March 15, 2012

Meatloaf and Memories

I didn't start making meatloaf until about a year ago. To tell the truth, meatloaf can easily go wrong. It can be too much, too watery, too dry, or too bready. Worst of all, meatloaf can be so heavy that it ruins your appetite for anything but celery sticks for days afterward. So what I look for in my meatloaf is a proper balance between heavy and lean meats. I use ground turkey instead of beef, but balance that with rich, spicy sausage. My favorite meatloaf recipe is from Cook's Illustrated, which calls for that classic "meatloaf mix" that you can buy at nice groceries. But even meatloaf mix is too heavy for me. Beef AND pork? Overkill, in my opinion. I very much believe that meatloaf, as another one of those garbage can meals, can be customizable and adjusted to taste.
One of the most memorable meatloaves I made was last year right before Easter Vigil. I had given up sugars and desserts for Lent (I know, right; how irresponsible of me) and was heartily looking forward to having a cupcake at Sugarland, a nearby bakery on Franklin Street, after the midnight service. So to celebrate the last day of Lent and the beginning of Easter, I made spicy meatloaf with jalapenos, pimentos, and a side of cream cheese and chive biscuits. We put the biscuits in a basket set with a purple tea towel. It's an image I'll never forget: Southern cooking wrapped in Lenten colors, a hearty and spicy beginning to Easter, one that ended in a chocolate cupcake with Guinness frosting and a raspberry-peach melba layer cake for Easter proper celebrations.

The point is, cooking conjures so many memories. Cooking brings to mind comfort and celebration, stress and peace, sweet and bitter times. And when I think about meatloaf, I think about cooking at my fiance's parents' house. It was in their kitchen that I first made spicy meatloaf, and in their kitchen that we wrapped the cream cheese and chive biscuits in a purple tea towel. Now, every time I think about meatloaf I think about that purple tea towel, that midnight chocolate cupcake that gave me a raging sugar headache, the raspberry-peach melba layer cake for Easter supper, the green on the trees, the flowers blooming, the warm weather. Maybe my love of meatloaf is because I have discovered that I like my meatloaf light and spicy rather than thick and heavy. But I think that above all, making meatloaf brings back memories of the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter, the end of darkness and the beginning of light.

Spicy Meatloaf
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
Serves 6-8

1/2 cup ketchup
4 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons white vinegar

Onion Mixture
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced

Meat Mixture
1 pound ground turkey, 99% lean
3/4 pound spicy or extra hot sausage**
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce (or adjust down for less spice)
2/3 cup (about 16) Saltine crackers, crushed
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup sliced pimentos or jalapenos (optional, depending on the spice level of your sausage)
6-8 strips bacon or turkey bacon

** Buy local! Mega-brands have higher sodium content and more unnecessary preservatives. So support your community; stick with fresh and local.

In a skillet, heat oil until warm. Add onions and cook until soft and slightly translucent, about 1-2 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Remove pan from heat and let cool.
In a large mixing bowl, add remaining ingredients and mix with hands until thoroughly incorporated. (This part is strangely therapeutic. Try it during a hard week and you'll see what I mean.) Add about a quarter of the ketchup sauce, as well as the cooled onions and garlic. Mix until combined. 
Line a cookie sheet with foil and shape meat mixture into a 9 x 5 rectangle. Glaze with another quarter of the ketchup sauce and wrap with strips of bacon, making sure that the bacon edges are tucked underneath the loaf. I like to braid mine like a lattice top but I have also wrapped bacon horizontally.
Bake at 350 for about an hour, or until bacon is crispy and internal temperature reaches 160 F. Serve with leftover glaze, roasted asparagus, and cheese grits. This meatloaf, with its bacon top, rich sausage, and light turkey, is a combination fit for Lent, Easter, or any time of year. 

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