Last week, a frantic call for help with a meatloaf recipe reached my desk. "Wouldn't two eggs be too much for three pounds of ground beef?" the woman asked. "And shouldn't there be more than a half cup of bread crumbs or cubes? I think there should be more."
My response was something like "Not to worry - meatloaf is that magic meal that you can't mess up. It can be anything you want it to be."
It can be compact, with ground meat laced with big chunks of bread or finely ground bread crumbs. My traditional meatloaf recipe calls for one egg to two pounds ground meat, so two eggs for three pounds ground meat is not too much - it just means the meat will be bound tighter.
The truth is that meatloaf, once relegated to the home cooking of America's Heartland, is turning up on trendy menus.
On the lunch menu at the Cap City Fine Diner and Bar in Columbus, a Cameron Mitchell restaurant not far from the Ohio State University campus, a seven-ounce hunk of meatloaf is topped with chive mashed potatoes laced with real butter; on top of that is a mound of crisply fried, thinly sliced onion rings. The meatloaf sits on a base of sourdough bread which sops up the meat juices. Surrounding the towering entree is just enough light barbecue gravy. Buttered garlic broccoli completes the dish priced at $7.50 (the nine-ounce portion at dinner is $10.95).
"It's our most popular item," said general manager Ted Thompson. "Why? People think comfort food. They think about mom and home."
From coast to coast, meatloaf is making its mark. Mark Miller's signature Smoked Cheddar-Jalapeno Ranch Meat Loaf is among the 100 recipes from the famed Red Sage restaurant in Washington that are included in the Red Sage cookbook (Ten Speed Press, $40). Served with an assortment of roasted vegetables, this dish is as at home in the nation's capital as it is at the ranch house.
The recipe calls for premium ground sirloin and three-quarter- inch strips of applewood-smoked bacon, which is lightly fried and added to the ground sirloin for nuances of flavor and texture. Called lardons, this is a way of using narrow strips of fat to lard a dry cut of meat to make it more succulent, tender, and flavorful.
What's the difference between that and ground chuck? Flavor.
Whether it's plain and simple or premium and gourmet, meatloaf is part of Americana of the new millennium. At home, you be the judge of which is best. Better yet, make your own version.
Your choices are limitless from the ground meats used to the spices in the recipe to the supporting players on the plate.
The idea of using a variety of ground meats in meatloaf is not new. My mother's recipe called for one pound ground beef, half a pound of ground pork, and half a pound of ground veal. Some butcher shops still package a meatloaf mix of that sort, but most often it is just ground beef and ground pork.
But other meats may be used.
Hamloaf is unique to Ohio and Michigan. Supermarkets in some parts of Ohio, including our area, package the ground ham and pork combination just like meatloaf mixes. The meat is combined with traditional ingredients such as egg, bread crumbs or oatmeal, and milk. But no extra salt is needed because the ham brings saltiness to the product.
Fresh ground lamb gives a new dimension to meatloaf. Mushroom and Orange Stuffed Lamb Loaves is a microwave recipe that can also be baked in the oven. Ground lamb is best if made from a piece of shoulder or leg, so there is less fat. Grind it yourself on a home grinder or have the butcher do it for you.
For hunters, venison meatloaf is often as traditional as one made with beef. A combination of ground venison and pork with zesty spices such as cumin, nutmeg, and cayenne takes any gaminess from the recipe.
Basic meatloaf is your forte, you say? Give it a global twist to spice it up a notch.
Make a basic meatloaf, then add flavors from around the world. For a take-off on Russian stroganoff, Wild Mushroom Meatloaf and Noodles pairs mini loaves with an easy mushroom sauce, a splash of sherry, and sour cream.
A black bean and rice mix accompanies South-of-the-Border Meatloaves. The loaves are topped with canned enchilada sauce and shredded cheese. Guacamole is optional.
An easy olive-pepper relish and garlicky aoili accompany Mediterranean Meatloaves.
For an even spicer meatloaf use a pound and a half of ground chuck and half a pound of chorizo sausage.
When making meatloaf, it is best not to overmix or the loaf will become heavy and tough. It can be mounded in a pan, shaped in a loaf pan, or baked in individual muffin tins for only 20 to 30 minutes. You can even bake it in a metal ring mold.
Whatever method, bake meatloaf to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, according to the Joy of Cooking cookbook. Do not overcook or it will be dry.
For busy cooks, meatloaf is recipe that can be popped in the oven and forgotten about for an hour until it is ready.
So sit back, talk to your children, put on a CD, or read a book. No wonder meatloaf is called comfort food.