The not-so-lowly meatloaf
Weary from fighting blizzard leftovers on the daily commute or exhilarated after an afternoon of sledding, supper needs to be something warm and soul-warming. Yay, comfort food!
An old idea that never goes out of style on the family table. Food snobs once considered it beneath them, or didn’t consider these homely kind of dishes at all. Today, the food snobs line up around the block at trendy neighborhood eateries to enjoy roasted chicken, beef pot pie and meatloaf by the huge plate, garnished with gravy and mashed potatoes.
Comfort food, some defined by childhood, others acquired later, runs the gamut from fried chicken to stew with dumplings; rice with beans to lasagna to cinnamon toast. Some chefs include burgers on that list, but I consider that fun food, especially piled up with everything from avocado to fried zucchini.
The one comfort food that everyone agrees on is meat loaf. Meat loaf has staying power. Find a recipe in any American cookbook starting with Fannie Farmer over a century ago. In modern times, recognized American food champions from Beard to Bittman include it in their books.
Now, I know my way around a good meat loaf. I love it, hot out of the oven. I love it with gravy. I love it cold in a sandwich the next day. It takes kindly to all kind of additions and interpretations as long as the cook begins with the basic two ground meats, bread and an egg. Savvy moms have been known to sneak vegetables into it and the kids just lap it up without realizing that something good for them is in there.
After a lot of research, here’s the absolute bottom line recipe:
Basic Meat Loaf
Makes 6 hearty servings
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
1/2 cup milk
1 pound each ground beef and ground pork
1 egg, whisked
1/2 cup grated cheese, cheddar, Parmesan or American
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 small onion, grated (optional)
Pinch ground sage or thyme
Salt, fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup chicken or beef stock
3 slices lean bacon
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Soak the bread crumbs in the milk until fully absorbed. Lightly grease a loaf pan or other baking dish large enough to hold the meat.
2. Mix together all the remaining ingredients except bacon. Pack into the loaf pan. Place the bacon strips on top. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes until firm and browned on top and bubbling around the edges.
Now to the expansion teams — easier cooking and fun twists in the basic.
First, I always double the recipe. After mixing the ingredients, I divide it in half, pack it into two loaf pans. Freeze one; bake one.
Second, when baking, I put the meat loaf on the middle shelf of the oven, then put a sheet pan on the lowest shelf. Fats and juices that leak fall onto the sheet pan which is a lot easier to clean.
Third, I consider meatloaf a blank slate to scribble on at will. I add or subtract as the mood fits or according to what’s in the fridge. I add chopped mushrooms, grated carrots, fresh herbs and breadcrumbs from all types of bread.
For instance, take the basic meatloaf and make it meatball-style. Change up the bread crumbs to seasoned ones. Buy them or make our own with the oregano, garlic and onion powders in the kitchen cabinet. Add chopped fresh basil or a spoonful of pesto sauce or canned tomatoes in place of the water or stock. Pack half the meat into the loaf pan, line the center with mozzarella, top with the other half. Then nap it with your favorite tomato sauce halfway through baking.
Or give it Thanksgiving flavors. I’ve discovered the easiest way to do this is with a box of stuffing mix. Pour out half the box into a large bowl. Add hot chicken stock or hot water to soak it. Wait a few minutes for it to cool. Then add the ground beef and pork. Make sure that the mixture is moist, adding water or stock until you like the texture. That’s it! Skip all the other ingredients. You can still add the beaten egg and top with bacon. But it’s not necessary.
On the side, I make mushroom gravy. So easy and not full of fat. I slice up about half a pound of mushrooms, sauté them in a very small amount of butter or canola oil. When they are lightly browned, sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring, for about 2 to 3 minutes. Then I add about a cup of chicken or beef stock, keep it over the heat, still stirring. It’s looking good about now, starting to thicken. But I need just a smidge more richness — about a quarter cup of fat-free half-and-half, still stirring. One more minute, and done!
While the meat loaf bakes, for about 45 minutes, I make the gravy, vegetables, and set the table. Perfect for a cold night when you’ve just dragged the kids in from hockey practice or piano lessons and there’s still homework to do.
One more idea: meatloaf cupcakes. Get out the muffin tins, and grease them. Pack meatloaf mixture into each one. There should be 12. Bake them off. Because they’re small it only takes minutes, maybe 15 or 20, but for safety, take their temperature: The meat thermometer should read 160 degrees. Gently take out the mini meatloaves and put them on a baking sheet.
This next part is up to the cook: Either get out the pastry bag and pipe mashed potatoes on top of each little “muffin”or just dollop the potatoes on top. Keep warm in a 200 degrees oven until ready to eat. Top each one with a cherry tomato. They make a hit with even the pickiest kids.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.