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A slice of comfort

[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
The Surprise Is Inside Meatloaf from Jean Lanier of Seminole has a layer of spinach and Swiss cheese in the middle, and bacon on top.

By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 5, 2002

Meatloaf recipes poured in when we asked for them. So did your favorite stories about the classic dish.

You love meatloaf.

We know that because more than 500 of you answered our call for your favorite recipes for the most American of comfort foods. Along with many of the recipes came stories of young brides learning to cook, loving tributes to Mom's homemade dinners, and tips, tips and more tips about how to turn out the perfect meatloaf.

We got the biggest chuckle from Elizabeth Yowell of Clearwater, who succinctly wrote, "Instructions for making meatloaf: Don't."

For better or worse, we ignored her advice and tried some of the most tasty-sounding recipes. The choices were tough, but in all, we tested 15 recipes -- some twice -- and decided to share nine with readers. We developed a 10th recipe using suggestions from the Food Network's Alton Brown, chef, author and food scientist.

The method to this meatloaf madness
The quest for perfect meatloaf stops at Mom's recipe box for some lucky people.

Chatting about meatloaf
Is your meatloaf bland? Does it fall apart? And worse, does everyone, even the family dog, run when they hear what's for dinner?

Meatloaf recipes
Cheese and Mushroom-Stuffed Meatloaf

Many of the recipes were similar, set apart only by names that promised great things: Meatloaf to Die For, It Don't Get No Better Than This Meatloaf, Meatloaf Like No Other and Best Ever Meatloaf.

Judging from the recipes, it seems many of you have a tried-and-true, traditional recipe, so we looked for those that offered something new. Besides, with so many tastes to account for -- ketchup or chili sauce or none at all; loaf pan or free form -- it would be impossible to pinpoint a classic meatloaf. Classic, it appears, rests on the taste buds of the eater.

We were amazed at some of the ingredients dumped into the mix. Eggs were the only common denominator. A few recipes didn't even call for meat but substituted tofu.

The number of "healthful" recipes, those using tofu or lower-fat turkey, were few. Of those, we liked Golden Loaf in Marsala Wine Sauce from Joe Lanni of Brooksville. Turkey can be dry because of the lack of fat, but Lanni's loaf remains moist thanks to a healthy dose of beef broth and raisins soaked in marsala. The wine sauce helped, too.

Most surprising about the response we got was not the number of recipes but the warm, fuzzy feelings attached to this simple food. Sandy Brasch of St. Petersburg recently celebrated her 47th birthday, and her mom, Bunnie Katz, made her favorite birthday dinner: meatloaf.

"She always had a surprise baked right inside ... a hard-boiled egg," Brasch writes about the meatloaf of her youth. "Mom made sure my sister and I always got the slice (with the egg)."

Lois Hanna of Brooksville wrote about making meatloaf for young GIs on a military base in Darmstadt, Germany, in the late 1970s. She asked the soldiers what their mothers put in their meatloaves and tried to duplicate. The results were so good that not a scrap was left.

"Later, I tried to recall what had gone into it. It had faded into history, like the Lost Chord," she writes.

Evelyn Larkin of Clearwater recalls that when her sons were younger, their friends begged "Please!" to stay for dinner when she made meatloaf. Susan Masztak of St. Pete Beach advocates singing, "It's a gift to be simple/It's a gift to be free/It's a gift to come down/Where you ought to be" while mooshing the meat with the other ingredients.

Who knew meatloaf was so lyrical?

Or so troublesome. Ed O'Brien of Clearwater developed what he calls a burpless meatloaf for his wife. He did this by sauteing the aromatics -- onions, peppers, celery, garlic -- for a few minutes before adding them to the rest of the ingredients. "This removes the burps" that sometimes accompany raw vegetables, he writes. Sauteing aromatics also concentrates flavor and enhances the meatloaf.

Traditionally, a meatloaf is made of three elements: ground meat, flavorings and binders. Binders are egg and starches that hold ingredients together during cooking. The best loaves we made had at least pork and beef, and some included veal, a tasty addition that gave a patelike quality. Flavorings included garlic, parsley, sage, thyme, nuts, dried fruits, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup.

The most variety in readers' recipes came in the starchy ingredients, which bind by soaking up excess liquid. All manner of bread crumbs, fresh and dry, were used, as were crushed tortilla chips, saltines, oyster crackers, oatmeal, corn flakes and Grape-Nuts. One recipe even called for two packets of Quaker Instant Oatmeal with Nuts, Dates and Raisins.

Surprises were layered inside many of the loaves. Hard-boiled eggs cropped up many times, as did different cheeses, mushrooms and spinach. Just as many had a tomato-ey sauce as not, and bacon strips placed over the top were popular, too. Fran Kimel of St. Petersburg layers the meat with canned ravioli.

We found that recipes requiring a tablespoon or more of dried flavorings were not as good as those with fresh. Dried onion and parsley, along with Lipton Onion Soup Mix, imparted an artificial taste.

That said, comfort food is an individual taste, and if Mom made meatloaf with dried parsley, that's how you'll probably like it.

We are publishing Robin Ross' Curry Meatloaf recipe because it is wonderfully different with its curry powder, sliced almonds and chopped dried apricots. We doubt that the St. Petersburg resident's recipe will make any of you toss out your favorite, but it's worth a try when you're in the mood to experiment.

Judi Sunday of New Port Richey sent no recipe but a note saying that just about anything in the refrigerator can be successfully incorporated into meatloaf. Leftover mashed potatoes, a little dab at the bottom of a ketchup bottle, a handful of cereal, cooked carrots and celery from last night's dinner have ended up in her meatloaf.

"Just about anything will do," she writes. "Whenever I need to clean out the fridge, we have meatloaf. My husband never asks anymore what's in the meatloaf. My kids don't leave any leftovers. And everyone loves my meatloaf. No two are ever alike."

That's certainly what we learned as we combed through your recipes. We hope you enjoy what we found.

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