Friday, March 13, 2009

Meatloaf gets a makeover

In the not-too-distant past, there was a dinner dish that often made kids across America cringe. In the days before our nation earned its culinary stripes—when plain, pan-fried burgers and Hamburger Helper were in vogue—it was a bench-warmer of sorts, waiting to get into the game if one of its colleagues dropped out of the rotation.

"We're having meatloaf?" distraught children would ask, with images of dried shoe leather dancing in their heads.

But the pleas were to no avail. Mom needed help from the bench, and meatloaf was on. Not only was it relatively quick and easy, it was consistently affordable.

How times have changed. In the 1980s and 1990s, we Americans launched a food renaissance that seemed to happen overnight. Eventually, all sorts of American classics were overhauled by chefs and home cooks looking for a new twist on old staples. Macaroni and cheese, pizza, hamburgers, casseroles—they all got upgrades on menus across the land. And so did meatloaf.

Done well, meatloaf is an ideal wintertime comfort food. It's warm and satisfying, and can be paired with an endless variety of side dishes. And, in times like these when the food budget has been cut, it can be a bargain alternative to steak or lamb.

There are lots of good meatloaf recipes out there that allow cooks to test different flavors. Apart from modern variations on classic meatloaf, popular versions include Cajun—spiced up with hot sausage, garlic and herbs—as well as herbed meatloaf—seasoned with chives, oregano, basil and other aromatics. One of my favorite renditions is a buffalo meatloaf in which the full flavor of the meat is tempered with a little bit of fruit-forward chutney.

No matter which version one chooses, a well-made meatloaf never goes to waste; the leftovers make great sandwiches. In some circles, there is no substitute for the old-fashioned method of layering a thick piece of meatloaf between two slices of white bread drizzled with ketchup. I prefer using wide cuts of whole-grain bread that can hold up to the leftover juices and sauce.

If your plan is more about getting a big bang for your buck at dinner, serve it hot out of the oven with garlic mashed potatoes and some grilled or sautéed vegetables. Coleslaw is a popular companion, too.

The recipes—even the newer, more complicated ones—are typically fairly easy to follow and finish. No matter which one you choose, try not to overwork the raw meat during preparation. Don't mash and mix unnecessarily, but do make sure the ingredients are adequately blended in.

Here's a simple recipe of my mother's that has kept everyone in the family from groaning about meatloaf night. In fact, we request it.

Mom's meatloaf

¾ cup coarsely diced onion

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1½-2 slices soft bread, pulled apart into 1-inch pieces

2/3 cup applesauce

2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

½ cup ketchup, divided into halves

1/3 cup barbecue sauce

Dash of Tabasco sauce

Salt and pepper—to taste

1 egg

1½ lbs. lean ground beef

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until softened but not browned. Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, mix the onion with all of the remaining ingredients except the beef and half of the ketchup. Then, thoroughly mix in the beef. (If you do not have an electric mixer, stir the ingredients together and then mix in the beef by hand.)

Pack the mixture into a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Spread the remaining ¼ cup of ketchup on the top. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 50-60 minutes, or until a meat thermometer reads 170 degrees. Pour off the fat (but not all the juices) and let the loaf rest for 10 minutes. Place on a serving platter and slice to desired thickness. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Leftovers make great sandwiches.

Gregory Foley, Web news editor for the Idaho Mountain Express, has been a professional writer and editor since 1997. He has worked as a restaurant sous-chef and for four years guided food- and wine-focused bicycle tours in Europe.

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