • 1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 stalks of celery, cut into 1-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Toast caraway seeds in a dry pan over low heat, stirring frequently, for 2-3 minutes or until fragrant. Remove from pan and place into a small bowl. Add black pepper, salt, cinnamon, allspice, clove and ginger. Place in a small food processor or coffee grinder and pulse until caraway seeds have been crushed. Mixture could also be placed in a resealable plastic bag, folded into a towel and crushed with light pressure from a rolling pin.

Add 2 cups of sauerkraut, removing as much liquid as possible, in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

Tear half of the rye bread slices into smaller pieces and place in a blender. Pulse until fine crumbs form. Measure resulting crumbs and repeat with more bread to make 3 cups.

In a large bowl, combine ground beef, 1½ cups of the chopped sauerkraut, spice mixture, eggs, mustard, 2 cups of the bread crumbs and cheese.

Form into 1 1/2-inch meatballs. If the mixture is too soggy, add more breadcrumbs (1/2 cup at a time). If the mixture is too dry, add liquid from sauerkraut (1/4 cup at a time). Adjust until meatballs will hold together. Place in a roasting pan or two sheet pans coated with cooking spray or lined with aluminum foil. Leave room between the meatballs to allow browning and even baking. Toss carrots, onions and celery in between the meatballs.

Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Larger meatballs may require more baking time.

Serve hot with Thousand Island Coleslaw.

Thousand Island Coleslaw

  • 1 14-ounce bag coleslaw mix (no dressing)
  • 1 cup salad dressing or mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons ketchup
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sweet or dill pickle relish*
  • 1 tablespoon stone ground mustard
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

*If using dill pickle relish instead of sweet relish, add 1 teaspoon of sugar to the dressing.

Combine all ingredients except coleslaw mix in a bowl and stir to combine. In a large bowl, combine coleslaw mix and half of the dressing. Fold together gently until coleslaw is lightly coated with dressing. Allow to rest for 10 minutes. The salt will draw out water from the cabbage, adding moisture to the slaw. More dressing can be added according to personal preference. Serve remaining dressing as a dip for the meatballs.

Tips for cooking cabbage: Overcooking cabbage is the primary reason for any lingering, strong odor. Adding a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar to the cabbage as it boils or sautés will help, too.

If all else fails, open a window. It is March, you know!