Many moods of meatloaf
In 1984, Arizona’s prison system instituted an unusual punishment for its most recalcitrant inmates. When the news broke, many were outraged. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, calling it “cruel and unusual punishment.”
A prison spokesman responded, saying “This is a last resort disciplinary measure. It was designed to deal with prisoners who choose to act and live like animals.”
The Chicago Tribune’s late, great Mike Royko wrote about it in his March 21 column that year:
“...I hesitate even describing it because it is so diabolical, so chilling, so terrible that you might not be able to read on. But I’ll do it anyway.
Here goes. The [ultimate punishment] means that for seven days or longer the prisoner eats nothing but meatloaf. He gets meatloaf in the morning with a glass of orange juice. Meatloaf and water for lunch. And meatloaf and water for dinner.
No catsup. No Worcestershire sauce. No side dishes. Only meatloaf for seven days, three meals a day.
I mean, these men might be cutthroats, thieves, murderers, fiends or even worse, but they are still human beings.
The spokesman for the prison explained that the meatloaf meets standard nutritional levels. [And said] “… it doesn’t taste like something your mother might have made. We don’t put any spices in it. It is rather bland. And they don’t get salt and pepper.”
I don’t always agree with the ACLU, but in this case I do. I can think of very few things more callous than forcing somebody to eat meatloaf for 21 straight meals[or more]. Even meatloaf that is seasoned would be cruel. But with no catsup, salt, or pepper, it is almost inhuman.”
Of course, alongside those outraged cries were a lot of guffaws. Almost overnight meatloaf became a national laughingstock – fodder for late-night comedians and water-cooler jokes.
I’m sure that Arizona prison meatloaf was grim – especially remembering my college cafeteria’s version. But, of course, meatloaf is just a canvas that can be made wonderful or horrible, depending on what goes into it. The fanciest French pâtés are essentially glorified meatloaves.
Today, memories of the meatloaf torture have faded, and meatloaf – along with other comfort foods – is enjoying a renaissance, even appearing on menus in restaurants that would never have served it back then. Maldaner’s chef/owner, Michael Higgins, serves an excellent lunchtime meatloaf sandwich topped with caramelized onions. Caitie Girl’s serves a double-layered meatloaf iced with mashed root vegetables. And Lake Pointe Grill’s delectable smoked Gouda-stuffed meatloaf has been one of their best-selling items since it opened, according to manager Krysti Rinaldi, who says it will always be on the menu.
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Meatloaf Master Recipe
This meatloaf master recipe provides a palette for both novice and experienced cooks for experimentation. The large amount of breadcrumbs is unusual, as is the buttermilk, but they make the meatloaf exceptionally light and moist. Beef, pork and veal, usually two parts beef to one each of pork and veal are traditional, but I don’t use veal: it’s expensive and difficult to find humanely produced. I most often use two parts beef to one part pork, but also other meats such as lamb or turkey. Everything from herbs and spices, cheeses, vegetables and more can be added. The meatloaf roulade below turns a humble, homey classic into a dish delicious and elegant enough for a dinner party.
Just remember to add your variations in small increments, and always taste-test as you make additions and before baking the meatloaf.
For each 1 ½ lbs. ground meat:
- 2 large eggs
- 2 c. fine fresh breadcrumbs, either white or whole wheat. Don’t use either Wonder Bread types or really dense breads such as pumpernickel, and
- remove any thick crisp crusts
- 1 c. buttermilk, or ½ c. each yogurt and milk
- 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, or more or less to taste
- 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper, or more or less to taste
- 1/2 - 1 c. freshly grated cheese such as Parmesan, Asaiago, or Pecorino Romano
- 3/4 c. loosely packed chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
In a large bowl, beat the eggs together, then add the breadcrumbs, buttermilk or yogurt and milk, salt, pepper, grated cheese, parsley and garlic, if using. Let stand for about 30 minutes so that the breadcrumbs absorb as much moisture as possible.
Preheat the oven to 350º.
Add the ground meat to the bowl and gently but thoroughly stir until all the elements are combined and evenly distributed. Test for seasoning by cooking a tablespoon of the mixture, flattened into a patty, in a hot skillet, when cooked through taste to decide if more seasoning is needed.
The meatloaf can be baked in a greased loaf pan, mounded into an oblong on a baking sheet, either greased or lined with parchment paper, or made into individual loaves. Baking times will vary with the shape and size of the meatloaf. Using 1 ½ lbs. of meat, the baking time should be about an hour; for a double recipe, about 1 1/2 - 1 ¾ hours. The internal temperature should be 155º. Let stand for about 30 minutes before slicing.
That’s just the beginning. Now comes the fun part: customizing it as you’d like.
Whichever herbs, spices, or vegetables you use, they’re best stirred into the breadcrumb mixture before adding the meat. When experimenting, add new ingredients in small amounts – you can always use more, but too much can’t be corrected. Taste-test as you go, and remember to always taste-test it before baking.
Garlic and/or onion are crucial to making a tasty meatloaf, and other vegetables can bring flavor to the party as well.
- 1 tsp. minced garlic, or more or less
- 1 T. butter or olive oil
- 1 - 2 c. finely chopped onion, NOT supersweet, or a mixture of onion and bell peppers or other suitable vegetables, such as celery.
Melt the butter or oil in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the vegetables. Stir frequently until the vegetables are cooked through and lightly browned around the edges. There should be no liquid in the pan. Cool to room temperature and combine with the breadcrumb mixture before the meat is added.
Caramelized onions add great depth of flavor. Melt the butter or olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, add the onions and stir to coat. Cover and cook until the onions are translucent. Uncover the skillet and turn the heat to low. Add 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves and 1 T. balsamic vinegar if you’d like. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are dark golden brown, and almost gooey, about 30 minutes. Cool before stirring into the breadcrumb mixture as above.
Frost meatloaf with mashed potatoes – Remove the meatloaf from the oven about ½ hour before it’s done. Spread all over with hot mashed potatoes, sprinkle with some grated cheese if you like, and return to the oven until done.
Make a double master recipe, adding the garlic and 1 c. onions. Place parchment paper, waxed paper, or a double thickness of plastic wrap on a large flat surface. Spread the mixture into an even sheet, 12 inches x 15 inches, with a long end closest to you
Spread 12 oz. spinach that’s been wilted, squeezed dry and chopped over the mixture. Cover completely with about 1 lb. sliced provelone; then top with roasted red pepper pieces – it’ll take 3-4 peppers.
Using the paper or plastic wrap, lift up the side closest to you and roll it over jelly-roll fashion, so that you form a cylinder. Carefully roll it onto a baking sheet. Cover with about 12 oz. very thinly sliced pancetta (Italian cured bacon that’s rolled into a cylinder), overlapping the slices so that they appear like scales.
Bake as above.
Variations – Top with spinach Swiss cheese and thinly sliced ham. Or crumbled blue cheese and a layer of sautéed mushrooms.
Suggestions for meatloaves with an ethnic twist
Swedish – Add one tsp. ground allspice, and ½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg. Use onions, but no garlic. Make a sauce: Reduce 2c. beef stock to ½ c., remove from the stove and stir in ½ c. sour cream, 1 T. fresh snipped dill fronds, and 2 minced scallions.
Mexican – add 1 T. or more chili powder or taco seasoning (you may need to reduce the master recipe’s salt if these contain salt.) Top with salsa before baking. Make extra to use, crumbled, for a future taco meal.
Greek — Use ground beef, or lamb, or a mixture. Add 1 T. dried oregano (not ground) and 1/2 tsp. or more ground cinnamon. Serve with a cucumber salad made with yoghurt or sour cream to which minced scallion, fresh dill fronds, and/or chopped fresh mint are added.