By SHANNON WATKINS
You recall the first moment you knew true heartache and betrayal.
You were in a diner with someone you thought was The One. After a few fancy, intimate dinners, maybe after a homemade soup you delivered with tenderness and a mischievous wink, and several careless Sunday brunches, you felt you could both relax and be yourselves in a pedestrian eatery, insulated from ordinary life by your love.
The waitress came over. You remember the pink of her apron with heartwrenching clarity, the merciless click of her pen as she lifted it to write down your order. “We got meatloaf today!” she said in tones both perky and jaded. “How ya want it? Red sauce or brown gravy?”
“Red!” you breathed, at the same time your amour blurted “Gravy!”
That awful, awful moment. You stared at one another with mounting horror over the laminated menus, the paper placemats printed with maps as if leading you forever apart. The silent reproach as you stared at one another and thought in mutual revulsion, “How could you possibly eat meatloaf with THAT?”
OK, so maybe that’s not quite how it happened, if at all. I’m afraid meatloaf doesn’t lend itself to high drama so much as mild anxiety, since it’s a very American dish and yet so many of us don’t have even slightly overlapping notions as to what constitutes a good one, which means you don’t know what you’ll be met with when it’s served away from home.
Meatloaf is sort of like BBQ’s fraternal twin in the culinary world: both can be made from more than one kind of meat (BBQ out of pork, beef, chicken or lamb; meatloaf out of ground beef, veal, lamb, pork or turkey – or mixed), both come with different schools of thought where sauces are concerned (meatloaf with the above tangy red sauce vs. savory brown gravy; BBQ with – well, how long have you got?) and both inspire passionate arguments about what the correct cooking method and final product should be.
I’ve seen some interestingly arcane variations on it, such as adding mashed banana or chopped prunes to the mix, replacing breadcrumbs with crushed pork rinds or putting whole boiled eggs in the middle. I promise if you try any of these, you can have all of it; I will generously not try to take any. No, really.
A good one, if you ask me, is slightly fatty but not slimy with it, dense like a good burger but not like a brick, meaty but with the additional flavor and substance that other ingredients provide. Beyond that, I don’t care if it has red sauce or brown gravy on it. As to what that tells you about my romantic prospects, I can’t say.
But I grew up on, of course, my mom’s meatloaf, which is of the red sauce variety. It’s very plain and can be played with a lot of ways (I’ve substituted bottled sweet BBQ sauce for the tomato sauce before, for starters), but you could do just fine with it as it stands. The cracker crumbs, incidentally, used to be Saltines, but now I prefer Ritz. Upscale, you know.
Also you can shape this by hand and bake it freestanding, or squish it into a loaf pan; I prefer to use the loaf pan as a mold, packing the mixture in and then turning it out into a casserole dish. Unless you’re the Michelangelo of meatloaf sculptors, that’s a good method for making sure everyone has a shot at equal-sized slices.
Sweet and Sour Meatloaf
2 lbs. 85 percent or more lean ground beef
2 ½ tsps. salt
½ cup crushed crackers
1 medium onion, minced
½ tsp. pepper
1 8 oz. can of tomato sauce
1 tsp. prepared mustard (i.e., not the powdered kind)
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 400F and prepare a shallow casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray. Mix tomato sauce, mustard, vinegar and sugar together. Beat eggs and add onion, salt, pepper, beef and ¼ cup of sauce mix. Work beef mixture together with hands until all ingredients are incorporated. Shape into a loaf and place in pan; pour remaining sauce over loaf and bake for 45-50 minutes or further as needed (how consistent a shape it has comes into play here).
And of course you cool it and serve it to your new, real, true love, who gazes adoringly at you and then eyes the rest of the table. “Oh, macaroni and cheese?” your latest amour says, blinking at you. “I thought you’d serve that with mashed potatoes.”
You stare, quietly aghast. And your heart breaks all over again.
(Speaking of betrayal and heartbreak, some of you may have tried a couple of my cookie recipes from last week. I did, and discovered that the Orange Spice Cookies were missing the 2 eggs you need to make them work – I referenced eggs in the directions; they just weren’t in the ingredients list.
Also, and here I am particularly sorry because there’s really no way for you to have known this without doing research, the Snickerdoodles needed ½ cup of shortening and another egg to come out right; made the way the recipe read at the time, you’d have ended up with a bowl full of dry crumbs and a very puzzled facial expression. I don’t know how they got left out, but it was copied out by someone else and given to me, and I’ve tried their recipe before and it worked, so I must have been told the amended ingredient list at one point and forgotten to write it down, which is a very long way of saying it’s my fault. Both recipes were corrected online, but I know not all of you care to use the internet.
I sincerely apologize if anyone else’s Sunday afternoon of cookie baking ended up a frustrating mess, and if you take it upon yourself to pelt me with fruitcake, I really can’t blame you.)