Food & Drink

Slabs of drab: Anti-meatloaf writers subjected to a taste test

Classic smoked meatloaf has bell pepper. (See Page 2D.)
Classic smoked meatloaf has bell pepper. (See Page 2D.) St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I thought I made it clear. I don’t like meatloaf.

In my very first column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch nearly four years ago, I wrote that I will try almost anything “except meatloaf. That is the one food I will not eat.”

As it turns out, I am not alone in this perfectly understandable and even admirable trait. Our esteemed restaurant critic Ian Froeb, a man widely renowned for his impeccable taste and educated palate, also hates the stuff.

So our boss and colleagues, who at first seem like such nice people but turn out to be the children of Satan, decided it would be fun to force us to eat it. A lot of it.

If you’ve ever seen “A Clockwork Orange,” you’ll remember the scene in which Malcolm McDowell is strapped to a chair and forced to watch images of violence. It was like that, only with our former friends pointing at us and laughing.

Before I get to the sordid details, I have been thinking about why I dislike meatloaf so much. I can’t speak for Ian, but I think the problem I have with it is that it is – or at least was, when I was young and impressionable – invariably overcooked.

Someone else, I forget who, had this theory, and it seems right to me. The traditional mixture for a meatloaf is equal parts beef, veal and pork. But for pork to be free from unpleasant disease, it has to be (or at least had to be) fully cooked. That meant the beef and veal were, by definition, overcooked and dry.

To cover up this flaw, cooks douse it in what they call a sauce but is in fact, generally, ketchup. Maybe ketchup with a few things added to it. Maybe a tomato sauce that isn’t exactly ketchup, but is, shall we say, ketchupy.

So meatloaf is overcooked, dry ground meat splashed with ketchup. I don’t understand why that’s considered desirable.

Six of our colleagues presented us with their best meatloaves (meatloafs? meats loaf?). Then they watched us choke it down while we made mean comments about it. We felt kind of bad about it, but you have to admit they deserved it: They were feeding us meatloaf.

We started with no frills meatloaf. “I think I tasted a frill,” Ian said.

This was our control meatloaf, a standard, cooked-through slab of ground meat with a drizzle of ketchup. It tasted like meatloaf. In other words, it reminded me of everything I don’t like about meatloaf.

We were next served the classic meatloaf which, as Ian pointed out, was moister than the control meatloaf. It also had bell pepper, which sent Ian into full-blown restaurant-critic mode: “The bell pepper isn’t very complex, but it cuts the sweetness a little bit.”

I thought it was marked by that overwhelming blandness that so often afflicts meatloaf. More salt would have helped, but it wouldn’t have helped much.

So we sampled the Italian meatloaf. I looked at Ian. Ian looked at me.

“What about this strikes you as Italian?” I said.

“The name,” he said.

Admittedly, that was before I had a bite with a thin slice of canned black olive in it, which is sort of Italian. And to be perfectly fair to the person who made it, it had enough spice that we thought it was made with not enough Italian sausage, when it actually had no sausage at all.

Even so, it tasted more of meatloaf than Italy.

Everyone oohed and aahed at the next offering, bacon-wrapped meatloaf with apple-bourbon barbecue sauce (“everyone,” in this case, meaning “everyone but Ian and me”).

I am of the opinion that the national obsession with bacon is like a fad that just won’t go away. It’s as if the country is sharing the same joke they can’t stop making, such as when everyone said “I’m just sayin’” or “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” or “everything tastes better with bacon.”

I think of it as a crutch. When you want to add actual flavor to something, wrap it in bacon. Which is why you’d think it would help improve meatloaf.

But in this dish, it was the superb apple-bourbon barbecue sauce that really stood out. That stuff was great. The only problem was, it didn’t go with meatloaf. To our taste, it was too sweet for any red meat.

But chicken? Slather that sauce on grilled chicken and you’d have yourself a meal.

The classic smoked meatloaf, which we had next, was a good idea. A little bit of smoke, but not too much, is a wonderful way to mask the dreariness that makes most meatloaf so dispirited.

We both liked the smoke, but we were not as fond of the texture. This loaf was soft and mushy on top (I thought it had the texture of steak tartare, but not, alas, the taste). The bottom part was coarser and chewier.

Finally, we got to the last sample, buffalo chicken meatloaf.

I love Buffalo chicken wings, but this loaf had neither the vinegar tang nor the crisp heat I associate with Buffalo sauce. It did have blue cheese in it, which I mistook for cream cheese. The loaf tasted like mush to me, but Ian disagreed.

“Do you know Nutra-loaf? It’s what they give to prisoners when they’ve been bad,” he said.

Perhaps we were being cruel, but true cruelty is making people eat meatloaf who don’t like it.

Did the experience change us? Did we suddenly become meatloaf fans?

Of course not.

Ian said, “At this point in my life, I’m more ambivalent about meat meatloaf than anti-meatloaf. And (after this tasting) I’m still ambivalent.”

My mind hasn’t been changed, either. Given the choice between meatloaf and anything else, I’ll always take anything else.

Editor’s note: The rest of us loved them all and didn’t leave a single crumb. So there.

No-frills meatloaf

yield: 4 servings

Recipe by Hillary Levin

1 medium onion chopped

1 pound lean ground beef

1 egg

1/4 cup ketchup

1/4 cup barbecue sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Mix it all ingredients together, place in 8-by-4-by-2 1 / 2-inch loaf pain and bake for about an hour, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Per serving: 332 calories; 14 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 72 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 1,220 mg sodium; 72 mg calcium

Classic meatloaf

Yield: 8 servings

Recipe by Cara DeMichelle

1 pound ground beef (not the leanest or the fattiest, use one in between)

1/4 pound small package of ground pork

3/4 cup shredded carrots

1/2 cup shredded or chopped celery

3/4 cup diced onion

1/2 cup bread crumbs

3/4 cup shredded cheese such as cheddar or colby

1/4 cup ketchup

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon garlic salt

1 tablespoon basil

Salt and pepper

1 egg, 2 if needed

15 ounce can of tomato sauce

Sliced rings of bell peppers

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Mix all ingredients and form into a loaf. Place the loaf on a baking sheet or in a casserole dish and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 160 degrees.

3. After 30 minutes in the oven, pour a can of tomato sauce over the loaf and place sliced bell peppers on top.

Per serving: 271 calories; 14 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 85 mg cholesterol; 19 g protein; 16 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 959 mg sodium; 150 mg calcium

Italian meatloaf

Yield: 8 servings

Recipe adapted from pillsbury.com.

2 eggs

1 1/2 pounds lean (at least 80 percent) ground beef

2 cups soft French bread crumbs

1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 can (8 ounces) pizza sauce, divided

1 1/2 cups shredded provolone cheese

1 jar (7.25 ounces) roasted red bell peppers, drained, chopped

1/4 cup chopped ripe olives

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl, beat eggs. Stir in ground beef, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, basil, salt, pepper, garlic and 1 / 2 cup of the pizza sauce until well-combined.

2. Layer about 1/3 of meat mixture in the bottom of pan. Top evenly with 1 / 2 the provolone cheese, roasted peppers and olives. Then add 1/3 of meat mixture. Top with other half of provolone cheese, roasted red peppers and olives. Then top with remaining meat mixture.

3. Bake 40 minutes. Remove from oven; spoon remaining pizza sauce over loaf. Insert meat thermometer so bulb reaches center of loaf.

4. Return to oven; bake 15 to 20 minutes longer or until loaf is thoroughly cooked in center and thermometer reads 160 degrees. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.

Per serving: 330 calories; 21 g fat; 10 g saturated fat; 120 mg cholesterol; 780 mg sodium; 11 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 3 g sugars; 25 g protein

Bacon-wrapped meatloaf with apple-bourbon barbecue sauce

Yield: 10 servings

Recipe by Gary Hairlson.

For the sauce

1/2 cup apple juice

1 cup your favorite barbecue sauce

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup ketchup

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup bourbon

For the meatloaf

1 cup Italian bread crumbs

2 pounds ground beef

1 packet McCormick’s Meat Loaf seasoning packet

1 egg

3/4 pound bacon

1. Make the sauce. Combine all sauce ingredients in a large saucepan and cook over medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat.

2. Spray 2 loaf pans with cooking spray.

3. Mix bread crumbs, ground beef, seasoning packet and egg well. Shape into 2 loaves and place in pans. Freeze for an hour then remove from pan.

4. Wrap with bacon, securing with a toothpick if needed.

5. Place meatloaf on a piece of foil shaped like it. Cook on a wood-fired pellet smoker until meat reaches 165 degrees. Serve with sauce.

Per serving: 433 calories; 16 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 91 mg cholesterol; 24 g protein; 38 g carbohydrate; 26 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 916 mg sodium; 64 mg calcium

Smoked meatloaf

Yield: 10 servings

Recipe by Brian Sirimaturos.

2 cups of chopped bread, from a French loaf

1/2 cup of buttermilk

1 tablespoon oil

2 cups combined of finely diced onions, celery and bell peppers

2 cloves garlic, finely diced

1 to 2 eggs

2 to 3 tablespoons of your favorite barbecue rub

1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

1 pound ground beef

1 pound ground pork

1 pound ground sausage

Ketchup

Note: This recipe used half an 18-pound bag of Kingsford, minion method stacking, 3 large applewood chunks and 1 large hickory chunk.

1. Get the smoker going before you make the mixture. Get the temperature in the 225 to 275 degree range.

2. Soak the bread pieces in buttermilk

3. Saute the vegetables and garlic in oil, until soft. Mix sauteed vegetables, bread mix, eggs, barbecue rub, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper with the meat. Use hands to gently mix. Form into loaf. You can use a pre-sprayed loaf pan to do this. You’ll have some extra to make a mini loaf patty to pre-taste in the skillet if you want. Pat the meat mixture in the loaf pan nice and tight. You can go to the top. The more it’s packed in, the more it will keep its shape. Run a butter knife along the sides and turn loaf pan upside down on a tray to take to your smoker.

4. Carefully place the loaf on the grate (if you are nervous about the loaf falling apart when putting it on the smoker grate, you can put it on a broil pan from the kitchen and cook on that. The holes in the broil pan will still allow the smoke to penetrate), insert a thermometer and leave it. Smoke until temperature reaches 150 degrees, usually 2 to 4 hours. Baste with ketchup. Pull the meatloaf off the smoker when it reaches 160 degrees.

Per serving: 357 calories; 25 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 126 mg cholesterol; 24 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 478 mg sodium; 68 mg calcium

Buffalo chicken meatloaf

Yield: 8 slices

Source: foodnetwork.com.

For the sauce

3 tablespoons ketchup

1 tablespoon hot sauce

For the meatloaf

Nonstick cooking spray, for spraying the loaf pan

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 stalks celery, small diced (about 1 cup)

1/2 medium onion, small diced (about 1 cup)

3 tablespoons hot sauce

1 1/2 pounds ground chicken

1 cup blue cheese crumbles

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

2 large eggs

2 cups panko bread crumbs (divided)

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1. For the sauce: Whisk together the ketchup and 1 tablespoon hot sauce in a small bowl and set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and set aside.

3. Melt the butter in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Once melted, saute the celery and onion until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture, with the drippings, to a large bowl. Add the 3 tablespoons hot sauce to the bowl and stir to combine. Add the chicken, blue cheese, salt, pepper, eggs and 1 1/2 cups of the panko and mix until well-combined.

4. Press the mixture into the prepared loaf pan, pressing more in the center of the loaf to create a divot. This will allow the meatloaf to bake evenly and not create a mound after it is baked. Spread the sauce over the top of the meatloaf. Mix the parmesan with the remaining 1/2 cup of the panko and sprinkle the mixture on top of the sauce.

5. Bake until the center is set and the top is golden brown, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Or use a meat thermometer and let meatloaf reach 165 degrees. Let rest about 15 minutes before cutting to serve.

Per serving: 421 calories; 24 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 148 mg cholesterol; 28 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 1,158 mg sodium; 281 mg calcium

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