Wednesday November 06, 2013 | 06:31 AM

In the realm of comfort food a terrific meatloaf is the star of the show.  But there are as many bad versions as there are great ones.  What I’ve yet to find is a restaurant that makes a tasty meatloaf.  It’s usually served drenched in a dark brown corn-starch based sauce, and the meat is mixed with mystery ingredients that I probably wouldn’t want revealed.

A few Maine diners offer decent meat loaves.  Moody’s is not bad; the Maine Diner’s, however, is disappointing.  But there are probably good versions worth discovering at various comfort-food haunts like Dysart’s, Deb’s Diner, the A1 Diner and others.

My own meatloaf—modesty  aside—is the standard by which I judge other loaves.  I came up with the recipe inspired by one  that I saw on the back of a Quaker Oats Oatmeal container.  I’ve modified it over the years,  but the basic ingredient—oatmeal--remains the same and imparts a unique texture and taste.

What goes with meatloaf is just as important as how the meatloaf is prepared.  Mashed potatoes are a natural, but I like mashed sweet potatoes, too.  The best way to prepare these is to bake the sweet potatoes first.  This  gives the flesh great caramelized flavor.   Then peel and scoop out the potato and put it in a pot to mash.  You can use an immersion blender for an extra fine puree.  Then add copious amounts of butter and heavy cream, stirring until the butter melts and the cream is incorporated.  Season it generously with salt and pepper.  I assure you everyone will ask what you’ve done to make these so good.  But as you see, the ingredients are basic.

Another good side dish is glazed carrots.  I serve these alongside mashed potatoes; if I serve the sweets, then I accompany  them with either braised cabbage in lemon or braised sweet and sour red cabbage.  Choose your vegetable pairings for color contrast on the plate. 

The other night the meatloaf I served to my guests included mashed potatoes along with Brussels sprouts.

A good way to prepare the sprouts is to parboil about 1 pound trimmed Brussels sprouts for about 4 to 5 minutes, drain and then immerse in an ice bath and drain again.  This keep them bright green.

Meanwhile fry up about 4 slices very smoky bacon (I used the bacon from Thirty Acre Farm) until crisp; remove to a plate lined with paper towel but leave the bacon fat in the pan.  Add about 2 tablespoons olive oil and return the sprouts to the pan along with 1 minced clove of garlic.  Sautee gently until sprouts are tender but still slightly firm.  Add the bacon and serve.

Here is my basic meatloaf dinner with variations.

Old-Fashioned Meatloaf
Don’t look for the leanest grade of ground beef.  You need the fat to keep the loaf moist.  Use beef that’s graded  either 80 to 85 percent beef to fat.

2 pounds ground beef chuck 
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups oatmeal
2 large eggs, beaten
16-ounce can tomato sauce
3 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the beef into a large mixing bowl.  Add the onions and mix into the loaf with your hands, squeezing the meat through your fingers until it’s very well combined.  Add the oats and incorporate in the same way.  Add the beaten eggs and incorporate, mixing it well with your hands.  Add half the can of tomato sauce, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar.

Give the meat a final mixing.  You can’t over mix it; in fact, the more you mix with your hands the firmer the loaf will be.  Transfer it to a large shallow baking dish and shape it into a loaf.  Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the loaf, letting it drip down to the ends and sides.  Sprinkle the remaining brown sugar over the top of the loaf. 

Put into the oven to roast for about 1 hour and 15 minutes or until an instant read thermometer reads 165 degrees in the thickest part of the loaf.  Let cool slightly before cutting.

Variations:
You can use any combination of the variations—some or all of the changes will make a great meatloaf.

Omit 1/2 pound of the ground beef and substitute with 1/2 pound good quality breakfast sausage. Optionally add 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce, 2 tablespoons sweet or dill pickle relish; and 1 small green pepper, chopped finely.

Crush 1 sleeve of saltines and use instead of the oatmeal.

Replace the tomato sauce with about 1/2 cup  good quality ketchup for the meat mixture and another 1/2 cup  to coat the top and sides of the loaf.  Use more if needed to coat the loaf.  I use Schlotterbeck and Foss Country Style Tomato Ketchup available at Whole Foods.  Omit the final tablespoon of brown sugar and decrease the brown sugar by 1 tablespoon in the meat mixture if using the ketchup instead of tomato sauce.

 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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