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Time: About 1 hour, largely unattended
Free-form meat loaf has several advantages over those cooked in loaf pans: It develops a lovely crust on three sides instead of just one, and the fat can run off, rather than become trapped between pan and meat. Plus it’s easy to shape by hand and always turns out in the shape you wanted. You can also shape this mixture into meatballs if you like; just bake them for about half the time.
1 /2cup bread crumbs, preferably fresh
1 /2cup milk
2 pounds mixed ground meats: beef, veal, lamb, and/or pork (you can use turkey or chicken also if you like)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 /2cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 /4cup minced fresh parsley leaves
1 /2teaspoon minced garlic
1 small onion, minced
1 small carrot, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage leaves or 1 pinch dried sage leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 slices bacon (optional but good, especially if the meat is very lean)
1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Soak the bread crumbs in the milk until the milk is absorbed, about 5 minutes.
2. Mix together all the ingredients except the bacon. Shape the meat into a loaf in a baking pan; top with the bacon if you like. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, basting occasionally with the rendered pan juices. When done, the meat loaf will be browned lightly and firm and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center will read 160°F.
Meat Loaf with Spinach. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Trim and wash a 10-ounce package of fresh spinach; cook it in the boiling water for 30 seconds, then remove it. Drain and cool it, then chop it finely, sprinkling with salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg. In Step 1, increase the bread crumbs to 1 cup. In Step 2, integrate the chopped spinach into the meat loaf, substituting a grating of nutmeg for the sage.
Spiced Meat Loaf. Omit the Parmesan and substitute cilantro for the parsley and 1 tablespoon curry powder, garam masala, chili powder, or other spice mix-ture for the sage.
Meat Loaf with Dried Tomatoes. Substitute 1 cup chopped reconstituted dried tomatoes for the carrot and fresh rosemary for the sage. Spread barbecue sauce or ketchup over the top if you like.