What it is: A staple of old-fashioned, home-cooked American comfort food, meatloaf is a loaf-shaped baked dish made from ground meat. Endlessly versatile, it can be made from any type or combination of meat, seasoned in any way and complemented with an infinite variety of add-ins.
Where it comes from: While cooked mixtures of minced meat go back to ancient Roman times, meatloaf in its modern form didn’t appear in cookbooks until the late 19th century, after the introduction of the mechanical meat grinder. Until then, meat had to be laboriously chopped by hand.
Meatloaf became a mainstay of American cookery during the Great Depression, when economical cooks learned to stretch cheap grades of meat with breadcrumbs, crushed crackers, rice or oatmeal and vegetables into filling and satisfying meals. Early meatloaf recipes called for veal, then much cheaper than beef. Quick to mix together, meatloaf needs little attention while baking, and therefore appealed to busy housewives throughout much of the 20th century.
What to do with it: Meatloaf can be made from any ground or chopped meat — beef, pork, poultry — or a mixture. You can dress it up by putting bacon on top or layering the ground meat with fillings of hard-boiled eggs or vegetable purees.
It can be baked in loaf or cake pans or simply hand-formed on a baking sheet as Chef Alfredo Anaya does at Dine in the West Loop.
During summer weather, you can beat the heat by cooking meatloaf in a covered barbecue grill. Or, bake it during the cool of the night before and then reheat it quickly in the microwave or just serve it chilled — cold meatloaf sandwiches are the best!
Chef Alfredo Anaya
Nonstick cooking spray
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped celery (medium dice)
1 cup chopped onion (medium dice)
2 pounds ground beef
1 cup panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
10 leaves fresh basil, cut in slivers
1-1/2 cups prepared tomato sauce (canned or homemade)
3 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over moderate heat and saute the celery and onions until translucent. Remove from the heat and set aside to chill in the refrigerator.
Make sure all the ingredients are cold, and lightly combine them in a large mixing bowl. Do not over mix. Form the mixture into a freeform loaf and place on the baking sheet.
Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees. Slice immediately and serve, with mushroom gravy if desired. Leftovers may be chilled and reheated or served cold. 8 to 10 servings.
1/4 pound (1/2 stick) butter
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/3 cup flour
1 quart cold beef, chicken or vegetable stock or broth
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, over medium-high heat. When the butter starts to sizzle, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring for 10 minutes or until the mushroom juices have evaporated, and they’ve begun to brown. Stir in the flour, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for another 5 minutes.
Whisk in 1 cup of the cold broth. Once incorporated, pour in the rest of the broth, and add the thyme. Bring back to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste. Serve hot. Makes 3 to 4 cups.
Note: For thicker gravy, turn the heat up to medium, and cook down to the desired thickness. For thinner gravy, simply add more broth.