When the going gets tough, old favorite offers comfort


January 30, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Meatloaf, the quintessential back-to-basics food that was unspeakable during most of the chichi 1980s, is the perfect comfort food when times are tough.

It's inexpensive, simple to make and requires less time cleaning up in the kitchen than all those 20- and 30-minute meals that sometimes take several bowls and a couple of pans. Sure, meatloaf takes an hour or so to cook in the oven, but you can watch TV, read the newspaper or even take a catnap while you wait for it to warm the kitchen and stir your memories.

Everyone seems to be talking meatloaf these days -- from Jane and Michael Stern, cookbook authors who have made a career of praising old-fashioned mom food, to Sharon Moore, author of the recently released "Meatloaf" (Clarkson N. Potter, $10.95).

Mr. Stern says even the name "meatloaf" is so cloddish that it is disarming and can't help but win our hearts. Even its preparation spells simpler times.

"There's no really complicated recipe for meatloaf," he says. "You just take the ingredients, dump them into a bowl, squish them together and bake it. . . . Any idiot can make it. That's why it's so comforting. You don't have to cut it and carve it. It's simple to eat. And the taste of a classic meatloaf is quite homogenized. There are no surprises."

Ms. Moore has taken these basic principles and come up with 42 recipes that range from down-home classics like Granny's Meatloaf, made with ground veal, pork and beef and topped with bacon, to imaginative versions like the Blue Ribbon Loaf, flavored with Dijon mustard and blue cheese.

Although many of us have been eating fish and chicken so often that we think we are going to soon grow gills and start clucking, these healthful foods are often unhealthy for our budgets.

"You can mix the ground meat with other ingredients to make it better for you," Ms. Moore says. "And if you need to watch your consumption of meat, a lot of the recipes use ground chicken and turkey and they are still more reasonable in price than fish."

In face, her book gives advice for adapting some of the recipes to meet the health concerns of the 1990s:

* In stead of ground beef or pork, you can use chicken, turkey, fish, low-fat cheese or tofu.

* Substitute low-fat bread and crackers, bran, corn bread, cooked rice, potatoes, pastas or green beans for the bread or bread crumbs.

* If your doctor has limited intake of eggs, use 2 eggs whites for each whole egg called for in the recipe.

* Liquid ingredients could include low-fat or skim milk, low-fat yogurt, defatted homemade chicken, beef or veal stock or liquid from cooking vegetables.

Colleen Pierre, a local registeered dietitian and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, also suggests grinding your own meat rather than buying the pre-ground product in the meat case.

"Normally when you buy ground meat it is a combination of meat and fat ground together," she says. "If you would buy very lean pork tenderloin or lean ground beef and grind it yourself, you could cut the fat considerably."

And, if you look for ground chicken or turkey, read the label carefully, Ms. Pierre adds. For example, ground turkey can include a lot of fatty turkey skin or it can be a combination of white and dark meat. Look for ground turkey breast, the leanest option.

Even if you make the ingredients more healthful, the psychological result remains the same as it was when you came home from school and feasted on the comfort of Mom's meatloaf and mashed potatoes, says Ms. Moore.

"A lot of us went off to work and stopped cooking," she says. "The only time we cooked was during holidays and for fancy gourmet dinners. People are now cooking more often and they tend to want to prepare what Mother made. You can't go home every day after a long day at work and make beef Wellington or salmon en croute."

And, even if you aren't much of a cook, you can make your own meatloaf recipes without facing failure. All you need is ground meat or poultry; bread crumbs; a binder such as eggs, cream and sour cream; a moistener, such as cooked onions, peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes; and flavorings, ranging from watercress to mustard and soy sauce.

Probably the worst mistake that can happen is having the meatloaf turn out dry and crumbly. To avoid this, allow it to rest at least 10 to 15 minutes after removing it from the oven so the fat can go back into the meat and help make it more moist. If all else fails, top it with a sauce or gravy.

"I never cook the same meatloaf twice," Ms. Moore says. "One thing tends to grow out of another."

Blue ribbon loaf Makes 6 to 8 servings.

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup port

salt (if desired) and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 pound ground lean beef or veal

1 pound ground lean pork

3 cups fine dry bread crumbs

1 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 pound blue cheese, crumbled

red grapes, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

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