Vivian Howard is fascinated by meatloaf.
The first time the North Carolina native, restaurateur and host of PBS shows A Chef’s Life and Somewhere South ever tried the dish was at K&W Cafeterias, a family-style restaurant chain with locations across the Southeast.
“I didn’t grow up eating meatloaf,” admits Howard. But after her first taste, she was hooked. Part of her fascination stems from the dish’s rudimentary makeup: ground meat bound together with a starch and often garnished with a layer of America’s ubiquitous condiment, ketchup.
As she writes in her new cookbook, This Will Make It Taste Good: A New Path to Simple Cooking, she was also intrigued by its status as an American classic that, while long-beloved by some for its fortifying simplicity, is also terribly misunderstood by others. Though she’s a fan, Howard gets both sides of the argument.
“My problem with traditional meatloaf is that I feel like it’s kind of like sausage,” says Howard. “There’s so many ways to make it interesting, but we only kind of do it one way.”
With that in mind, she wanted to rework and rethink the classic meatloaf. The result, Meatloaf’s Big Makeover (recipe below), appears in her new book, which came out this fall.
The book is divided into sections that highlight a particular “flavor hero,” including r-rated onions and quirky furki, that can be made ahead and called upon to add a little extra flair to a recipe in need. Meatloaf’s knight in shining armor? A blend of citrus, garlic confit and fresh herbs she’s dubbed “herbdacious.”
“Meatloaf is kind of a canvas,” she says. “I think there’s so many ways to be creative with the paradigm that is meatloaf. I wanted to encourage people to think of it that way.”
Here are Howard’s tips for getting the most out of this hearty, comforting classic, including a recipe that will turn meatloaf haters into devotees.
There’s nothing terribly mysterious about meatloaf. What you get is right there in the name: ground beef molded roughly into the shape of a bread loaf. It’s typically mixed with egg, breadcrumbs and Worcestershire sauce to give it some texture and body, but not much more. “The meat part of the meatloaf is generally the most boring,” Howard says. “I just feel like ground meat can be such a great vehicle for additional flavors that I wanted to give it more.”
Howard boosts the meat’s flavor and consistency by mixing in sour cream—a technique she used in hamburgers for years at her now-shuttered restaurant The Boiler Room. After all, “meatloaf isn’t that much different than a hamburger.”
“Sour cream adds acid and it also kind of bonds it in a yogurty, sour cream kind of way,” says Howard. The idea originally came from her husband’s favorite burger tavern in Chicago, Charlie Beinlich’s. “He asked them what made their meat so tender and fresh tasting, and they said they put sour cream in it. So we started doing it and I really think it makes a huge, huge difference.”
Also important in this recipe is to not overwork the meat, which can make it tough. Instead, go in gently with “kid hands,” as she advises in the recipe. “We’re not trying to make bread here,” she says. “We want everything to kind of come together and hold together, but we don’t want any of the ingredients to change and kind of become one.”
In This Will Make It Taste Good, Howard tries to dispel the idea that even the simplest home cooked dishes, like meatloaf, can’t be packed with flavor—that’s where one of her flavor “heroes” comes in. In the case of Meatloaf’s Big Makeover, that hero is “herbdacious,” which complements the tanginess of the sour cream.
“It’s basically garlic confit, basil, Parmesan cheese and a little bit of lemon juice all blended together,” she says. “It makes a delicious, bright and fatty sauce that when folded into the meatloaf mixture, really just seasons every morsel and makes the inside as exciting as the outside.”
Herbdacious has long been a staple at her restaurant the Chef & the Farmer, but she’s also adopted it into her home cooking for “fast and fancy” meals. “I think every chef has an arsenal of things that they pull from or call on to bring simple ingredients together and make things exciting,” she says. “This book is about (taking) that idea and making this one thing and being able to use it across a bunch of different dishes.”
If you grew up eating meatloaf, odds are it was typically doused top to bottom in ketchup. The ubiquitous crimson condiment is as much a part of the dish as the ground beef. Baked onto the top of the loaf, it lends a satisfying sweetness and a bit of needed moisture to what’s often a rather dry dish. But this beloved ingredient isn’t exempt from Howard’s big makeover.
“Just because we’re making something classic doesn’t mean it has to be basic,” she says. “I replaced the ketchup topping with something really simple that many of us have in our pantry—roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes in their oil and a little honey. That gives it a beautiful sheen of sauce. It seeps into the top of the meatloaf. It’s delicious.”
While the sour cream and herbdacious provide the bulk of the flavor in Howard’s meatloaf recipe, she also adds in kalamata olives. These disperse throughout the loaf, giving some bites extra bursts of brininess. Don’t have any olives on hand? The chef recommends trying capers, caramelized onions, chopped garlic confit, or whatever else you’ve got that might provide a nice pop of flavor.
“Meatloaf spirit is all about taking what you have and making the most with it,” says Howard. “This is really just a guideline. I think for a proper meatloaf, you need a tangy, semi-sweet tomato based sauce on top. You need moist, flavorful ground meat that’s bound with eggs and some kind of starch. From there, you could add any number of flavorings or ingredients.”
Meatloaf leftovers are legendary in some households. But if you’re tempted to throw a cold slice between bread for a slapdash sandwich, Howard recommends you try—even just once—pulling out a frying pan instead.
“I much prefer leftover meatloaf to fresh meatloaf because I like to slice it into pieces and then pan fry it,” she says. “You get not only the delicious moist meatloaf inside, but you also get two crispy sides, which adds an interesting texture.”
A pan-fried slice served with a dollop of mashed potatoes is her favorite way to eat meatloaf, outdoing even a helping fresh from the oven. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing right now than sitting on my couch with meatloaf and mashed potatoes in front of a movie,” she says.
Meatloaf’s Big Makeover
- 1 Tbsp Extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 large Yellow onions, diced small (2.5 to 3 cups)
- 2.5 tsp Kosher salt, divided
- 1 tsp Ground black pepper
- .5 cup (7.5-oz jar) Sun-dried tomatoes, with their oil
- 1.5 cups (12-oz jar) Roasted red peppers, drained
- 2 Tbsp Honey
- 2 Tbsp Red wine vinegar
- 2 Large eggs
- .5 cup Sour cream
- 2/3 cup Herbdacious*
- 1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
- 2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2.5 pounds Ground beef
- .5 cup Bread crumbs or crushed saltine crackers
Preheat your oven to 325°F. In a 10- to 12-inch sauté pan or skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper. Sweat for about 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent and soft.
While the onions sweat, combine the sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, honey, vinegar and a half teaspoon of salt in the bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, sour cream, herbdacious, olives and Worcestershire. Add the onions, beef, bread crumbs and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Gently mix to combine. If you mash and knead this into submission you will not be happy with the texture of your meatloaf, so treat it with kid hands.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil and dump the meat mixture overtop, then shape into a rectangular block about 3 x 3 x 12 inches. Spread the tomato mixture on top of that, taking care to cover the sides. It will seem like a lot of sauce, but that’s intentional. I like sauce. Slide the baking sheet onto the middle rack of your oven and bake for 1 hour, till it’s cooked all the way through. Bring the meatloaf out and let it cool for a few minutes before slicing.
- 2 heads Garlic (about 20 cloves), peeled
- 2/3 cup Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup Packed fresh basil leaves
- .25 cup Packed fresh parsley leaves
- .25 cup Tightly packed fresh dill, mint, chervil or cilantro
- .25 cup Scallions, roughly chopped, green parts only
- .5 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated (use a Microplane)
- 3 Tbsp Fresh lemon juice
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 1.5 tsp Kosher salt
In a small saucepan, bring the garlic cloves and olive oil up to a simmer over very low heat. If it begins to sizzle and boil, pull it off the heat and allow it to cool slightly before you return it to the hot eye of the stove. The idea is to slowly poach the garlic in the oil rather than fry it. This could take as long as 20 minutes if you keep the heat extremely moderate. When the garlic is done, it will be soft and just slightly browned.
This garlic confit plus its oil are kitchen heroes in their own right and can be used anywhere you want mellow garlic notes. You could stop this recipe right here and save those little garlic bombs in the fridge for a month, as long as they are submerged in oil. Pureed, the cloves are especially useful as a means to thicken and add flavor to sauces.
But you don’t get to herbdacious by calling it quits early. Once the garlic confit is completely cool, put it and all the remaining ingredients in the most powerful blender you have and let it rip until the mixture is smooth and green. Store herbdacious in a sealed container in your fridge for up to 2 weeks or in your freezer for up to 3 months. Makes 2 cups.