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Got something hot for a cold winter night?

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These are days of guilt in Tucson because we see clouds and some precipitation going over us and then the next day it appears in the news as severe weather in the Midwest and Northeast of the continental U. S. Of course that is why many people choose to retire down here in the Sun Belt, and even on a December night we can run to the mailbox in jeans and a sweatshirt. But when we come back indoors we hope that something is hot and filling in the kitchen.

There is if you make a meat loaf! One of the classic comfort foods can be waiting for you if you are willing to take a little time to prepare it. I say that because my personal handling of meat loaf has been hit and miss; I used to improvise it every time I made one. Guess what--it didn't always work out.

One secret of a good meat loaf is to sweat the minced vegetables in some oil or butter before you add them to the ground meat. I came to realize that it is important when I had experienced enough tough little chunks of uncooked carrots to wonder what I was doing wrong, until I figured it out.

Another thing that I truly advise is to keep your hands out of the ground meat. I shudder to see television chefs plunging their hands into their ingredients no matter how many times they wash their hands. After some trial and error, I found a little plastic three-tined fork the size of a wooden spoon, and for whatever reason it works perfectly to mix up a meat loaf. When you get to emptying the mixing bowl with the raw meatloaf into a loaf pan, it will work just fine to use a rubber scraper or similar tool to shape it nicely. And if you feel the need to shape the meat loaf by hand, as in when you cook it on a baking sheet, consider light plastic gloves, as you see frequently in cooking photos and on cooking shows.

Your meat loaf is a basic mix of meat and vegetables, and if you want to keep a good menu for the meal when you serve dinner, you can skip starches. Make two or three vegetable side dishes and you will probably find that you don't slow down while your digestive system is forced to take on the competing meat and potatoes, or whatever. With a meat loaf I would serve steamed broccoli, winter squash such as Acorn Squash (a favorite of mine) or perhaps a whole lot of steamed cabbage. Simple foods like this are very good for you, especially the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. There are some pretty fancy cauliflowers out there nowadays--have you noticed them? At Whole Foods in Tucson and other well-stocked supermarkets you can find yellow and green cauliflower that has been hybrid with other vegetables but still grown organically.

I typically make bread crumbs by buzzing a couple of slices of bread that I have torn up in a food processor. It doesn't take long, and if you want to do that, empty the processor and then add the vegetables, you can get a meat loaf in the oven pretty quickly, I find. Do a rough chop on the carrots and celery, and then get them in there with a quartered onion and as many cloves of garlic as you want (I like a lot myself).

I also include an egg in the recipe because I have believed forever that it holds the meat loaf together. Many people also drizzle barbecue sauce rather than ketchup over the top of the loaf for a different flavor, and I don't see anything wrong with that, if you like it.

CLASSIC MEAT LOAF

Ingredients:

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup of minced onion
1 celery rib, minced
2-3 cloves of minced garlic
1 carrot, minced
2 teaspoons salt
1 large egg at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup ketchup, divided 1/3 and 1/3
1-1/2 pounds of ground beef (chuck)
3/4 pound of ground pork
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley leaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the middle.

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter on medium heat. Add the minced onion, celery, carrot and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Cover the skillet and cook for an additional 5 minutes, until the carrots are tender, stirring occasionally. Add the salt, freshly ground black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and 1/3 a cup of the ketchup. Cook for 1 more minute. Remove from the heat and let everything cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, combine the ground beef, ground pork, eggs, breadcrumbs, the cooked vegetables and the parsley.

Press the mixture into a loaf pan with 2-inch high sides, or form the mixture into a free standing loaf and place in a rimmed roasting pan such as a jelly-roll pan. Pour the rest of the ketchup over the center top of the loaf.

Bake the meatloaf for 1 hour, or until the internal temperature of the meatloaf reaches 155 degrees. Remove from the oven and place it on a stove burner. Let it rest for 10 minutes before removing from the loaf pan or transferring it to a serving plate. Slice and serve.

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