One of the great delights of moving to an utterly new country is discovering new food that you have never eaten before. The second great delight is introducing your new friends to the delights of food you grew up with. One of these foods is the humble American meatloaf. Brits do not know what meatloaf is, unless they have spent time in the United States. The local equivalent is cottage pie, which is sauteed onion, carrot, peas, and crumbled hamburger, baked in a square pie dish and then topped with mashed potato.
My mother was a great fan of meatloaf. She often spiked it with breadcrumbs in order to make a pound of hamburger go further. That was okay; it tasted good and you hardly knew it was there once the meatloaf was mixed. We’d have mashed potatoes and peas, maybe a salad. Voilà! Dinner!
I went to the local supermarket today and gravitated to the reduced-to-clear refrigerator case once I’d picked up the milk. Often in the morning I tell my spouse, HWMBO (He Who Must Be Obeyed—see Rumpole of the Bailey and Haggard’s She) that we will have one thing for dinner, normally something in the freezer. When I visit the reduced-to-clear section, we end up having something else altogether. We were going to have frozen chicken kievs tonight. But when I got to the supermarket and saw the two pounds of hamburger that would doubtless be used for cottage pies, I thought: “Aha! Mother Hansen’s Meatloaf!”. Just the ticket for a coolish evening.
Here are the ingredients. Feel free to improvise: I do!
2 lbs. hamburger (mince beef in Blighty)
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 a bell pepper, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
1 cup of breadcrumbs (if you like)
Italian seasoning (or basil and oregano if you like)
1 tbl Worcestershire sauce
1 tbl Vegemite or Marmite (if you can get it—yeast extract is hard to source in the US but it adds a lot to a meatloaf)
1 tbl Tabasco (less or more depending on your taste)
Salt and pepper, but more pepper than salt if you’ve used Vegemite/Marmite
1 can condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup (Campbell’s has pulled out of the UK, so I used Batchelor’s)
Today I’d eaten the two slices of bread left over from the loaf I cut our Communion bread from last Sunday, so I left the breadcrumbs out.
A note on yeast extract: It’s not for everyone. I have never met another American who liked it on toast. It is a dark brown spread the consistency of peanut butter that is to be spread THINLY on your breakfast toast after buttering. It makes it savoury (in UK-speak). This is a taste hard to describe to Americans, but it is something like salty and meaty all rolled into one. In this recipe (I confess: my sainted mother had probably never even heard of Vegemite or Marmite) it adds salty goodness and a bit of colour. Someday I may blog on the various -mites you find in the world.
I took some pictures of the process I went through to make the meatloaf. It might seem like overkill, and for a traditional cookbook it would be. The Craig Claibornes of this world (and he was an exceptional food writer) take pictures of the finished product, while avoiding pictures of the messy intermediate steps. If you’re a student trying to replicate Mom’s meatloaf, though, you may get frustrated if all you see is the perfect meatloaf at the end, and don’t realise what the middle steps look like. So here on the Internet you can get it all. I will begin with the onion, celery, and bell pepper.
Do mince it well. If you leave the pieces too big, the meatloaf will fall apart after cutting.
Then put your hamburger in a large bowl. The meat should be cool but not very cold as you’ll be digging your hands into it soon. Don’t think you’ll get away without a bit of dirtywork.
Now add all the other ingredients except the soup. Just pile ‘em in, don’t bother to mix ‘em up. Yet. Here’s what mine looked like this afternoon. Note especially the brown blob in the lower left hand corner: this is the fabled Vegemite.
Now, take your watches, rings, and bracelets off, wash your hands thoroughly, and start kneading. Roll the mixture around, squeeze it through your fingers, get really messy. If you have a young teenager, this is a perfect way to get him involved in cooking. Knead the mixture until it’s homogeneous. It’ll look like this in the bowl:
Now get out a loaf pan and pack the mixture into it. No need to grease it. Also, you won’t be cooking the meatloaf in it. Cover the pan with food wrap and pack it tight in every corner. If you want to prepare it in advance, this is the point where you put the mixture in the fridge and go have a rest.
When you’re ready to start baking, turn your oven to Gas Mark 7 (425 deg. F). Note: If you’re ever confronted with an unfamiliar oven temperature, this web page has a handy-dandy conversion chart! Take the food wrap off the loaf pan and run a butter knife around the edges. Holding the loaf pan by the handles, quickly turn it upside down over the baking pan. If the meatloaf doesn’t immediately fall out of the loaf pan, give the bottom a gentle tap.
Now put it in the oven for 45 minutes to start. Within 10 minutes a really lovely odour of cooking meatloaf will waft through your house. Make sure the spouse and kids are around for this. It’ll be the home equivalent of the in-store bread bakery.
Meanwhile, get your soup out. Remember, it has to be condensed, so in the US Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom is best. Campbell’s no longer exists in the UK, so I had to use this:
After 45 minutes, I took the meatloaf out (but left the oven on). This is what it looked like. I have to confess that I was a bit disappointed: the bargain hamburger I got was not as lean as I thought it was, and the meatloaf shrunk markedly from the shape I molded. This is not a fatal error, as the aim of meatloaf is to lose as much of the fat as possible. The important result is that the meatloaf does not fall apart when cut. That is still to be determined.
Now, open the can of soup, take a spoonful, and “ice” the top of the meatloaf. Use about half the can, and ice the entire top and as much of the side as you can. This was my mother’s recipe for moist meatloaf: add the moistness later on. I believe this was a 1950’s Campbell’s Soup suggestion. The idea was that you could get away with no gravy. Here’s what the meatloaf looked like before popping back into the oven.
You’re now 20 minutes away from great meatloaf. While it is cooking, make the gravy either from scratch (making a roux from butter and flour, then adding some beef stock and stirring over a medium fire until the entire mixture is thickened) or from gravy granules. I used gravy granules yesterday, made it up according to the instructions on the box, and then added in the rest of the can of soup and stirred until it was thoroughly blended. If you wish, sauté some mushrooms and onions and add them to the gravy at that point. In any case you will have mushroom gravy for the meatloaf. My mom used to use canned Franco-American mushroom gravy, of course.
After 15 minutes, take the meatloaf out to rest. It sounds odd, but it is very important to do this to ensure that the meatloaf does not fall apart when cut. Once it’s rested for about 10 minutes (during which you could, for example, mash potatoes or heat up the frozen peas) use two hamburger flippers or Chinese wok spatulas, edge them carefully under each end of the meatloaf, and carefully lift it off the grating and place it on a plate. This is the plated meatloaf.
Cut the meatloaf with a serrated bread knife. Do not use a sharp kitchen knife as it will catch on the pieces of vegetable in the meatloaf and rip the slice apart. The classic accompaniments to meatloaf are mashed potato and peas. I like to mash the potatoes coarsely, then rice the mashed potatoes with a hand ricer so that it is smooth. We actually had rice last night; as HWMBO is Chinese, rice is a big part of our diet and it’s just as good with Western meals.
Here is the finished meal on my plate.
I like to think that Mom would be happy to eat my meatloaf. We certainly were.