North Fork Chef: Variations on the theme of meatloaf

What ‘meat’ this is, I cannot say,
Upon my plate, a slab of gray.
The texture doesn’t give a clue,
But makes it not much fun to chew.
I wonder, did it cluck or moo?
Or oink or baa? Or bark or mew?
What meat this is, I’ll never know.
It sure is mighty tasty, though!

“Mom’s Meatloaf” by Gregory K.

Meatloaf is one of American’s most popular comfort foods. It is simply ground meat (beef, pork, veal or poultry) formed into a loaf shape and baked in the oven. It can be cooked in a loaf pan like bread or just placed on a sheet pan and roasted. Meatloaf often contains vegetables such as onions, celery, carrots and mushrooms and is bound together by eggs. It is “extended” by the addition of bread crumbs, wheat germ or oatmeal and seasoned with a variety of herbs and spices. Sometimes hard-boiled eggs are placed in the center. It lends itself to many sauces and garnishes, from ketchup to mushroom sauce to tomato sauce.

A precursor to meatloaf in America is scrapple, which was introduced by the Dutch colonists in Pennsylvania more than 200 years ago. Scrapple is a mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour. It is formed into a loaf, chilled and then sliced and pan fried. It is served at breakfast and is still widely available in the Pennsylvania Dutch country near Philadelphia.

The most upscale version of meatloaf is the French “pâté de campagne,” or country paté. Pork and veal are ground along with liver and pork fat. The mixture is flavored with cognac and spices such as cinnamon, coriander, cloves and allspice. It is bound together by a panade of flour and eggs and placed in a terrine mold. Garnishes such as pistachio nuts, ham and tongue are placed down the middle and the terrine is slow-cooked in a water bath. It is chilled and served with cornichons and coarse mustard. More elaborate versions will contain truffles and be encased in puff pastry (pâté en croûte).

Here are some modern recipes for these comfort foods:

German Meatloaf (Falscher Hase)

Place 1 1/2 pounds of fresh ground meatloaf mix (pork, veal and beef) in a large bowl. Place 4 eggs in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, cool under cold water, peel and set aside.

To the ground meat add 1 cup chopped onion, 1 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard, 1 tablespoon horseradish, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 teaspoons coarse salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Add 3 tablespoons cold water and 2 lightly beaten eggs. Mix together thoroughly with your hands.

Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the counter and flatten the meat mixture on the foil. Form it into a rectangle about 8 inches by 10 inches. Place the hard-boiled eggs down the middle and draw up the sides of the foil so the meat forms a cylinder. Press the meat together, wrap it in the foil and place it on a sheet pan. Remove the foil and put three strips of bacon on top of the meatloaf. Roast in a 300-degree oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the internal temperature reads 165 degrees on a thermometer. Cool briefly and cut into thick slices. Serve with sweet gherkins and sauerkraut if desired.

Serves 4.

Pennsylvania Dutch Scrapple

Place 3 fresh ham hocks in 3 quarts of water along with 1 peeled onion stuck with 6 cloves. Bring to a boil and add 2 pounds fresh pork butt and simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Remove the meat and cool. Reserve the broth.

Separate the meat from the bones and fat and chop coarsely. Set aside 1 quart of broth and add the chopped meat to the remainder. Season with 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Add 1 tablespoon ground sage and bring to a boil. Mix 3 cups of cornmeal into the reserved broth and add it to the boiling meat. Reduce the heat and stir until it becomes thick. Cover and cook at very low heat for 20 minutes.

Line two 9-inch loaf pans with plastic film and fill with the cornmeal/meat mixture. Cover with the plastic film and refrigerate overnight. Remove and take off the film. Cut into slices and coat with flour. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large sauté pan and fry the scrapple slices. Serve for breakfast with scrambled eggs and toast.

Serves 8.

PÂté de Campagne

Place 1 1/2 pounds of ground meatloaf mix in a large bowl. Dice 4 strips of bacon and add to ground meat. Sauté 1 cup chopped onion and 3 chicken livers in 2 tablespoons butter and cool. Chop the livers and add with onions to the ground meat along with 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon coriander and 1 teaspoon ground allspice. Mix together with your hands until all ingredients are well blended.

Combine 1 egg, 1/4 cup heavy cream and 1/4 cup cognac in a small bowl. Add to the meat mixture and blend it in with your hands. Add 1 cup shelled pistachio nuts to the mixture and blend. Line a 9-inch loaf pan with 8 bacon slices so they overlap on the sides. Fill the loaf pan half full of the meat mixture.

Place 1-inch-thick slices of raw duck breast down the middle (you can substitute ham) and fill the pan with the remaining meat mixture. Fold the bacon slices over the top and cover tightly with foil. Puncture a hole in the top with a skewer to let out steam. Place the loaf pan in a large roasting pan and put it in a 300-degree oven. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan so that it reaches halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Cook for about 2 hours, or until a meat thermometer reads 165 degrees when inserted in the middle. Remove the pâté from the oven and place a weight on the top to compress it (small full cans work well). Place the pâté in the refrigerator overnight.

To remove the loaf from the pan, dip the pan in hot water and cut around the sides with a paring knife. Bang it upsidedown on a sheet pan and when it slides out, trim off any waste along the sides and ends. Place it on a cutting board and cut into quarter-inch slices. Serve with little cornichon pickles and coarse mustard.

Serves 8.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].