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Who invented meatloaf, why and when? Food historians tell us from ancient times to the present cooks have been mixing ground meat with minced bread/rice/vegetables, spices, thickeners and serving them with sauce. But for what reasons?
My best guesses are 1) to distribute meat to more people (protein economy); 2) to conserve resources (use it up, don’t throw it out); and 3) to make tough meat more palatable (aid digestion).
Early ground (finely chopped or minced) molded meat recipes concentrated on sausages in skin casings, meat fritters (similar to meatballs), rissoles, hashes, terrines and croquettes. The meat employed in these early recipes was usually already cooked, as opposed to the raw meat typically used by Americans to make meatloaf today. Finished products were typically fried, stewed or baked (in molds or pastry) and served with sauce.
Meatballs (a diminutive form of meatloaf) are known in many cultures and cuisines. Recipes evolved according to local ingredients and tastes. Middle Eastern kofta and Swedish meatballs are two of the most well known.
Modern American Meatloaf
The raw, ground meat commonly used to make today’s American meatloaf has a humbler heritage. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution made it possible for ground meat be manufactured and sold to the public at a very low cost.
At first, many Americans were slow to purchase raw ground meat products and generally regarded them with suspicion. Lack of reliable home refrigeration may have played into this decision. Cooks continued to mince their meat (often already cooked, as was the practice for centuries) by hand.
Companies selling meat grinders to home consumers at the turn of the century endeavored to change this practice by provided recipe books to promote their products. Eventually, the American public began incorporating ground meat into family meals.
Since that time, meat loaf variations have been introduced and promoted by women’s magazines, cookbooks, fairs, food manufacturers, diners and family-style restaurants. Meatloaf and gravy (often paired with mashed potatoes and canned green beans) became popular in the 1950s and is still considered by some to be the ultimate comfort food.
Did you know?
Did you know “frosted meatloaf” is ground beef covered with mashed potatoes? It could be that this recipe is a distant relative of shepherd’s pie.
Around the turn of the century, Italian-America restaurants did not serve meatballs with their spaghetti. These were added to satisfy Amerca’s hunger for red meat!
Swedish meatballs, brought to our country by Scandinavian immigrants, many of whom settled in America’s northern mid-west states, were very popular in the beginning of the 20th century, and again in the 1950s and 1960s.
Roasted Vegetable Meatloaf with Balsamic Glaze
Recipe courtesy Bobby Flay
3 Tbsps. olive oil
1 large zucchini, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 yellow pepper, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
1/2 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. ground veal
1 lb. ground beef chuck
1 cup panko (Japanese) bread crumbs
1/2 cup freshly grated Romano or Parmesan
1 cup ketchup, divided
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsps. balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat the oil in a large saute pan over high heat. Add the zucchini, peppers, garlic paste, 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes and salt and pepper to taste; cook until almost soft, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Whisk together the eggs and herbs in a large bowl. Add the meat, breadcrumbs, cheese, 1/2 cup of the ketchup, 2 Tbsps. of balsamic vinegar and the cooled vegetables; mix until just combined. Mold the meatloaf in a glass baking dish.
In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ketchup, balsamic vinegar and red pepper flakes. Brush the mixture over the entire loaf. Bake the meatloaf for 1 to 1-1/4 hours. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
Swedish meatballs, smaller in size that those of Italy or Germany, are traditionally served with a cream gravy and lingonberry preserves, along with buttered noodles. This is a traditional Swedish recipe that first appeared in McCall’s Cook Book, 1963.
5 Tbsps. butter or margarine
3 Tbsps. finely chopped onion
3/4 cup light cream
3/4 cup dry breadcrumbs
1-1/2 lb. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2 Tbsps. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. allspice
2 Tbsps. flour
1/2 cup light cream
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. bottled gravy seasoning
To make the meatballs, sauté onion in a hot skillet with one tablespoon butter for 3 minutes, or until golden. In large bowl, combine cream, 3/4 cup water and the breadcrumbs. Add onion, ground meats, eggs, salt, pepper, allspice and cloves; toss lightly, to mix well.
Using a teaspoon, shape into 75 meatballs, about 3/4-inch in diameter. Add 2 tablespoons butter in the same skillet, saute meatballs, a few at a time, until browned on all sides. Add more butter as needed. Remove meatballs and set aside.
To make the sauce, remove all but 2 tablespoons drippings from the skillet. Stir in flour until smooth. Gradually stir in cream and 1-1/2cups water; bring to boiling, stirring. Add salt, pepper and gravy seasoning. Add meatballs; heat gently 5 minutes, or until heated through. Serve garnished with parsley. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Norm Harding is a cooking columnist for the Beacon. To send him recipes, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.