It's the recipe for the '90s: Take a pinch of nostalgia, add a modicum of comfort, throw in some ethnic influences and serve it up with individual style.
It's a formula that works for a number of "recycled" foods: potato puree (mashed potatoes gone grand), three-cheese macaroni (update on mac and cheese). But perhaps the most successful application has been in the realm of meatloaf.
It's showing up on trendy menus all over town -- sometimes where you least expect it. Sometimes it's just like Mom's. But more often, it's acquired such New Age ingredients as veal or ham, shallots or sun-dried tomatoes, wild mushrooms or jalapeno peppers; or some flavor that reflects the chef's personal touch. Whatever the alterations, the effect is the same.
"When the times are nerve-wracking, it's time to eat something comforting," says Michael McLaughlin, author of the recent "Fifty-Two Meat Loaves" (Simon & Schuster, $15). "We want to feel safe and comfortable. For most people, that means meatloaf."
Meatloaf has many virtues, Mr. McLaughlin says. Among them: It's inexpensive, and it's easy to fix. "It's not fast," he says, "but there's time to do something else while it's cooking.
"People want to cook at home -- restaurants are too expensive, everyone's got kids."
But there's more to meatloaf's new popularity.
"It's legitimate to be interested in American food," Mr. McLaughlin says. "We're not snobs any more -- you don't have to be a snob to eat well."
Instead, he says, "Meatloaf is getting new respect. You can serve it to company."
Serving it to "company" is exactly what many restaurateurs are doing these days. Never absent from diner menus, meatloaf is benefiting both from a revival of old-style diners (such as the Silver Diner in Towson, or Ralphie's in Timonium) and from a desire among trendier restaurants to serve the "back-to-basics" foods people crave. It's turning up in such places as the new Wharf Rat pub and dining room near Camden Yards and even showing up in posher spots, like the Polo Grill at the Colonnade.
"People want something hearty and something they can associate with," says Jill Oliver, chef at the Wharf Rat (which also has a branch in Fells Point). When she was considering meatloaf for the English-style pub owned by her father, Bill Oliver, she says, "Everybody I talked to said, 'Oh, I love meatloaf -- my mother used to make it.' "
"I go through about 20 to 30 pounds of meatloaf a week," says Harold Marmelstein, executive chef at the Polo Grill. "People love it. It's comfort food. It's very American."
A big fan of Marmelstein's meatloaf is Mike Berland, a Chicago businessman on extended assignment in Baltimore, who says he eats the meatloaf "at least" twice a week. "I don't want to sound like a meatloaf addict," he says, laughing, "but I've had meatloaf all over the country and I've never had meatloaf like I've had at the Polo Grill. Hot or cold, it's the best."
For people who'd like to serve "the best" at home, Mr. McLaughlin has some tips:
*Use freshly ground meat -- it's juicy and easy to handle.
*Don't skimp on the onions -- or on the seasoning in general. "I think a bland meatloaf is a crime," he says. "It shouldn't taste like a hamburger."
*Make enough for leftovers. He believes "if you make it, you should get a sandwich."
*Don't be afraid to experiment. "You meet people who don't like meatloaf, and it's usually because their mother made the same meatloaf over and over again."
*Remember it doesn't have to be a beef loaf. It could be lamb or veal or pork or sausage or turkey -- or a mixture.
And finally, if your meatloaf's such a hit you don't have any left, don't despair. The Burger King fast-food chain has started selling a meatloaf sandwich. It costs $2.49 and comes with ketchup and onions.
Here are three recipes for thoroughly modern meatloaves.
The first is from Mr. Marmelstein, who serves it at the Polo Grill with garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed mushrooms and pan gravy. It's called "yesterday's" loaf because he always lets it sit overnight before serving.
1 cup minced onion
1 cup minced celery
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
5 pounds ground chuck
1/4 to 1 cup ketchup (divided use)
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
dash of Tabasco sauce
1 cup fine bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In small skillet or saute pan, cook onion and celery in 1 tablespoon butter over low heat until translucent. Set aside to cool. In a large bowl, put ground chuck, eggs, 1/4 cup ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, 1 cup fine bread crumbs. Add onions and celery and mix thoroughly. Season mixture to taste with salt and
pepper. Form into loaf, place in loaf pan or baking pan, coat top with ketchup. Bake uncovered until top is brown, then cover and bake until cooked through, about one hour. When done, cool, wrap and let sit overnight in refrigerator. To serve, reheat, or serve cold in sandwiches.
* The next two recipes are from Michael McLaughlin's book, Fifty-Two Meat Loaves. He calls this first recipe "the quintessential meatloaf and the ultimate expression of the entire genre."
The dream loaf
Serves six to eight.
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups finely chopped onions
1 medium red bell pepper, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1/4 cup sliced green onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup canned beef broth
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
3/4 cup saltine cracker crumbs
1/2 cup ketchup
5 slices thick-cut bacon, halved crosswise
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When i foams, add the onions, bell pepper, green onion and garlic. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring often, for another 4 or 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are lightly browned. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, pepper sauce and soy sauce until well-blended. In a large bowl, combine the ground beef, pork and veal with the onion mixture, the egg mixture, cheese and cracker crumbs. Mix lightly but thoroughly. Transfer the meat mixture to a shallow baking dish and shape it into a loaf about 3 inches thick; smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Spread the ketchup evenly over the loaf. Arrange the bacon strips atop the ketchup, overlapping them slightly if necessary.
The meatloaf that's so popular at the Wharf Rat contains Italian sausage and sun-dried tomatoes. The recipe is a secret, but this recipe from Mr. McLaughlin uses similar ingredients. He notes in the introduction that it's the one he cooks most often at home.
Two-meat loaf with sun-dried tomatoes
Serves six to eight
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, crumbled
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 pound Italian-style sweet sausage, casings removed
1/2 cup coarsely chopped oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup fine, dry bread crumbs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
In a large skillet, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, garlic, basil, oregano and thyme, cover and cook, stirring once or twice, for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the ground beef, sausage, the onion mixture, sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, eggs, bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Transfer the meat mixture to a shallow baking dish and shape it into a flat loaf about 2 1/2 inches thick; smooth the top with the back of a spoon.
Bake about 1 1/2 hours, or until an instant-reading thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf registers 165 degrees. Let rest on a rack 10 minutes before slicing. Serve hot.