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Tuscan Meatloaf with Wild Mushrooms

I first made Marcella Hazan’s Tuscan meat loaf almost 45 years ago. I was a graduate student on a research fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had kitchen privileges at the home where I was rooming.  As the owners were away for the summer, I felt free to invite a couple over for dinner who were as passionate about food and cooking as I was. At that time, pre-internet, I only had a few cookbooks in my room and Hazan’s The Italian Classic Cookbook was my most recent acquisition.  I combed through the book looking for something different, something that might surprise my guests as much by its novelty as by its flavor. About midway through, I found it: Polpettone alla Toscana, Meatloaf Braised in White Wine with Dried Wild Mushrooms.

The recipe presented me with two challenges. The first was financial. As a substitute for Tuscan Chianina beef, the best in Italy, Hazan called for “a lean cut of beef, all of whose fat has been removed before chopping.”  That was going to be a stretch for me on a student budget, but I rationalized that it was only a pound and I was, after all, cooking for fellow food lovers. The second challenge was finding “imported dried wild mushrooms.” Remember this was 1978 and dried mushrooms like porcini or morels were not as commonplace as they are today. Fortunately, Quincy Market that was part of the newly renovated Faneuil Hall, had become one of Boston’s go-to venues for fine foods and was easily accessible on the T, Boston’s subway. With its many vendors, it would make one-stop shopping another reason to go ahead with my planned dinner.

My first vendor was the butcher, who suggested a pound of beef fillet would meet the requirements for the dish. When I told him that I needed a pound after all the fat was removed he recommended a pound and a half. Although it was pricey, I agreed to the increase: “I’ll take it; and could you please grind it for me?” He looked aghast. “Ground?” he replied. I nodded. He was even more shocked when he returned with the ground meat and I told him it was for a meatloaf.  Finding the mushrooms presented less of a challenge, but their  extravagant price by the pound left me dismayed. Since I was only buying an ounce, however, the cost didn’t seem that excessive.

Although the recipe did have its challenges, the chief of which was keeping the loaf together while browning and braising it, it turned out perfectly. When I presented it at the table, served on a warmed platter coated with the sauce and the slices of meat partly overlapping and napped with the rich, dark, mushroom sauce, my guests were amazed. “Look, Louise,” said Josh, “that’s Marcella’s meatloaf.” He then looked at me and said “She told me one couldn’t serve meatloaf to guests.” When I notice Louise’s tinge of embarrassment, I looked at her and said my Neapolitan aunt had the same opinion when I used to ask her why we never served her delicious meatloaf to company. A toast to the chef followed and dinner was rated a triumph by all.

When I chose to recreate this dish for my blog, I wanted to see if it were possible to make it with the standard 80/20 ground beef found at most markets, which was what I had on hand. Likewise, rather than prosciutto, I opted for the pancetta that was in the fridge as was the white bread. I’m happy to report that this attempt was as successful as my first. The meat was tender and juicy and had absorbed the rich, woodsy, umami nuances of the mushrooms. The sauce was thick and silky coating the palate with savory flavors. I must add, however, that the fat content of the ground beef required considerable skimming before serving, a tolerable task, especially in light of the savings garnered from using chuck rather than beef tenderloin. Finally, the quality of the dried porcini that were in my pantry eliminated much of the rinsing and straining detailed in the recipe. After removing the mushrooms from their soaking liquid, I carefully poured it into another bowl leaving any sediment behind.

Ingredients

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Ingredients

1 ounce imported dried wild mushrooms
1 pound lean ground beef
A 2-by-2 inch square piece of good-quality white bread, crust removed
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow onion
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper, about 6 twists of the mill
2 tablespoons chopped prosciutto or pancetta
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 egg yolk
¾ cup fine, dry unflavored bread crumbs, spread on a platter or waxed pepper
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup dry, white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste

Directions

1. Put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl with 1 cup of lukewarm water. Let them soak for at least 20 minutes.

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Soaking Mushrooms

2. Put the chopped meat in a bowl, loosening it up with a fork.

3. Put bread and milk in a small pan. Over medium heat, mash it with a fork until it is creamy.

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Creaming bread

4. Add the creamed bread to the meat in the bowl, along with the chopped onion, salt, pepper, chopped prosciutto or pancetta, grated cheese, and chopped garlic. Wet your hands and mix gently but thoroughly by hand until all ingredients have been incorporated into the meat. Add the egg yolk, mixing it into the other ingredients.

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Meat Mixture
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Hand Mixing

5. Shape the meat into a firmly packed ball. Place ball on any flat surface and roll it into a compact salami-like loaf about 2½ inches thick. Roll the loaf in the bread crumbs until it is evenly coated.

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The Shaped Ball
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Salami-shaped Loaf
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Breaded Loaf

6. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the water in which they were soaked. Strain the dark liquid through a fine sieve lined with paper towels and set aside. Rinse mushrooms in several changes of cold water.  Chop them roughly and set aside. (Depending on the quality of your mushrooms, you may not need to rinse and sieve as described. Mine had little sediment so did not need rinsing or passing through a sieve. Simply pour the soaking liquid slowly into another bowl and stop when you see the sediment in the first bowl.)

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Drained and Chopped Mushrooms

7. Choose a heavy-bottomed, preferably oval, casserole, just large enough for the meat. Over medium heat, heat all the butter and oil. When butter foam subsides, add the meat loaf and brown it well on all sides, handling the meat carefully at all times lest the loaf break up. (I used a 3.5 quart wide round enameled cast-iron pot. Browning took about 10 minutes. To handle the meat during this and the following steps, I used a pair of wooden spatulas.)

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Browning First Side
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Browning Second Side
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Fully Browned Loaf

8. When the meat has been evenly browned, add the wine and raise the heat to medium high. Boil the wine briskly until it is reduced by half. Turn the loaf carefully once or twice.

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Wine added and reducing
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Wine Reduced

9. Turn the heat down to medium low and add the chopped mushrooms. Warm up the strained mushroom liquid in a small pan and stir the tomato paste into it. When the tomato paste is thoroughly diluted, add it to the meat.

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Mushrooms added
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Blending soaking liquid and tomato paste
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Adding diluted tomato paste to the pot

10. Cover and cook at a steady simmer, turning and basting the meat once or twice. After 30 minutes, set the cover slightly askew and cook for another 30 minutes turning and basting the meat at least once. (I cooked my loaf for approximately 35 minutes for each simmering, covered and uncovered.)

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Ready for simmering
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After covered simmer
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After uncovered simmer

11. Transfer the meat loaf to a cutting board, allowing it to settle for a few minutes, before cutting it into slices about 3/8 inch thick. Meanwhile, if the sauce in the pot is a little too thin, boil it rapidly, uncovered, over high heat until it is sufficiently concentrated.  Spoon a little bit of the sauce over the bottom of a warm serving platter, arrange the meat loaf slices in the platter, partly overlapping, then pour the rest of the sauce over the meat over the meat.

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Transferred to the board
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Reduced and skimmed sauce
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Sliced Loaf

I served the meatloaf accompanied by mashed potatoes.

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Plated

Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico

6 thoughts on “Tuscan Meatloaf with Wild Mushrooms

  1. It sounds delicious. I was wondering if there was a different sauce to use instead of mushrooms? I can’t eat mushrooms. Thanks.

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