October 21, 2015

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Dear friends,

I have gotten calls over the years to settle bar bets, but none as good as this. Would I be willing to come to Ken Stewart’s Grille to taste three meatloaves and declare the winner?

Free meatloaf? Are you kidding?

On the designated day I slid onto a bar stool and the bartender, my close friend Michele Sandridge, plunked down three plates. On each, a thick slice of meatloaf with sauce snuggled against a pile of mashed potatoes. Oh boy oh boy.

Did I mention I love meatloaf? Once I even tried my hand at making the ultimate meatloaf, pitting it in a newsroom taste test against Julia Child’s and a Chicago contest winner. My co-workers hated my pate-inspired, cognac-spiked loaf. In my defense I wrote, “If the taste test proved anything, it’s that people have very individual ideas of what makes a great meat-loaf. In the same blind tasting, more than a few raspberries were directed at Julia Child’s recipe.”

I, too, have an individual idea of what makes a great meatloaf, I warned last week’s contestants — customer Mike Price, Ken Stewart’s day chef Micah Lipford and Michele’s fellow bartender, Carol Diacobone.  My personal taste is for juicy meatloaf that has a loose, tender texture. I like lots of onions. I don’t like dry bread crumbs, cracker crumbs or oatmeal as a binder. I prefer fresh, soft bread crumbs. Although it’s not a deal breaker, I like a free-form meatloaf rather than one shaped in a loaf pan. And although a ketchup-based glaze is nice, it’s not absolutely necessary.

I tasted the three meatloaves blind. Although the contestants hovered, they kept quiet while I made up my mind. One meatloaf (Price’s, I later learned) tasted of dried bread crumbs. One (Lipford’s) had a good texture but hinted of cumin. And one, the bartender’s, was just right.

I really liked Diacobone’s juicy, flavorful meatloaf and was surprised to learn later that it contained dry bread crumbs. It also contained dry onion soup mix, an ingredient I’ve railed about in the past. Maybe the bloody Mary mix cancelled out the dried-spices flavor. Or maybe, as Diacobone claims, the secret to its superior flavor was a meat mixture of beef, veal and pork.

Whatever the reason, it all worked. The meatloaf was fantastic  and the lip-smacking, mildly spicy sauce was the icing on the loaf.

Of course, my meatloaf (not the Cognac one) would have beaten all of them. You probably think yours would, too. That’s meatloaf culture in America. If you think yours is better than Carole’s or mine, send your recipe. I’d like to see it.

CAROL DIACOBONE’S WINNING MEATLOAF
•    2 cups bloody Mary mix
•    1 packet Lipton onion soup mix
•    2 lbs. meatloaf mix (a mixture of ground beef, veal and pork; Carol uses the mix from Miles Market in Solon)
•    2 tsp. dried parsley
•    1 tsp. McCormick’s Garlic Pepper
•    3/4 cup Grated Romano cheese
•    2 eggs
•    1/2 cup milk or enough to moisten crumbs
•    1/2 cup Progresso Italian Style dry bread crumbs
•    Topping (recipe follows)

Stir the onion soup mix into the bloody Mary mix and allow to soften for 2 hours. Combine in a bowl with the ground meats, parsley, garlic pepper, cheese, eggs. Combine milk and bread crumbs and stir until crumbs are softened. Add to meatloaf mixture and mix well. Form into 2 loaves. Place side by side in a baking pan large enough to hold them comfortably with room between and around the loaves.

Pour enough water in pan to barely film the bottom. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 1 1/2  hours or until cooked through but still juicy. Transfer to a platter. Top with the warm sauce to serve.
Pour the warm sauce over the meatloaves to serve.

TOPPING
•    6 slices bacon
•    1 medium onion, roughly chopped
•    1 1/2 cups ketchup
•    1/2 cup water

Fry bacon in a skillet until brown. Add onion and continue to cook until softened. Do not drain off grease. Stir in ketchup and water. Simmer until sauce thickens slightly, about 15 minutes.

MEATLOAF
•    2 lbs. ground chuck
•    1 medium onion, chopped
•    1 tsp. salt
•    1/2 tsp. pepper
•    1 tbsp. dried thyme
•    1 tbsp. A-1 Steak Sauce
•    2 tbsp. ketchup
•    2 eggs
•    2 tbsp. milk
•    3 slices bread

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Dump the ground chuck into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and fluff it up with your fingers to separate the big chunks into smaller chunks.

Add onion, salt, pepper, thyme and A-1 sauce. Add the ketchup, eggs and milk.

Tear the bread into large chunks and process in a food processor or blender until it is reduced to small crumbs. Or by hand, tear the bread into small (1/2-inch) pieces and add to the meat mixture.

Gently mix the ingredients with your hands. Do not press and squeeze the meat or the meatloaf will be tough. Shape the mixture into a flat loaf almost as long as the pan and about 5 inches wide. If you like, squirt some ketchup down the center of the meatloaf. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven. With two spatulas, immediately transfer the meatloaf to a big plate. If the meatloaf is allowed to remain in the pan, it will soak up all of the grease that has oozed out during cooking. Cut the meatloaf into thick slices.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

TIDBITS

From the outside, Family Groceries in the North Hill area of Akron looks like a small, well-kept convenience store. But if you’re looking for bread and milk, don’t bother. Yak butter, yes.

Despite the bland moniker, Family Groceries is about as interesting as they come.  It is one of a handful of ethnic grocery stores that cater to the influx of Nepalese refugees who have settled in the area. But Family Groceries is larger than most, with a big fresh-food area stocked with meats and exotic fruits and vegetables, and – the prize – a chatpattey chef straight from the refugee camps.

Buddha (he goes by just the one name) cooks one thing, chatpattey. It’s a popular Nepalese street food of puffed seasoned rice, fresh  vegetables, cilantro, onion, potato, ground spices, lime and two kinds of tiny chickpeas. It is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted – a mound of highly seasoned crunchy, soft, salty, sour, fresh bits of food all jumbled together. It’s addictive.

Buddha makes chatpattey to order from bowls and tubs of ingredients he prepares before the store opens at 10 a.m. He keeps at it until 7 p.m. daily in a walled-off alcove with picnic tables at the rear of the rambling store. The $2 size is plenty for a meal. It also comes in $5 (large) and $10 sizes, the latter intended for families.

Buddha made chatpattey for 12 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before emigrating to Akron, says store owner Naresh Subba (who used to be a nuclear physicist, but that’s another story). Both Subba and Buddha ended up in refugee camps in Nepal when neighboring Bhutan expelled its citizens of Nepalese descent.

Subba’s store is much larger than it appears from the outside. I would not have guessed another area lay behind the store proper that is accessed from the street. You must walk to the rear and hang a right to find the connecting passageway. The hidden chatpattey area is to the left, past the vegetable display cases.

The Chatpattey is served in pressed-foam boxes to eat there or take out. If you go, ask for mild. Trust me on this. It’s hot.

Family Groceries is at 768 N. Main Street in Akron. It is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

THE MAILBAG

From Peggy P.:
Your gumbo recipe took me back to my friend, Patrick, and his little town of Gulfport, Miss.  It sits about halfway between Biloxi and New Orleans. Whenever I visit I go to different places to check the gumbo. There are so many different, delicious gumbos that it is difficult to choose one over the other. Like chili here, every kitchen has its own take on the ingredients and hot-ness. So good!

I am sending you a “seafood chili” that I found somewhere on the Internet. Again, there are a million of them. This one, though, is easy to make and I love the way it comes together.

SEAFOOD CHILI
•    1/4 cup olive oil
•    2 cups chopped onion
•    2 leeks, white part only, chopped
•    10 garlic cloves, minced
•    5 tsp. dried oregano
•    35 oz. can Italian plum tomatoes, not drained
•    16 oz. clam juice
•    2 cups dry red wine
•    1/2 cup pure chili powder (not chili powder spice mix)
•    5 tsp. toasted cumin seed
•    1 tbsp. salt
•    1 tsp. cayenne pepper
•    2 medium red bell peppers, chopped
•    12 Littleneck clams
•    12 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
•    1 1/2 lb. grouper cut into 1-inch pieces
•    12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
•    3/4 pound bay scallops
•    Fresh cilantro for serving

Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add onions and leeks.  Cover and cook until tender, usually about 15 minutes.  Add garlic and oregano and cook another 10 minutes.  Add tomatoes, breaking up large pieces with a spatula.  Stir in the clam juice, wine, chili powder, cumin, salt and cayenne.  Slowly bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered for 1 hour.  Add bell peppers and simmer for 20 minutes.  Refrigerate overnight.

Bring sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to a brisk simmer. Add clams and mussels. Cover and cook until shellfish open, approximately 5 to 10 minutes.  Discard any shellfish that do not open. Gently stir in grouper and shrimp. Cover and simmer for 2 minutes. Add scallops. Cover and simmer until fish is just opaque, about 3 minutes.

Top with cilantro and serve.
Dear Peggy: This recipe sounds incredibly good. I had never heard of seafood chili. It sounds like cioppino with heat and chili spices added. This would be a great fall dish for a crowd.

From Carol E.:
I was so surprised at learning how pears are ripened. At what point do you pick the pears to store in refrigerator?

Dear Carol: The instructions I read say to pick the pears when “mature.” I picked them when they were fully grown and had deepened in color from yellow-green to yellow with the occasional tinge of orangey-pink.

From Geoff:
From what I understand, it’s traditional to use file powder in a gumbo only if it contains no okra since okra acts as a thickener itself. If okra is part of the dish, omit the file.

Apple cider season is here again and the few times I’ve had some were disappointing, as usual. Do you, or any of your readers know where I can get unpasteurized cider? Each year my search turns up nothing. I’ve been told it’s illegal to sell it in Ohio but I know it’s available easily in Pennsylvania. Many of the cider makers tell me they no longer use heat in pasteurization but ultra-violet light. It seems to make very little difference as both are lacking in the flavor I remember from years ago. Any help would be appreciated.

Dear Geoff: I avoid gumbo recipes that contain okra, which is not one of my favorite vegetables. I seldom use file powder, either, relying on a roux to thicken the stew. I think we’ve now hit on all three methods of thickening gumbo and cooks can take their choice.

As for unpasteurized cider, Ohio does allow it to be sold where it is produced as long as it has a warning label. I hope some local orchards still sell the good stuff. Can anyone help us out?
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