As I was growing up under my parents' roof, meatloaf was like a visit from a fringe-lunatic aunt or uncle — rarely looked forward to but more often than not enjoyed.
As if by instinct, a child returning home after a long day at school or hard day haunting the local playgrounds will invariably spit the same question before he or she can slam the door and leave the room without turning off the light: “What's for dinner?”
I was no different. And when my mother answered “meatloaf,” it usually got an effusive shrug and perhaps a hopeful rejoinder of “what's on the side?,” though I knew without doubt the answer would be creamed potatoes, pinto beans and cornbread. If luck was really angry with me, those green beans would quickly devolve into green beans transferred from a can into a saucepan, where they would gasp their last breath in a growing pool of margarine, the final insult a “dash” of salt that didn't stop dashing until the melted margarine was converted into brine.
So, the meatloaf had a lot to overcome to be appealing. And it did. Though I never learned to love the idea of meatloaf, it was not uncommon for me to take down half the offering every time Mom made it.
Fast forward about three decades, and I got into a long conversation at last year's omelet party with chef Sam Fitch of Rococo's Catering. Fitch takes an artisanal view of meatloaf, and he showed just how during one of our Chefs Recipe Challenge segments last year.
Since then, I've become fascinated with this heaping hunk of comfort food and all its possibilities.
The result is Meatloaf Madness. Why Madness? Well, it is March. And who knows, perhaps this new monthly offering will culminate in some kind of tournament.
For the next 12 months, I will offer meatloaf recipes once a month starting with a very basic Oklahoma-centric take I've developed.
We've also got a meatloaf recipe submitted by Stillwater's Laura Wilson that was developed by her great-aunt Laveta.
My first offering has barbecue elements, but isn't by any stretch smoked, cured or cooked low and slow. The barbecue notes will come from the sauce. Now, most meatloaves are topped with ketchup or some ketchup-based sauce. This one is no different. However, we're going to start by making a ketchup-like base. What's ketchup? Simply: tomato paste, brown sugar and a wintry mix of spices from the cinnamon-and-cloves family. On top of that sweet foundation, we'll bring the heat with red jalepenos and bridge these foes with garlic.
Why go to this trouble, simply to understand the founding flavors to get a better of idea how to riff off of it in the future.
A lot of meatloaf recipes these days call for wrapping the loaf in bacon — an inspiration from the Internet-sensation recipe for Bacon Explosion. But I find bacon wrappings unwieldy, usually sliding off the loaf on the first slice. But I like the flavor, so I included cured bacon in the meatloaf mixture. The bacon also helped infuse the lean beef I used with smoky flavor.
When it came time to put the loaf in the oven, I decided to go sans loaf pan to get a better crust. I placed the raw meatloaf on a foil-lined rack perched on a foil-lined baking sheet with ridges. The result was a meatloaf with a crusty outer shell but juicy on the inside.
When it came time to pair a side, I opted against potatoes. If I'm going to eat mashed potatoes, there will be brown gravy, or at least white gravy. My sweet and fiery glaze is better served with macaroni salad.
So, I summoned inspiration from the late, great Anne Ferlo of Nonny's Holiday Harvest Loaf fame. She made the finest mac salad I ever ate, and this rendition is as close as I've ever come. The trick is no light mayo, and not too much of it and plenty of fresh, crunchy, fine-diced vegetables.
2 pounds lean ground beef
3 slices bacon, roughly chopped
1 cup diced onion
½ cup diced green pepper
2 to 3 cloves garlic, mashed in 1 teaspoon salt
1 carrot, skinned and diced small
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ cup tomato-chile juice
1 egg, loosely beaten
1 slice of bread
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sweet Heat Glaze
3 ripe tomatoes
3 to 5 red jalapenos or Fresno chiles
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire
½ cup brown sugar
1½ teaspoons dry mustard
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or fresh lemon juice
• Start by making the glaze.
• Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Cut an X on the bottom of the tomatoes and add to boiling water. Add onion, garlic and chiles. While the vegetables are blanching for 5 minutes, prepare a small mixing bowl with ice and water.
• After 5 minutes, use tongs or a spider to remove tomatoes and plunge in ice water. Transfer chiles, onion and garlic to blender. Peel the tomatoes, core and add to the blender.
• Blend until smooth then strain through a fine mesh sieve, reserving the liquid. Place the strained pulp in a mixing bowl and whisk in brown sugar, Worcestershire, cinnamon and cloves.
• Heat a small sauce pan over medium high heat and add tomato mixture and vinegar. Reserve ½ cup of the tomato-chile liquid and put the rest in the saucepan. Bring sauce to a boil, and reduce heat to low. Simmer up to 30 minutes to combine flavors and reduce sauce.
• Place slice of bread in a food processor and pulse 10 seconds. Add ground beef and bacon and grind until fine, about 3 minutes.
• In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Once oil is heated, add onion, bell pepper and carrots. Saute two minutes and lower heat to medium and add garlic and two tablespoons of the reserved chile-tomato liquid. Simmer until mixture thickens, 1 to 2 minutes.
• Preheat oven to 375 degrees with rack in center slot.
• Add mixture to food processor with fine-ground beef, bread and bacon. Pulse four to six times then transfer mixture to a medium mixing bowl. Fold in beaten egg with a wooden spoon or your hands.
• Cover a baking sheet, with sides, in foil, and cover a standing rack with foil. Form loaf on foil-covered rack, six inches wide and three to four inches tall.
• Roast for one hour or until loaf has an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
• Remove meatloaf from oven and set on counter. Move oven rack to second rung from the top and preheat broiler.
• Cover top of meatloaf with sauce, brushing evenly across the top and dripping off the sides.
• Broil meatloaf 3 minutes then remove and let stand 10 to 15 minutes before slicing.
• Serve with macaroni salad, baked beans, fresh greens salad and extra sauce.
I've become fascinated with this heaping hunk of comfort food and all its possibilities.”