Thursday, October 15, 2015

Back In The Kitchen Plus You Say Meatloaf and I Say Meatballs...Or Is It Vice Versa?

I turned on The Kitchen last weekend and I have to admit I didn’t expect to be asked right off the top, “What’s big, beefy and warm?”

Any thoughts? It was Jeff Mauro, The Sandwich King, who said it. He’s the boyish and slightly amusing one (to some folks’ tastes anyway) on The Kitchen. He was talking about the most requested Fall dish on the Food Network website. Does that give you a clue?

Jeff was describing a big, beefy, warm…MEATLOAF. Eww, that sounds really unappealing, but I get where he’s going. It’s getting cooler (in some places anyway) and it's time for heartier meals. He tells us he’s going to throw in tons of different meats. (I guess I won’t hold that against him, even though I usually go with 100% chuck for my meatloaf.) And he’s adding some other ingredients.

Jeff calls his recipe “the food equivalent of a hug.” Ugh. I’m not sure why that gives me heartburn, but it does. I suppose MY food equivalent of a hug is soup or maybe chili, but meatloaf?!!

I think I’ve told this story before…My mother was a great cook, but there were a few iffy items in her repertoire. She always made meatloaf in a Pyrex loaf dish, which can lead to a slightly greasy, heavy loaf. My brother always threatened to break the meatloaf dish, so we wouldn’t have to have it again. I thought that was an ingenious solution to not wanting to hurt my mother’s feelings. The problem was you wouldn’t believe how indestructible Pyrex is…especially on old-timey linoleum! (I never use a loaf pan for my meatloaf. I make it free-form in a roasting pan surrounded by sliced potatoes, so the fat from the meat loaf actually does some good in flavoring and crisping the potatoes.)

Anyhoo, back to Jeff and his beefy hugs…He uses half chuck, a quarter ground veal (does ANYONE buy veal anymore for home use?) and a quarter ground pork. Gregory Zakarian breaks in with a comment. (Now WHY exactly is this Iron Chef on this show?) GZ says it sounds like a meatball recipe. That’s SO true, especially when I hear what the other ingredients are. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it definitely does.

It gets me to thinking about a really serious matter. Would you want your meatballs masquerading as meatloaf? OR your meatloaf being ripped apart and presented as meatballs? And what exactly IS the difference between the two?

I looked far and wide for the answer. Joy has no idea, neither does James. Craig says nothing about it. I looked at every relevant cookbook I have and online. Folks wonder about how HAMBURGERS are different from meatloaf. (That’s so obvious, I’m not even going to touch it.*) But no one muses about the distinction between meatloaf and meatballs.

*Just kidding. Who knows? I only know what I do. I add almost nothing to hamburgers, but I would never use naked ground beef and call it meatloaf.

No definitive treatise seems to exist on what makes meatballs meatballs and meatloaf meatloaf (aside from how they’re formed and what they’re cooked in). Yet, to me, they ARE different. I see Jeff taking a mixture I might use for meatballs and wadging it all together in a big lump and presenting it as MEATLOAF.

Let’s see what else he does for his grandiosely named United States Of Meatloaf. Jeff is very firm about sautéing his onion and garlic before adding them to the meat. That’s the most crucial step, he says. That’s funny, because I base almost every OTHER savory dish in the universe on properly softened onions, BUT NOT MEATLOAF OR MEATBALLS! (Our United States of Meatloaves really must be from different coasts.) I like the assertive flavor of the raw onion, which I think holds up well to the fatty meat. Jeff says the sautéed onion and garlic gives the meatloaf “better mouthfeel”. I say it makes a wussy meatloaf.

The other ingredients are fine and I like Jeff’s method of mixing. He mixes the liquidy ingredients first, which is smart so he doesn’t overwork the meat. He uses 2 eggs. (I always try to limit it to one egg, no matter how much meat I’m using. I make up the liquid with ketchup. YUP I DO! And sometimes, if the mixture is coming together well, I leave out the egg entirely.)

Jeff adds Dijon and whole milk next. This IS totally a meatball recipe, except that you’d soak bread or crumbs in the milk. He adds red hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Then the meat goes in with the already sautéed onion and garlic.

THEN Jeff adds Saltine crumbs. (Those were always in my house when I was a kid. The funny thing is now they’re topped with SEA SALT.) Using Saltines is definitely a personal choice and one that I respect (if you like a sawdust aspect to your meatloaf). KIDDING …sort of. I use soft crumbs, usually made from Arnold Stoneground Wholewheat Bread (without the crusts). He adds fresh parsley, which is a great addition for flavor AND appearance, and salt and pepper. He mixes it by hand while Marcella makes a glaze of apple cider vinegar, barbecue sauce, brown sugar and Sriracha. Iron Chef GZ asks, “No ketchup?” several times. Jeff says nope. That does seem unAmurican, especially when he’s making the United States of Meatloaf, for Pete’s sake.

Jeff freeforms it, thank goodness, but I don’t waste parchment paper like he does. (And there are no potatoes in sight.) He forms it like a football. (I like to make a long, flat-on-the-top loaf.)

Marcella pours some of the glaze over and saves the extra for serving. I’m nervous as she pours it from the bowl onto the meatloaf. You want zero contamination from that raw meat into that bowl of glaze, so be careful. The meatloaf is cooked at 350°F for one hour.  Jeff tells us to check that it’s internal temperature is 160°F to 165°F. Here’s his finished meatloaf:

It looks good, I have to admit. As Jeff is cutting it, Sunny pipes in, “I want some mashed potatoes.” Agreed! Mashed or otherwise, you need potatoes! And why not cook them at the same time in the same dish? Marcella has the first taste, but she forgets the extra glaze. (Maybe she thought it was tainted from the raw meat?) She says, “It tastes like a hug. I will definitely keep this recipe handy the next time I make meatloaf.” 

I still haven’t resolved the issue of what makes this a meatloaf and not meatballs. Oh, I have an idea! I’ll put my recipes side by side and see what the difference is. I don’t have a formal recipe for either, just a basic list of what goes in.
  1. ½ lb. beef chuck
  2. 1 small onion, chopped
  3. 1 small carrot, shredded
  4. 2 slices bread*, crusts off, crumbed
  5. 1 egg yolk **
*Arnold Stoneground Wholewheat
**For 1 lb. of meat, use 1 egg

  1. 1 lb. or whatever beef chuck
  2. 1 medium zucchini, shredded
  3. 2 carrots, shredded
  4. At least 1 medium onion, shredded
  5. Lots of crumbs, with crusts on (Approximately equal to the volume of vegetables.)
  6. 1 egg
  7. A squeeze of ketchup
So what is the difference? I've never thought about it before, but I suppose meatloaf is a LOAF with lots of bits and pieces in it. You can go crazy with additions and change-ups. And because it’s baked in a loaf, it can stand to be breadier and spongier.

A meatball is something altogether different – in MY mind. It’s a sphere of mostly meat with a few other things added just to hold it together and give it more flavor. Also because it’s fried, ALL the edges get crisp - as opposed to only the top crust of a meatloaf. That adds an entirely different flavor profile to the meatball.

The gist of it is that I put more stuff in my meatloaf than I do my meatballs. To my meatloaf, I might throw in other things without a thought – cooked rice, oatmeal, ground nuts, shredded cheese, peppers, sausage. I used to make a veggie loaf of 1/3 cooked brown rice, 1/3 bread crumbs and 1/3 ground nuts added to the other stuff in place of the meat. I would NEVER add those things to meatballs.  

So is that the difference? A meatloaf is anything and everything. And meatballs are under tighter supervision? If anyone knows the answer or, almost as good, THINKS he or she knows the answer, please let me know! For now, I’ll do what I want with meatloaf and keep my meatballs tightly reined in.


The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Meatballs are rolled into balls and meatloaf is made as a loaf. That's the difference! In Italian meatloaf is polpette and meatballs are polpettini.

I was never a big meatloaf fan, but have learned to tolerate it for the husband's sake, and since he traditionally doesn't eat beef (although that is slowly changing now) I have had to really work hard to make it taste good to me with turkey. I have never had it with the blend of meats (I do see meatloaf blends of veal, pork, and beef at the store, but I generally avoid veal), but would love to add some pork to the mix.

But despite my dislike of meatloaf, I ate meatballs. I think the fact that they spent time cooking in tomato sauce (at least the way I ate them) adjusted their flavor and texture to be more palatable to me.

Welcome back!

Sue said...

Hi Rach! Thanks for stopping by. I always like someone who knows her mind. The Italian words for the two seem to make it clear that they really are the same thing. But I can't help thinking that the WAY the mixtures are cooked (and served) affects what you might add to each. I mean would you chop up your meatloaf into cubes and eat it on top of spaghetti? I guess I feel that if you're serving the meatballs with pasta most of the time you might not want an excessively bready mixture in the meatball. But adding a bunch of crumbs to meatloaf stretches the meat, gives it a good texture and makes a nice loaf shape. Oy! Who knows?!!