~ I Love My Mom's Old-Fashioned All-Beef Meatloaf ~
The fabulous '50's may be gone forever, but they are certainly not forgotten. Remember the stainless steel diner in your hometown that served up a thick slice of mouthwatering meatloaf smothered in a smooth, rich pan gravy alongside a big scoop of fluffy mashed potatoes? Remember meatloaf day in your school cafeteria with stewed tomatoes and macaroni and cheese? Remember the Swanson frozen meatloaf dinner slathered with a thick brown gravy and French fries? I remember them all, but, mostly, I remember my mom's "special" meatloaf.
"Meatloaf." Say the word aloud in the company of family or friends, even in the company of culinary professionals, and you'll find that almost everyone wants to share a fond memory, tell an interesting story, or, recite a favorite recipe or three. Once a Depression era meal to help home cooks stretch precious protein to feed more people, everyone will nod in agreement that, nowadays, meatloaf can be whatever you want it to be: an economical family-style meal or a culinary masterpiece fit for a king.
The industrial revolution placed meatloaf squarely on America's foodie road map -- the invention of the hand-crank (and later the electric/automated), meat grinder was historic.
According to The Oxford Companion to Food: Meatloaf is a dish whose visibility is considerably higher in real life than in cookery books. This situation might be changed if it had a fancy French name (pâté chad de viand hachée, préalablement marinée dans du vin de pays et des aromatiques). In the USA, the term was recorded in print in 1899, in Britain, 1939. The use of the word 'loaf' is appropriate as most recipes include a portion of a loaf of bread, usually in the from of soft, fresh breadcrumbs. Also, meatloaf is shaped like a loaf of bread, typically baked in a loaf pan, and sliced like a loaf of bread. It is a worthy dish that embodies the word peasant (rustic), but can also exhibit refinement associated with bourgeois (upper middle-class) cookery. Meatloaf does not extend into the realm of haute cuisine (artful or imaginative cuisine).
A bit about grinding meat: While the thankless task of mincing meat has been going on since ancient times, Karl Drais, a German aristocrat, is credited with inventing the cast-iron, hand-crank meat grinder in 1785. This portable, countertop appliance made it possible for frugal home cooks to take advantage of its economic, time-saving benefits:
1) Ground meat feeds more people. 2) Grinding meat makes tough, lesser expensive cuts of meat more palatable and easier to digest. 3) Combining and grinding small pieces of various types of meat together makes a meal of otherwise useless leftovers.
^^^ Nowadays, grinding your own meat is even easier than this. Trim it of unnecessary fat, cut it into 1"-1 1/2" chunks and pulse it in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade.
A bit about meatloaf in America: American meatloaf originated in the form of scrapple, a grainy-textured mash of ground pork scraps and trimmings mixed with moistened cornmeal prior to baking in a loaf shape. Scrapple has been served by German-speaking Americans in Pennsylvania (the PA Deutsch) since Colonial times. From this somewhat unappetizing, born-out-of-necessity beginning, savvy home cooks adopted the concept of combining ground meat(s) with milk-moistened bread, egg, onion, salt and pepper, thus, evolving meatloaf into its current state: homey, great-tasting, old-fashioned comfort food. Because cows were butchered before Winter, as feeding them was difficult and expensive, the first modern recipes for meatloaf contained just beef.
A bit about my family's "special" meatloaf: My grandmother and mother used saltine cracker crumbs in place of fresh or dried breadcrumbs in a whole host of recipes. Truth told: Saltines, when moistened in milk until soft, are: more flavorful than breadcrumbs, and, they maintain a bit of texture too. Their pantries were never without a box and neither is mine.
There's more. Both my mother and grandmother used beef exclusively, never a combination of beef, pork and veal. My grandmother, who owned a mom and pop grocery store during the Depression era, simply did not like the gelatinous texture that comes from adding mild-flavored veal and did not approve of mixing pork and beef together -- no bacon strips were ever draped over a meatloaf baking in any of my family's kitchens. To this day, we all prefer brown gravy to tomato-based glazes (ketchup, tomato sauce or barbecue sauce) too. Meatloaf is personal.
3 pounds lean or extra-lean ground beef (85/15 or 90/10)
2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
4 ounces saltine crackers (1 sleeve of crackers from a 1-pound box), crumbled by hand into small bits and pieces, not processed to crumbs.
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons salted butter
1 1/2 cups small diced yellow or sweet onion
1 1/2 cups small diced celery
3/4 cup minced parsley leaves
1 .13-ounce packet G. Washington's Rich Brown Seasoning and Broth Mix (Note: This WWII-era dehydrated spice mixture was created by Paul J. Campbell in 1937 to replace instant broth/bouillon. It was a well-known family secret of my grandmother's and I keep it on-hand so I can duplicate her recipes without fail. It's available at many local grocery stores and on-line.)
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely-ground black pepper
no-stick cooking spray, for preparing loaf pans
~Step 2. Using your fingertips, crush the crackers into small bits and pieces, letting them fall into a medium mixing bowl as you work. Add the milk and stir to combine. Set aside about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, to allow the crackers to absorb all of the milk. The mixture will be thick and pasty. Add the cracker mixture to the beef/egg mixture, and once again, using your hands, thoroughly combine.
~Step 3. In a 10" skillet melt butter over low heat. Add the diced onion and celery along with the G.Washington's Seasoning, salt and pepper. Adjust heat to medium- medium-high and sauté until both onion and celery are nicely softened, 4-5 minutes. Stir in the parsley, remove from heat and allow to cool for 30 full minutes. Add the cool but still-a-little warm vegetable mixture to the meat. Using your hands, thoroughly combine.
~ Step 4. Spray 2, 1 1/2-quart loaf pans with no-stick cooking spray. Note: My grandmother and mother always baked meatloaf in clear glass dishes and so do I. The advantage is being able to see exactly how fast and how well the loaves are browning. Divide the meat mixture in half, form each half into a loaf shape and place it in dish. Note: If you have a kitchen scale, now is the time to use it. There will be 3 1/2 pounds meatloaf mixture.
~ Step 5. Bake meatloaves on center rack of preheated 350° oven for 1 hour, 15 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer placed in the the thickest part of the center reaches 168°-170º. Loaves will be bubbling and juices will be running clear. Remove from oven and place, in pans, on a wire rack to cool about 15 minutes. Use a spatula to remove loaves from pans. Slice and serve hot, or, warm or cool to room temperature and refrigerate.
~Step 6. It is worth mention that ground beef loses moisture as it cooks, so, there will be some very flavorful drippings in the bottom of each loaf pan -- not a lot of them, but enough to run through a fat/lean separator, place in a saucepan and add 1, 18-ounce jar beef gravy to.
Humble & Homey, Old-Fashioned, Great-Tasting, Comfort-Food:
Special Equipment List: fork; 1-cup measuring container; cutting board; chef's knife; 10" nonstick skillet; nonstick spoon or spatula; 2, 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" x 2 1/2", 1 1/2-quart loaf pans, preferably glass; kitchen scale; instant-read meat thermometer; wire cooling rack; fat/lean separator
Cook's Note: For just about any time you want to have stuffing with your roasted meat or poultry, my mom has a unique recipe, which, is made using saltine crackers in place of bread cubes. ~ I Just Love My Mom's Cracker Stuffing Casserole ~ can be found in Categories 4, 12, 18 or 19.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)