Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Gardenburger's Grandma

They don't call 'em nutmeats for nothin'. Turns out they make a damn good substitution for ground beef.

In 1924, the price of meat made it a Sunday-only luxury for many Americans. Today, we've got ozone-melting feed lots that pack cattle teeth to jowl making it possible to get ground beef for less than $3 a pound. And at no extra cost you just might contract a nasty case hemolytic-uremic syndrome and a free trip to the emergency room! (As our President has recently reminded us, dial-911-for-care is still the economical and, um, viable alternative to health insurance.)

My point is that putting the meat in meatloaf is something nearly all of us can afford to do, but there are any number of reasons why we may not want to. But you don't have to give up that loafy feeling. What worked then, works today: nut loaf!

It's exactly as it sounds: a meatloaf switcharoo. Everything you loved about Ma's Meatloaf is in there (and I'm punting here because this is something I've only read about in Cold War-era books): breadcrumbs to thicken it up, a few spoonfuls of innocuous spices, eggs and tomato sauce for binding, a browned and slightly crispy crust, and a moist center. Just replace ground beef for chopped nuts -- any kind or combination will do -- and feel free to experiment with other additions and subtractions.

The recipe was published in Everybody's Cook Book (1924), and author Isabel Ely Lord wasn't kidding with that title. Anyone can make this dish, almost any way they want. Mrs. Lord gives you the basic recipe and encourages to take it from there.

You can use brown sauce or cheese sauce or milk instead of tomato sauce, add an egg or omit altogether, switch the crumbs for mashed potatoes or cooked Cream of Wheat or rice, toss in some shredded carrots or chopped celery, fatten it up with your cheese of choice, or spice up the seasonings with pimentos, Worcestershire sauce, or onion. Instead of baking it in a loaf, you can roll it out nearly flat on a pan. Serve it hot or cold, with tomato sauce or not. Leftover slices can be pan fried it or "brushed with fat" and broiled. All in all, she suggests at least 25 variations. If my calculations are right, this one little recipe yields the home cook 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 possible distinct loaves. Each cheap as chips and capable of feeding a family of ten (so says Mrs. Lord -- I have to say, this wouldn't feed that many with today's appetites.)

Nut loaf ain't pretty, but it gets the job done. It should come as no surprise that Mrs. Lord also published a 1922 tome on sound spending, Getting Your Money's Worth; she knows a thing or two about making a dollar's worth of food taste like at least five. As for her cookery skills, this is the woman responsible for the first published recipe for apple crisp. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

For my loaf, I chose walnuts and pecans because they're native to North America. I took up Mrs. Lord's suggestion of cottage cheese and extra veggies. (Ever since I learned that one of my favorite Indian foods, saag paneer, is made of something quite like Western-style cottage cheese, I have longed to incorporate this rather unlikely ingredient into savory cooking.) I served the loaf on a Sunday evening after an all-American autumn afternoon of awesome apple-picking (followed by a night of alliteration, apparently). On the side, a dollop of my balsamic ketchup. The result? Delicious, filling, and moist; great for vegetarians as well as omnivorous seekers of alternative comfort foods.

Ah, nut loaf. Just like Ma never made it.


This recipe was made for customization and adaption; use whatever's on hand or in season. Just make sure the mixture is moist.

3/4 cup walnuts
3/4 cup pecans
1.5 cup marinara sauce
1 cup cottage cheese
2 cups breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup shredded carrot
2 celery ribs, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tbsp. flat-leaf parsley, minced
Dash of paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
2, Pulse the nuts in a food processor until coarsely chopped or put them in a Ziploc bag and smash with a jar (bonus: fun!)
3. Mix together all ingredients and transfer to a greased large loaf pan.
4. Bake for 40 minutes. Turn the pan over. Slice and serve with extra tomato sauce or homemade balsamic ketchup.


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