With meat loaf, the starting point should always be the finest in ground beef. And I shouldn’t have to tell you that.
That last statement was delivered with an all-knowing sneer. My friend Carl LaFong, gourmand and self-appointed culinary expert, had decided to depart from his usual attempts at haute cuisine and prepare that staple of 1950s American dinner tables, meatloaf.
The catalyst had been a discussion (argument) about the origins of middle-class American dinner basics. Meatloaf, LaFong had opined, was only a variation on French country pate. And, prepared with care, ingredients selected carefully, it could be an elegant addition to anyone’s table.
I was doubtful, since my Sunday-dinner background included a multitude of meatloaves assembled with the idea of stretching ground cuts from the butcher’s scrap pile into service for eight. Meatloaf studded with very visible wads of lumpy white bread. Or large flavorless mounds with the volume of meat a distant second to rolled oats. Or rice, more visible than the oats and therefore more problematic for the persnickety.
Sometimes, the loaf might be decorated with a hard-boiled egg stuffed in the middle, so that when cooled and sliced down the middle a white and yellow “eye” was revealed. By the time I was eight, I had been stared at in such a manner far too many times. Even my mother’s “Look, it’s winking at you” could not save the meatloaf for me.
Always, in an effort to hide whatever insult had been added to the namesake ingredient, the loaf was smothered in that ultimate corporate condiment, tomato ketchup. Thick, cheerily bright red and tasting only of salt, ketchup was believed in the household of my youth to be the magic that could save any dinner.
Such meatloaf memories meant that I was a hard sell. But LaFong wasn’t easily deterred. In fact, I have never known LaFong to be deterred.
“I’m sorry that you have unresolved meatloaf issues,” he said. “But I want you to forget all the meatloaves of your childhood, even the one-eyed examples,” he said. “We’re going to use ground sirloin and our only additions will be onions, garlic, a raw egg, pepper, pistachios, some herbs, and just a touch of fois gras – that’s goose liver to you.”
“Hey, give me some credit,” I said. “I know from chopped liver.”
So in short order LaFong was up to his elbows in ground meat and I was shelling pistachios and tossing them into the mix.
“Be careful,” he admonished, fishing out an errant shell with a sigh. “No matter how much I work to educate you, your trencherman truculence means you’ll always be a truckstop diner at heart.”
“It slipped,” I explained, backing away from the meat-covered finger he was pointing at me.
“We’re going to keep this one simple, but there are as many varieties of meatloaf as there are cooks. I’ve had them with chopped bell pepper, with cheddar cheese, with brandy. One of the most memorable I had contained a touch of curry.”
The mention of brandy led me to the bottle of cognac — I let LaFong talk as I poured myself a snifter.
“Like many of our basics the original idea was to make use of every bit of the animal. The pate was what became of the butcher’s scraps – selective herbs and spices made it palatable. And after baking, properly refrigerated, it was easily sliced and as tasty cold as it had been hot from the oven. Layered between two halves of a baguette, cornichons on the side – there’s a meal worthy of any Parisian picnic.
“Then, bolder gastronomes started developing the basic into something fancier; they used premium cuts of meat and the additions included such delicacies as truffles and foie gras. And country pate began to grace the tables of royalty.”
After LaFong’s creation was finished, we sampled it hot, sides of oven-browned potatoes and fresh asparagus. It was as promised.
“Hearty, with a delicate mix of flavors, don’t you think? Note the subtle taste of the foie gras.” said LaFong.
“Once again, I have to admit you knew what you were doing,” I answered. “But I wish that pistachio would stop winking at me.”