Healthy Habits: Tofu

“The parts all contribute to the whole.”

As a drama director my job is to help folks bring every aspect of a character to life. Some excel at body language. Others mimic voices well. Most know how to speak with emotion but not always how to use facial expressions to enhance the emotion. When I work with folks, I get questions like, “But I sound just like an old lady. Isn’t that enough?” Or “What difference does it make how I walk?” And then I have to explain that every aspect of a character – how they speak, walk, dress, gesture – has to be spot on for the audience to believe in the illusion we are creating.

When I received an email this week from a wife who wants to get her husband to eat more tofu, I thought about the types of illusions created by food and cooking. Restaurant chefs learn how to garnish plated food artistically because “beautiful” food is better tasting. Right? Not necessarily but the illusion is created and our brains believe it, so our palate does too… sometimes. *grin* When we’re sad or upset, and we eat, it’s because somewhere along the line the illusion was created that “comfort” food is comforting. And sometimes it is, but most of the times it just makes us fat. *wry grin*

That doesn’t mean all illusions are bad, though, when it comes to food. For food like tofu, creating illusions is precisely what helps when a wife wants her husband to eat more of it so he can live a longer, healthier life. *grin* When one’s husband really wants a meat chili, what can you do to get his brain to believe in the satisfaction of a tofu chili instead? If he wants chicken in his stir fry, how can you make tofu an acceptable substitute?

The answer lies in the parts contributing to the whole. For example, what makes chili taste like chili? It’s the spices and the traditional add-in’s. Almost every chili recipe calls for chili powder or actual chili peppers. Most include onions and peppers, regardless of whatever else is also added. So, the key is to infuse all the part of a tofu chili with the flavoring which your taste buds associate with a chili. The other important factor in chili is the texture. People are particular about chili – that’s why you see all the debates about chunks of meat versus ground meat and meat only versus meat with beans. So, you have to mimic the texture of the type of chili you’re trying to substitute tofu into. I have a recipe below which I use which a lot of folks have liked in the past.

Another example of how to create illusions with tofu is baked tofu recipes. Commonly folks will substitute tofu in a stir fry or recipe by simply adding chopped tofu instead of chicken or beef. The problem is that folks were expecting a “meaty” taste and texture, but plain tofu is not going to supply that. Baked tofu, however, does. When tofu is baked, it becomes crispy on the outside and meaty, chewy in the center, the way beef and chicken can be. It’s obviously not the exact same, but if you flavor the tofu as you would the beef or chicken in a stir fry, you’ll find that the brain can buy into the substitution. Below I’ve pasted in some tips for making baked tofu.

Crockpot Tofu Chili


2 cups chopped kale

2 cups sweet white corn

1/2 cup chopped onions

1 1/2 cup chopped peppers (I like to mix red, yellow and green for color)

2 cups chopped butternut squash

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground chili powder

1/2 tsp ground cumin

28 ounce no salt added diced tomatoes

16 oz can drained, rinsed no salt added dark red kidney beans

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground chili powder

1/2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp olive oil

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground chili powder

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground onion powder

2 14-16 ounce extra firm tofu

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground chili powder

1 tsp minced garlic

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Mix the kale, corn, onions, peppers, and squash with the garlic, chili powder, and cumin in a 6 cup crockpot.
  2. In a bowl mix the tomatoes and beans with the garlic, cumin and chili powder and then add them to the vegetable mixture in the crockpot.
  3. In a large pan, saute the olive oil with the cumin, chili powder, garlic and onion powder for about 30 seconds. Using your hands crumble the tofu into the pan so that they are in large chunks that look like ground meat. Mix the tofu into the hot seasonings well and saute until the water has evaporated out of the tofu mixture. Add to the mixture in the crockpot.
  4. Mix all the ingredients with the final dashes of cumin, chili powder and garlic. Cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.
  5. NOTE:  If you do not cook out all the water from the tofu, the chili will become watery. If that happens, simply use a spoon to scoop out the excess water and then remix your chili.

Tips for Making Baked Tofu:

  1. The tofu: Make sure you are using at least firm tofu. Extra or super firm is best.
  2. The seasonings: You can use whatever you want. Soy sauce, sesame oil, herbs, spices, pesto, black pepper, bottled sauces, whatever you like. You want to make sure to completely coat your tofu cubes well before you begin to bake them. If you use something like minced garlic, you should add that to the tofu later in the baking time so the minced garlic doesn’t burn. If you want to use a sauce, you can toss the tofu with oil and bake it and then toss them with the sauce after they’re done as opposed to before you bake them.
  3. Oil: Baked tofu works best if you have a little bit of fat to help with the crisping. I prefer to use oil. You can use olive oil or sesame oil or a nut oil or another plant oil… it all depends on the flavor you want and the seasonings you want to complement. Toss the tofu in the oil before tossing them with the seasoning you want to use.
  4. Shape: Cut the tofu into cubes for best baking. I like 1 inch cubes.
  5. Oven: 350 degrees is a good temperature to slowly bake the moisture out of the tofu and to create a crispy exterior.
  6. Baking Sheet: The best way to bake tofu is on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. It helps to absorb the moisture without causing the tofu to stick and allows the heat to reach all sides of the tofu.
  7. The baking: It’s good to place the tofu in a single layer and to turn them over at some point so the bottom side gets some of the circulating heat on it. The time will vary, depending on how watery your tofu is and how many you have on a sheet. Some tofu will be done in 15 minutes, others can take 30 minutes or longer. Some recipes will tell you to toss the tofu in cornstarch. This helps to reduce the moisture which can cut down on the time in the oven and can create a crispier texture. Other recipes will tell you to place items on top of the tofu to squeeze out the extra moisture before baking. This can cut down on the time, too. I never do that because I have no problem with baking the tofu a little longer while I do have issues with too many steps and the risk of squashing my tofu so I can’t have my neat little cubes.

Cooking Techniques: Stir Fry

“It was magnificent!”

Our family had a recent opportunity to attend a concert my oldest was performing in which was her women’s Glee club singing with Cornell’s men’s Glee club. Over 120 voices combined in four part harmony to create a most wonderful listening experience. What was amazing was listening to the individual voices even as their voices melded to become one united sound.

I thought about this when I received an email asking about how to make a good stir fry. Stir fry is food’s equivalent to a choir. Separate types of food becoming one dish where the tastes of the individual food remains even as their flavors meld to create a delicious stir fry.

Too often, though, people think of stir fry as something difficult. “Well, I don’t have a wok,” some say. “It’s too much chopping,” others say. I’ve also heard, “I never have the proper ingredients.” The fact, though, is that stir fry can be easy, quick, and done without a wok. It’s a great way to use up leftovers or to make when you only have a little bit of a variety of food items available. It’s also versatile and can be made any number of one thousand and one ways, not to mention stir fry is very accommodating for people with food allergies.

The Pan: The reason people like woks is that their curved shape allows you to cook at different temperatures at the same time. The bottom, which is closest to the heat is hotter and the temperature gets increasing cooler as you get to the top. This means you can move cooked foods toward the top and add newer food to the bottom to begin cooking on the hottest part, and then you simply mix everything together in the end. The shape of a wok also allows you to cook in different ways. The food that hits the hot bottom sears which traps flavor into the veggies or protein. When the sauce is added, though, moisture rises in the concave center of the convex wok, allowing the foods near the middle to top of the pan to be braised, which softens the food without making it mushy. If you don’t have a wok, though, you can still make a good stir fry. The key is simply to use a skillet which is just slightly larger than your burner and which has at least 2 in sides, which most of the larger skillets have these days. The center closer to the burner will get hotter than the edges of the skillet which allows you to move food to cooler sections of the pan, and the higher sides will allow you to braise. If you don’t have a large skillet with 2 in sides, you can also simply cook in smaller batches, cooking the veggies and protein separately, then mixing the two, and thickening the sauce separately and adding it to the mixed vegetables and protein. Doing everything separately doesn’t add time, it only adds another dish, and if you use the dish you’ll ultimately be serving the food in, then it won’t even do that!

The Veggies: All good stir fry dishes have an assortment of vegetables. Varying what goes into the dish can make for a colorful presentation as well as provide a variety of nutrients, textures, and flavors. People tend to get hung up on what they see as a “traditional” stir fry with bamboo shoots and baby corn and water chestnuts, but virtually any vegetable can go into a stir fry, so whatever you may have on hand works: broccoli, green beans, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, spinach, sweet potato, zucchini, squash, bean sprouts,leeks, asparagus, beets, radishes, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, and of course, baby corn, water chestnuts and bamboos as well. What’s key is cooking your vegetables uniformly. This means chopping vegetables of similar texture into the same size. It may also mean that you start vegetables which may take longer to soften like carrots and sweet potato first and adding greens like spinach or kale at the end. What’s nice about stir fry is that your goal isn’t to cook the vegetables for a long time; it’s to cook them just long enough for their colors to become bright and deep. You want the veggies to be still have some of their crunch and crispy-ness, not for them to be mush. For folks who don’t want to do any chopping or prep at all, nowadays you can buy your vegetables pre-chopped in the vegetable section. You can also used frozen chopped veggies, which is what I tend to do because then I always have veggies on hand.

The Protein: A stir fry doesn’t need to have protein but if you’d like to add protein, just about any type can go into a stir fry. Beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, scallops, tofu, beans. As with the vegetables you want the protein to be able to cook quickly and uniformly, so make sure all pieces are similar size. Cutting the protein into smaller pieces allows you to use less, increases it’s ability to blend in with the vegetables, and spreads its flavor. Most recipes will tell you to sear the meats like beef, chicken and pork first and then to move them to the cooler section of the wok or skillet while you cook the vegetables and then to mix the two together, adding the sauce. This allows the meats to begin cooking their cooking process with the searing but then finishes the cooking with the braising which keeps the meat from becoming tough and dry. When using protein like tofu or softened beans or seafood, though, it’s often better to cook those at the last minute, just before you add the sauce because they usually only need a couple of minutes to cook, and overcooking them will make them tough or fall apart. For folks worried about the prep and chopping for these, you can find pre-sliced tofu and meats at the grocery store. For seafood such as scallops, I use the frozen variety; I simply thaw them in cold water for about 15 minutes and throw them in. You can also simply used leftovers from previous meals which you throw in at the last minute just to rewarm.

The Sauce: A good stir fry will have some flavor added more than just your veggies and protein. What you do can vary, though. If you don’t want a sauce, you can simply use herbs and spices. Stores carry premixed blends for specifically adding to stir fry. You can also experiment with herbs and spices to see what you like. For me fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions are my preferred flavors. If using dried herbs and spices, you’ll want to add them to the veggies and to the protein as you begin cooking them so the flavor have time to meld. If using fresh, add them at the end. If you opt to make a sauce, the key thing to know is that you need a thickener for your sauce. For stir fry usually cornstarch is the thickener of choice but you can also use tapioca starch or arrowroot or any type of flour. You want to whisk the thickener in with your liquid before adding the sauce to the pan to thicken. A good rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of cornstarch, tapioca starch, arrowroot, or flour is needed for every cup of liquid. When cooking the sauce, you’ll want to continually stir the sauce whether you’re cooking the sauce separately or whether you’ve added it to the pan with the vegetables and protein. If you add it the pan with food in the pan, simply move the veggies and protein to the edges of the skillet or up the sides of the wok, so you can thicken the sauce in the middle of the pan. Once thickened, combine the sauce with the veggies and protein. As for ingredients in a stir fry sauce, that all depends on your tastes. For the liquid part you can use soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, broth such as chicken, beef, or vegetable, red or white wine, sherry, etc…, whatever your tastes prefer. To add another dimension of flavor to whatever liquid you choose, you can add different flavored vinegars like apple cider, rice, or red wine, juices like lemon or lime or pineapple, oils like sesame or peanut, etc…. You can also add herbs and spices like garlic, scallions, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, etc…. To make the sauce, simply mix all your chosen ingredients in the ratio that tastes the best to you and which makes one cup’s worth, add your thickener, mix well, and cook over heat, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens to a consistency where it will cling to the veggies and protein in your stir fry. If you find that for some reason you need more thickener, simply mix more of your thickener with the equivalent amount of water and add it to the sauce (so, one teaspoon of cornstarch with one teaspoon of water).

The Sides: Stir fry can be eaten alone or atop something else. Good options if you want to eat them with something else are rice (brown, white, wild, jasmine, etc…), quinoa, barley, noodles such as udon, soba, lo mein or rice noodles, strips of spaghetti squash or zucchini ribbons or chopped cabbage, fresh greens like spinach, kale, arugula or swiss chard, etc…. Use your imagination and be creative.



Menu Suggestion: Mini Cheesecakes

website mini cheesecakes

“You’re going to host a brunch? With everything you have going on?”

Even after 20 years together my very introverted husband doesn’t fully understand his more extroverted wife. The more he has happening, the more likely my husband is to retreat to a corner of the house for time alone because being with people drains him. For me, the crazier my life is, the more I need time with people with whom I can “refuel”. Extroverts are invigorated by the energy they get from spending time with people.

So, when I had an article due, a baking workshop to prepare for, several recitals, baseball games, and volunteer meetings to attend, my daughter’s graduation to prepare for, relatives coming in from town, and literally a dozen doctors’ appointments for myself and my children, it seemed a good time to host a brunch of some of my closest friends.

We had a great time, and I received the laughter and love I needed to sustain me through the hectic weeks to follow.

So, when I received a question this past week at a baking workshop about what I’d recommend as the perfect dessert to take to a potluck brunch if you had to make something gluten, dairy and tree nut free, I was ready with an answer: mini cheese cakes.

Mini cheesecakes are elegant, easy to make, versatile, and very adaptable for dairy, gluten and tree nut allergies.

Cheesecake Tips:

1. The crust: Crusts for cheesecake can be made from just about anything you want – honey graham crackers, animal crackers, shortbread cookies, oreo cookies coconut cookies, chocolate grahams, ginger cookies  – your imagination is your only limitation. And today we live in a time where all the above can be found in gluten, dairy, and nut free versions at the grocery store. Depending on the type of cheesecake you want to make, you can vary which type of crust you want to make.

Making crusts are ridiculously easy, too. Simply zoop up your cookie or graham crackers in a food processor to make crumbs, or if you don’t have a food processor, put the cookies or crackers into a ziploc bag, seal, and whack away with a rolling pin or the end of an ice cream scoop or a clean meat mallet. then you mix the crumbs with a little bit of a sweetener like Agave or coconut sugar and a little bit of a fat like melted vegan butter or safflower oil. A good ratio is one tablespoon each of the sweetener and fat for every 1/3 cup of crumbs.

And if you’re trying to watch your overall caloric, carb and fat content, you can always omit a crust altogether.

2. The cheesecake filling: Cream cheese is the main ingredient in cheesecake. Today, folks with dairy allergies can find vegan versions of cream cheese at their local grocery store which makes for a nice substitute. Sometimes, though, folks prefer to use straight tofu, which works well, too.

The key tip for making good cheesecake is to be sure all your ingredients come to room temperature. If your cream cheese or tofu are cold, you’ll get lumps in your cheesecake, which doesn’t affect the taste but definitely detracts from the texture. To make sure your cream cheese isn’t affected by other ingredients, all other ingredients like your eggs should be at room temperature, too.

You should always cream the cream cheese alone before adding any of the other ingredients. Sometimes an online recipe will tell you to just mix all the ingredients together. Don’t. It will affect the texture of your cheesecake. Also, if you start to cream your cream cheese and find it’s still too cold, you can then just wait a little bit and resume creaming. If all the ingredients are together, you’ll never get the lumps out, no matter how long you wait.

If you are using cream cheese instead of tofu, you should decide on the type of texture you want for your cheesecake. Using only cream cheese makes for a nice, thick, “cheesy” cheesecake. If you want your cheesecake to be a bit silkier, adding sour cream (a vegan version) or silken tofu or a dairy free yogurt will lighten the cheesecake. If lightening the cheesecake, use a 3 to 1 ratio (e.g. 3 containers of cream cheese with 1 container of sour cream).

If you’re making cheesecake with tofu, I like to use the silken tofu because it’s so much smoother. One 15/16 ounce container is about equivalent to two containers of cream cheese.

3. The flavoring: You can make just about any type of cheesecake you desire. For a regular cheesecake, you only add vanilla and some sweetener. If you want a flavor, you can add lemon or orange zest, unsweetened cocoa powder, raspberry liquor, pureed cooked pumpkin or squash, or even herbs like rosemary and basil for a more savory type of cheesecake.

If you’re in a fun mood, you can make a layered cheesecake where you layer two different flavors of cheesecake or you layer cheese cake on top of a brownie crust or layer a mousse on top of cheesecake. The ideas are endless.

4. The sweetener: Regular cheesecake will often call for about 1/4 cup of sugar per one 8 ounce container of cream cheese. If you’re watching sugar, you can always use Agave (half the amount of sugar called for) or coconut sugar (same ratio as sugar) or Truvia (half the amount you’d use for sugar).

If you’re using Agave, the best way to incorporate it into the cream cheese is to slowly pour the Agave into the creamed cream cheese mixture while the mixer is constantly stirring and incorporating the Agave into the mixture. For coconut sugar and truvia, simply follow the instructions for sugar.

5. The eggs: Most cheesecake recipes call for eggs to help give the cheesecake structure. If you’re trying to watch your cholesterol, you can use egg whites only. The cheesecake will be slighly drier and a little less creamy but some people actually prefer their cheesecake that way.

If you want to avoid eggs altogether you can simply omit the eggs, but you’ll need to add a little flour or cornstarch to give the cheesecake some structure, about a 1/4 cup of either. I make an eggless chocolate cheesecake where I mix  a 6 oz container of yogurt with cornstarch as a substitute for the eggs.

6. Making the cheesecake mini: The advantages of mini cheesecakes are several. For one, they bake up more quickly. Secondly, they are easier to serve. Thirdly, if you’re taking them to a party, they’re easy to transport. Fourthly, when you decorate them, you can vary the toppings and have a variety of cheesecakes to offer to the guests.

To make mini cheesecakes, you just use muffin tins. I like to line my muffin tins with paper liners to prevent any cross-contamination and for easy removal of the cheesecake, but you can also simply spray or grease the tins, too.

7. Baking the cheesecake: Cheesecakes are usually baked at low heat to prevent cracking and drying out the cheesecake. So, the best temperature is about 325 degrees. If you want to have extra smooth cheesecakes and really prevent cracking,it’s best to add some moisture to your oven. You can fill a pan with some hot water and put it at the bottom of your oven while the cheesecakes cook or you can put the muffin tins into another larger pan which is filled halfway with hot water. If you don’t do either of these steps, it is not a big deal. The cheesecakes just may crack a bit on top or be a little less smooth and moist. They’ll still taste good.

When your cheesecake is done, the edges are more done than the center. A knife inserted into the edges should come out clean while the middle should still be less stiff. It shouldn’t be liquidly and runny still, but it shouldn’t be as stiff as the edges. If you overcook the cheesecakes and the middles are stiff and cracked, don’t sweat it. the cheesecakes won’t be as creamy, but they’ll still be good and you can cover the cracks with your lovely toppings.

8. Cooling the cheesecakes: Cheesecake needs to cool before you eat it because it’s the coolin process that finishes cooking the cheesecake center and which solidifies the cheesecake. It’s best to let the cheesecakes cool at room temperature first and then to put them into the fridge.

9. The toppings: You can top your cheesecakes with just about anything. Slices of fruit like strawberries, kiwi or blueberries or a chocolate drizzle or crushed cookies or a whole cookie or a raspberry drizzle or shredded coconut. Your imagination is the only limit.

You can wait to add fruit garnishes until right before you’re taking them to a party or before you serve them so the fruit will stay fresh. Drizzles can be added while the cheesecakes are still warm or when they are cold. Cookies should be put on while the cheesecakes are still soft enough for you to push them down into the cheesecake.

10. Transporting mini cheesecakes: Always keep your cheesecakes in the fridge until it’s time to take them to the party. If you’re going a short distance, you don’t need to worry about keeping them cold, but if you’re going far away, pop them into a cooler with an ice pack or into a bag with a ziplock baggie full of ice.

Since the mini-cheesecakes are muffin size, you can usually fit them into a rectangular tupperware container or cupcake holder and transport them easily.

Mini Cheesecakes


2 cups Smorables Gluten Free Graham crackers (about one box)
6 tbsp melted vegan butter
3 tbsp Agave
4 8 oz containers Tofutti vegan cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup Agave
2 tsp gluten free vanilla
4 eggs, at room temperature

Baking Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line 24 muffin cups with cupcake liners.

2. Crush the graham crackers into crumbs by either processing them in a food processor or by whacking them with a rolling pin or mallet in a sealed bag.

3. Mix the melted butter with the Agave and blend well into the graham cracker crumbs until the crumbs are moist.

4. Evenly divide the crumbs among the muffin cups, about one tablespoon per muffin cup. Press the crumbs down to form an even crust.

5. Bake in the oven for 5 minutes and remove onto a cooling rack.

6. Cream the cream cheese in a mixer until smooth and creamy.

7. Slowly pour in the Agave while continually stirring until all the Agave is incorported into the cream cheese

8. Add in the vanilla.

9. Add the eggs, incorporating them one at a time.

10. Divide the cheesecake filling evenly among the muffin cups. They will be almost to the top of the muffin cups.

11. Bake until the cheesecakes are dry on the edges and mostly firm but still slightly soft in the center. This will take between 15 and 25 minutes depending on the thickness of your muffin tins and how evenly your oven is heating food.

12. Remove the cheesecakes to a wire cooling rack and cool to room temp. Put into the fridge so they can cool completely and solidify.

13. Garnish with fruit or chocolate drizzle or raspberry drizzle or cookie crumbs and serve.

Cooking Techniques: Healthy “Meat”loaf

website meatloaf

“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.