Despite being both Singaporean, S and I had very different up-bringings. My family moved to New York City when I was two years old. When I was twelve, we moved to Washington DC. When I graduated high school, I returned to Singapore for two years after which I moved back to NYC to go to college. My childhood summers were usually spent in North America or Europe; Singapore was a tad far and my father’s employers only covered the costs of one home visit every three years. S, on the other hand, grew up almost entirely in Singapore. Her family spent a couple years in the UK when she was a toddler but the majority of her formative years were spent in the Lion City. After finishing junior college, she went to university in Australia.
Despite being raised in very different places, when we first started dating, we discovered that we shared many beliefs and cultural norms. That, we expect, is due less to where we lived as children and more to do with our respective parents. But because we did grow up in different countries, we grew up eating some very different foods. Some of the foods that I grew up loving most, S had either never tasted or had only ever eaten poor versions of. It was only natural then that when I waxed lyrically about the dishes that fell into the latter category, S could only shake her head, unable to comprehend my hunger or love for them.
One such dish is meat loaf. I love meat loaf. S, on the other hand, had only eaten a couple of versions and all of them awful. When I asked her about them, what she described sounded vile — overcooked, grey hunks of tasteless minced beef. That, any one who has ever tucked into the real thing, will tell you is crap. A properly made meat loaf should be full of flavour. While you should be able to slice it, it mustn’t be too dry. It has to retain some of the juices from the various meats that went into making it. It should have a yummy crust, dark and slightly sticky from being glazed generously.
A healthy slice from a great meat loaf, served with mashed potatoes and slathered with gravy, makes for an amazing meal. When I was in university, I used to frequently dine at a little restaurant called Camille’s, on the corner of 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Camille’s served a range of classic Italian and American dishes. Their turkey meat loaf was outstanding. Whenever it was available — it was always a lunch special — I would have it. I simply couldn’t get enough of it.
Because I really wanted S to appreciate my love of this simple American classic (and since we’d yet to find a good one in town), I decided that my only recourse was to make one for her. I had recently been given the The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by a friend as a birthday present. The book is a treasure-trove of American, and specifically Southern, classics. The Lee brothers’ meat loaf recipe, which they admit was given to them by their sister (when they were all living together in Harlem, hence the name of the recipe), sounded delicious. I liked that they used Italian sausage stuffing and chopped pickles. The latter especially would give the meat loaf an interesting and exciting flavour accent. I also liked the glaze — a simple mixture of ketchup, Tabasco and Worcestershire that I knew would work well together. The recipe also sounded easy enough to make in a relatively short amount of time. Perfect for throwing together late one night in order to eat the next day — the Lees suggest storing the meat loaf in the fridge overnight in order to bind and accentuate its flavours.
As promised, the meat loaf was a breeze to make. I fed it to S and one of her cousins. Thankfully, they both loved it. I have to admit I was rather worried that S would take one bite, spit it out and go, “blech!” But she not only polished off the slice I served her, but also went back into the kitchen for seconds.
Harlem Meat Loaf
Feeds 4 hungry people
Adapted from a recipe in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook
450g ground beef, chuck or sirloin
225g meat from Italian sausages
3/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
4 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
1/2 cup chopped sour dill pickles
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
Place the minced beef and the sausage meat into a large, wide bowl. The Lee brothers recommended using sweet Italian sausages. I couldn’t find any at my local butcher and instead used spicy Italian sausages, which worked splendidly for me. Break the meat up into golf-ball sized hunks in the bowl. In a second bowl, whisk 1/2 cup ketchup with 1 tablespoon Worcestershire and 2 teaspoons Tabasco. Pour this over your meat.
Using the same bowl, mix your pickles, onion, garlic and parsley. Then scatter this over the meat mixture. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over it. Then add the egg and salt. Using your hands, mix the ingredients well, until evenly blended.
Transfer the mixture to a 9inch x 13inch roasting pan and pat it into a compact loaf. Bake this for 35 minutes on the middle rack of your oven.
Whisk the remaining 1/4 cup ketchup, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire and 1 teaspoon Tabasco together in a small bowl. Brush the glaze generously over the top of the meat loaf. Try and use up all of the glaze. Pop the meat loaf back in the oven for another 15 minutes. The glaze should darken and stiffen. Let the meat loaf rest for 10 minutes before slicing or, more preferably, place it in the fridge for 24 hours before eating. If you do the latter, tent the pan with aluminum foil. To reheat, pop it in an oven heated to 140 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes or so.