When you hear the word "meatloaf," you may think of a loaf-shaped mixture of ground meat and spices, topped with tomato sauce and baked in the center of a moderate oven until done. This used to be my youthful impression as well. Truth be told, I didn't care for meatloaf very much. In fact, once, when typing a recipe for one, I made a typo and spelled it "meatload" and thought that word summed it up rather perfectly.
Once I got on my own and started doing my own cooking, however, I made a wide variety of meatloaf recipes simply because, back then, ground beef was cheap, and a meatloaf was quick and easy. I came to realize that meatloaf didn't have to contain that bitter tomato sauce topping or even be baked in the oven. It can be beefy and woodsy, and simmered on top of the stove in a pan of white wine and exotic mushrooms, and be so good that company requests it when you invite them for dinner.
This is without a doubt, the best meatloaf I've ever eaten. I found the recipe on a faded sheet of paper in one of my husband's cookbooks when we got married. He has no idea as to the source and, in fact, had never made the recipe himself, but now it is our favorite and, if you try it, it will become yours too.
Do not let the lengthy list of ingredients deter you. I actually make the meatloaf portion the day before I intend to serve it, finding it much better this way as the flavors tend to mingle. I make the loaf, roll it in breadcrumbs, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. I can also tell you that it freezes beautifully as once I made it to serve ladies at a luncheon I was having, but we had a snowstorm, so I put the plastic-wrapped loaf into a freezer bag and froze it until I was finally able to use it, two months later. It came out just as delicious as if I'd made it fresh.
Polpettone alla Toscana
MEAT LOAF BRAISED IN WHITE WINE WITH DRIED WILD MUSHROOMS
For 4 to 5 persons
1 ounce dried wild mushrooms
1 lb. lean beef, ground
A 2-by-2" square piece good-quality white bread, crust removed
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow onion
1-1/4 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper, about 6 twists of the mill
2 tablespoons chopped prosciutto, or Pancetta, or mortadella, or if you really can't obtain any of these, unsmoked ham*
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup fine, dry, unflavored bread crumbs, spread on a platter or waxed paper**
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl or large tumbler with 1 cup of lukewarm water. Let them soak at least 20 minutes.
Put the chopped meat in a bowl, loosening it up with a fork.
Put the bread and milk in a small pan. Over medium heat, mash it with a fork until it is creamy.*** Add it to the meat in the bowl, along with the chopped onion, salt, pepper, chopped prosciutto, grated cheese, and chopped garlic. Mix gently but thoroughly by hand until all the ingredients have been incorporated into the neat. Add the egg yolk, mixing it into the other ingredients. Shape the meat into a single, firmly packed ball. Place the ball of meat on any flat surface, a cutting block or large platter, and roll it into a compact salami-like loaf about 2-1/2 inches thick. Tap it with the palm of your hand to drive out any air bubbles. Roll the loaf in the bread crumbs until it is evenly coated.
Drain the mushrooms, reserving the water in which they have soaked. (Remember that they should have soaked at least 20 minutes.) Strain the dark liquid through a fine sieve lined with paper towels and set aside. Rinse the mushrooms in several changes of clean, cold water. Chop them roughly and set aside.
Choose a heavy-bottomed, preferably oval casserole, just large enough for the meat. Over medium heat, heat all the butter and oil. When the butter foam subsides, add the meat loaf and brown it well on all sides, handling the meat carefully at all times lest the loaf break up.
When the meat has been evenly browned, add the wine and raise the heat to medium high. Boil the wine briskly until it is reduced by half. Turn the loaf carefully once or twice.
Turn the heat down to medium low and add the chopped mushrooms. Warm up the strained mushroom liquid in a small pan and stir the tomato paste into it. When the tomato paste is thoroughly diluted, add to the meat. Cover and cook at a steady simmer, turning and basting the meat once or twice. After 30 minutes, set the cover slightly askew and cook for another 30 minutes, turning the meat at least once.
Transfer the meat loaf to a cutting board and allow to settle before cutting into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Meanwhile, if the sauce in the pot is a little too thin, boil it rapidly, uncovered over high heat until it is sufficiently concentrated. Spoon a little bit of sauce over the bottom of warm serving platter, arrange the meatloaf slices in the platter, partly overlapping, then pour the rest of the sauce over the meat.
* In a pinch I've used both deli ham and, no kidding, salami. You would never know the difference in the end product.
** I use Progresso brand Italian bread crumbs.
***I've found 1 tablespoon of milk is not enough so I slowly pour milk into the pan with the bread and just mash and stir until I get the creamy consistency I want.