Some people say the ultimate Maine comfort food is fish chowder. Others prize a buttery, creamy lobster stew. But for me, when I’m looking for comfort in the kitchen, top marks go to old-fashioned meat loaf. The one my mother made was plain in the extreme, its meatiness lightened only by chopped green peppers and maybe a few onions, but when I lived in Tuscany, I discovered a Tuscan touch, including the woodsy flavor of dried porcini mushrooms in the mix, then adding more mushrooms in a sauce to dress it with. Mind you, in Tuscany it’s not called meatloaf—there it’s polpettone, or one big meatball, which, fundamentally, is exactly what meatloaf is.
I’ve adopted the Tuscan panache of wild mushrooms but nowadays I tend to use dried Maine porcini. They grow just as nicely here in our woods and forests as they do in my Tuscan hills, and more and more foragers are taking advantage of their abundance to bring them into farmer’s markets, like the Friday one in Belfast where I found these.
Whether polpettone or plain old meatloaf, anyway you say it, this is deliciously comforting. And comfortingly delicious.
It takes about 20 minutes to assemble, but you can do that well ahead of time and set it aside (refrigerated in warm weather) until you’re ready to cook. Cooking takes about an hour and a half but that’s spare time you use to tackle the crossword or read a novel—or you could make a plate of olive oil brownies for dessert.
Make this with ground beef, if you prefer, but I like a mixture with about one-third pork to give it some moist fat. Some people combine beef, veal and pork—whatever pleases you, or perhaps what pleases your butcher.
This makes enough to serve 6 to 8, depending on what goes with it.
- 1 ¼ cups (1 ½ ounces) dried porcini mushrioms
- 2 medium onions, one chopped small, the other sliced thin
- 1 garlic clove, slivered
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- About 2 ¼ pounds ground meat, all beef or a mixture
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
- 2 eggs
- 2 ounces minced pancetta or prosciutto
- about 1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- For the glaze:
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup tomato ketchup
Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with a cup or more of very hot water. Set aside to steep for at least 15 minutes. When the mushroom slices are soft, strain them, retaining the liquid. Rinse the strained mushrooms to get rid of any soil, then strain the mushroom liquid through a fine mesh sieve or a double layer of paper towels to clear it of soil. Take about a third of the mushrooms and chop coarsely. Set aside.
In a skillet over medium-low heat, combine the chopped onion with the garlic and 2 tablespoons of oil. Cook gently, stirring, just to soften the vegetables. Stir in the chopped mushrooms, cook another minute or so, and set aside to cool.
Combine the meat, parsley and thyme in a bowl. Beat the eggs briefly, then add to the meat mixture, stirring to mix very well. Add the minced pancetta and the onion mixture as soon as it is cool enough to handle. Mix very well, using your hands. As you mix, add in breadcrumbs, a little at a time, until you have used 2/3 to ¾ of the breadcrumbs. Taste and add salt and pepper. (If you don’t want to taste raw meat, saute a tablespoonful in the pan in which you cooked the onions.)
When the meatloaf is thoroughly mixed, shape it into a big torpedo. Dribble 2 tablespoons of oil over the bottom of a large, deep skillet, and set the meatloaf in the skillet.
Turn the oven on to 375º.
Now take the sliced onion and a final 2 tablespoons of oil and set in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Cook gently until the onion slices are very soft, then stir in the remaining mushrooms and the strained mushroom soaking liquid. Bring to a simmer.
Spoon the remaining breadcrumbs over the top of the meatloaf, then, using a slotted spo0n, spoon a small amount of the onion-mushroom mixture over the top. Spoon the rest of the onion-mushroom mixture around the sides of the pan and add about half the hot soaking liquid.
By now the oven should be ready to receive the meatloaf. Set it in and let it bake thoroughly for about 15 minutes, then remove it and check for the amount of liquid, adding more of the mushroom liquid if it appears to be drying out. Turn the oven down to 325º and return the meatloaf to the oven. Bake now for about 40 minutes.
While the meatloaf bakes, make the glaze by simply combining the sugar and vinegar and stirring to dissolve, then stirring in the ketchup. After 40 minutes, remove the meatloaf and increase the oven heat once more to 375º. Spoon the tomato glaze all over the top and down the sides of the meatloaf. Again, check the liquid level in the pan: it should still be moist, not drying up, but considerably reduced. Return the glazed meatloaf to the oven for another 15 to 20
minutes. The meatloaf is done when the internal temperature has reached 165º. When done, remove from the oven and let sit for at least 20 minutes before serving, but you may also hold the meatloaf for an hour or longer. It will firm up in that time and be easier to slice. Serve slices of meatloaf, topped with the mushroom-onion bits and any juices from the bottom of the pan.
NB: Like all good meatloafs (meatloaves?), this is very good next day for sandwiches.