HOME ON THE RANGE: Cook up memories with Mom's Meatloaf

When eight months ago I moved from Seattle to a rather remote house on Whidbey Island, I never dreamed I’d become an honest-to-goodness cooking maven. I was as accustomed as any city dweller to popping in at the neighborhood Thai restaurant on my way home from work or grabbing a Reuben from the deli. Now, as I peer out my window, all I see are birds and water. And on my way home? Grass. So, I sucked it up and purchased a couple of second-hand cookbooks, and began to get real familiar with the ol’ electric range.

Some of my early attempts didn’t go so well. I burned and overspiced and baked cookies so dry they’d choke a water hose. I was forced to toss entire pans of “magnificent creation” into the trash. But then, through perseverance, I started to get it right.

The key to survival as a fledgling cook is keeping things simple. There’s really no point to spending hours hunting the local markets for, say, Anjou pears. Leave the “encrusting” and “caramelizing” and “infusing” to the sniffs in chef’s hats. Same with dishes like Pecan Cornbread Stuffed Rabbit Loin and Swordfish Carpaccio with Capers and Shaved Parmesan. Concentrate on meals you love and can manage, the end goal being a paper napkin tucked under your chin. And, well, if something comes ready-made in a can and tastes good, there’s no shame in that.

Mexican mole sauce is a fine example. I adore the stuff for all its chocolatey decadence. One afternoon, I made it from scratch. It took an eternity. I bought a pumpkin, cleaned it out, roasted the seeds, ground them up, mixed them with a million and a half spices and stocks, tomatillos and tomatoes … you get the picture. The next time, I purchased mole in a jar. It tasted better than what I’d made myself. Now I buy mole in a jar. Cooking isn’t about heroics or the sketchy rewards of a “job well done”. It’s about what works. I don’t scrub my clothes on a stone down by the river. I use a washing machine.

That’s not to say you can’t create an incredible variety of meals that are quite basic. Extract the gourmet from any cuisine and you’re left with home-cooking from around the world. If you know your spices, have a reasonable selection of kitchen gear, and are willing to take a few chances, you too can turn out frazzle-free Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, German, African, Indian, French (okay, maybe not French) and American dishes.

In honor of simplicity, let’s start with meatloaf, which everyone loves. They do. It’s hearty, delicious (an excellent vehicle for catsup), and makes scrumptious sandwich filling the next day. Also, it fits my basic criteria: easy to prepare. I’ve seen where so-called gourmets have tried to fuss it up by concocting Three Layer Meatloaf, Stroganoff Meatloaf, and even a Meatloaf Puff. A Meatloaf Puff? Forget it. The best meatloaf is the kind Mom used to make. Straight up.

Having been raised in the meatloaf center of the universe, South Dakota, I know what I’m talking about. My family didn’t have much money. We ate a lot of hamburger. And to stretch said hamburger, Mom maybe added a few too many breadcrumbs, an onion beyond the limit. But always her meatloaf tasted wonderful, brimming with that comforting, mysterious meatloafy flavor. It went great with mashed potatoes (don’t fear the instant!). But it’s just as tasty with steamed broccoli and giant hunks of French bread.

To make Mom’s perfect meatloaf, you need meat. Splurge, if you can, and get the least fatty hamburger available. That way, your meatloaf won’t shrink to the size of a meatball during baking (also, it’ll be a bit healthier which frankly isn’t my concern, but there you go). Pick up 1 and 1/2-pounds of ground beef. If you wish, you can substitute a half pound of pork sausage, which will give you a spicier end result.

Mom’s Meatloaf

1 and a half-pounds ground beef

2 beaten eggs

3/4-cup milk

1/2-cup fine dry bread crumbs (crumble some toast if you have to)

1/4- cup finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons snipped parsley (feel free to use dried, though only half as much)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground sage

1/2-teaspoon pepper

1/4- cup catsup

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard (use the wet kind if you don’t have dry)

In a big bowl, combine the eggs and milk. Stir in the bread crumbs, onion, parsley, salt, sage, and pepper. Add the ground beef and mix well. You can stir this mixture with a spoon, but sooner or later you’re going to have to scrunch it with your bare hands, so you might as well jump right in. Pat the mixture into a shape roughly similar to a football. Place it uncovered in a cake pan. Bake it at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. Now comes the crucial part. In a small bowl, combine the catsup, brown sugar, and dry (or wet) mustard. Spread the sauce over the meatloaf and return it to the oven for 10 minutes.

Slice and devour.

Send recipes or suggestions to vogel@

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