Meatloaf: More than comfort food
Call it "meatloaf," call it "meat loaf," or dub it "Paté of the Plains," if you will, this quintessential comfort food is often associated with blue-plate specials in diners and truck stops. But it's starting to earn a place, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, on the menus of some fancier joints.
There's a reason for that: Despite its budget-food associations, a well-made meatloaf can be a thing of culinary beauty, as inviting as a roast but deliciously different, making up for its humble origins with a mix of subtle flavors not easily attainable in an unadorned roast.
Inspired by a couple of tasty meatloaves enjoyed recently, one at a new local bistro and another at a classic cafeteria, I built one at home the other day and earned a two-thumbs-up rating from my long-suffering wife, who develops a real hankering for old-fashioned comfort food when winter draws near.
Like most down-home recipes, this one is subject to considerable variation, from your choice of meats to the specific selection of seasonings. I decided on a comforting combination of two parts lean ground beef to one part ground pork, with a good ration of green and red bell peppers to add character. If you try it, and especially if you tinker with it, I hope you'll take the time to let me know how it goes.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves four, or two with leftovers)
1 pound (a bit less than 1/2 kilo) lean ground beef
1. Preheat oven to 325F (160C).
2. Chop the onion fine. Chop the bell peppers into small squares, but avoid mincing them too fine, as the green and red bits studding the meat make for an attractive presentation.
3. Prepare the bread crumbs. You can use store-bought crumbs, but fresh, moist bread crumbs are tasty - I trimmed the crust from a couple of slices of Pepperidge Farm oatmeal bread and whacked them into coarse crumbs in the food processor.
4. Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. You're welcome to skip or substitute freely for the optional ingredients. This is a good point to let your imagination go to work, choosing flavors that match your meat and menu. There's also room for variation in your choice of meats. A combination of beef and pork is standard, but all-beef is fine, or any combination of ground beef, veal, pork, lamb, even venison. I do recommend that you splurge for quality ground meat, though. I avoid supermarket ground beef, with its bizarre bright-orange fat.
5. When the ingredients are all mixed, divide them into two equal parts, shape each into a rough loaf form, and pop them into standard bread-loaf pans. (Or make one larger loaf and put it in one pan.) Bake in the preheated oven for about 1 hour, or 1 1/2 hours if you make the larger single loaf. It's better to gauge doneness by temperature (160F/70C) than time in any case.
The loaves will pull away from the sides of the pans and put off a fair amount of fat. Lift them out and let them drain briefly before slicing and serving. Meat loaf is often served with tomato sauce (or ketchup, if you must), which may be painted on top of the loaf for the last 10 or 15 minutes of baking. We prefer a brown beef gravy, made separately and served on the side, along with plenty of fluffy mashed potatoes. Now we're talking winter comfort food!
WINE MATCH: Our parents probably didn't serve this down-home fare with wine, nor is your average truck stop known for its wine list. Still, this hearty, beefy fare goes mighty well with a fruity, tart red, such as the recently reported Cantine Sant'Agata 2001 "Baby Barb" Barbera d'Asti ($11.99)
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