Some dishes are hard to recreate or make variations of because there’s so much nostalgia tied up in them. The dishes that graced the family dinner table for special occasions or as a go-to meal every week. While it could certainly use an update, it’s hard to let go of “what it’s supposed to taste like.” The list of things that must-not-be-changed is embarrassingly long. But one thing you won’t find on the list: meatloaf. If we ever ate it growing up, I certainly can’t remember it.
Meatloaf is traditional American food and like the tuna noodle casserole, it’s one my parents never really got behind. We embraced chili and clam chowder, but meatloaf was never on the dinner menu as far as I can remember. So when I started experimenting with meatloaf recipes, I was free to start from scratch.
So let’s talk about meatloaf: the good, the bad, and the ugly. My original gripes: when it’s baked in a loaf pan, the edges are often way overcooked while the center is only barely done. And the sauce to slice ratio was never enough. If you’re going to top it with a delicious ketchup or barbecue or mustard sauce, there should be a lot of sauce.
In the effort to make my own version of meatloaf, there have been a lot of flops. There was the version I made that was similar to my recipe for meatballs, which tasted mostly like meatballs; good but not exactly the point. There was a “Moroccan” spiced meatloaf that was probably an insult to Moroccans and was somewhat inedible. And there was the time I pressed the meatloaf into the pan too tightly, resulting in a hockey puck-like texture that, while still delicious, was not exactly great. It’s been a long road to this meatloaf, but it was worth it.
Makes about 8 servings
A tip for success: mix everything gently and when you transfer to meat mixture into the baking dish, do it in small handfuls so you can evenly distribute it without having to press on the meat mixture. Pressing or squeezing will make everything more dense which is not so good when it comes time to take a bite. Dense is good for brownies, not so much for meatloaf.
3/4 lb button mushrooms, finely chopped
1 tbs butter
2 lbs ground beef
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup oats, ground (in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle)*
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tbs plus 1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp aleppo pepper**
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon (a great complement to beef)
1 tbs tomato paste
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or pressed
1/2 cup sauce (I like to use this sauce but a mix of 1/3 cup ketchup with 1 tbs soy sauce, 3 tbs Worcestershire, and 1 tsp of hot sauce is also a great choice)
In a medium saucepan over medium high-heat, melt the butter and add the mushrooms along with 1 teaspoon of salt to let them cook. They should start to give up some water within a few minutes; keep cooking them stirring every few minutes, for about 15 minutes or until most of the water is gone and the pan is fairly dry. Then remove them from the heat and let the mushrooms cool.
Preheat the oven to 350 and line an 8 by 8 baking dish with foil. Get out a large bowl to mix everything together. In the bowl, combine the cooked mushrooms with the ground beef, onion, oats, thyme, remaining 1 tablespoon of salt, aleppo pepper, cinnamon, egg, tomato paste, and garlic and mix well. Make sure everything gets well combined but don’t squeeze the mixture together. Just toss it gently with your hands until it’s well mixed.
Take the meat mixture about 1/4 cup at a time and distribute it evenly in the baking dish. Working in small amounts makes it easier to make sure you have an even and flat loaf without having to press it in or flatten it. You can pat the mixture down a bit once it’s all in the pan to flatten the top but do it gently. The goal is to have an even surface for the sauce and not to pack the meat down.
Pour the sauce over the top of the meatloaf and bake it for about 30 minutes. The internal temperature should be about 155-160F and it you cut into the loaf there should be no pink spots left. At this point the loaf will cooked but there will also likely be a lot of liquid surrounding it that cooked out in the oven. Using a butter knife, cut a few slits around the sides of the foil (but not too big, you don’t want it to rip) and then lift the foil out the pan and let the liquid drain. Then put the foil lined loaf on a cutting board. Cut it into 2-3 inch square slices (which means more surface for sauce!) and serve it hot or keep it in the fridge for up to a week and warm it up before serving. Cold slices on a sandwich are also delicious.
*Why oats? Because I have them in the house for breakfasts and I don’t generally have breadcrumbs around. Oats are also slightly healthier which is bonus.
**I like the spicy and earthy flavor of this chile but if you don’t or it’s not available near you,by all means substitute red chile flakes