I got an email last week from my Great Aunt Shirley in Sun Lakes, Arizona in response to my post about easy weeknight dinners. She wrote: "all so fancy! What ever happened to meatloaf and mashed potatoes and spaghetti and meatballs?" ... Shirley makes a great point. A lot of my recipes use new wave ingredients like kale and quinoa and the dishes I tend to make over and over wouldn't necessarily fall under the "traditional American" category. BUT, that category is alive and well - and I happen to actually love meatloaf. This post is dedicated to Aunt Shirley - and the art of mastering American classics.
Poor meatloaf. The name is so unappetizing. Can you imagine being described as a loaf? A loaf of ANYTHING would be so insulting - let alone a loaf of meat! But, I think meatloaf probably has a lot of self-esteem because it's so darn awesome and people have been making it for so long. It's a staple that stands the test of time.
I will always remember the first time I made meatloaf. It was during a particularly domestic period when I was semi-living with a boyfriend (before I met Nick, I never fully committed to living with a boyfriend - I would move most of my things in but would always keep an apartment I could flee to in the middle of the night if I so desired) and we had a very, very fancy chef's kitchen that I couldn't wait to cook in. One summer morning I'd asked Z what he'd like for dinner and he said he'd been craving meatloaf. I was skeptical (meatloaf in summer?!) but I did some research, chose a recipe and got to cooking that evening. It was so, so, so satisfying and so delicious. He loved it so much we had it once a week for the rest of the summer. We even brought it to the beach! How gauche!
This recipe was first published in Gourmet Magazine in November 2005 (don't be intimidated - Gourmet's recipes are often difficult - this one is very simple). I've made it countless times since that first fateful meal and it's one of the only recipes I've never felt compelled to modify - it's truly perfect just the way it is. Serve with mashed potatoes for the ultimate American dinner.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
I don't make this dish as often as I should. There's really nothing quite like spaghetti and meatballs. I have fond memories of rolling meatballs with my Dad as a little girl. He didn't cook much because he was often traveling for work and not home, but, on the rare occasion my Dad did step into the kitchen, he involved us and it was always fun. This recipe is my favorite, but, if you have a family heirloom recipe, those are always better :) I love spaghetti and meatballs with a Caesar salad or a green salad tossed with an Italian vinaigrette (if you know me well you know that I almost never use store-bought dressing but when I do it's ALWAYS Ken's Italian Dressing & Marinade).
Cheeseburgers & French Fries
I was never a big cheeseburger fan until I took a Marketing class at Harvard when I was 23. It was a night class that started at 6:30 PM so I always had about an hour to get from my job at an advertising agency in the Back Bay to Harvard Square where I'd scarf down dinner. Often, my Dad met me in Cambridge and treated his grossly underpaid (and thus underweight) daughter to a hearty meal at the beloved Mrs. Bartley's Burger Cottage. It was there that I fell in love with burgers and was introduced to the versatility of this uniquely American sandwich. Their burgers boast the most incredible toppings and bear satirical names that make the establishment's political views quite clear. Toward the end of the semester, I declared my favorite: the nonpolitical "Tom Brady", served with guacamole, and I've been preparing burgers that way ever since.
To me, the best burgers are 85-90% lean. You need that bit of fat to keep them flavorful. I like to mix in minced garlic or shallots, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, sometimes BBQ sauce, a little hot sauce and a good helping of S&P. I form the burger around a good chunk of cheddar cheese and pass them on to Nick who handles the grill in our house. We top our burgers with more cheddar cheese (sharp is best!), Grillo's hot pickles, homemade guacamole, marinated onions, ketchup and dijon mustard. My mother-in-law also recently introduced me to the concept of putting chunky bleu cheese dressing on a burger and I loved that too.
When I'm particularly motivated, I'll make homemade french fries to accompany the meal. These are my favorite to make. Also, watermelon is always the best dessert with burgers and fries, when it's available and in-season. I promise that's not just my pregnancy cravings talking - it really is true :)
Ribs & Cole Slaw
I absolutely LOVE ribs. I'm never afraid to get messy for a good meal and ribs are no exception. I'll eat them anywhere, any time, any place (literally any place - secret: Ruby Tuesday's makes awesome ribs). When Nick and I were just getting to know each other and still just friends, we did a lot of "cook-offs" (for those of you who don't know, Nick is a really, really good cook in his own right) and we once competed for the title of best rib-maker with our friend Chuck as the judge. I won.
This recipe is a good starting point for really amazing barbecued ribs. The ultimate secret to making a phenomenal marinade and finishing sauce for ribs is a well-stocked condiment and spice pantry and a good imagination. I love a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce with Worcestershire, ketchup, chili sauce, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and garlic. Sometimes I'll add teriyaki sauce for Asian flare or orange juice for a bright spot. Get creative and taste as you go. The key is to achieve the perfect combination of sweet, salty and spicy - there are a million ways to get there!
You sort of have to serve cole slaw with ribs. The right kind of cole slaw brings an acidity that cuts through the thick sweetness of ribs. I despise the creamy kind of cole slaw they serve at diners that looks like it's been sitting in a walk-in for seven weeks waiting for an excuse to get out into the world. Vegetables should never look that way. But, in the Southern states, cole slaw is prepared with a vinegar base which I think is delightful. This is a good one.
For those who feared the worst, American traditions are still alive and well in the Sullivan/Copeman household - and everywhere else as far as I can tell. While I can't serve burgers every night (or Nick and I would be whales!), I love them dearly and they are still a staple in our household. Stay tuned for my take on the MOST American classic of all: the fried chicken sandwich. I have some practicing still to do.
Happy eating, fellow Americans! And Happy (early) Memorial Day ♥