Yay! It’s September! And September means fall, and fall means comfort food. Comfort food means meatloaf time! And a little more specifically, it means elk meatloaf recipe time!
Growing up, I hated meatloaf. To me, meatloaf was literally a lump of meat that tasted like it had been boiled and topped with ketchup. I was not a fan, and carried my disdain for meatloaf well into my adult life. Then something happened. I made my own meatloaf, and realized I not only like meatloaf, I love it. It was a meal that I actually looked forward to.
I think this shift in meatloaf mentality occurred because I realized that meatloaf is simply taking a ground burger base and creating any flavor profile your little heart desires. It is like the ultimate blank canvas, just waiting for you to pay it a little attention and create something amazing.
For this elk meatloaf recipe, I wanted to take some of my favorite earthy flavors, as I like to call them, and pair them with a great flavored meatloaf. So, what do I mean by earthy flavors? Well, I consider earthy flavors to be herbs and ingredients that remind me of sitting outside on a warm afternoon and taking in all the aromas of my yard and surrounding environment. They are flavors that draw one into the basic sense of where food comes from, that remind of farms and fruit trees, conjure up images of harvest time and working with your hands to provide. Those are what earthy flavors are to me, which might differ completely from someone’s idea, but at least it gives you an idea of how this recipe was conceived.
So, a few of my basic earthy flavors are herbs like sage, thyme, oregano, and rosemary. And a few of my earthy ingredients are mushrooms and onions. I took all those basic ideas and created a meatloaf from elk centering around this particular flavor profile. This is a great base recipe for creating your own elk meatloaf fitting the likes of your family or friends because it easy to add or subtract ingredients from. Friends don’t like mushrooms, toss ’em out and add in carrots, corn, or another vegetable they like. You hate onions? They won’t be missed if you take them out. See, it is a very versatile elk meatloaf recipe!
To begin, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour a half cup of milk, any percentage you have on hand will do, and soak pieces of Italian bread in the milk until they have soaked it all up. Set the bread aside momentarily. It is also time to start the caramelized onions.
Caramelized onions are one of my favorites. They are so sweet, and the texture is soft and almost kind of chewy. They are so good! Cooking them isn’t really all that difficult, it just is a test of your patience. To get a really good caramelized onion, you have to let the onions cook on low for about thirty minutes. I always get tempted to turn the heat up in hopes of speeding up the process, but that idea is not a good one. Instead of sweet onions, you end up more frying the onions, which creates an entirely different flavor and texture than you are looking for.
To cook caramelized onion, heat up two or three tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over low heat. Add two large onions that have been thinly sliced and allow to slowly cook for about ten minutes. At ten minutes, I sprinkle in about two teaspoons of salt and give everything a stir. Allow to cook for twenty more minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should start to turn translucent and brown slightly on the edges. Sometimes I add a little sugar, like a teaspoon, or a tablespoon of vinegar to help with the caramelizing process. When the onions are done cooking, set aside and start on the meatloaf.
In a second mixing bowl, add two pounds of ground elk. I like to add bacon to my ground elk so I have a bit of fat in the meat, as elk is incredibly lean and tends to dry out if you don’t introduce a fat source. When grinding, I do a ratio of about 10% bacon to 90% elk, so for this recipe I did around two pounds of elk and about 3 ounces of bacon. You could also do beef fat, if that is available from your butcher. I like to do bacon because it adds a little bacon flavor to my meat, which is something I generally add anyway when making elk burgers or an elk meatloaf recipe, and so it is kind of a two-for-one deal in this situation.
To the ground elk, add a tablespoon of fennel, and two teaspoons each of dried sage, thyme, rosemary, and oregano. If you don’t have all those ingredients on hand, you could add two tablespoons of dried Italian seasoning and you will hit most or all of the dried herbs. Next, add three cloves of minced garlic, a half cup of tomato juice, and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Using your hands, give everything a quick mix.
Next, break three eggs into the bowl. Add in the milk soaked bread crumbs, and use your hands to really incorporate everything together. It’s time to add the dried breadcrumbs. I add the dried crumbs a cup at time, mixing after each addition and checking the consistency. Stop adding when the meatloaf is still moist but holds together in a ball in the palm of your hand. This time I used about three cups. Season with a little salt and pepper and then press out into a large rectangle on a sheet of wax paper. It’s time to start layering some flavor!
I first put down a layer of shredded cheese. I wanted to use Parmigiano-Reggiano, but my local grocery store doesn’t carry that particular cheese, so instead I went for an Italian cheese blend that had Parmesan, Romano, and Asiago. Parmesan is more of a generic American term for salty, harder cheeses, like Parmigiano-Reggiano. So when you buy a three cheese blend similar to the one I found it kind of counts as covering the idea of Parmigian-Reggiano. All three cheeses are salty based cheeses that are harder with a crumbly texture.
On top of the cheese, add the mushroom slices. I used baby portabellas for this recipe, but you can use whatever type of mushroom you like best. Shitakes would be fantastic, as would Cremini or even white button. Add the caramelized onions on top of the mushrooms. Starting at the edge closest to you and using the wax paper to help keep your hands from sticking, roll the meat and all its ingredients into a tidy little loaf. Place on a baking sheet and put in the oven. Allow to cook for one hour.
While the meatloaf is cooking, it is time to make the gravy. This is a very simple brown gravy that has onions, mushrooms, and fresh thyme to help compliment the flavors of the actual elk meatloaf. I am not the greatest gravy person, in fact many times I struggle with getting a good texture and consistency; however this recipe was incredibly simple and turned out great.
Melt two tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté for about eight minutes. Then, add the onions and cook an additional three minutes. Sprinkle a tablespoon of flour over the mushrooms and onions and then whisk for about a minute into the juices and oils of the pan. Try and mix in all the flour, as you are creating a roux for you gravy base to help thicken the sauce. Cook for about a minute.
Slowly pour in two cups of beef broth, continuously whisking as you pour and breaking up any chunks that might develop. Bring to a gentle boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Allow the sauce to simmer for about ten minutes so it can reduce and thicken. In a small mixing cup, add a tablespoon of corn starch to a half cup of water. I added about a tablespoon of the corn starch mixture at a time to my gravy, stirring and then checking the consistency before I added more. I only added cornstarch until the gravy was thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, but it still dripped off and was somewhat at a liquid state. It should be glossy and shiny as well. Stir in a tablespoon of fresh minced thyme and some apple cider vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.
To plate this ultimate comfort food dish up, add a healthy slice of the elk meatloaf to your plate and then drench it in the mushroom and onion gravy. For my side, I had a mashed sweet potato for a little color on my plate. Enjoy all those earthy flavors of mushroom, onion, rosemary, sage, and thyme in this elk meatloaf recipe! So good!