More on Meatloaf

In my Quantum Meat Loaf post I talked about how malleable and flexible this preparation is.

One quick update. Do not skip including large quantities of at least one strong, green herb such as fennel, oregano, thyme or sage — unless you like a strong lamb flavor and only intend to use your loaf for Eastern Mediterranean style dishes.

Most of my loaves have included quite a bit of fennel, which doesn’t make the whole loaf taste of fennel, but does allow it to work both in Italian dishes and Greek or Syrian dishes. My most recent didn’t have any fennel at all (for reasons I won’t bother to get into here) and the result was still delicious, but had a strong lamb flavor that could really only be tamed by fresh curly parsley (such as tabbouleh) or tzatziki sauce.

I’ve begun getting my ground meat from a farmer’s market vendor who has block frozen beef, lamb and pork, and so I’ve switched to ground pork instead of pork sausage, because the beef and lamb aren’t 90+% lean the way they are from the fancy grocery store that offers grass fed meat. But, the loss of the seasoning from the sausage has to be accounted for with my own inclusions — which has often involved a lot of ground fennel for me, and now I know it is necessary.

Quantum Meat Loaf

Most meat loaf are “comfort food” and really don’t amount to much but a lump of protein that plays well with mashed potatoes, reeking of caramelized ketchup or canned brown gravy. This meat loaf can be sliced thin into pita with yogurt sauce, sliced thick, cubed, and simmered into red sauce for pasta, cubed and simmered into something like wedding soup or slow cooked until it crumbles with smoked chili to serve over rice… you name it. This is the meat loaf that does not know what it will do until the observer opens the left overs carton and resolves the quantum uncertainties  You can cook this on Sunday afternoon and eat off it all week without ever having the same dish twice. I recommend cutting the cooked loaf into large portions and freezing them until you’re ready to consume just to ensure you get long life without any microbial mischief.

First, make sure the cat is or is not dead, and put it out of the room. Then…

Puree a white onion and a red onion, put into a screen and let the water drain out for at least 15 minutes (30 would be better).

Put the puree into a large mixing bowl… no, not that one, a really big one. No, seriously. A big one. *sigh* fine, it’s your counter top.

Put the puree into a mixing bowl and add proportional amounts of salt, pepper, garlic powder, sumac, smoked paprika, hot paprika, red pepper flake, dried oregano, dried thyme and ground fennel seed. Chiffonade a few handfuls of basil leaves, and add.

Work into this a pound each of ground lamb, beef and pork sausage (I like Italian sausage for this, the mild kind has a lot of fennel and will work well, but “breakfast” sausage will also work) and combine thoroughly — probably with your hands unless you have a stand mixer with some kind of very gentle paddle device.

Slowly work in plain bread crumbs until any remaining moisture from the onion has been sufficiently absorbed to allow the entire mass to form a free standing loaf on a hotel pan.

  • DO NOT ADD EGG
  • DO NOT PACK INTO A LOAF PAN
  • DO NOT MAKE ANY KIND OF GLAZE

Just don’t. You’re going to get something better than dry corners with this, and more of it, properly mixed and balanced meat loaf doesn’t need egg (which, according to Alton Brown, represents a health hazard, anyway), and we’re going to make gravy, so you don’t need a glaze.

Form an oblong loaf on the hotel pan, and surround it with course chopped carrots, small potatoes (or course chopped big ones) and either chopped fennel bulb or sweet onion.  Place under the broiler, low setting, and watch carefully. You don’t want the top of the loaf to burn, but you do want the entire loaf to brown and char as much as you can manage without burning any of it. How you shape your loaf will play a factor here. Too much dome will give you a burnt top and under-browned sides. Too flat and while you’ll get a nice even char, there won’t be enough tender interior.

Once you have your desired char, set the oven to 250 and cook until the loaf reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. It will easily coast, once out of the oven, covered in foil, well above the safety threshold for meat. Given you’re cooking a well over three pound loaf, this will take a while at such low heat. If you have one of those probe thermometers with an alarm based on temperature instead of time, I highly recommend that approach. Otherwise, begin taking soundings for doneness after 45 minutes.

Reserve all the vegetables and all the pan drippings. The drippings can be used to make gravy, or can be added to a red sauce, or  simmered to make broth for soups… almost anything you want to be heartrendingly delicious.

I recommend giving the vegetables (that have been roasting in the fat all that time) as rewards to children for A’s on quizzes and tests.

That outer char on the loaf will give you that flavor people love from dry corners without

  • having such a limited amount of dry corners to go around
  • ruining the texture of the meat by drying it out that much

 

You can probably modify this recipe only just slightly, especially if you can get (or make) finely ground meat, compress the loaf under pressure around a skewer and make a loaf from which thin slices can be carved for gyro sandwiches. The original recipe above will work, but will crumble up when sliced too thinly. A finer grind and a compressed loaf will hold shape better when carved.

Turn Your Head and Kofta

One simple way I’ve worked into my food thinking to try to ensure that more and more of the meat that I consume is at least vaguely ethical is by going out of my way to have cuts from animals which are less popular with the general public, and thus through sheer economic principles are less likely to have been industrialized. Lamb instead of beef, quail or duck instead of chicken, boar instead of pork… that kind of thing.

The good news for me, is that attending a church full of people of Arabic descent means that discovering lamb dishes, how to prepare them, and places around the city to get good Middle Eastern food (which, when done authentically, is almost always lamb, not beef) has gotten much easier.

Always budget conscious, and recognizing that eating ethical meat means spending a lot more per pound, I always have my eye open for budget friendly options. The most obvious budget friendly lamb option I’ve found is kofta (or kafta, depending on regional transliteration). This is a ground meat preparation which sort of straddles the fence between a sausage and a meatball; traditionally oblong, not spherical, not stuffed into a casing, and yet not cooked loose like Western breakfast sausage or scrapple, either. This preparation is typically cooked as a kabob, which is to say on a skewer, on a grill.

Kofta is, for me, a shining example of how Mediterranean cuisine somehow manages to have strong flavors, and use a lot of spices, and yet somehow everything still tastes like “itself”. Kofta tastes like lamb. And yet, it is anything but “plain” or “bland”. These are the kinds of food traditions I enjoy the most, and so kofta has become a fast favorite of mine.

I have found a few places around the city which serve phenomenal kofta wrap sandwiches, but of course, cooking at home is always cheaper than dining out, so of course I needed to figure out how to make my own kofta at home. And of course, I knew better than to ask any of the jadda at church for their recipe because, well, I like my ears to remain their current size, and in their current location on my head. Clearly, some deep nerd R&D was going to be required.

The first thing you learn when you start looking into ground meat preparations from the Middle East (such as gyro and kofta) is that the meat is ground much, much finer than one finds for Western sausage or meatball/meatloaf/burger preparations. During my early experiments I was inclined to ignore this detail, and I paid dearly with crumbling meat during cooking, eventually resulting in not only bad texture, but poor flavor. Yes, it is a very tricky business to put meat into a food processor and not end up with “pink slime” or some kind of wallpaper paste, but if you don’t own a grinding attachment for your pasta maker or stand mixer (and I don’t even own this hardware, yet, let alone have grinding attachments) you’re going to need to bite a bullet, develop a very adept pulse button finger, and tighten up the grind manually.

Part of the reason for this is that some of the primary ingredients you’re going to add to the meat are pureed raw onion and fresh herbs — which have a lot of water in them. A loose grind combined with a high water content is going to cause the crumbling during cooking that I was seeing.

Note, that yesterday I was making a variation on Italian wedding soup, but using kofta instead of meatballs[1]. If you want kofta for sandwiches or an entree, use all lamb, rather than the combination I have below.

So, enough foreshadowing, here’s the rundown.

  • quarter pound ground lamb
  • quarter pound ground pork
  • quarter pound ground chuck (not highly lean ground beef!)
  • half white onion, pureed and left to drain
  • four cloves garlic, pureed and left to drain (or prepared minced garlic, well drained)
  • large handful of fresh cilantro
  • large handful of fresh basil
  • salt, pepper, hot and smoked paprika, and sumac (or at least a zatar blend which includes it)

Puree your onion and garlic and set aside to strain. Coarse chop your cilantro and basil. Put your meats, dry seasonings, fresh herbs and pureed aromatics into a bowl and combine as best you can with a big spoon. Then, in small batches, add to a food processor and carefully work everything together more thoroughly (while making the grind on the meat finer without pulverizing it).

Form golf ball sized meatballs with the results. Arrange in a cast iron skillet and place beneath a broiler on high heat, but at some distance from the flame. Once one side is browned, drain the fat into a large cooking pot, turn the meatballs over, and put back beneath the broiler until the second side is browned, then remove from heat, drain fat again, and set aside, covered. Carry over heat will ensure they are cooked through safely.

Cook a batch of short grained rice, barley, orzo pasta or pearl couscous.

In the large pot where you put all that meat fat, add three chunked carrots, three chunked celery ribs, and the other half onion chunked, with liberal salt, on medium high heat. Once well wilted and soft, add two cartons of low sodium vegetable broth and a third carton of water. Let simmer until the vegetables all want to fall apart. Strain into a large bowl, put the vegetables aside (either to compost or to puree into a sauce base if you just can’t bring yourself to “waste” them), return the broth to the pot and add a bag of chopped spinach (I recommend working through it by hand to remove all the stems). Once the spinach is soft, you can serve your soup by filling the bottom of a steep bowl with your rice (or pasta or whatever you made), putting two meatballs on top of the rice, and then filling the bowl with broth.

Note: this makes far more broth than it does meatballs. But, broth keeps, meatballs don’t. Be prepared to make additional batches of meatballs (and cook more rice/pasta) to finish off the broth — or to store the broth for later use in sauces and gravy.

[1] Traditional Italian meatballs are one part pork, one part lamb and one part veal. I refuse to eat veal, and so I substitute ground chuck (rather than a highly lean ground beef) to ensure that I have enough fat content to keep the balls moist during their time under the broiler.

Quicker, Easier Stewed Tomatoes

Although I did not realize this was unusual — or even something to cherish — until I was much older, I grew up in a household that made our own tomato sauce, and occasionally even our own pasta. As a kid, this mostly meant a lot of hard work, lost Summer vacation time I could have been spending on my bike, in the pool, or reading a book, and being in an un-air-conditioned house that now had a hot stove in it for an entire day. At that age I didn’t actually like the kind of sauce you end up with when you take two bussels of Roma tomatoes, crush them through a mill to remove seeds and skins, and then simmer them for several hours with spices. And so, this family ritual was not my favorite in spite of ready access to all the famous Jersey Tomatoes one could ever want within a mile of my home.

Today, of course, I lament my lack of insight and foresight at the time, and yearn for the days of such delicacies as fresh sauce and fresh pasta. Even buying so called “vine ripened” tomatoes at the organic grocery cannot produce anything remotely like a similar result.

Well, the last year and a half I’ve had a community garden plot. Last year we had six tomato plants, only one of which was Roma tomatoes, and it hardly bore any fruit. So this year we planted seven Roma plants and one grape tomato plant. Unfortunately, the Roma are again producing very little fruit (actually, quite large fruit, but not many of them) and they are leaping directly from green to rotten in most cases.

But about a week ago Liz went with me to the garden and set about to picking the over abundance of grape tomatoes which were more than plenty ripe and ready for eating while I was busy picking green beans and cucumbers and re-planting some hot peppers. The only problem is that I don’t actually like fresh tomatoes very much. The texture utterly freaks me out.

So what to do with a hundred grape tomatoes? Well, if they’d been cherry tomatoes, this would have been a real problem, because in spite of small size, cherry tomatoes have a lot of seeds and a thick skin. Not so with grape tomatoes. They are thin skinned and largely seed free.

Could they make a good sauce I wondered?

Into the Blendtec they went with a liberal amount of olive oil (cheap stuff!), a few of my Italian Rooster peppers from the garden, a large quantity of fresh basil from the garden and some other dried herbs. Just enough application of violence to produce a pulpy mess but not a smoothie and all of this went into a large pot over very low heat.

A few hours later (two with the lid on, two with the lid off) we had some of the best sauce I’ve had in a long time — and without having to actually process any tomatoes ahead of time. I’m sure that the Romas will make better sauce when they finally come in. But they’ll also require some processing.

So, if you find yourself wanting fresh sauce, but like me you have childhood baggage that prevents you from embarking on the rendering of two bussels of Roma at a go, see if your farmer’s market is offering grape tomatoes. They are the non-obvious, even counter-intuitive, option for quick sauce.

Better yet, look into the myriad of “one square foot” vertical gardening techniques that are out there and grow your own. A single grape tomato plant is high yield and doesn’t get nearly as unruly as the larger varieties do. You’ll need some kind of caging, but you won’t need seven feet of it.

If you don’t have vegetarians in the house, render down equal parts of lamb, pork and beef with a roughly 20% fat content and no bones, over very low heat until the meat is fork tender and the fat has completely liquified. Then add your Blendtec tomato preparation, sans olive oil. After more slow cooking (covered, then uncovered) you’ll have a fantastic Bolognese.