Gripped in the throes of sweet nostalgia recently, I spent part of an enjoyable morning making a version of my mother’s homemade meat loaf recipe for our family. (If you’re creating your meat loaf masterpiece in the afternoon, I recommend having a nearby glass of heart-smart red wine on standby to keep you company).
It was a highly therapeutic kitchen experience that I’m afraid will soon become extinct. Meat loaf is an old-fashioned dinner that now makes hipsters sneer, nutritionists groan, and vegans turn even more pale than usual. And like a lot of home cooking, it takes a bit of effort to whip up, so busy people doing Very Important Things believe they simply do not have time to make it. Goodbye, homemade meat loaf.
This would be a sad development, I think, because nothing says “homey” more than sharing a delicious homemade meat loaf dinner with your family. So when I get a rare but insistent nostalgic craving for my mother’s meat loaf, I make up a double freezer batch for future meals. After all, if you’re going to chop one big onion, it really doesn’t take that much extra effort to chop two or three more while you’re at it.
And just in time for my meat loaf adventure, new research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that what we’ve come to know as evil saturated fat – the kind of fat found in butter or red meat – may NOT help predict heart disease risk after all, according to study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of Harvard University.
Making a meat loaf is a wonderfully tactile experience for me. I learned how to do this by observing my own mother when I was a child, watching her dice and slice ingredients, squishing them into the cold red meat with her bare fingers in a most satisfying way.
I tend to follow an 80/20 Mediterranean Diet rule since my heart attack (at least 80% of my diet is heart-healthy on any given day). I rarely eat meat anymore, although I was raised in a big Ukrainian family where (except for Fridays when we had to eat fish) meat was typically on our farm kitchen menu three times a day. For example:
- eggs and ham, bacon or sausages for breakfast
- homemade soup (with meat) and sandwiches (with meat) for lunch
- MPV for dinner (meat, potatoes, vegetables)
Almost every culture’s culinary history features some type of patties or loaves of minced meat mixed with a variety of ingredients. Early Romans mixed their meat with wine-soaked bread, spices, and pine nuts. Medieval European cooks served theirs mixed with fruit, nuts and seasonings.
But it was the invention of the home meat grinder that brought the heyday of meat loaf into North American kitchens. My own mother, like most new brides of the 1940s, had such a grinder in her kitchen, a substantial hand-operated cast iron contraption made by Universal that attached firmly to our Arborite and chrome kitchen table. Into the hopper of the grinder, she threw small chunks of fresh beef or pork, and out of the business end sprouted long bright red spirals of beautifully marbled ground meat that fell into a waiting Pyrex bowl. For burgers or meatballs, she would sometimes add a slice or two of raw bacon to the beef chunks for extra juicy results. A friend once told me that her mother made a delicious crispy hash by dropping pieces of Sunday dinner’s roast beef leftovers, cold boiled potatoes and chunks of onion into their Universal grinder, then patting the resulting mix nicely into a casserole dish to bake in a very hot oven until crusty.
My mother and other Ukrainian cooks would likely tell you that a good meat loaf must have more than just meat.
Besides generous handfuls of chopped onion, garlic and spices, you must add an egg or two plus a good measure of breadcrumbs, rolled oats or other starchy fillers. This not only improves the meat loaf’s texture, but during the bleak days of the Depression or wartime, frugal cooks struggling with poverty or meat rations could whip up a mean meatloaf that stretched a small amount of beef or pork into a hearty meal that served eight hungry family members.
For example, Molly’s Cookbook, one of the vintage series of American Girls cooking guides in 1944, featured a World War II favourite called Vitality Loaf that called for about half and half breadcrumbs, oats or wheat germ and ground meat.
Before I divulge the recipe for the world’s best meat loaf, consider another casualty of the lost art of meat loaf-making. As registered dietitician Rosie Schwartz of Toronto wrote on her excellent blog, Enlightened Eater:
“We live in a society filled with conflicting attitudes. The ability to prepare meals for a family is a skill that is given much too little respect, yet we have culinary stars and heroes on television cooking shows. Go figure.
“But food is also about love. It’s about sharing and thinking about someone you care about. It’s not about how fabulous a meal you can make. It’s about showing someone you care about that you took some time – a few minutes or a few hours – to provide that person with a food you created.”
So go create some delicious food for somebody you love today.
Here’s a pretty close version of my mother’s own recipe, from the classic (and sadly out of print) cookbook called Traditional Ukrainian Cookery by the late Savella Stechishin (Trident Press, Winnipeg, Canada, 1971).
“Literally translated, meat loaf is called by two names used interchangeably – minced roast and mock rabbit. This loaf is good served hot or cold, or as a filling for sandwiches. “
Preheat oven to 350.
CAROLYN’S NOTE: And since your oven’s on for an hour anyway, why not put in some whole Russet potatoes and a baking pan of seasoned mixed veggies tossed with two tablespoons of olive oil so you’ll have baked potatoes and roasted vegetables alongside your homemade meat loaf?
Combine and let soak:
- 3/4 c. dry bread crumbs or rolled oats
- 1 c. milk
Meanwhile cook until tender:
- 1 onion, grated or chopped
- 1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 3 tbsp butter
Combine in large bowl:
- bread crumb or rolled oats mix
- onion/garlic mix
- 1 pound ground round steak
- 1/2 pound lean ground pork
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- salt and pepper to taste
Shape this mixture into a loaf and place it in a lightly greased loaf pan. Brush the top with melted fat. CAROLYN’S NOTE: in my own mother’s farm kitchen, that fat would have been the bacon fat that lived in an old green Fire King jadeite coffee mug on the counter beside our stove into which that morning’s bacon fat would be poured from the frying pan each day. By the way, I just saw an identical green Fire King coffee mug on eBay selling for $60!
Cover the meat loaf with aluminum foil and bake at 350 for one hour. When the loaf is partially baked, pour 1/2 c. of hot soup stock or water over it, cover again and continue baking. Baste frequently to keep the loaf nice and juicy. Remove the foil for last 15 minutes of baking time.
When done, combine 1 Tbsp of flour and 1/2 c. sour cream or tomato juice and pour over the loaf. Let it cook a little while longer to blend the flavours. Remove the loaf to a warm plate. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Cut the loaf into slices and pour the sauce over them. Serves 8.*
* NUTRITIONAL FACTS: My copy of Savella Stechishin’s cookbook was published in 1971, long before Nutritional Facts were publicly available, but here’s my best guess based on similar recipes:
- Calories per serving: 325
- Fat: 15 g
- Carbs: 10 g
- Dietary fibre: 3 g
- Protein: 22 g
YET ANOTHER NOTE FROM CAROLYN to my vegetarian/animal-loving friends: Please do NOT send me any tofu/nut/seed/soy/lentil alternative recipes for your I-Can’t Believe-It’s-Not-Meat-Loaf. When I feel nostalgic for my mother’s meat loaf, I am NOT craving anything but the real thing. Thank you.
- Hamburger Safety Tips on handling and cooking raw ground meat, from Health Canada
- The fall of home cooking and the rise of heart disease
- Don’t buy any food you’ve ever seen advertised
- Heart-smart food rules: your dietary dos and don’t
Q: How long has it been since you had – or prepared – homemade meat loaf?