Down home comfort

January 21, 2016

Country cooking: Meat loaf, potato salad, peas with tomato relish, slaw.

Country cooking: Meat loaf, potato salad, peas with tomato relish, slaw.

(NOTE: Robin and Tammie, y’all asked for it — here ’tis.)

It doesn’t get much more plebian or blue-collar than meat loaf. Nor does it get much more comforting. A slab of steaming meat loaf, sporting its shiny red ketchup cap; a big scoop of mashed potatoes with a pat of butter melting in the middle; some peas or beans, just because Mama told you needed a vegetable AND a starch with every meal.

I’m tellin’ you, you can’t beat it.

I’ve made probably a thousand meat loaves in my life, some of them better than others. I’ve finally settled on two recipes. One is my bacon barbecue meatloaf, which I’ve blogged on here before, which is a wonderful thing on the grill, cooked low and slow with lots of smoke, but that’s not what we’re doing today. No, today is standard meat loaf, which may not be to everyone’s preferences, but certainly hits the spot for me and mine.

Why does it hit the spot?

  • It has a dense, creamy texture reminiscent of GOOD meatballs at a mom-and-pop Italian place.
  • It has the right ratio of savory, tangy flavorings to sweet, tomato-based notes.
  • It uses good quality beef. You can make this with grocery store ground beef (at least get ground chuck). It will not be as good as mine, which is made from farm-raised, grass-fed beef.
  • It makes absolutely, bar none, the best meat loaf sandwiches on the planet.
Ready to bake, first stage. No ketchup yet.

Ready to bake, first stage. No ketchup yet.

So let’s get started. Here’s your ingredient list:

  • 2 pounds ground beef, or combo beef/pork and/or veal.
  • 1/2 cup Saltine cracker crumbs
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup good ketchup, divided, or tomato paste
  • 4 strips bacon
  • 1 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp Lawry’s seasoned salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 slices thick-sliced bacon, cut in half

My preferred mix for this is a pound of ground beef and a pound of ground pork, but I’ve made it (and am, in this instance) with all beef. Some people call for veal. If that trips your trigger, sub some of that. Dump the thawed meat in a big mixing bowl, and turn your oven on 325.

In a smaller mixing bowl, mix the cracker crumbs with cream; set aside.

Add everything else, including about 3 tbsp of the ketchup and the reserved crumb-cream mixture, to the bowl with the ground beef, and dive into it with both hands (do NOT forget to take your rings off first! Not that I know this from experience or anything) and mush everything up together. Note: Seasoning amounts are approximate; I don’t measure spices, for the most part. I know what “feels right” and “looks right” when I put it in the bowl, and that’s what I’ve tried to guesstimate. Your mileage may vary.

With ketchup cap, ready for second bake.

With ketchup cap, ready for second bake.

Form your loaf. You can do this in any of several ways. I prefer to pat mine into an 8 x 8 baking dish, which will mean it’s something like 2 inches thick. Press it down in there. There is a school of thought that says one should barely work the meat mixture, just enough to mix, and then leave it as loose in the loaf pan/shape as possible. Not me. I want a dense meat loaf. And I also love meat loaf crust, so by making it in the 8 x 8 vs. a loaf pan, you get a higher ratio of crust to interior. Lay the halved bacon strips on top; I find it works nicely to use three halved strips side-by-side, and the other one crossways at one side of the pan. (I guess you could leave one of the strips in one piece for that.) Stick it in the oven, uncovered.

Bake it for about 45 minutes, until the bacon is cooking nicely and rendering its fat, which is percolating all throughout your meat loaf. Take it out of the oven, and turn the oven up to 375. Glaze the top of the meat loaf with ketchup. How much ketchup you use is up to you; I like a good bit, so I put a heavy coat. Put it back in the oven for 30 minutes, keeping an eye on it so you don’t scorch the ketchup; you may need to lay a sheet of foil over the pan loosely for the last 10 minutes or so of baking. Browned and bubbling is good; black and burnt is not.

Take the meat loaf out and carefully, from one corner, drain a good bit of the juice/fat that has accumulated around it. Don’t worry about getting it all; it will reabsorb into the meat loaf, but you don’t want it all reabsorbed, because it’ll be too greasy. I try to have an empty can I can sit in the sink and drain the grease into. Cover the pan with the foil (again, if you already have), but this time, crimp it around the sides and let the meat loaf rest for 15 minutes or so.

This makes the most moist, flavorful meat loaf I’ve ever had. I prefer the onion powder to having chunks of onion in my meat loaf, and I omit bell pepper because adding it seems to me a damn fine way to ruin a perfectly good meat loaf, or anything else you put it in. You can add hot sauce if you’ve a notion.

We’re having ours with potato salad and purple-hulled peas, because I was in the notion for potato salad, and cole slaw, because I had some of that in the fridge. The kids love it with mac and cheese or mashed potatoes. I love it the next day, sliced about 1/2 inch thick, lined up on a slab of homemade bread, topped with a soft, creamy cheese like butterkase or havarti or brie, wrapped loosely in foil and heated until the meat loaf is hot, the bread slightly crusty and the cheese all melty. With bread and butter pickle spears.

That, my friends, is Sweet Baby Jesus territory. You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em go there, and see if you don’t agree with me.

 

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