Friday, January 23, 2015

Iron Skillet Meatloaf

Photo: Chunks of crisp-crusted meatloaf  and stir-fried cabbage
I just realized that I might be a meatloaf snob. How did that happen when years ago any meatloaf was something to avoid? Meatloaf, "a mixture of smooshed up mystery ingredients and fat," has somehow morphed into a favorite winter entree. It may be a favorite but I am still reluctant to risk an unknown restaurant version that might be boringly bland, dry and crumbly, or horrors! greasy and edged with a pale, soggy crust. 

Ree's bacon-draped version is popular, but I'd rather enjoy the bacon by itself. Alton's ketchup-glazed crust doesn't tempt me. Nigella stuffs her meatloaf with hard boiled eggs and wraps it with bacon; mmmm, no thank you, that's a casserole not a meatloaf. A Marcella Rosene recipe for "Brown-Bottom Meat Loaf" (Pasta & Co. By Request, 1991), might have spoiled me for other versions. I occasionally tweak the original to reflect RL's input or what's available in the galley, but I never stray far from the original. Today's version omitted the usual minced carrots, substituted barbecue sauce for ketchup and swapped milk for half and half. No drastic differences here, no reason to mess around with a good recipe.      

It's all about meatloaf's Big 3: the flavor, the texture and the crust, a really crisp browned crust. A hot oven and a cast iron skillet will produce the best crust, yielding a meatloaf with a brown bottom and firm, structured sides. A quick flash under the oven broiler takes care of crisping up the top a bit. 

I can practice restraint when dining in public and use knife and fork plus my very best table manners, but at home I'll pinch off nibbles of crispy, browned crust, one after another. I love those crunchy edges and tend to ignore the soft, flavorful middle - at least until I visualize a sandwich. A cold meatloaf sandwich with an inch-thick slice of meat, slathered with grainy yellow mustard and creamy horseradish, topped with dill pickle slices and layered between dark rye bread, just might be more satisfying than a generous serving of meatloaf fresh from the oven. Maybe. It's a close contest.   

Tonight, mindful of portion control, I covered my small plate with a mound of stir-fried cabbage with onion and fennel seed, plus two puny chunks of delicious, well-seasoned, crispy-crusted meatloaf. Such restraint... RL went for seconds. Now I'll dream about cold meatloaf sandwiches until lunchtime tomorrow.  

Photo: Iron Skillet Meatloaf - minus one nibble of a crusty edge

Iron Skillet Brown Bottom Meat Loaf
inspired by a recipe in Pasta &Company by Request                              
Serves 4
1/2 cup onion, small dice           
1/3 cup jalapeƱo or poblano pepper, minced
1/3 cup celery, small dice        
2 fat cloves garlic, pressed
2 eggs, beaten                                     
1/4 cup barbecue sauce
1/4 cup whole milk
3/4 tsp ground cumin
3/4 tsp each salt and black pepper
1/8 tsp chipotle or ancho chile powder
1/4 tsp sweet, smoked paprika (pimenton)
1/8 tsp nutmeg

1 pound ground beef 
1/2 pound pork sausage
1/3 cup bread crumbs 

10-inch cast iron skillet, well seasoned

Soften the diced onion, pepper, celery and garlic in a covered dish in the microwave OR in the skillet with a bit of butter. Remove and let cool.

Preheat oven to 375.

In large bowl, beat together thoroughly the eggs, barbecue sauce, milk, cumin, salt, black pepper, chipotle powder, smoked paprika and nutmeg. Add beef, pork sausage & bread crumbs. Knead together by hand until well incorporated. Add the cooled vegetable mixture and blend thoroughly.

Pack meat mixture into a compact round with a flattened top, slightly smaller than the cast iron cooking skillet. That way you can easily lift the loaf out of the drippings to serve. (OR you could use a standard loaf pan or several small loaf pans though the crust wouldn't be the same. Muffin tins would work for individual servings, but sandwich options would be difficult. Adjust cooking time as needed.) 

Either way, bake on a center oven rack at 375 degrees F. for 50 to 55 minutes, or until cooked through and the drippings run clear. When meat loaf is done, remove from oven and drain off the drippings. I like to return the skillet to the oven, move the rack up to the upper third and broil the meatloaf for a minute or two until the top crisps up a bit (optional).

Let stand for several minutes to firm up. Slice wedges or divide in half and slice off straight pieces from center to edge. Serve and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Green Tea Sourdough Bao (Steamed Buns)

The January topic for Sourdough Surprises is Bao, those filled and fluffy steamed buns that are often found on dim sum carts in Chinese restaurants. Years ago I baked some tasty Char Sui Bao (BBQ pork filled buns) for a Daring Cooks challenge, but for some reason never did revisit that recipe. Here was an opportunity to try again, to tweak the previous Bao recipe a bit by relying solely on my sourdough starter for the rise and steaming the buns instead of baking them. 

The change list expanded after spotting an intriguing photo for Green Tea Bao with Sweet Filling (here). Matcha powder? That was an unfamiliar ingredient, but several online sources mentioned grinding green tea leaves to substitute for the commercial product. I could do that. Instead of driving to Uwajimaya's I grabbed an old coffee grinder, a metal sieve and a canister of loose green tea for my DIY version of matcha. 

Sweet sourdough buns suggested a sweet filling, sweet but not so sweet as to overwhelm the tea taste. Flavor pairings suggested online included citrus, dark chocolate, nuts, various berries and mint. I pulled Nutella, minty dark chocolate chips, raspberry preserves, coconut shreds and ground walnuts out of the pantry to try different combinations.    

My starter was frothy and peppy but the oddly colored Bao dough rose very slowly overnight on its first rise. I began to have doubts: should I have added some commercial yeast, or at least tossed in a bit of baking powder? Too late to worry, just press on.

The dough was agreeable to work with, forming balls and rolling out easily. My pleating and pinching technique improved as I worked, and only the raspberry/ground walnut filling showed any signs of leakage later as the buns steamed. 

The second rise was nearly a non-event. I grew so impatient waiting for a doubling in size and finally moved on to steaming the buns. I rationalized "they are sweet dessert morsels, small will be just fine. Maybe they'll fluff and expand more as they steam... maybe... if I didn't rush them too early."

Mixed reviews on the fluff factor! The buns did increase in size as they cooked but never matched the desired light airiness of restaurant Bao. The texture was pleasant enough to enjoy whether served directly from the steamer or cooled and eaten hours later. 

Dark Chocolate Mint Morsels scored my vote for best chocolatey filling, sweet but masking any green tea or sourdough flavor.

Nutella with coconut shreds came in last place, somewhat flat tasting and definitely too sweet to play nicely with the flavors in the dough.

RL awarded top marks to the raspberry and ground walnut filling, but it had some disappointing leakage issues while steaming. 

I steamed the two remaining ping pong sized balls of dough without rolling and filling, an experiment to test the dough's texture and taste without the distraction of filling. At first bite a definite sourdough tang was apparent but I couldn't distinguish any green tea flavor. Evidently my DIY grinding of green tea leaves didn't come close to matching authentic matcha powder's taste or coloration. No problem, for consolation I ate the two unfilled buns with a bit of butter and quite enjoyed them. 

 Now I am looking forward to checking out the posts from other Sourdough Surprises Bao bakers. 

Green Tea Sourdough Steamed Buns

Dough Ingredients (for 10-12 small buns)

1/8 cup sugar
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup refreshed sourdough starter
1 medium egg, whisked to blend white & yolk
1 Tablespoon oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Matcha powder (finely ground green tea leaves)
1 cup plus 2 generous tablespoons AP flour

Directions for the Buns:
  1. Place the sugar and warm water in a small bowl; mix until sugar dissolves. Add sourdough starter and whisk to incorporate.
  2. Sift flour into a larger bowl. Add starter mixture, egg, oil, salt and Matcha powder; stir to mix. Use your hands to bring the flour mixture together.
  3. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes or until smooth and slightly elastic.
  4. Place in a lightly oiled bowl; cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise until doubled in size. This could take several hours to overnight depending on your starter. 
  5. Once dough has doubled in size, punch down and divide into 6 portions; shape into round balls.
  6. Use a rolling pin to roll a ball into a 2-inch disk. Then pick up the piece of dough and gently pull the edges to enlarge to a 3-inch diameter disk. The dough should be slightly thicker in the center.
  7. Place a heaping tablespoon of filling on the dough circle. Gather the edges and seal the bun.
  8. Place the bun, seal side down, on a baking tray atop a square of parchment paper. Cover with a cloth and continue with the rest of the dough. Let the buns rise until doubled in size. Remove the towel.
  9. Carefully place some of the buns (still resting on their parchment paper squares) in a steamer basket, positioning them several inches apart to allow for spreading.
  10. Place in a steamer for 10-15 minutes or until the dough is cooked through. 

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