Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Man food, redux

Any man who tells you that he doesn't like meatloaf has never had good meatloaf.  I realize that when some people hear the word "meatloaf" they think of some greasy spoon where they suffered their last gall bladder attack, or they envision of plate of compressed sawdust encasing items like overcooked hardboiled eggs and olives.  Some of us will conjure up fond memories of a dense, beige rectangle of congealed mystery meat under an oily blanket of off-color gravy.  And then some of us have actually eaten or made good meatloaf.  I'm sure there are less than three degrees of separation between you and someone you know who makes a great meatloaf.  It's one of the easiest things in the world to make if you have a good, basic recipe.  I know a woman who swears the secret to her otherwise pedestrian meatloaf is her topping of Rotel tomatoes and brown sugar.

Yes, Virginia, good meatloaf, outstanding meatloaf and even delectably superior meatloaf are not only possible, they are just mere minutes away from emerging from your own very oven!  The secrets, formerly behind a dark curtain and shrouded in myth, are now yours: a decent proportion of fat, good and plentiful seasonings, binders, and moisture, usually from milk.  Let's talk about fat first.  Face it folks, fat tastes good.  Why else would prime rib, bacon, chicken wings and baby back ribs be so popular?  Ergo, you can't have a great-tasting, perfectly textured meatloaf without fat.  We'll leave the discussion on the evils of animal fat for another day.  Just know that fat carries seasoning, braises the meatloaf as it cooks and even--GASP--provides the flavoring for a fabulous mushroom gravy, if you've a mind to make it.

Seasoning is also important.  First of all, don't be afraid to salt.  Many a mediocre meatloaf could have been redeemed if only the cook were not shy of salt.  One of my favorite TV chefs, Anne Burrell said once (and I paraphrase), "Salt.  It's why restaurant food tastes so good."  Meatloaf tastes better if it is rather highly seasoned.  Pate, which is nothing more than a very sophisticated kind of [cold] meatloaf, won its claim to fame not only because of its fat content and texture (not to mention an impressive shelf-life), but because it is usually beautifully seasoned.  And lastly, moisture, in the form of milk, broth or even catsup--and most importantly in combination with binders like breadcrumbs or oatmeal--makes meatloaf juicy and tender.  Do yourself a favor and stop the insanity: no more packages of dried breadcrumbs from the store.  It's so simple and inexpensive to make your own from stale bread and freeze them.  Once you taste the difference between homemade breadcrumbs (yum) and store bought breadcrumbs (stale cardboard), you'll never want to buy them again. 

If you've never considered that meatloaf could be succulent, the three meatloaf recipes below could change your mind.  Make a great meatloaf and you will surely make a man (and almost everyone else) happy.  Joyce Landorf, eat your heart out!

Diner Meatloaf  (from Square Meals by Jane and Michael Stern)

Despite its title, this meatloaf is a good place to start and produces great results everytime.  Three rules: don't use lean meat or fancy sirloin.  Ground chuck w/approximately 20% fat will ensure the meatloaf is juicy.  Don't skimp on binders such as oatmeal and breadcrumbs since they are extremely important to texture.  And please don't undercook.  Greige is the color of a proper Diner Meatloaf.

1 1/4 lbs. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground pork
3/4 cup uncooked oatmeal
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1 cup tomato juice (I've substituted thinned-down catsup)
1 onion, minced
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  Mix beef, pork, oatmeal and eggs.  Blend in remaining ingredients and mix well.
3.  Pack into a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan, shaping a rounded top.
4.  Bake 1 1/2 hours.  Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.  Drain off any juice.  Serve with mushroom gravy (below) if you wish.  Serves 6 to 8.

Mushroom Gravy

Skim fat from meatloaf drippings and pour into a small saucepan.  Whisk 2 Tbs. flour into 2 cups beef broth in a separate bowl and add to drippings.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until thickened.  Reduce heat to low and keep warm. 

Meanwhile, brown 1 cup (or more) sliced mushrooms in butter or oil, add 2 Tbs. dry sherry and reduce until completely evaporated and absorbed.  Season with salt and pepper then add mushrooms to gravy.  Taste for seasoning and correct.  Here's your chance to get creative and add garlic powder or onion powder if the gravy is too bland for your taste.  Serve over meatloaf (and of course it's great on mashed potatoes too).

Richyson's Meatloaf

My friend Richyson, makes an excellent meatloaf (a Betty Crocker incarnation).  He states that the secret is to not overmix the ingredients and to use a light hand when packing the mixture into the loaf pan.  Oh, and that catsup frosting on top...

1 1/2 lbs. ground beef (at least 20% fat)
3 slices soft bread, torn in pieces
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup celery, in medium dice
1/4 cup minced onion
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
1/4 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. celery salt
1/4 tsp. garlic salt
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
catsup (optional)

Mix all ingredients except catsup together lightly.  Turn into 2 loaf pans (9 x 5 inches each), smooth the surface lightly and spread generously with catsup (optional).  Bake approximately 1 hour at 350 degrees.  Let meatloaf rest for several minutes before slicing and serving.  Serves 4 to 6.

My Mother’s Turkey Meatloaf

          Mom uses a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing Mix and cooks hers in the microwave.  I prefer day-old bread crumbs and my own herb combination for a lighter, moister version that I bake in the oven.  You choose

1 lb. ground turkey (you’ll get better flavor and moisture content if you buy ground turkey that is not totally lean)
3/4 cup homemade bread crumbs (or 1/2 pkg. Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing Mix)
1/3  cup milk
1 egg, beaten
½ tsp. rubbed sage
½ tsp. thyme
½ tsp. summer savory (optional)
¼ tsp. marjoram*
¼ tsp. garlic powder
¾ tsp. kosher salt
¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 stalk celery, in medium dice
1/2 cup onion, in medium dice
1 carrot, grated

1. Combine all ingredients in medium-sized bowl.   Mix well without compressing ingredients.  Turn into loaf pan.

2. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.  Let meatloaf set a few minutes before slicing.

* You can substitute 1 ½ tsp. poultry seasoning for sage, thyme, savory and marjoram if you wish.  Reduce this quantity to 1 tsp. if you use the stuffing mix.

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