Tuesday, October 16, 2007

National Meatloaf Day: When a meatloaf ain't a meatloaf

Pundits, kindly shut your traps! America is ready for a woman president. America is ready for a black president. Matter of fact, America is ready for a black woman president.

And you know what else? America is ready for a meatloaf without meat. Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, my fellow bloggers and my fellow Americans, I present to you: the nutloaf!

There any number of reasons why the conscious omnivore chooses to skip the animal bits on occasion, but one that matters most of all: deliciousness, and trust me, the nutloaf has it in spades.

I wish I could take credit for this wonderful innovation, but in fact, it's an old-time staple that dates from the 1920s, when meat was a relative luxury and folks found ways of making the stuff that lined their larder shelves tasty, interesting, and filling. I discovered it in my quest to cook my way through American history, anthologized by Molly O'Neill in American Food Writing.

The basic recipe for nut loaf, published by Isabel Ely Lord in Everybody's Cook Book (1924), is a fairly direct interpretation of the meatloaf: there's a carbohydrate to fill it out (in this case, breadcrumbs), eggs and tomato sauce for binding and flavor, and nearly endless combinations of chopped vegs, spices, cheese (well, 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 to be exact). I had such success when I recently took on Mrs. Lord's recipe, that there was no question in my mind that a version of nutloaf -- a very special version, mind you -- could holds its own against all that flesh on National Meatloaf Day.

What I would like to suggest is that the best part of meatloaf is not the meat. It is the satisfying, simple action of selecting, chopping, and mixing good, straightforward ingredients. It is the delicious smells wafting from the oven, stimulating appetites throughout the house. It is friends and family, gathering around a warm platter to slice into a steaming loaf. It is the perfect balance of protein, carbohydrate, and flavor in every bite.

And so, I respectfully present a harvest-time nutloaf that welcomes the cooling weather. Its flavors are redolent of Thanksgiving feast -- but watch out, with ginger and cayenne, this loaf's got bite. (Feel free to tone it down as you see fit).

Autumn Nutloaf

Top your nutloaf with a vegetarian alterna-gravy: I had apple butter in the fridge, so I made a simple, spicy sauce with it by mixing the butter with apple cider, a bit of olive oil, and cayenne. You could do something similar with apple sauce, or top the nutloaf with a favorite chutney.

Nutloafs are terrific straight out of the oven, but they may be even better the next day, reheated on an oiled skillet so both sides of the slice are slightly browned. It's even great cold!

3/4 cup hazelnuts
3/4 cup pecans
2 cups breadcrumbs
About 1 and 1/2 lb. butternut squash (or 2 cups puree)
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
1 cup shredded carrot
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup part-skim ricotta
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbsp. brown sugar (optional)
1/2 tsp. cayenne (optional)
Big pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375F.
1. Peel the squash and cut into 1" chunks. Put into microwave-safe bowl with 2 tbsp. water, cover, and microwave for 10 minutes, stir a bit, then microwave another 3-5 minutes, until pieces are very tender. Or place chunks in a steamer over an inch of water and steam for about 20 minutes.
2. While the squash is cooking, process the nuts in a food processor until finely chopped, but not uniformly grainy.
3. In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta and the beaten eggs until blended.
4. When the squash is cooked, put it with the ginger into a food processor and process 'til smooth.
5. In a large bowl, mix the squash puree with the carrots. Add the seasonings. Taste and correct, if needed.
6. Add the ricotta mixture to the large bowl and mix until blended. Add the nuts and breadcrumbs and mix until blended.
7. Spoon the mixture into an oiled loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the top is just beginning to brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Yields: 6-8 servings.

Spicy Apple Gravy

3 tbsp. apple butter
2 tbsp. apple cider
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. cayenne

Whisk together all ingredients and spoon over nut loaf slices.

1 comment:

LunaPierCook said...

A third method for cooking the squash is to cut it mostly in half, wrap it loosely in aluminum foil so the two halves are about an inch apart, then roast it on a baking sheet at 350 degrees F for 20 - 30 minutes until it's tender. Spoon it out of the shells, add a tablespoon of unsalted butter and mix it up, and then proceed with the rest of the recipe.

I might just have to snag this one as a Michigan-area vegetarian option!