Monday, February 12, 2007

Building a Better Meatloaf ...

As a catering chef clients often ask me to put together an American menu for them. Over the years I've learned there are damn few items that can honestly claim the title. "Meat loaf" a client argues, but really, isn't it just poor man’s pate? "Beef stew" they challenge, but we all know there are several versions whose recipes were in the knapsacks of the early settlers. "Hot dogs".... it's called a frankfurter Helen. "Apple pie".... don't get me started.

By now, you must be waving your hand as high as the smart kid in the back of Sister Imelda's 4th grade classroom. Yes we know ... there are a few truly American dishes, at least in my opinion. Southern Fried Chicken comes to mind, and Chicken Fried Steak. Barbecue in general. Clam, fish and corn chowders, though I seem to recall the word chowder comes from a French word. Several mythic stewpots, Brunswick for example, Gumbo or Burgoo. All I'm saying is, there's not as much truly American food as you might think, once you rule out Velveeta, Condensed Soups and Tuna Melts.

What we clever Americans can claim, is an inspired ability for improvisation and adaptation to what's on hand. So it may have been with that immigrant mother from Bordeaux who was faced with a pound of meat, a few eggs and a loaf of stale bread to feed her new American family of 10. Drawing on her own tradition, she forged a new one. An inspired one, to my Midwestern palate. Pate's all well and good and perfect on a crouton with dijon, cornichons and a flacon of Cote du Rhone, but it's not what's called for on a plate with mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, string beans and horseradish. And true to my colors, Big Mary would easily sacrifice a life time of pate over the possibility of a lifetime without meat loaf.

Meat Loaf is also one of those dishes whose quality we most often determine by how close to our mama's recipe it is. Indeed Mama Gladys set my standard, but I have researched a few innovations that I offer to the next generation. Inspired by the Handsome Venezuelan's recent diet success I've done some research to make meat loaf, if not diet food, at least more waist watcher friendly.

The classic meatloaf mix is 1/3 each ground beef, veal and pork. If you are open to it, go for it. It truly makes the penultimate meatloaf. But if looking for a less caloric version, feel free to go with ground turkey breast or the leanest ground beef offered, the mushrooms in this recipe guarantee a tender moist loaf. I've also called for fresh whole wheat bread crumbs. The fresh bread crumbs provide a lighter product and the whole wheat adds some fiber which reduces the carbohydrate effect. This feeds 3 - 4 people. I believe it should multiply easily.

Big Mary's Meatloaf
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/2 cup carrot, shredded
1/4 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1 cup (approximately 1/3#) white mushrooms, very finely chopped (use a food processor)
1 pound ground meat
1 large egg (or equivalent egg substitute)
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
1/3 cup ketchup
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
1 cup fresh whole wheat bread crumbs

1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup hoisin sauce

Preheat oven to 350*
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add oil, and then onion and garlic. Sauté a few minutes until onion begins to wilt. Add chopped thyme and carrot. Sauté 2 more minutes. Add white wine, cook 1 more minute and remove from heat. Set aside to cool.
Combine ground meat, egg, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, salt, pepper, bread crumbs and cooled onion mix. Mix thoroughly, and form into a loaf approximately 5 " X 10". Place on a foil lined baking sheet.
Bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until an instant read thermometer reads 145* when inserted into the center of the meatloaf.
Make the glaze by mixing the ketchup and hoisin in a bowl. Brush liberally over the meat loaf and return to the oven for 10 minutes or so until temperature reads 155*. Remove from oven and let meatloaf rest for 5 - 10 minutes before slicing.

There you have it my pretties. And I predict if you have any leftovers, you'll be fighting over meatloaf sandwiches on toasted white bread. Next time we're going to be talking chili, another American food improvisation.

Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Time and Space Travel in Little Italy

Lately I'm finding myself reminded of how much time I am not spending in New York City. True, I'm on the road at 6:30am every Monday through Friday; my Honda's tires entrenched in the ruts of my daily commute from Park Slope to the Lower East Side. And I faithfully retrace the route after my 10 hours of managing the food fuel for hundreds of corporate drones like myself. That's all metrocentric enough. Then comes Friday night and I pick up the HV (Handsome Venezuelan) at his corporate hive and we're off to the rural bliss of La Casa Amarilla in the Poconos.

Now this decompression time with our forest, fireplace, birds, deer and tree house like deck are as vital to me as oxygen, good living and reasonably priced wine. But, I am sad that I've paid the harsh price of urban disconnect to achieve it. The reality of NYC is this... it takes time, energy and commitment to reap the rewards this town offers, especially given the long work week its economy imposes.

My old job was situated in Long Island City, Queens; so I was hip to all the Pan Asian-Latino doings of Jackson Heights and Woodside as well as the Italo-Greco treasures of Astoria. My current gig allows for up to date info of Chinatown, but that's about it, or so I thought.

Last Friday found Big Mary with time to kill about 4pm, while waiting for the HV to finish up at 7 or so. Despite the significant chill, I set out from work to explore local stores and perhaps pick up some treats for our late night dinner when we arrived in Pennsylvania. I knew I could pick up some great Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches for the car ride(incredibly delicious pork, pate, pickled carrot, daikon and cilantro on warm baguette), but I had hopes of one of those great NYC moments of discovering a store that only exists in the time and place of where you are, NYC. I buttoned up my coat and headed west until I saw neon signs advertising Clam Bars, Caffe and Fresh Mozzarella.

Now, what many of you from west of the Hudson may not realize is that Little Italy doesn't much exist anymore. There is Mulberry Street, loaded with touristic restaurants that send out (for the most part) mediocre Italo-American fare. But the neighborhood has been swallowed by the swelling populace of Chinatown, and one is hard pressed to find many Italian-Americans living there anymore. And with that exodus comes the unavoidable waning of authenticity of experience.

None of this is a concern however, once you pass through the door at DiPalo's of Little Italy. This first thing that confronts you is a red number dispenser urging you to "Take a number, please." Accept this as encouragement that you are in the right place for the real thing. Take your number, and enjoy the down time to peruse the shelves of Italian (and a few vicarious Mediterranean) pleasures. You'll find pasta shapes you've never experienced before, Sandinian Carta di Musica, Italian butters, homemade raviolis, tortellonis, mostardis, Italian crackers and breadsticks, forest honey and more formaggi and salumi than you knew existed.

However, it's the service that sends you directly to Italy, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. It's not exactly timely, and that's the point. Time needs to be allowed for local gossip, news from Italy, suggestions on proper neo-natal care and the relative differences of Proscuitto San Danielle and Proscuitto di Parma. But once your number is called, they are going to spend as much time with you as if you were a true Medici. A request for a cheese's description will not only inform you of the type of milk used and the region where it is made, but a hearty sample proffered on the end of a cheese knife.

That happy Friday I was selecting between five cheeses. A perfectly ripe goat doble crema whose name escapes me, but whose happy goat label I know I'll remember. This was an immediate purchase. Next I tasted a sublime Piave Vechio, cow's milk from the Veneto; often dry and lackluster, but DiPalo's offered a perfect specimen, rich, yielding and slightly nutty. Next a Fontina style Stelvio form Alto Adige, softer and mouth filling. Also a cow's milk cheese I'd never seen before, Crucolo from the Trentino, Morbier like but richer, rounder and fuller in flavor. Finally Pecorino D'Oro from Sardinia which reminded me of Dutch aged Gouda, but uniquely sharp and without the caramel flavors of aged Gouda. Instead it retained its grassy earthy flavors. I limited myself to the Crucolo and the creamy goat disc.

I rounded out our late night picnic with a quarter pound of Proscuitto di Parma, some plump olives and crusty Italian bread. As a real treat I purchased a half pound canister of wood roasted coffee from Sant Eustachio on good faith. Di Palo is the only US store to import this from the renowned caffe near the Pantheon in Rome. My faith turned out to be well placed on Saturday morning.

And so my precious ones, my soul feels a bit renewed, and I am once again reminded of why I work so hard to live where I live. Now I want all of you to find what's special and unique in your market and spend some money there. People like the DiPalo's and their compatriots deserve to reap some rewards for what they do, whether they are at your farmer's market or ethnic enclave, be it Italian, Polish, Portuguese or Filipino.

Contented eating,
Big Mary