Meat Loaf

Meat loaf

I’ve had several different kinds of meat loaf and I like them all (no comment on the musical variety). I think it is one of those fundamentally simple dishes that can take a lot of punishment–which is why I can make it. The recipe I use, adapted from The Commonsense Kitchen, is long on flavor and short on structural integrity (following the actual recipe more closely would probably help). The secret ingredient is the glaze, which also happens to be the only part of the dish you can taste before you bake it. (The other secret ingredient, I think, is the high quality (but expensive) grass-fed cruelty-free hipster-glasses-wearing swaddled-and-coddled ground beef.)

Meat Loaf
1 lb ground beef
1 small-to-medium onion
4 cloves garlic
1 egg
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
1-2 Tbsp glaze
Bread crumbs or oats, if available, pulverized in blender, about 1/2 cup
Salt, pepper, rosemary, oregano, thyme

Glaze (use as many as you have)
Hot sauce
Hoisin sauce
Apple cider vinegar
Brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

To make the glaze, combine all the ingredients to taste.  The final volume should be about a quarter cup.

To make the meat loaf, pulverize the oats/bread, and pulverize or chop very finely the onion and garlic. Combine with all the other ingredients except the meat and mix together. You can alter the proportions of the glaze that goes into the bulk if you like–usually I just put some hot sauce and/or mustard in there to give it some kick, and leave the more subtle balancing-of-flavors glaze mixture for the topping. Then mix in the meat, just so as to evenly distribute the ingredients while working the meat as little as possible.

Put the meat loaf in a greased loaf pan and then pour the rest of the glaze over the top. Bake for 40-50 minutes, then turn up the heat to 450 for 10 minutes more to brown the glaze.

More meat loaf

Postscript: There is an argument to be made, when in possession of delicious and expensive ground meat, for just eating the meat directly, in hamburger form, so as to get the most of the delicious meaty flavor, and leaving meat loaf for the job of improving the less-desirable meats. Frequently, we do just that (eat hamburgers, I mean), but I think it is also worth remembering what meat loaf was invented for (I think): in olden days, when times were tough and people were poor, the goal was to stretch what meat you could afford over as many meals as possible. Meat loaf does this admirably–and as there is no question that meatiness is the dominant essence of this dish, the ground beef is certainly not being wasted. I put it to you, therefore, that because of the very fact that this beef is delicious and expensive, that meat loaf is its ideal use.

Hamburgers with Sir Kensington

One of the problems with living in an apartment complex is that the drifting scent of bbq and hamburgers can send one into a meat frenzy.  Usually this happens on the way home from work, when fatigue and the lack of any meat in the freezer lead to a predictably vegetarian dinner.  However, for some strange reason this was not the case on Saturday night.  First, we were walking to the store when we turned into meat zombies and second, we had one package of ground beef in the fridge.  Why was the store necessary?  We didn’t have bread, lettuce, or ketchup, and a burger is very very sad without any of these.

While the local grass-fed beef (blah blah blah) was good, it bowed before Sir Kensington, a gourmet scooping ketchup.  That may sound a bit absurd, but traditional ketchup was ruined for me when,  a few years ago, my friend Karen sent me a box with homemade canned yellow ketchup.  Karen’s ketchup was the stuff of dreams: tangy, slightly sweet, eat-it-on-a-spoon yum.  This is a reminder Karen, I want that ketchup recipe!  Until Sir Kensington I had forsworn eating non-homemade ketchup (except on fries out of the house) and, let’s face it, burgers are just not the same without it.  So thank you, Sir Kensington, for enabling me to eat an entire jar of ketchup in less than a week, you saucy minx you.

I wish I had a recipe for hamburgers for you, but I did exactly the opposite of whatever the Commonsense Kitchen suggested (by accident mind you).  It suggests handling the ground beef as little as possible (I mixed mine ferociously) and not salting it until after cooking (how the heck does that work???).  So yes, go buy good beef, do as little to it as possible, and top it with ketchup.

Thanksgiving with Brine Roast Turkey and Desserts

This year we visited Peter’s parents in the Bay Area again for Thanksgiving, and as there were quite a few other guests invited to dinner, we naturally had a cook a feast.  Peter was put in charge of two very important things: fresh-baked bread and the turkey.  While the bread was not a problem, the turkey provided quite a challenge simply due to the sheer number of turkey recipes available on NPR, in Bon Appétit, Joy of Cooking, and every other recipe book, newspaper, and magazine in sight.  The main challenge, it seems, is cooking the dark meat for long enough to get it to 165 degrees F while not drying out the white meat.  My response to this, it seems, was to suggest that we make the whole turkey more most by soaking it in salty water overnight.  What was I thinking? Well, it turns out that the concept of soaking a turkey in brine before roasting is quite popular, but not exactly new.  We used a recipe originally from Alice Waters printed in the San Francisco Chronicle that had been tried and tested by a friend of Peter’s mother.  Below is the original recipe, along with the list of ingredients we changed and left out, on purpose or accidentally.  Despite the need for a bowl the size of turkey and a whole cup of salt, the brining process was quite easy and the turkey turned out quite moist, despite our best efforts to destroy it.  In fact, if we overcooked anything, it was the dark meat.

Brine Roast Turkey
12-16 lb turkey
2 1/2 gallons cold water
2 cups salt
1 cup sugar
2 bay leaves, crushed
1 bunch or 4 tablespoons dried thyme
1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
5 whole allspice berries, crushed
4 juniper berries, smashed

1)  Put the water in a large bowl or pot (make sure it fits the turkey too) and mix in all the other ingredients until the salt and sugar are dissolved.  Add the turkey and make sure it is submerged completely, holding it down with a heavy plate if necessary.  Refrigerate the turkey in the brine for 24 hours.

2)  Take the turkey out of the brine, drain well, and pat dry.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Massage 2 tablespoons of soft butter and 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper over the skin and in the cavity of the turkey.  Put an aluminum foil tent over the breast meat of the turkey and put it in the oven in a roasting pan with sides high enough to catch the juices of the turkey as it cooks.

3)  After the first hour of baking, remove the aluminum foil tent and baste the turkey using any turkey drippings/juice.  Baste the turkey every 20 minutes from then on.  The turkey is done when the internal temperature of the turkey thigh is 165 degrees F, which should take 1 3/4 – 2 1/4 hours, depending on the size of the bird.

Our actual brine had the following things:
1 gallon water
1 cup salt
Bay leaves, crushed
Thyme and allspice powder
1/2 head of garlic

Even though we cooked our 12 lb turkey for 2 1/4 hours the white meat was still moist.  Since we completely forgot to include the sugar in the brine, I think we may have to try this recipe again next year without omitting so many ingredients.  We used less brine overall than the recipe called for because the bowl we used only held that much in addition to the turkey.  Needless to say I look forward to turkey leftovers over the weekend.

In addition to delicious bread and turkey, we also made rice stuffing, roasted vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, and beets), baked apples, and biscotti.  Other guests brought pumpkin coconut soup, a pumpkin pie, an apple pie, a tossed salad, and green beans with almonds.  Did I mention we ate well?

Two of our Thanksgiving crew are vegan and one is gluten-intolerant, so baked apples without crust or butter seemed like a safe bet.  We mixed these tart green apples with brown sugar and cinnamon before arranging them in a couple of pie tins.

For some reason we were worried that we wouldn’t have enough desserts, so we made biscotti at the last moment.  What deliciousness!  I was secretly happy that we forgot to put them out after dinner in the excitement of all the other desserts, because then I got to eat them with my morning tea for the next three days.

One of the joys of baking at Peter’s parents’ house?  A legitimate kitchen aid to do all the hard work.  Am I a little jealous?  Perhaps, but then I realize there’s nowhere to fit a kitchen aid in my kitchen and I’m happy that I don’t have the luxury of making such a difficult choice.

Dahl et al.

We have been lucky enough to have a never-ending stream of visitors over the last month, which means that we’ve discovered a couple wonderful restaurants, and haven’t spent as much time in the kitchen.  Among the highlights are Fig, a tiny fresh pasta and sandwiches restaurant right off the 101 in Atascadero (read: perfect for stopping for dinner on a drive to the bay area); Chocolate, where we ordered dessert consisting of a chocolate pot (fondue), hot chocolate (thick and delicious), and a “chocolate orgy” (sampler platter of chocolate desserts)… there were 10 of us; Olio Pizzeria, where we had the best pizza in town, ranging from carbonara to roasted vegetable; and finally Renaud’s Patisserie, where we occasionally spurge on the most delicious croissants I’ve ever eaten and we recently sat down for a delicious, cheesy Croque Monsieur
(“Béchamel sauce, Swiss cheese and choice of ham or sautéed mushrooms on homemade pain de mie”) as well as a couple desserts (we were sharing, I swear!).  There have also been a couple memorable dinners with friends (photographs below), just in case you thought I’d given up on cooking completely.  Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera to the homemade pizza-fest, but as I “accidentally” bought too many tomatoes this morning at the farmer’s market, I see more pizza in our future.

In all the craziness of hosting friends and traveling, I returned to one of the first foods I ever learned to make (after scrambled eggs, pasta, and stir-fry).  Dahl is like a thick, spiced version of lentil soup, and very easy to make.  I no longer make it with a recipe, but the basic idea is to cook lentils in a spiced broth until they are very soft and the broth is mostly reduced.  I change the spices I use every time, but usually include turmeric, coriander, and cumin.  This time I used (clockwise from top in the above photograph) ground cloves, cayenne pepper, a biryani spice blend (allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, rose powder), ground ginger, paprika, turmeric, and coriander.  In place of brown lentils, I have used yellow split peas and red lentils, although the cooking times vary considerably based on how long it takes for the peas or lentils to break down.

My basic recipe is to saute a diced onion in about 1 tablespoon of olive oil until the onion is soft.  Then I add the ground spices and mix them into the oil.  The spices will burn very quickly if you don’t add more liquid, so I usually add 1-2 cups of lentils or split peas, stir to coat the lentils with the oil and spices, and immediately add a couple cups of water, vegetable broth, or chicken broth (I also add a couple bay leaves or dried curry leaves).  I cook the lentils on a low flame until they are very soft and most of the water is either absorbed or evaporated.  I keep my eye on it to see if it needs more water, and once the lentils are mostly cooked I add plenty of salt.  To serve, ladle the dahl into soup bowls and squeeze in a little lemon juice and top with fresh herbs (such as fresh onions and chives) and perhaps some plain yogurt.  It is important not to add the lemon juice before the dahl is done cooking, as the tartness will be substantially reduced.  Tomatoes make a great addition to the cooking broth and spinach or swiss chard can be added right before the dahl is done (unlike the lentils, the greens are much better when not overcooked).

Here are a couple photographs from a recent dinner with friends.  We baked a chicken with vegetables similar to last time, except I made a garlic and rosemary butter and rubbed it between the breast meat and the chicken skin, as well as all over the outside of the chicken.  The white meat was deliciously tender and there wasn’t a bit of it left for lunch.  We also made a roasted vegetable bake with zucchini, onions, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and cheese.  We tried a locally made gouda cheese, but while delicious, it didn’t melt very well.

Roasted Chicken with Vegetables and Garlic

The first roast chicken I ever made was motivated by two things.  First, I found whole, frozen free-range/grass-fed chickens at the farmer’s market and was extremely curious.  Second, I was trying to cook every recipe possible from the one cookbook I owned: The Book of French Provincial Cooking by Hilaire Walden.  I bought the cookbook for about $2 at Border’s when I first moved to California two years ago, and it has provided some of my favorite vegetable and vegetable soup recipes, particularly the idea that vegetables are especially delicious when roasted with a layer of cheese (which makes perfect sense in retrospect).  The first non-vegetable recipe I made was quite simple: roast a chicken with sprigs of rosemary and two heads of garlic.  While I may have slashed the chicken to pieces before declaring it fully cooked, it was some of the most tender and delicious chicken I’d ever eaten.  It took very little prodding to try the other roast chicken recipe in French Provincial Cooking: put herb butter between the skin and meat of the breast-side of the chicken and roast until golden.  Perhaps these were not traditional roast chickens because I baked them in a dutch oven for most of the time, taking the lid off for the last half an hour to make the skin golden and crackly.  But who cares, because they tasted good, and as I’ve learned to do since those first roasted chicken adventures, they are an excellent excuse to roast root vegetables in the dutch oven right along with the chicken.  The chicken-vegetable-herb-spice-sauce combinations are endless, so if you find something you like, let me know.

Roasted Chicken with Vegetables and Garlic
1 whole raw chicken (ours are 3 to 3 1/2 pounds)
3-5 potatoes cut into thick wedges
2-3 carrots cut into thick wedges
5 large cloves garlic
Bunches of fresh herbs, such as thyme, oregano, and parsley
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Special equipment: dutch oven or other large oven-safe baking dish with lid.
Defrost the chicken if frozen.  People can have very strong opinions about how best to defrost a frozen chicken, but I like soaking it, still packaged, in a water bath in the sink for a while (I use cold water if I am not in a rush, and very warm water if I am).  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Grease dutch oven with olive oil.  Put chicken in dutch oven breast-side down; this makes the white meat more tender and is only a problem if you have to display the chicken at a dinner party and carve it at the table, in which case you should turn the chicken over half-way through cooking so it can obtain a nice golden crust or cook it breast-side up the whole time.  Arrange slices of potato and carrot, cloves of garlic (peeled or not, or a combination), and sprigs of herbs around the sides of the chicken.  Drizzle olive oil over the chicken and veggies, and add plenty of salt and pepper.  Spread the olive oil and salt/pepper over the chicken with a spoon to coat evenly.  Add 1/2 cup or so of water or white wine to the dutch oven to keep everything moist before the chicken produces its own juices.  With the lid on the dutch oven, bring the water or wine in the dutch oven to a boil on the stove and then place the dutch oven, still with the lid on, in the oven and bake for 1 hour.  The chicken will probably not be done yet, but after an hour you can take the lid off the dutch oven and let the bird bake until done, another 1/2 hour or more, so that the chicken can become crispy and golden on the outside.  To test if the chicken is done, pierce one of the thickest parts of meat (if you bake it breast-side down, then the thighs are the easiest parts to stab) and if the juices are clear the chicken is cooked.  If the chicken is not cooked, the juices will be pink and you’ll just have to be patient.

I’m not sure if the best part of this dish is the chicken, vegetables roasted in chicken juice, or the roasted garlic, but they make a fantastic combination.  The addition of a green leafy salad and a bottle of white wine would probably make almost everyone happy.  In winter, other root vegetables can be substituted/added, such as turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, and of course sweet potatoes.

Finally, there is a bonus to roasting chickens: your own chicken stock.  Sometimes I roast chickens not because I want to eat them particularly, but because I’ve run out of chicken stock.  And it’s so easy to make that you should try it at least once.

Chicken Stock
1 carcass of a roasted chicken (bones, skin, fat, everything)
Dutch oven you roasted the chicken in (it probably has tidbits baked to its sides)
Anything else you want to add: chopped onion, carrot, herbs, leeks.
Add everything to the dutch oven and fill the rest of the dutch oven with water.  Bring to a boil and simmer for about an hour.  Let the mixture cool and then store in containers in the freezer or fridge (I don’t let it sit in the fridge for more than a couple days).  I usually add only a bay leaf to the chicken stock mixture, since I use the stock for so many different things.  You can also make a point of not including the layer of fat that rises to the top of the stock if you wish, although I think a little bit gives the stock more flavor.

Tomato Salad with Orange & Mint Meatball Pasta

I was not a fan of touching raw meat before I lived with Peter.  Raw meat was so scary that I cooked almost exclusively vegetarian meals, but as you might be thinking, meat is Peter’s fourth favorite thing, and while he ate mostly vegetarian while living with JI, he didn’t relish surviving graduate school without the occasional roast, steak, or burger.  I started out slow: already prepared chicken breasts.  Then there was the epic first WHOLE roasted chicken.  And for some reason I agreed to try making a pot roast sometime after that.  Let’s just say things have gotten so out of control that I finally made my first ground meat dish tonight: meatballs with orange and mint.  And this involved squeezing and mixing the raw meat with my bare fingers… uck.  I must admit, however, that the finished product was well-worth any trauma the ground beef may have caused.

Pasta with Orange & Mint Meatballs — From In Late Winter We Ate Pears
(serves 2 with many meatballs left over)

Orange and Mint Meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup orange zest
2 eggs
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/8-1/4 cup minced fresh mint
Salt and pepper
Juice of 1-2 oranges
Olive oil for cooking meatballs
Mix beef, bread crumbs, orange zest, eggs, parsley, mint, salt, and pepper in a bowl until well-combined.  This is best done with bare hands so that you can tell when everything is mixed uniformly into the ground beef.  Shape the meatball mixture into small meatballs (the diameter of a dime or quarter, but I found it hard to shape them as small as a dime) and put them on a plate in preparation for cooking.  Brown the meatballs on both sides in a lightly oiled skillet; they should be cooked through at this point.  Transfer the meatballs to a stainless steel or glass pot with as little of their oil as possible and cook them with the orange juice just to produce a nice glaze.  Once the orange juice has thickened and been almost completely reduced, transfer the meatballs to a plate to drain or just cool.  Wipe out the skillet and pot before cooking the next batch.

2 portions spaghetti (one portion is a bundle about the thickness of a nickel)
Parmesan cheese
Minced parsley and orange slices for garnish
Cook pasta in heavily salted water until cooked al dente.  Mix pasta with the meatballs and Parmesan cheese.  Add a drizzle of olive oil if the pasta seems too dry.  Garnish plates of pasta with parsley and orange slices.

Tomato Salad with Spring Hill Goat White Cheddar Cheese
(serves half a person, so double or triple accordingly)
1 heirloom tomato (or any delicious tomato)
Slices of Spring Hill Goat White Cheddar Cheese or other very strong flavored cheese
Basil leaves
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Slice tomato in large slices.  Drizzle olive oil over tomato slices and then season tomato with salt and pepper.  Top with cheese and basil leaves.

The possibilities for tomato salads are endless.  They work with almost any kind of cheese, basil, vinegar, olive oil, onion, or avocado combination.  I only include a recipe for one version here to remind you that it exists, and also to encourage you to try the goat white cheddar.