It doesnt have the spectacle of a standing rib roast or the drama of a sizzling porterhouse, but the meatloaf is mighty in its own way. Its conjoined with mac n cheese and fried chicken to form the triumvirate of classic American cooking (a.k.a. comfort food), and remains a staple on the family dinner table after 100 years.
It also has moved onto contemporary restaurant menus in some incarnations that would give Great-Aunt Ida the vapors.
Meatloaf is tied to family traditions and shared memories, and veteran home cooks are rightfully proud of their old-fashioned centerpieces lovingly made from hand-written, gravy-stained recipes passed down through generations. Yet meatloaf is becoming more sophisticated as younger home cooks take to their kitchens and restaurant chefs continue to finesse familiar dishes.
Meatloaf is a down-market staple that had the ability to go upscale, said Jack Bishop, editorial director of Americas Test Kitchen, the syndicated cooking show aired on public TV and radio. A lot of items that go through the chef mill get reworked and are unrecognizable when they come out. But meatloaf is still meatloaf, and it retains its integrity even if its been fancied up. Thats one reason it is still beloved.
For instance, youll find meatloaf with dried cherries and blue cheese, or with chicken livers, juniper berries, nutmeg, allspice, and fresh rosemary and thyme.
Heres a meatloaf surprise: Its on the curriculums of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena in the Napa Valley, and American River Colleges culinary arts program in Sacramento.
I do a third each of ground beef, veal and pork, and (sometimes) lay bacon or pancetta on top for fat, said CIA chef-instructor Kelly Mills. Instead of using (liquid-soaked) breadcrumbs (for moisture), try a couple handfuls of couscous, which give it a great texture. When the meatloaf is sliced, you get beautiful little pearls that have blossomed inside.
We put a lot of fresh herbs in the (classroom version) and make variations of it for sandwiches at our Coffee Cart (bakery kiosk), said ARC chef-instructor Roxanne OBrien. One has peppers, mushrooms and Italian herbs. The other is Southwest style, with cilantro, chipotle peppers, chili powder and cumin.
Basic meatloaf is simple: ground beef, onion, bell pepper, tomato, Worcestershire sauce and a binder of egg and/or a mix of bread crumbs and liquid. Blend the ingredients, shape the loaf, top with ketchup and bake to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
But what fun is that? After all, meatloafs middle name is versatile. Home cooks and restaurant chefs are adding a cornucopia of ingredients: garlic, shallots, celery, cilantro, mushrooms, carrot, radish, turnip, spinach, chard, kale, bacon, cheese, olives, pine nuts, currants, cranberry sauce, hot peppers, ginger, soy sauce, salsa, hard-boiled eggs and the kitchen sink.
There are so many opportunities to make different kinds, said Bishop. You can grind short ribs, or use veal, turkey or chicken instead of beef, and add pork. Use garlic, oregano and basil for a classic Italian, or go the North African route with cinnamon, saffron and nutmeg.
Some cooks top their meatloaves with mashed potatoes, crisping them up under the broiler. Others pour on ketchup or barbecue sauce. We like the traditional ketchup with a little brown sugar, but we add vinegar and a shot of hot sauce, Bishop said.
Chefs comment cautiously
Because meatloaf has moved beyond its time-worn role as the blue plate special at mom-and-pop diners (though its still there) and onto the menus of finer restaurants, we asked chefs around town about their takes on meatloaf, and found some surprises. To a point, they seem to tread carefully, as the nostalgia factor is formidable.
• Cafeteria 15L, 1116 15th St., Sacramento; (916) 492-1960, www.cafeteria15l.com.
Executive chef Christian Palmos in the kitchen of Cafeteria 15L let us watch as he prepped and plated his meatloaf, a well-balanced blend of beef, pork and bacon. Its spiked with toasted and ground fennel and coriander (cilantro) seeds, fresh oregano and chili flakes, among other ingredients. The restaurant moves 20 to 30 orders a day.
I wanted to bring out the flavors of the ingredients to enhance the flavors of the meats, he said. The ketchup-maple syrup glaze adds sweetness to the saltiness.
People see comfort foods on menus and go to them to find their memories from childhood, Palmos added, topping a slab of meatloaf with glaze. Our (version) takes them back there, but it also has a modern twist, with flavors that pop out.
Matt Woolston combines pork, veal and grass-fed beef with fresh herbs and vegetables and then wraps the loaf in bacon. He and wife, Yvette, serve it at their two restaurants, Matteos and Crocker Cafe by Supper Club inside the Crocker Art Museum. Sometimes well throw in some wild boar, he said.
Better yet is his truffled meatloaf for special events at the museum and at Supper Club pop-up dinners. We grind a whole prime rib and add 25 ingredients (including Madeira wine), everything that sounds fun. Theres enough fat in it that it self-bastes.
Why does meatloaf keep hanging around? Its makes people happy and has their memories attached to it, though for some people Im sure it was a horrible experience growing up, Woolston said. For newlyweds, its probably one of the first recipes they try, and Im sure there are a lot of old jokes about that.
• Hawks, 5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay; (916) 791-6200, www.hawksrestaurant.com
Beef-pork meatloaf is part of the rotating Sunday Supper program, a homey four-course prix-fixe meal at Hawks in Granite Bay.
It has that nostalgia, but its a dressed-up version of the classic, said co-owner Michael Fagnoni (with wife Molly Hawks). We grind a mirepoix (chopped celery, carrot and onion) and sweat it in a pot until its tender. There are no Ritz crackers. We use a panade (binder) of eggs and panko thats been finely puréed in the food processor. The glaze is our house steak sauce. It makes a great sandwich the next day.
• Sellands, 5340 H St., Sacramento; (916) 736-3333; and 4370 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills; (916) 932-5025; www.sellands.com.
The recipe for the all-beef meatloaf served at the two Sellands Market-Cafes is a family heirloom.
It was my mothers meatloaf, and I was raised on it. The only addition I made is cheddar cheese, said Nancy Zimmer. She and her chef husband, Randall Selland, are co-founders of the Selland Group, which includes Ella and The Kitchen restaurants.
Our meatloaf has ground beef, eggs, Saltine crackers, onion, and tomato sauce, with ketchup on top when its baked, Zimmer said. Its a top-seller, along with mac n cheese and roasted vegetables. People love it.
Added Selland: You can change classic dishes to make them different, and theyll be around for a little while, but the true classics never go out of style. They may go out of favor, but theyll always come back around.
• Moxie, 2028 H St., Sacramento; (916) 443-7585; www.moxierestaurant.com/.
Over at Moxie, Adam Chaccour covers his meatloaf with house-made, classic French demi-glace, a reduced stock made from veal bones, vegetables and red wine.
When the weather turned warm in January, Chaccour took meatloaf off the menu because it wasnt moving. Then people were coming in saying, What happened to the meatloaf? We came here just for that. I never thought it would be missed so much, so I put it back on. When people go to a restaurant and see something they grew up with, like meatloaf, they are sentimental about it.
• Roxie Deli, 3340 C St., Sacramento; (916) 443-5402, www.roxiedeli.com
One of the most unusual and tasty meatloaves around is made by Roxie Deli co-owner Chris Tannous, with wife Amy. He mixes 80-20 ground chuck, egg and secret ingredients, forms the loaves in pans, applies a secret rub and cooks them in an oak-burning cast-iron smoker for 10 hours.
The loaf is sliced and served on ciabatta bread as sandwiches, with melted cheddar and provolone cheeses, horseradish, mayo, tomato, onion and crisp jalapeño coins. Roxie sells up to 50 of them a day.
Its not your mothers meatloaf, Tannous said.
Call The Bees Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.