Monday, March 12, 2012

Habañero-Garlic Meatloaf

Meatloaf, brown gravy, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes.
It seems like I always hear one of two things from people when they talk about meatloaf. Some people list it way, way close to the top of the list when it comes to their favorite foods. They talk about meatloaf and mashed potatoes being what they'd want for their last meal if they were on Death Row. Others practically gag at the thought of it and refuse to touch any variant of it with a ten-foot pole despite the fact that they like hamburgers, meatballs, and a lot of similar things.

I have a theory about what actually separates the two groups from one another. I think the first group knows what it is to have eaten really good meatloaf and the second group doesn't. For some reason, meatloaf isn't really one of those foods that's so hard to ruin, it's still pretty good even when it's bad... like pizza, a hamburger, or spaghetti. When meatloaf isn't made well, it can be absolutely disgusting. 

I've had meatloaf like that and it wasn't always at some gross cafeteria or something either. A lot of the worst meatloaves I've ever had were made by home cooks that don't understand a lot of cooking fundamentals like the importance of seasoning food (especially meat) and the seemingly simple understanding that intentionally overcooking food does not make it taste better. 

I personally fucking love meatloaf. The only reason I don't eat meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy even more often than I do is because I don't really want to weight 600 pounds or deal with perpetual indigestion. However, it remains one of my favorite comfort foods ever and other people seem to like the way I make it as well. It's a great dish, after all! It's delicious, it's comforting, it's inexpensive, and it's easy to make when you know what you're doing. 

Red onion, habañero, garlic cloves, scallion.
Recently, we finally bit the bullet and ate our first habañero pepper. We had it in chili not that long ago and we both really like it. It's technically hotter than a jalapeño or something else along those lines, but the heat actually doesn't slam you in the face the same way which made it interesting. Seth likes spicy food and loves different kinds of peppers. He also loves the meatloaves I make, so we decided we'd see what happens when you throw a habañero in a meatloaf. He said this was the best meatloaf he ever had in his whole life, so... yeah. I guess I decided it was probably worth sharing.

In addition to the habañero, we also chopped up some other veggie-like things we had around the kitchen that we knew would taste good, as you can see from the photo above -- red onion, garlic, and scallion in addition to the pepper. Really, that's the beauty of meatloaf. It's a lot like burgers are in that you can throw lots of things into the meat mixture to achieve different flavors and I recommend that you experiment for sure. Just use whatever you have around the house at a given time. 

Meatloaf mixture (before bread crumbs and additional seasoning)
Meatloaf -- in my opinion -- is one of those things that isn't really something that needs a recipe so much as it needs an understanding of the texture you're going for. That said, you can try this recipe, but it's more meant as a jumping off point for you to use when creating your own killer meatloaves. The following is what went into our meatloaf mixture.
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 medium-sized red onion (diced)
  • A few cloves of garlic (chopped)
  • 1 habañero pepper (very finely minced)
  • 2 scallions (chopped)
  • 4 slices of whole grain bread (untoasted and torn into small, pea-sized pieces)
  • Several generous dashes of Worcestershire sauce
  • Several generous shakes of Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons of barbecue sauce
  • A couple pinches of salt
  • A couple pinches of pepper
You may well want to adjust this, because we made this to suit our own tastes. We like a lot of onion and garlic in things. A lot. We also like a lot of texture to our meatloaf, so we don't chop some of that up super finely. If you like less of that type of thing in your meatloaf (or none at all), then by all means make adjustments. If you don't like pork, don't use it. Substitute beef, turkey, or chicken... whatever.

Some people really don't like veggies and such added into their meatloaf, but I actually recommend it. Grated carrot or zucchini is also kick-ass in meatloaf, as are chopped sweet bell peppers. Vegetables add moisture to the meatloaf and keep it from turning into that dry, brick-like log your grandmother used to make you eat as a kid. They also add nutrition, flavor, and color. Chop them up as finely as you like. You can even semi-puree them, although you may need more bread if you do. Herbs are awesome chopped up and added to meatloaf as well, so don't be afraid to chop up any extras you have lying around and add them.

I didn't toast the bread this time before putting it in the meatloaf, mostly out of laziness, but if you want to, you sure can. Just reduce the amount of bread you add by maybe half to start with. This is also a great way to use up stale bread you have around. Break it down into pieces or crumbs (either works fine) and throw it in. Some people add an egg or two to their meatloaf to help it hold together. I don't because I find that it doesn't need it, but you can do what you want.

Meatloaf... ACTIVATE!
Once you've got all your ingredients in the bowl, start squishing it around until it's blended well. Don't bother with a fork or any of that nonsense though. The best tools you have for this are your own two hands, seriously, so stop being a wuss. Like I said above, what you're going for with this is the right texture. If it feels too wet and loose, add more bread crumbs to soak up the moisture. If it feels too dry, hit it with another dash of Worcestershire or even some milk if you have it. (Oh yeah... and have your oven preheating to about 375º while you're at it so it's all ready to go when you're done.)

When your meat mixture is good to go, it feels slightly looser than regular hamburger, but it should still hold together OK. At that point, press it into a loaf pan sprayed with cooking spray or rubbed lightly with olive oil. Some people mold it into a loaf-like shape and put it on a flat baking pan. I don't like that way though. I like the loaf pan. It makes for a nicer-shaped loaf, in my opinion, and it also seems to cook it better and keep things neater, so put it in there, cover it with tin foil, and pop it into the oven.

The loaf takes roughly 45-60 minutes to bake. However, you should check it about halfway through and (if necessary) pour off any of the grease that starts baking out of the meat during cooking so your loaf isn't all greasy. When it's done, it pulls away from the sides of the dish slightly and feels firm to the touch if you poke it, just like hamburger. 

Sliced Meatloaf

Once the loaf looks pretty done, you can take the foil off and glaze it with something to make it pretty and extra tasty. Some people use ketchup. I use a little of the same barbecue sauce that I put inside the loaf for flavor and texture. Pop it back in for maybe 10 minutes uncovered or until the glaze cooks a bit and forms a nice skin on top. Then let it cool a little, slice, add sides or gravy, and eat the crap out of it! 

This is a super-awesome, easy meal to make any time. You almost always will have the ingredients on hand, since most people can scrounge up a pound of ground meat and a couple slices of bread in a pinch, and your family will probably like it more than just plain old Hamburger Helper yet again. It goes well with lots of things, too. I like mashed potatoes best and Seth likes mac and cheese, so we often make both. The leftovers make killer sandwiches the next day. It's just a plain awesome thing to eat, so try it, experiment with it... make it your own!