Mom, Marriage & Meatloaf
My mother is a wonderful cook. Curious, open to trying new things, happy to share when she comes upon a recipe that’s a winner. Her criteria? Not too fussy to make (or if it is, good enough to make the extra effort worth it), and flavorful enough to be more than satisfying: it has to be a meal you’ll remember enough to be wistful about and want to make again.
Part of the reason I became a chef can be laid at her, and her mother’s, feet. Grandma Cromley was an excellent cook herself (I still dream of her crabcakes from being at her house on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake). I remember being there one Thanksgiving when my father and uncle shot a Canada goose. Six-year-old me was agog at the sight and smell of her burning off the pin feathers before putting it in the oven.
Grandma had a set of wall chimes in the dining room with a little cloth mallet with which to smack them, creating a gleeful bing-bong-bing when dinner was served. Then there were her Gigi moments, when she’d trim and light my grandfather’s after-dinner cigar for him. I loved to see her take the first, fragrant pull before handing it over. The satisfaction on her face was priceless; it was the only time I ever saw her smoke.
For all the excellent meals Grandma made, she was not interested in having my mother underfoot in the kitchen to learn. As a result of her banishment, when my parents married, she was woefully unprepared. The primary saving grace in the situation was the fact that my father’s mother was not, by any standard, a good cook, so expectations on his part were pretty low going in.
Here was Barbara, young and in love, fully aware of what good food should taste like, with little experience or knowledge of how to get there. One of her most-treasured wedding presents came to the rescue: the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook. It was the first cookbook I ever used on my own, and I still use it today.
By the time I was old enough to remember my first meals, Mom had had more than 10 years of trial and error under her belt, and a growing repertoire of reliable dishes in her arsenal to provide for her growing family. There was one skill, though, that eluded her pretty much completely until the advent of the microwave. For some reason, she just couldn’t bake a potato. At least not all the way. I think now, looking back on it, that she was probably too busy chasing after the six of us to remember to get them into the oven in time.
Perhaps this bit of backstory will allow you to render me some charity when I make my next statement. Until I was in high school, I really didn’t like my mother’s meatloaf. The whole genre of ground meat, breadcrumb, egg, green pepper and ketchup concoctions never ended up being more than the sum of its parts for me; quite the opposite, in fact. One evening, when the response to my “what’s for dinner?” query came back, “meatloaf,” mom took in my unsubtle eyeroll/lip curl face and said, “No, this one’s different. I think you’re really going to like it. It has applesauce in it.” While I was still a good 15 years away from culinary school, even then I knew ground pork and applesauce together was a promising combination.
Paydirt. It was the best meatloaf I’d ever had, and continues to be. Of course, a critical meatloaf measurement has to be the quality of the sandwiches in the lunchboxes afterward. This recipe passed with flying colors. I’ve been making it ever since.
Not to say things haven’t evolved some. Especially after my CIA training. Meatloaf and pate are basically the same. Forcemeat, panade (flavored binding agent), garnish, usually baked in a loaf pan of some sort. Depending on how fatty the ground meat is, I sometimes form it in the pan, then invert it onto a baking sheet to let it cook out. The results are plenty moist either way.
One of the pairings often found on pate mirror displays is a sauce that complements the forcemeat, and not long after discovering a strawberry-rhubarb chutney in the Chicago Tribune’s food section I realized that ketchup wasn’t the best partner for my by now-beloved meatloaf. That chutney has undergone all kinds of riffs, as well. I’ve made it with peaches and rhubarb, cranberry and rhubarb, apricot, mango, and rhubarb, etc. The sour tang of the rhubarb in concert with the onions, cider vinegar and sugar form the backbone of the one condiment I’ve been making, canning, and giving to friends and family for years. It is a suitably memorable partner for mom’s Apple Sage Meatloaf.
Apple Sage Meatloaf
Yield: 8 servings
Here in Vermont it’s pretty easy to get your hands on locally grown meat, which is almost always pasture-raised and immensely flavorful. I often think the taste of these meats recaptures what was an everyday experience for most Americans before the industrialization of our food supply. If you have access to local meat, I highly recommend using it here.
1 1/2 pounds meatloaf mix, or any combination of ground beef, pork, veal, or turkey you like
1 cup (5 ½ ounces, 156g) small dice yellow onion
1 cup (3 ½ ounces, 99g) old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup (8 ounces, 227) unsweetened applesauce
2 tablespoons (1 ½ ounces, 43g) boiled cider, optional
1 ½ teaspoons ground sage
1 teaspoon salt
ground pepper to taste
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces, 43g) boiled cider, or A-1 steak sauce
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment.
Place the meat in a large mixing bowl and add the onions. In a separate, medium bowl stir together the oats, applesauce, boiled cider (if using), sage, salt, and pepper. Stir in the eggs.
Add the panade to the meat mixture and mix well. Your choice if you want to take out some aggression from the day and squeeze it all together with your hands (while a little gross, it tends to give the best results). If you’re more squeamish, a stand mixer fitted with a paddle does a credible job; just don’t use a speed any higher than medium. You don’t want to beat air into the mixture, or it will fall apart later when you go to slice it.
Pack the mixture into an 8 ½” x 4” loaf pan. Bang it on the counter a few times to knock out any air bubbles. Flip the pan over onto the lined baking sheet, and tap a few times until the formed rectangle slides out.
Score the top of the meatloaf in a crosshatch pattern, and brush with the boiled cider or steak sauce. Bake for 50 minutes (it’s fair game to go with convection on your oven if you have it; in that case check the internal temperature at 35 minutes), until the center reads 150°F when measured with an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before slicing.