I enjoy watching chefs on TV. There’s something about watching other people cook that fascinates me. Anyone can follow a recipe, but it’s the subtle differences in how you work in the kitchen that really makes things interesting. Why do chefs hold a knife the way they do? Or a whisk? Some chefs have multiple towels in the kitchen, each serving a separate and unique function (I try to keep three towels at all times: one for wiping my hands when working with food, one for wiping down counters, and one for drying my hands after washing them). How do we really evaluate the performance of a chef? The food of course. Is it delicious? If yes, then the chef must be good, right?
Bobby Flay once said when he hires a new chef, he has that chef do one thing: cook an omelet. He didn’t say anything about making delicious food. Cook an omelet. Why an omelet? Because it’s so simple. Can you do the simple things? Can you make the simple things taste good? It’s nice to have a fancy meal; it’s nice to make it look fancy. It’s even better when it tastes as good as it looks. Bobby Flay wants to know if you can take something so simple as an omelet and build complex flavors. I can respect that.
The other night Lauren and I had some baked chicken, which I then shredded and combined with a basic chicken broth , rice, and boiled vegetables. Simple, but good. Italian cuisine taught me one thing: keep it simple, then learn to build complex flavors.
I remember sitting around the dinner table in Italy, listening to the Italians go on and on about how Americans don’t know how to cook because we use too many spices. Too many spices! “Too many things on the plate,” they would tell me, “a tomato should taste like a tomato, period.” Italians don’t compromise when it comes to cooking. “Fai cosi, non cosi, ma cosi, punto!”
“Do it like this, not like that, but like this, period.” That’s what Italian grandmothers taught me. They know Bobby Flay is right when he says he wants to see how well you can do the basic things. In Italy, if you can’t make tomato sauce, you don’t eat. I spent five months learning how to make a basic tomato sauce. Five months. Five long months. And you know what I learned? Tomato sauce is pretty complex stuff, unless you know how to do the basics.
Eight years later and I am still applying those basic cooking techniques Nonna taught me in Italy: learn to do the basics, then build complex flavors.
It doesn’t get more basic than meatloaf. It’s meat. It’s in the shape of a loaf. What else do you need to know? Americans have been eating this giant meatball for years. Everyone has a meatloaf recipe. The TV dinners in aisle 9 have a meatloaf recipe. Thanks Hungry Man. I have several myself. I like this one because it’s exactly what I love about taking something so simple as meatloaf and making it special.
Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Brown Gravy
First, don’t make your meatloaf with beef only. Use a mix of pork and/or veal. But do make sure that beef is your primary protein–it should taste beefy. Combining the beef with other ground meats will help keep the overall loaf juicy and tender. No one wants a dry piece of meat. For this recipe, I’m only using ground pork, but if you don’t mind adding a few dollars to your meal expenses, feel free to add a little veal as well.
1 1/2 lbs Ground Beef Chuck (80% lean)
1/2 lb Ground Pork
2 Large egg yolks
1 Tbspn Salt
1 1/2 Tspn Ground Black Pepper
1 Tspn Garlic Powder
1/2 Tspn Dried Thyme
1/4 Cup Grated Parmesan
1/4 Cup Panko Bread Crumbs
1/3 Cup Plain Bread Crumbs
Learning how to make a mirepoix was one of the best things I ever learned how to do in the kitchen. A mirepoix is a mixture of celery, onions, carrots, and sometimes an added aromatic or fresh herb. It is one of the basic flavor building compounds of many great tasting dishes, including one of my absolute favorite dishes: braised short ribs. In this recipe, I use a basic mirepoix, chopped very fine, to incorporate into the meatloaf for a greater depth of flavor.
1 Large Yellow Onion (finely chopped)
3 Celery Stalks with leaves (finely chopped)
2 Medium Carrots (cubed)
2 Large Garlic Cloves (minced)
1 Tbspn Tomato Paste
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
Bring a large pot to medium heat and add the olive oil (technically, this is more of a soffritto, since we’re using olive oil, whereas the French mirepoix uses butter). Add the vegetables and reduce to medium low heat. Let the vegetables sweat for 10 minutes and then add the garlic. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and stir. Add the tomato paste and stir. If the vegetable clump together too much, reduce the heat to low and add a few tablespoons of water, one at a time, until the mixture stirs easily. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat the oven to 325F.
Bring all the raw meatloaf ingredients together in a large mixing bowl except for the panko bread crumbs. When mixing the meat to combine all the ingredients, do not press down with the palms of your hands and then close your fingers as if to make a fist. This will mash the meat and make it tough. Instead, use your hands the same way you would fold in egg whites to a batter. Add half the mirepoix and combine slowly. Then add the remaining mirepoix and combine. Place the meat mixture into a bread baking tin. You might have experience with making meatloaf by forming it into a loaf on a baking sheet with parchment paper–don’t do that with this recipe. The mirepoix adds a lot of moisture to the meat, so it won’t hold its shape very well uncooked. Do not mash to meat into the tin, pat it lightly, and then sprinkle the panko bread crumbs on top. Bake in the oven for about 1 hour, or until the internal temperature reads 160 degrees. Remove and let rest for 5 minutes.
What is more satisfying than creamy mashed potatoes smothered with gravy? I prefer Golden Yukon potatoes for their creamy texture and golden color, but russet potatoes are always a favorite.
6 Medium Sized Golden Yukons (peeled, cubed)
3 Sprigs Fresh Rosemary
3 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
1/4 Cup Heavy Cream
1/3 Stick Unsalted Butter
1/4 Cup Milk
Salt and Pepper to taste
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Generously salt your water. Wrap the rosemary and thyme in cheesecloth and tie off with kitchen twine. Add potatoes and sachet (cheesecloth with fresh herbs). When potatoes are fork tender, remove sachet and drain potatoes. Do not rinse. Place the potatoes back into the pot and place over very low heat. Add butter and milk, and begin mashing. Add the heavy cream and continue mashing. The low heat will help remove any excess moisture from the potatoes as you combine the other ingredients. Mash until you reach your desired texture.
I start most gravy recipes with a basic roux. A roux is a mixture of flour and fat, usually butter, to thicken a sauce. It is used to thicken some of the French “mother sauces.”
For the roux:
1 Tbspn Flour
2 Tbspn Butter
2-3 Cups Beef Stock
1/8 Cup Heavy Cream
1 Tbspn Worcestershire Sauce
1/4 Tspn Garlic Powder
1/4 Tspn Onion Powder
Salt and Pepper to taste
Over low heat melt the butter and then add flour. With a whisk, combine the flour and butter. You should get a yellow pasty looking mixture (see picture above. Warning: the above picture was used to make a large pot of gravy, so I used much more butter and flour). If you want thick gravy, add a little more flour to your roux. If you like your gravy thin and runny, then 1 tbspn is plenty. Combine the other ingredients and stir. Let simmer over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Salt and pepper to taste.
To plate: Place a generous amount of mashed potatoes in the center of the plate or bowl, ladle gravy over potatoes, place 1 slice of meatloaf directly over the potatoes, add a small ladle of gravy over meatloaf, and garnish with fresh or dried parsley or chives.
Cooking simple never tasted so good.