Meatloaf is one of the most under-appreciated, all-American foods, mostly because cooks have been reluctant to think beyond the loaf format. That’s what St. Paul, Minnesota-based Carol Falkowski writes in her new book Meatloaf Outside the Pan. She believes that many people have fond memories of eating meatloaf around the family dinner table. And although it’s a popular comfort food, it rarely looks inviting. It was not that long ago that she stood resolute in her kitchen, a spoon in her hand and ground beef in a bowl in front of her and decided to rejuvenate the reputation of the humble but often maligned meatloaf. To give her favorite dish the makeover it deserved, she’d have to think outside the pan. Her book is the result of that epiphany. When not dreaming up new meatloaves and enjoying her latest culinary creations, Falkowski is a nationally recognized addiction expert who has served in the public arena for more than three decades.
Why did you decide to get creative with meatloaf?
Carol Falkowski: Meatloaf tastes good, provides leftovers for sandwiches and is affordable. But then there’s its appearance. When baked in a rectangular loaf pan, it often resembles a brick: compressed, contained, ordinary and dull. Its lackluster presentation leaves a lot to be desired. While most people simply slosh it with gravy or ketchup and move on, I felt driven to improve it. I know meatloaf can do better. Meatloaf needs to stop underachieving and start looking as good as it tastes. With some extra effort, attention and finesse, it can become an exciting and highly anticipated dinner entrée. Other artists in my family specialize in pen and ink, clay and oil painting. I guess it just took me a while to find my medium: raw meat mixtures and vegetables.
The innovations in your cookbook focus on shape and visual adornments. What’s your recipe for the actual meatloaf matrix and what makes it special?
Falkowski: My book is about shaping the raw meat mixture and decorating it with vegetables. It shows readers how to “resist the loaf pan” and “liberate meatloaf.” I offer a single meatloaf recipe of ingredients but more than 30 ways to present it. My basic meatloaf recipe calls for ground beef and Italian pork sausage, fresh cilantro, raw chopped onions, garlic, tomato sauce, egg and breadcrumbs or oatmeal. (It is posted at the end of this article.) The Italian sausage brings an added taste dimension. When combined with the other ingredients, especially cilantro, the sausage makes the whole dish pop. People I’ve talked with who do not like meatloaf typically say that it is too dry or tastes bland. That simply cannot happen with Italian sausage on board. As for ground turkey and chicken loaves, there’s no mixing of the meats. Every chicken loaf contains just chicken, every turkey loaf just ground turkey. Pureed carrots added to the raw meat mixture create a delicious flavor and contribute moisture.
Meatloaf is gaining momentum in the prepared foods department of supermarkets as well as in foodservice, from casual to upscale to institutional. What are the drivers of this growth?
Falkowski: The draw of comfort food has always been around, but likely escalates in uncertain, changing times. People want an old standard, something they know they like, whether it’s in a food line or in an upscale restaurant. Meatloaf fits the bill. This, coupled with consumer desire to reduce time spent in food preparation, makes pre-made meatloaf in the deli aisle a likely coming attraction.
What are some suggestions you have for culinary specialists on how to get creative with meatloaf for these various channels?
Falkowski: Transforming lackluster, ordinary, brick-shaped meatloaf into a stunning dinner entree means forgoing the convenience of baking in a loaf in a pan and cutting meatloaf into slices to serve. But the added effort at the front end yields terrific results. People will not believe it’s meatloaf. Simple shapes work best. Hearts, fish and round cake shapes that are easily identifiable. Avoid shapes with thin or detailed appendages. As for vegetables, “the decorations,” some are added before baking and some after. Peppers and squash bake well. Mashed potatoes and cherry tomatoes are added after baking. Trial and error is paramount. I spent more than three years developing various free-form meatloaf creations, and not all of them made it into the book.
What are some of the most innovative meatloaves you have developed?
Falkowski: The easiest meatloaves made outside the pan are the cake and the heart. Shape the raw meat mixture into the desired shape, bake and decorate. For the cake, use mashed potatoes as frosting and sliced vegetables for sprinkles. With the heart, a red tomato sauce can be applied either before or after baking. Carrot curls placed around the perimeter on the serving platter create a visually evocative adornment.
For the meatloaf-based Asian chicken wings, form the meat mixture into the shape of chicken wings, dip in raw egg and coat with breadcrumbs prior to baking. Garnish with chopped green onions. Serve with a side of ketchup or barbeque sauce. The lobster meatloaf is a fun entrée and great for people with shellfish allergies. Red peppers are the star of this show. Simply cut them as shown, place on top of the raw meatloaf mixture and bake. The small circular eggplant eyes are added after baking. The cluster of grapes starts with whole beets from the can arranged on top of the raw meat mixture shaped like a grape cluster. Add sliced green peppers for grape leaves and bake. Naturally this pairs well with red wine.