When we all shuttered indoors in the spring at the beginning of the pandemic, meal planning became serious. You couldn’t just pop into the supermarket and buy what looked good. You had to make grocery shopping a serious endeavor, know what you were going to cook for the week, and keep track of your own pantry items.
I planned all dinners in advance and every one of them was loosely related to comfort food. I’ve pretty much stuck to the routine all these months later. People tell me that they’re in a cooking rut and don’t like some of the meals they’re making right now. My advice: Scratch off your list whatever you don’t like anymore. Kick it out of your repertoire. There are so few pleasures right now; you should at least enjoy what you cook.
My nightly dinners include roast chicken, since I can’t live without it, and then another meal of the chicken morphed into something else. Fish of almost any sort, and then a second dinner of fish salad with homemade mayonnaise (no excuses about not having enough time to whir it in a blender). Pork chops or pork tenderloin, the tenderloin ideal because, again, it can be repurposed. And meatloaf.
So why, you’re wondering, is a cold-weather dish like meatloaf still on the menu in hot, humid July? Well, over the course of the pandemic, it’s risen to the roast chicken category. Must have it, heat wave or no. It’s so familiar, so comforting, so completely unchallenging.
The chicken, fish, and pork have all moved outside to the grill, but grilling doesn’t apply to meatloaf. You need to be able to bake it. So I wait for a break in the temperature and send it to the oven. It might have been made and left uncooked in the fridge overnight, then baked in the early morning for dinner later (cooled and refrigerated during the day). I almost always serve it at room temperature this time of year.
Meatloaf the first night is a joy. Sometimes it goes beside a spoonful of coleslaw or maybe golden potato salad or brown rice tossed with vinaigrette, almonds, and raisins. The second day means savory meatloaf sandwiches with roasted or stewed apricots tucked inside toasted, crusty bread drizzled with olive oil and salt.
My weekly meatloaf is typically made with ground turkey (dark meat, never white) mainly because I haven’t gone to the gym in months and turkey is leaner than beef. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t get mixed with beef now and again. It’s also occasionally mixed with ground dark-meat chicken, when that’s in the meat case instead of turkey.
Meatloaf has the most humble origins, since the beginning of cooking really, when scraps of otherwise unusable meat could be chopped and mixed with stale bread. Many cuisines in the world use this system, making dishes such as kofta in the Middle East, beef dumplings across Asia, pâtés in France, meat pies in England.
The secret to a tender American meatloaf is handling the mixture as little as possible. It also needs fresh breadcrumbs to lighten it, which I soak in whole milk for 10 minutes. A half onion is sauteed and cooled before adding it in. Then an egg, fresh parsley, and a couple spoonfuls of the sweet-and-sour tomato sauce that goes on top. Stirring some of the sauce into the meat mixture keeps the loaf moist.
The recipe is a pared-down version of a meatloaf I really like from “Canal House: Cook Something” by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, whose work I admire (their loaf is mixed with heavy cream, ricotta, and three pounds of beef, pork, and veal). My longtime co-author Julie Riven, who cooked at a boys’ school in Boston, made a similar meatloaf topped with sliced, steamed potatoes mixed with the tomato sauce.
I keep rolls in the freezer for making fresh breadcrumbs, and once you have the meat, you’re looking at only a few minutes of prep time. I’ve dropped off meatloaf for someone who needs a lift and I’m told it’s a welcome, warming sight.
Meatloaf is homely — there’s no getting around that — but that’s part of its charm. That something ridiculously easy and practically ugly can be so appealing that you’re willing to turn on the stove and heat the kitchen in the middle of summer. At least I am.