Out of the Best Books

(Originally published in The News Review on Tuesday, February 3, 2015) Recipes in this post: Marvelous Meat Loaf, Marvelous Mashed Potatoes.

I adore cookbooks! Even after paring down my collection, I still own dozens of cookbooks. Add to that recipes I've torn out of magazines, scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper or pinned on my Pinterest board and I've got more recipes within reach than any sane person needs. Still, let me loose in a bookstore or library and I'll eventually end up in the cooking aisle. There's a comforting camaraderie in reading, writing and sharing recipes with a worldwide community of cooks.

I love flipping through the glossy pages of a beautifully designed and photographed cookbook. I am inspired to try a new technique or seek out an unfamiliar ingredient to add variety to my menus. Perusing a well-written cookbook can spark my culinary creativity and enrich my understanding. I have a habit of reading a new cookbook cover to cover and flagging the most enticing pages with post-it notes.

Yet, if I'm honest, the recipes I actually cook day in, day out, time and again come from the tattered and splattered pages of my least glamorous cookbooks. Well-used and much-loved, they hold the recipes we've been enjoying for decades.

My copy of Melrose Ward Family Favorite Recipes, which ladies from my church congregation collected, printed and bound with yarn thirty years ago, is always within easy reach on my bookshelf. It's filled with simple, inexpensive, kid-tested, family-approved, tasty dishes that even Mikey would like. They require little time or skill to get on the table.

The family recipe book my mother-in-law and I compiled is an archive of all the traditional holiday recipes from my husband's and my own family, along with dozens of contributions from our siblings. Rosemary and I put this book together using a typewriter and clip art, back when cutting and pasting was literal. We had it photocopied and spiral-bound at Workmates in Roseburg. It's a family treasure, now in its third printing. My daughter Laura scanned the whole book while she was home at Christmas to preserve it in digital format and make it easy to update.

My introduction to the wonderful world of cookbooks began when I was nine years old and my mother presented me with a copy of Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cook Book. Everything “a junior cook” should know is in this book, from definitions of cooking terms, which pan to use for what, and basic measuring skills to instructions on making carrot curls, setting the table and good manners at mealtime. The recipe I'm sharing today is adapted from the meat loaf recipe on page 64. I've been making it for decades, though I use local grass fed beef, low fat milk and whole grain bread crumbs, so it's lighter and leaner these days. The photo in the book shows it as Meat Loaf à la Mode with a scoop of mashed potatoes on top of each wedge. I'm more likely now to bake a few potatoes alongside the meat loaf and serve them with butter and sour cream. Either way, it's classic comfort food.

 Marvelous Meat Loaf

I always process the bread into crumbs in my food processor so they are more evenly distributed throughout the loaf.

1 large farm fresh egg
1 pound 90% lean grass-fed ground beef
3 slices whole grain bread, made into crumbs or torn into pieces
1 cup skim or 1% milk
1 ½ teaspoons onion powder (or ¼ cup finely minced onion)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon sea salt
ketchup for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, beat the egg slightly. Add remaining ingredients and mix well with one hand until well-combined. I use a latex glove to keep my fingers from getting so cold.

Place in a nine-inch glass pie pan and bake 45 minutes to one hour, until no longer pink in the center. Cut into wedges and serve with ketchup.

In a hurry? You can create mini meat loaves in an oil-sprayed or non-stick muffin tin or form baby loaves on a cookie sheet (with sides!) and shorten the baking time to about 30 minutes.

Love a great sandwich? Bake the meat mixture in an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan and slice the leftovers when cold.

Marvelous "Mashed" Potatoes

Like most “mashed potatoes” these are actually whipped with an electric mixer for a light and airy texture. I do have an old-fashioned potato masher; I use it to crush berries for jam or for making refried beans.

Here's my method for creamy potatoes:

Start with russet potatoes. Other varieties are great for boiling or roasting or smashing with garlic, but for classic mashed potatoes, russets are what you want and they're available year round. Plan on one large or two small potatoes per person. Peel potatoes and cut in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt depending on quantity of potatoes. Cover, bring to a boil over high heat. When the lid starts to rattle, reduce heat to medium-low and boil for 10 – 12 minutes, just until the potatoes are tender when poked with a fork. Do not overcook! The starch will deteriorate and the potatoes may become gluey.

Drain the potatoes in a colander (I like to save the potato water for baking bread) and return them to the pot. Shake the pot over the residual heat of the burner for a minute or two to thoroughly dry the potatoes.
Unless I'm making a huge quantity, I whip the potatoes right in the pot. Do not add milk yet! Mix the potatoes on low speed for 30 to 60 seconds, stopping to scrape down the sides once or twice. You want a fine texture before you add anything else. If you add the milk at the beginning, the lumps will just run around through the beaters and you'll never break them up.

Add salt to taste and a few tablespoons of soft butter, if desired. Warm ½ cup of milk or more, depending on the quantity of potatoes. Add milk slowly (you may not need all of it) and continue mixing until potatoes are light and smooth. (I add any leftover milk to the potato water I'm saving.)
Serve immediately with additional butter or gravy.

Good to know:
  • If you like your potatoes a little tangy, try using buttermilk or sour cream in place of the milk.
  • Leftover mashed potatoes, along with the water they were boiled in, are a key ingredient in two of my favorite bread recipes, Whole Wheat Potato Bread and Sour Cream & Chive Potato Bread. Both recipes are on my blog. If you won't be baking within a few days, freeze potatoes to use later.
  • Feeling festive? Every year for Valentine's Day, my friend Gloria bakes her meat loaf in a heart-shaped pan. She tops it with mashed potatoes she has colored red and then sprinkles on grated cheese and paprika. It's become a family tradition.

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