There’s no doubt that meatloaf is a comforting dish. And tinkering with someone’s idea of the perfect comfort food can be tricky. I discovered this recently when I was asked to update a number of classic dishes—including pot roast, shepherd’s pie, and, yes, meatloaf—as part of the renovation of Oscar’s Restaurant in the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York City. When I started working on the recipes, I realized that there’s a fine line between refreshing a familiar dish and creating an entirely new one.
With meatloaf, I was concerned because the most familiar meatloaf tends to be dry, bland, and boring. I wanted a moist and tender meatloaf, but at the same time I also wanted a good balance of flavors. Meatloaf needs to be flavorful, but in a subtle way; no one wants or expects to be knocked back by a wallop of garlic or a kick of jalapeño.
Fortunately, a delicious, moist meatloaf that wouldn’t betray too many good childhood memories wasn’t hard to conceive. I started with equal amounts of ground beef, pork, and veal (see my recipe for details). A meatloaf made entirely from ground beef will definitely be heading in the dry and bland direction; I wanted the veal and pork for flavor and moisture. Next, I added judicious amounts of everyday ingredients: mustard, ketchup, parsley, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper. For a mellower flavor, I first sautéed the onion and the little bit of garlic I wanted to add.
To bind the meatloaf, I decided to use fresh breadcrumbs and, of course, an egg. Many old cookbooks call for using a slice of white bread soaked in milk in place of breadcrumbs, but I found those meatloaves turn out very crumbly; I like the even slices I get from this breadcrumb-bound version.
Perhaps most important, I was careful to mix the ingredients gently until just combined; overmixing would compact the meat too much, giving it more of a terrine-like texture.
Along those lines, I decided to shape the loaf by hand and to cook it on a baking sheet (rather than pack it into a loaf pan). I prefer baking meatloaf this way because a nice crunchy coating forms all the way around the loaf. Just before baking, I wrap strips of bacon around the loaf for extra flavor and moisture. This also produces some pretty tasty juices in the pan, which you can spoon over the meatloaf. You can skip the bacon if you like, but you’ll miss out on some moisture and flavor.
In the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the results: this meatloaf is tender, flavorful, and not at all boring. And according to our guests at Oscar’s, it’s definitely comforting.