Friday, January 28, 2011

Creative Loafing: How to make meatloaf better than your mom

Turkish-spiced meatloaf

This is a story I did for Real Eats, a new food digital thingy you can read on your iPad, Smartphone, laptop or whatever else you may have that I don't. There's lots of great food writing and recipes in Real Eats so definitely check it out. This is a bit of a longish post but if you're into meatloaf it may keep your attention.
The Turkish Meatloaf is from my cookbook, Quick Simple Food and it's one of those recipes I still make all the time as my friends keep asking for it. Here's the story. My friend Mark Bittman contributed a recipe that's a little bit of a falafel with bulgur and lots of parsley that I really want to try with lamb.
I’m all about meatloaf. Good, tender, juicy meatloaf made simply and without affectation. It ‘s a three-day event, meatloaf. On the first day you serve it hot, in a thick slab, alongside mashed potatoes with a green veg on the side just like the Blue-Plate Special at Mayberry’s Bluebird Cafe. The next day it’s the simple thought of a meatloaf sandwich that gets me out of bed. They’re actually great served open-face on toast for breakfast. But for lunch it has to be sliced cold and sandwiched between 9-grain with mustard, mayo, with lots of lettuce, blissfully paired with a bowl of cream of tomato soup and a crunchy dill pickle.
 Now some people would stop there. Not me. On the third day there is a wedding of leftover meatloaf crumbs, rice and diced whatnot that I stuff into steamed cabbage leaves and cover with a can of pureed stewed tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil. At this point the loaf has pretty much had its day(s) and I’m fixed for a couple of weeks until I’m ready to get my loaf on again.
 Meatloaf hasn’t always been something stone-cold foodies talk about wistfully on Saturday morning NPR programming. Before the comfort food craze of the ‘90s, meatloaf was considered a blue-collar staple food magazines (back when there was more than just a couple), were down-right snobby about them. Most of us though have always been sentimental about our meatloaf – whether it was good or not -- as it speaks of home and hearth, and the memory of someone we love making it.
 It’s the meatloaf’s misfortune that it never attained a French or Italian name hence its absence from the top-shelf food encyclopedias such as Larousse Gastronomique. According to The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson (1999, Oxford University Press), the first mention of meatloaf in print in the United States was in 1899, in Britain, not until 1939, though it doubtless existed in some form before that. The creation of dishes in this period -- in poor, upcoming America, that is – were predicated by the need to find palatable ways to use up a whole carcass, celebrity chefs and their licensed products being unavailable in the pre-adolescent Industrial Age (oh, for the good old days).
A Few Tips for a Perfect Loaf:
I have made a lot of meatloaf in my time and given it some thought. Probably too much thought. But there are a few techniques for a mo’ betta loaf, if you will. It’s important to add some fat or use a fatty ground meat in order to make your loaf juicy and tender. So if you use lean towards using lean ground beef, or a combo of lower fat meats like turkey or chicken, you’re apt to end up with one tough log.  According to author Marion Cunningham, the best meatloaf is made from cuts you have ground to order. Say, a chuck roast or pork chops encircled with a bit of fat.  I like to add a good drizzle of extra virgin for good measure as you can never have too much. Once a meatloaf has rested and reabsorbed the meat juices you can always pour off the extra fat. 
Meatloaf “binders” range from bread and cracker crumbs, oats, and even uncooked grits. It’s fun to experiment with these, perhaps adding some interesting grain like quinoa, but I’d have to go with sturdy white bread crumbs along with some milk and eggs, which I think gives it the perfect texture.
 Then there’s the issue of the top. Traditionally meatloaf was covered with ketchup (I happen to like Heinz chili sauce), bacon strips, and even a ‘frosting’ of mashed potatoes, all of which help keep it moist and adds a fun layer of flavor.
 I think the most important step in meatloaf making is to not over-mix the ingredients. I know it’s fun to get in there and squish the ground meat between your fingers but keep the mix step quick and loose and avoid packing it down too heavily in the loaf pan.  Remove from the oven when the loaf has pulled away from the sides but juices are still a little pink: it will keep cooking in the pan as it rests.
Here are some interesting meatloaf recipes with a range of flavors, ingredients and techniques. Among them is Cunningham’s “American Meatloaf” recipe, which to me is just the ne plus ultra of the classic meatloaf.

American Meatloaf

From The Supper Book, by Marion Cunningham
Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef (chuck or round)
2 boneless pork chops (about 1/2 pound), ground
3 cloves garlic, minced or put through garlic press
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
Salt, at least 1 teaspoon, or to taste
Pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup tomato ketchup
2/3 cup water

Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the onions, carrots, and celery, and over medium-low heat cook until softened, stirring often, about 6 to 6 minutes.

In a large bowl, put the beef and pork, sautéed vegetables, garlic, bead crumbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup, and water. Mix thoroughly with your bands. Gently pat the meatloaf into an oval-shaped mound in an 11 x 7-inch baking dish. (If pressed together too firmly, the meatloaf won’t remain moist and tender.) Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Feel free to surround your meatloaf with small whole onions and/or carrots and small new potatoes.

Turkish Meat Loaf

From Quick Simple Food, by Susie Quick
Makes 4 to 6 sevings

3/4 pound ground turkey or veal
3/4 pound ground lamb, pork, or mild sausage
1 cup grated carrots
1 small onion, grated on large holes of a 4-sided grater
1 large garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg, beaten
2 teaspoons garam masala or curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 large hard-cooked eggs, shells removed
4 to 5 thick bacon slices

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place all ingredients except the hard-cooked eggs in a large bowl and use you hands to mix everything thoroughly (not too much!). Place half the meat mixture in a 9x5x3-inch glass or metal loaf pan.

Center the eggs, end-to-end, on top of the meat. Cover the eggs with the remaining meat mixture and gently pat to form a loaf. Cover the top with the bacon slices. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until the loaf pulls away from the side of the pan and the juices are mostly clear. Allow to rest in the pan 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Meat-and-Grain Loaf, Burgers, or Balls

From The Food Matters Cookbook by Mark Bittman
Makes: 6 to 8 servings, or more for appetizers

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound spinach or other tender greens, washed and drained
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken or turkey thighs, beef chuck or sirloin, or pork or lamb shoulder, excess fat removed; or use ground meat
1 small onion or 2 shallots, finely chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
Pinch of cayenne
1 teaspoon ground cumin or 1 tablespoon chili powder
Black pepper
1 large egg
2 cups cooked, drained bulgur or any other cooked grain   

Heat the oven to 400°F. Grease a loaf pan, rimmed baking sheet, or large roasting pan with 2 tablespoons oil. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it; fill a large bowl with ice water. Wilt the spinach in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Drain and immediately plunge into the ice water. Drain, squeeze tightly to dry thoroughly, and roughly chop. Put the spinach in a bowl. If you’re using ground meat, add it to the spinach and skip to Step 3.

If you’re using whole pieces of meat, cut them into large chunks and put in a food processor. Pulse several times to process until ground but not puréed, stopping the machine and scraping down the sides if necessary. Transfer to the bowl with the spinach.

Add the onion, garlic, and spices, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and stir. Add the egg and bulgur and mix until thoroughly combined using a rubber spatula or your hands. Transfer the mixture to the loaf pan or shape into a free-form loaf, burgers, or balls, and put on the baking sheet or in the roasting pan. Transfer to the oven and roast until firm and browned all over. A loaf will take about 50 minutes; burgers and balls with take 20 to 30, depending on their size (carefully turn them once or twice for even cooking).

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