Cooking Techniques: Healthy “Meat”loaf

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“But… it’s just meatloaf!”

I was making dinner for some company when a friend called.  When she learned I was planning on serving meatloaf, she was rather shocked. I both understood and didn’t understand where she was coming from.

On the one hand, meatloaf for all intent and purposes was invented to stretch meat for the humble housewife trying to feed her family with what she had, so I realize it has a certain perception by the outside world. On the other hand, you find meatloaf served at fine restaurants all over the United States, because people LIKE meatloaf. It’s comforting. It’s tasty. It’s very American. It’s also extremely versatile.

One of the reasons I like meatloaf so much is that you can make it out of anything you want – even without meat! I have made salmon loaves, tofu loaves, lentil loaves, turkey loaves, chicken loaves, tuna loaves… the list can probably go on because I’ve even made a mashed sweet potato loaf!

So, I wasn’t very surprised by the email I received, asking about an article which indicated that meatloaf was high in saturated fat and a terrible meal to serve. The person emailing wanted to know if it was true and how she might be able to lighten up her favorite meatloaf recipe.

The true fact is that meatloaf made with traditional high fat beef definitely is not something you want to be eating on a regular basis. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to.

Tips for Making Healthy Meatloaf:

1. The “meat”: You can use anything you want for meatloaf. Low fat ground turkey or chicken, extra lean ground beef or pork, mashed lentils, flaked salmon, mashed tofu, the list is extensive. What’s important to keep in mind is that to get the right texture, your meat or beans or tofu or vegetables really should be either ground or mashed. If it’s too chunky, you won’t be able to mold it properly into a loaf which adheres. On the other hand, you don’t want pureed lentils or meat, either. Then your meatloaf will be too pasty and won’t have enough texture to hold together.

If you’re using actual meat, it should be uncooked as you put your mixture together. If you’re using fish like salmon or tuna, I’ve found that cooked, flaked fish or canned fish is better to use than uncooked fish. Lentils should be softened and not hard. Tofu can be any variety you like but I find that the firm versions work better.

2. The filler: One of the other problems with meatloaf is that traditionally folks use either white bread crumbs or saltine crackers as the filler. If you’re going to use bread crumbs or crackers, opt instead for whole wheat or a whole grain gluten free option instead. The higher the fiber, the better. I personally use whole grain gluten free oatmeal instead. It has a lot of health benefits, and it absorbs the liquid ingredients well to make for a moister meatloaf.

Another thing to consider is the amount of filler to meat. Sometimes people use an awful lot of the filler to stretch the meat. For the best taste and for better health, I wouldn’t recommend using more than 1/2 cup for every pound of meat.

3. The binder: Meatloaf which is made with leaner meats or fish or beans or tofu can end up being a bit dry, so you want to be sure to bind your meatloaf with something moist. Most recipes simply use eggs. If you’re allergic to eggs, though, you can use other things like a type of milk you’re not allergic to or a favorite soup. You can also do a combination of liquid ingredients. If I’m making a salmon or tuna loaf, I find that it needs both a liquid like “milk” and egg whites to keep its shape while also adding moisture.

A tip to keep in mind is that if you mix your filler (bread crumbs, oatmeal, crackers) in with the “milk” or soup and let the filler absorb the binder, it’ll make for a moister meatloaf plus bind your meat better. If you’re using eggs, you should do the same thing with the filler.

If you’re using eggs, usually recipes call for two eggs per pound. If you need to refrain from eating yolks, egg whites work just as well. If you’re using milk, about 1/2 cup mixed with the binder is what you’ll need. I like to use tomato soup, so I mix one can with 1 cup of oatmeal for a meatloaf made with 2 pounds of “meat”.

NOTE: A couple of weeks after giving birth to my third child, I was so exhausted that I poured some homemade split pea soup into the meatloaf instead of the tomato soup. It was one of the most delicious meatloaves we ever had! So, don’t be afraid to experiment.

4. The seasonings: Meatloaf can be rather bland so you should always use something to season it. Aromatics are a great way to go: saute onions, garlic and herbs and add it to the meatloaf when you’re mixing it all together. Another option is to experiment with flavors. My oldest loves to put cumin into everything. In meatloaf it adds a bit of an exotic flavor. My second daughter loves everything salsa, so she likes meatloaf with salsa added to it. If you don’t have dairy allergies, adding small chunks of cheese adds a new dimension to meatloaf. Let your imagination take over and see what you can create.

5. Additions: Traditional meatloaf is just meat and the filler, but you can make your meatloaf healthier by adding more than just those two ingredients. I like to saute spinach or grated zucchini and add it to my meatloaves. If you are using a ground meat, you can substitute half of the ground meat with mashed lentils or tofu. Sauteed multi-colored peppers adds both flavor and pretty colors. As with the seasonings, experiment and see what you like.

6. Shaping and preparing: Meatloaves are supposed to be in a loaf shape. That’s why they’re names as such. But you can do what you want. Sometimes I put the meatloaf mixture into muffin tins and make mini meatcakes. Other times I use little bread tins. Most of the time I use a glass pan which I pat the meat flatly into.

The tip to keep in mind is that you should always use a pan or muffin tin that just fits your meat mixture. Go all the way to the edge of the pan with the meat. If you form a loaf and leave space between the meat and the edge of the pan, the juices from your meatloaf mixture will fill that space and burn.

When you’re shaping your meatloaf, it helps to lightly wet your hands. This keeps the mixture from sticking but also allows you to smooth the meat mixture down as you pat it.

7. Cooking: Meatloaf made with actual uncooked meat should cook slowly at a temperature no higher than 350 degrees if you want it to be moist and tasty. My 2 pound meatloaf usually takes about an hour or so at 350 degrees. If I’m making them in muffin tins, I reduce the heat to 300 degrees and cook for half an hour.

If you’re making the meatloaf with salmon or lentils or tofu, then your ingredients are usually cooked so you can cook the loaf at a higher temperature of 350 to 375 degrees for half an hour or 45 minutes, just until the loaf is warm and cooked through.

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Food “Processing”: A Look at Cooking Tools

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We have too much stuff!”

During the first ten years of married life, we moved four times, which helped to keep our material possessions to a minimum.  For the past second ten years, however, we’ve lived in the same house and increased our family to five in number. At the same time, both sets of parents have “de-cluttered” their houses as they’ve moved into smaller places, which has resulted in our home becoming substantially more full.

As a result I’ve become a bit of a manic freak about getting rid of stuff.  Every six months the children and I go through their books and their toys to donate to organizations which help needy children.  Every summer for the past few years, I’ve gone through the continually growing pile of “stuff” in the basement to donate to organizations like the Epilepsy foundation who so wonderfully come to your house and pick up anything and everything you’re willing to donate for them to sell at discount prices.

Even as I write, my youngest is delightfully planning the yard/garage sale I told him we’re going to try to do this summer to rid ourselves of even more “stuff”, all of which are great and wonderful items to have but which we ourselves no longer need.

Useful kitchen equipment

In the heat of the “purger”, however, there are a handful of items which I will never, ever part with or give away.  Those are my few cooking extravagances which I use almost every day.  My slow cookers I’ve already written about, but just as a reminder:  Crockpots are a godsend for getting dinner on the table when life is crazy.

The second item is my Kitchen Aid which I’m still grateful to my in-laws for purchasing as a Christmas present the first year I was married after I mixed up several dozen batches of cookie dough by hand and couldn’t use my right arm for a week after!

The final item which I use all the time and which I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone who wants to cook at all is my food processor.  I’m not talking about one of those large ones which department store wedding registries try to sell you and which seem to have a bad rap for being big, bulky, and hard to clean.  I’m referring to a simple small four cup food processor which you can find at a second hand store for a few bucks and which is more than adequate for any family use.

Benefits of a food processor

If you do any cooking at all, you’ll know that so much of the time consumption is the chopping and preparation.  The beauty of the food processor is that it does all your chopping, shredding, and more while you’re working on something else.  It also chops and cuts and shreds more uniformly than you’ll ever be able to do, which helps for even cooking.  Finally, it can perform tasks such as grinding nuts and whole oats into flour which is truly wonderful if you’re always having to substitute different foods into your cooking and baking due to food allergies or dietary restrictions.

I use my food processor several times a week for almost all my cooking but there are specific recipes for which I’m really grateful to have such a tool on hand. Below are two such recipes.

Company Salmon with Peach Salsa

Ingredients:

16 oz thawed frozen peaches* (you can certainly use fresh)

one 14.5 oz no salt added fire roasted diced tomatoes

1/2 cup frozen chopped onions (you can use fresh if desired)

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tbsp Key West lime juice (can use regular lime juice, too)

1/4 cup fresh cilantro (can use a couple of tsp of dried, too)

1 tsp ground black pepper

1/2 to 1 tsp coarse sea salt (can omit)

10-12 4 oz frozen salmon fillets with no skin** (you can certainly use fresh)

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp vegan butter (or whatever type you need or prefer)

Cooking Instructions:

1. In the food processor chop the peaches to the size and consistency you like for your salsa.  (Some folks prefer their salsa chunky while others like it pureed.  I tend to make mine somewhere in the middle.)  Pour into a bowl.

2. In the food processor chop the diced tomatoes with the onions, garlic, lime juice, and cilantro.  Add to the peaches in the bowl and stir well.  Set aside or put into the fridge so the flavors can meld.

3.  Season with the black pepper and salt, if using.

4. Over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil in a pan that will fit your salmon fillets.

5. Carefully place the fillets into the hot pan, and cook for five minutes.  It’s best that you just leave the salmons alone to form a nice browned crust.

6.  Flip the salmon over and cook for two minutes to finish.

7.  Place the salmon on plates with the crust side up and spoon peach salsa over the top.

* If you’re using the frozen peaches, you can simply pull them from the freezer, dump them into a microwave safe bowl and defrost for one to two minutes, just until they’re not frozen solid.  If you’re thinking ahead of time, you can pull them out a few hours before and defrost them in the fridge.  If you’re using fresh, you need to slice the peaches off the core.

** I like to buy wild caught frozen salmon because it’s cheaper, and then it’s ready whenever I need it.  If you’re thinking ahead, you can put the salmon into the fridge the night before to defrost.  If you’re like me and only thinking of dinner at the last minute, simply the salmon in their packages into a bowl of cold water for twenty minutes, turning them halfway through the time.  Then remove them from their packaging, rinse, and pat dry.

Gazpacho

Ingredients:

1/4 cup fresh basil

6-8 green onions

2 cloves garlic or 2 tsp minced garlic

one yellow pepper, cut into large pieces

46 oz 100% tomato juice*

2 cans 14.5 oz no salt added petite diced tomatoes**

1 tsp ground black pepper

4 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

8 baby cucumbers, washed and cut into large pieces***

1/2 tsp fresh ginger****

2 cups to 4 cups reduced sodium fat free broth of choice (beef, chicken or vegetable)

Cooking Instructions:

1. In a food processor puree the basil, green onions, garlic, and yellow pepper.

2.  In a large bowl, add the puree to the tomato juice and blend well.

3.  Add the two cans of petite diced tomatoes, the black pepper, the balsamic vinegar and the olive oil, and mix well.

4.  In the food processor finely chop the cucumbers.  Add to the tomato juice mixture with the ginger.

5.  Add the broth one cup at a time until the gazpacho is at the consistency you like.  We like a thicker soup and only use 2 cups, but I have friends who like it to be of thinner consistency and I have added up to four.

6.  It’s best if you chill the soup for a couple of hours to allow the flavors to meld.

* Make sure you do buy just 100% tomato juice which will just be tomatoes and water.  A lot of the “juices” out there have so much other added “stuff”.

**If you don’t want to use canned tomatoes, you can certainly peel, seed, and dice 4 cups of fresh tomatoes.  You can also use regular diced canned tomatoes, but the chunks will be larger.

*** I like the baby cucumbers because I use them as is, skins and all.  If you use regular cucumbers, you’ll need to peel and seed them.

**** I keep fresh ginger paste/puree in the fridge which is always at the ready for me to use, but you can certainly peel and put in a small sliver of fresh ginger root.