K walked into our apartment
and burst into tears. J followed, and allowed G to pour him several fingers of Dalwhinnie scotch, neat. The couple we'd invited over for meatloaf night -- or actually, an early celebration of National Meatloaf Appreciation Day -- arrived at our home in the midst of a raging fight.
Never one to do things by halves, I'd been cooking all day. You'd think it's a simple thing, having friends over for meatloaf night. You just have to whip up a meatloaf, toss together some veg, and there you are. But little by little, a more elaborate version of meatloaf night overtook me. We'd need starters -- can't let people have drinks without something to start. There'd have to be something for dessert, if only because I wanted it. And I wanted mashed potatoes, too, which would then require gravy. G would want collard greens, since they're still in season and well, he always wants collard greens. Suddenly I was preparing a very full-blown meal -- slow-roasted tomatoes on country bread, some cheeses and crackers and nibbles, the main event and sides, and a rustic fruit tart with ice-cream to finish.
Then came the really crucial question: what sort of meatloaf to make? My attempts at recreating my mother's meatloaf never quite make the cut for me, and I don't know why, as I watched her make it countless times. I have others that I make, though. There's been a healthy turkey loaf with red peppers, or the Italianate polpettone I've made with tomatoes and herbs and the zip of grated pecorino romano and parmigiano reggiano cheeses. I've even tried a nice meatloaf of Nigella Lawson's with a light glaze of homemade applesauce, which worked surprisingly well. I knew G's vote before we even discussed it. It's been quite a while since I made his favorite Tex-Mex Chile-Cheese Meatloaf, which I lifted from the Julie/Julia project, and which requires your cardiologist to be on call during dinner, especially if G gets his way and I put a slice of bacon on it as well as cheese. But for the present occasion, I had something else in mind -- something classically meatloaf, yet elegant, a bit out-of-the-ordinary, with a haunting, savory gravy. A meal that would look like a blueplate special, but have four-star flavors to leave you craving more. And which would, of course, make stellar sandwiches the following day.
I started with three kinds of ground meat, and ended up with a loaf that even as it evoked its kissing cousin, paté, was still and all a meatloaf. I savored the chef's prerogative of a little mini-burger of the meat mixture, which I cooked up to test the seasoning. I loved the smoky, woodsy, meaty flavors. I would even say it had umami. This meant I could leave it in the fridge to await oven time, and then turn my attention to all the other things I'd somehow gotten myself into. By the time our friends arrived, I'd sifted, mixed, chilled, rolled, peeled, chopped, baked, roasted, parboiled, whipped, and was ready to rock 'n' roll, with appetizers already out on the table.
"Everything's dreadful," K wept as she sat down on our sofa. The men stayed in the kitchen, and I wondered if we were doomed to an evening of boys on one side, girls on the other, along the lines of a junior-high mixer. Then K caught sight of the platter of slow-roasted tomato tartines (thanks Luisa!) and some nice cheeses on slate boards. "Everything's dreadful," she repeated, "but this makes it a lot better," and she began laughing through her tears. We imbibed various stress-reducing, pleasure-enhancing substances, and things calmed down. I brought the men some hors d'oeuvres, since they were somehow still too shy to come in the living room.
As we moved on to the main course, however, the guys were forced to join us; I needed the kitchen table to set out my diner-esque buffet. Everyone served themselves generously and returned to the living room. Slowly, over bites of creamy mashed potato pooled with gravy, the adversarial couple began to exchange shy glances. By the time they'd eaten their way through many slices of deeply flavored meatloaf and extra forkfuls of greens, they were floating a few well-selected but terse words to each other.
Then, like a quartet of beached whales, we reclined to watch five back-to-back episodes of Weeds. At that point we served up vanilla-bean ice-cream alongside the tart, which was composed of apples, plums and the last of the season's raspberries. Despite its truly rustic appearance, it was actually so fruity, so flaky, so melting that it deserves a separate post of its very own (you see, I finally managed to make the pastry of my dreams -- but more about that another time). By this time the sparring couple was once again on speaking terms, if not yet billing and cooing. While it had not exactly been the festive and uproarious evening I'd had in mind, all had turned out well.
I credit the reconciliation to the food, of course. What other sort of meal could exude such comfort? Friendship is a balm indeed -- but then again, so is meatloaf.
Meatloaf for Difficult Moments
1 oz dried porcini, soaked in 1 cup warm water for 1⁄2 hour
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 large shallots, chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp. bacon drippings or olive oil
1 cup soft fresh bread crumbs (I used the inside of a rosemary country loaf)
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp. Bell's Seasoning
1 tsp. truffle salt (or sea salt, if unavailable)
2 tsp. black truffle paste
1 tsp. anchovy paste
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
freshly ground black pepper -- about 1 tsp.
1 1/2 lbs. organic/natural ground beef
1 lb. ground veal
1 lb. ground pork
Drain mushrooms, reserving liquid for gravy. Sauté onions and shallots in bacon drippings or olive oil in a large skillet until soft, about 5 mins. Add garlic and sauté for a minute or two. Place the sauté in the workbowl of a food processor, and add the reconstituted porcini. Add bread, eggs, Worcestershire, rosemary, thyme, and all seasonings -- everything, in fact, except the meat. Process until everything is blended. Place three ground meats in a very large bowl, and add the mixture from the food processor. Blend everything together with your hands. Shape into a large, oblong loaf and place in a rimmed baking dish. At this point, you can refrigerate it until you're ready to cook it.
Preheat oven to 350F. Put meatloaf in, and cook for about an hour. Test with a meat thermometer, and keep cooking until it reads 150F. Let the loaf rest for 20 minutes before serving.
In the meantime, trick out a gravy from the porcini liquid. I used a spoonful of packaged demi-glace (you could use any beef stock or concentrate), a bit of soy sauce, some more truffle paste, cognac and some cloves of roasted garlic I had left from another dish. This was all cooked together, pureed with a hand blender, very slightly thickened with a flour slurry, and enriched with a few spoonfuls of cream. Once the meatloaf is more or less cooked, you can use a bulb baster to suction up the meat juices from the cooking pan, and add them to the gravy. Serve over fluffy mashed potatoes and meatloaf slices. To achieve a true diner look, use the back of a spoon or small ladle to nestle a crater in the top of each mound-like serving of mashed potatoes, and fill with enough gravy to overflow the crater and trickle down the sides.