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The joy of meatloaf, that iconic comfort food

101 Coffee Shop meatloaf with mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Have you heard about the White House meatloaf? Apparently, it’s so good that President Trump has been known to order it for guests, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dined with the president about a month ago.

“This is what it’s like to be with Trump,” Christie later said on a radio program. “He says, ‘There’s the menu, you guys order whatever you want.’ And then he says, ‘Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.’ ”

“For his fans, all of this adds up to authenticity,” says Frank Bruni, op-ed columnist and former restaurant critic for the New York Times, of the president’s unapologetic fondness for comfort food, including well-done steaks topped with ketchup, fried chicken — and meatloaf. Well-done steaks may be a bit of a stretch, but if anything can bridge the political divide, why not meatloaf?

Recipe: 101 meatloaf >>

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Essentially a mixture of ground meat bound with bread crumbs or some other starch and mixed with spices and other flavorings, meatloaf started out as a simple way to stretch limited resources into additional meals, a perfect marriage of convenience and economy. Variations of the dish can be found spanning a variety of cuisines, from Vietnamese gio to South African bobotie, French pâté to Middle Eastern kibbe, even Swedish and Italian meatballs.

Here in the United States, meatloaf has attained iconic comfort food status, right up there with fried chicken and mac and cheese, hamburgers and hot dogs. But where fried chicken and other comfort food classics routinely show up on fine dining menus — appropriated, re-imagined and re-invented by chefs — meatloaf too often gets left on the diner counter.

Layer your meatloaf with strips of bacon in this bacon-wrapped meatloaf.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Recipe: Bacon-wrapped meatloaf >>

“There remains this meatloaf bigotry that just doesn’t make any sense,” says Bruni. “You can take meatloaf in many more directions than you can take fried chicken, or hamburgers, or hot dogs.”

Bruni and fellow New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer recently wrote a book on the comfort food, “A Meatloaf in Every Oven.” The book, a self-described love story about meatloaf, explores the dish and its history, with 49 recipes, including favorites from chefs and prominent politicians.

“A good meatloaf is packed with so much flavor because it’s a compendium of all these other additions — the starch element, often the vegetable element, certainly the meat element,” says Bruni. “You’ve got a bunch of robust flavors packed into one form. What’s not irresistible about that?”

Even for people who don’t normally cook, meatloaf is an easy dish to master, in part because it’s so forgiving. Unlike recipes that require complicated techniques, or the precise chemistry of say, pastry, “There’s something about meatloaf where you feel like you have a margin for error,” says Bruni.

The method is simple: Combine ground meat with bread crumbs or another sort of starch binder, and perhaps an egg or two. Flavor the mixture with vegetables, herbs and spices. Perhaps add a little richness in the form of cream or grated cheese. Fit the mixture into a loaf or cake pan, or bake little loaves in muffin tins for individual servings. Or, simply mold the mixture into a free-form loaf and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Slather your creation with ketchup, or maybe layer it with strips of bacon, to add seasoning and baste it with extra moisture. Then bake until done.

Simple as the method is, there are ways to take your meatloaf to the next level. First, skip the lean meats. “If you’re looking to make a diet entree, just don’t make meatloaf,” stresses Bruni.

Fat adds flavor and keeps the meatloaf moist. Use ground beef or pork with a higher fat ratio; if using ground poultry, skip the turkey or chicken breast and go for the dark meat. Bruni loves using lamb; its ample fat content and an assertive flavor stand up to a lot of spice.

Grilled cheese and meatloaf sandwich.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Recipe: Grilled cheese and meatloaf sandwich >>

After the meat, some sort of starch is probably the most important ingredient in a good meatloaf. Bread crumbs or torn bread are traditional, but feel free to get creative with ingredients as varied as potato chips, rice — even oats or cooked farro. As much as a good starch helps bind the meatloaf, it will also complement by enhancing the flavor and texture of the final product. Bruni loves using panko crumbs for the “fluffiness” they impart to the loaf. Use enough starch to bind the loaf, but not too much to dry it out.

Finally, don’t forget the flavor. Some recipes call for soaking bread or bread crumbs in milk or cream; this adds moisture and richness to the meatloaf, as does grated cheese. If you’re adding vegetables, saute them first to deepen their flavors and soften them before mixing with the other ingredients. And when it comes to seasoning, be generous. Get creative with herbs and spices.

Before baking the loaf, pinch off a little piece and cook it to test the mixture. Taste it and check to see if you need to adjust any seasonings. If the piece falls apart, now’s the time to fix it: Add additional starch if the loaf is too moist; and some dairy, meat or other source of moisture — such as ketchup — if it’s too dry.

As great as a well-made meatloaf is fresh out of the oven, this is one dish — like so many classic comfort foods — that gets only better with time. Trump reportedly likes a good meatloaf sandwich. And Bruni? Sometimes he likes it best straight out of the fridge.

“I’ll just take the Tupperware container, grab a fork and eat it that way,” he says. “There’s something that feels both guilty and nicely unpretentious about it.”

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noelle.carter@latimes.com

@noellecarter


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