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Cooking for One: Meatloaf is a comfort classic

Thursday, October 14, 1999

By Marlene Parrish

The French always get the best words. They have paté and terrine -- and galantine and ballottine -- to describe seasoned ground meats pressed into a loaf and baked in pastry crust or a fancy earthenware mold. What do we Americans get? Meatloaf in a breadpan. Makes me mad.

But it evens out. What the French invest in linguistics, cost and complexity, we balance with economics, simplicity and appeal. Meatloaf may seem mundane on the coasts, but it's comfort food here in the flyover.

There's no easier dish to make. It can be served hot or cold, with good leftover options. It's nutritionally correct and loved by just about everybody. No special skills and no equipment required. Considering that, meatloaf has to be a favorite fall-back dish of every solo cook.

These days, there are as many versions of meat loaf as there are cooks. About all they have in common is the pan. Meatloaves can be made from the ground meat of all of the four-footed animals including game, plus poultry or shellfish. There's even such a thing as the oxymoron "vegetarian meatloaf" which, if you ask me, consists mostly of grains, beans, sawdust and twigs.

Cookbook author Melanie Barnard has made a study of the subject. In her book, "Everybody Loves Meatloaf," she says that all the ingredients fall into four categories: protein or "meat," starch, binder and seasonings. Here's how that formula deconstructs:

Meatloaf mix -- 1 1/2 pounds of uncooked meat, poultry, seafood or vegetables will serve six people, and the amount fits nicely into a standard loaf pan. A basic mix of 3/4 pound of beef chuck, 6 ounces each of lean ground pork and veal makes a wonderful loaf, the kind in our nostalgic mind's eye.

Starch -- That's an awful term. Starch gives meatloaf a soft texture and absorbs juices. It can be fresh bread crumbs, oatmeal, crushed crackers or even rice. Figure about 1 cup starch for the 1 1/2 pounds of "meat."

Binder -- An egg or two is usually called for to hold the structure together. Without a binder, it's flop city and you might as well make sloppy joes.

Seasonings -- Here's where it gets interesting. Garlic, onions, parsley, salt and pepper are taken for granted. Then there's soy, Worcestershire and teriyaki sauces. Ketchup, and its sidekick chili sauce, are natural matches for the standard meatloaf for color, moisture and flavor.

Ketchup. Is it a fruit, a vegetable or a condiment? That depends on whether you ask a botanist, a school cafeteria or McDonald's. No matter which pigeonhole, the brand had better be the pride o' Pittsburgh, Heinz.

Throw all of the above into a big bowl and moosh it with your clean hands until the mixture looks uniform.

Plop the mixture into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan or pat into a mound on a baking sheet with sides. Bake for an hour, and there she be.

Diner Turkey Meatloaf

1 1/2 pounds ground turkey
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cup uncooked quick oats
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup bottled chili sauce, separated
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 large egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine the turkey, onion, oats, parsley, milk, 1/4 cup of chili sauce, thyme, salt, pepper and egg.

Pat the mixture into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan or shape it into a loaf in a 13-by-9-inch baking pan, smoothing top. Spread the remaining 1/4 cup chili sauce over the top.

Bake until loaf is firm and the top is browned, about an hour. Let the meatloaf stand in the pan for 10 minutes before slicing.

Leftovers: Make classic meatloaf sandwiches on white bread with mayo, lettuce and tomato.

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