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.

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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.

How to Avoid Cooking with Bugs

Having East European ancestry, I cook with a lot of paprika — the hot and the smoked kind, not the sweet kind. Until I can afford to buy all of my spices in fancy shops with high quality product, this means getting my paprika in small metal tins at the grocery store, being careful to always get the ones that say “hot” because they look exactly like the ones that do not say “hot” aside from this single word.

I just opened a new can today so that I could include it in a rub I was putting on a rump roast. [1] Thankfully, I was preparing a dry rub and poured the paprika out into the spice mill, not directly onto the meat. BUGS! Lots and lots of little pill bugs. Somehow alive, and moving about. They’ve been inside a sealed can, with nothing but hot paprika for months. Many months. How are they alive?

This was nearly a huge disaster. I nearly cooked a huge roast with a bunch of bugs. Being an American, if I had discovered the bugs after I cooked the roast, despite well above boiling point heat for hours, I’d have concluded the food was “ruined”.

Lesson: When opening a new container of dried goods that you can’t see into at the time you buy it (like a box or a tin, not a glass jar), be sure to make the first pour into a dish and do some examinations before letting the contents touch anything you plan to eat.

I’m going to be over here rocking back and forth and mumbling quietly to myself.

[1] One of the several local Whole Foods in Houston has some kind of an arrangement with a local farm which raises grass fed beef. Since I am the only one in the house who eats meat, and then only a few days of the week, certain weeks of the year besides, I can no longer sustain a regular standing order from a farm directly, which is what I used to do. This is the next best thing. I usually get the eye round roast because it is almost like a tenderloin but costs $5 a pound instead of $30 a pound. They were out of those, so today we’re trying the rump roast. Mine was more than two pounds and should probably last me almost two weeks of lunches.