“My dinner is still in the woods.” ~Author Unknown
Last night we ate the most amazing meatloaf, and it was elk. While this may not seem a big deal, having an epiphany for dessert was.
Let me explain. I am from South Texas, and in South Texas the catfish fry is the stuff of legend. I loved the annual catfish fry. I anticipated the annual fry held at my uncle’s ranch with fish freshly caught on a trotline the night before using live bluegill or goldfish, homemade tartar sauce, hush puppies, and my uncle’s pet whitetail eating out of everyone’s hand. I still dream of those days and it makes my heart smile.
I caught a rather large catfish about ten years ago and had the same epiphany I had last night, but for a different set of reasons and a different species of flavor. The catfish epiphany was much more distinct, and kind of greasy. I filleted the fish, removed all of the fat, soaked it in egg and milk, dipped it in the family’s famous top-secret cornmeal batter, and dropped it in the lard fryer for seven and a half minutes while my mother whipped up the tartar sauce. I literally drooled on my shirt before I bit in….but all I could taste was my heart breaking, or more specifically my stomach’s heart breaking. In that distinct moment, I realized catfish is not very good.
It turns out, between the intervening years in college and starting my first job, I had neglected catfish. In that period of neglect, I had experienced salmon lightly coated in worcestershire, salted and peppered, then grilled to a flaky perfection. Worse yet, I had indulged in seared ahi, freshly caught off the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii under a perfect sunset, and I was sipping wine with my new bride while the Pacific waves crested and fell below our feet, inviting the deafening solitude of a crowded restaurant to our newly found love. I had fallen out of love with the gluttonous pleasure days of my youth and into love with the refined perfection of the sound of a breaking wave, holding my lover’s hand in a moment without fault. As with the maturation of experience, so go the taste buds.
Catfish really isn’t a good fish. The texture is right, but the flavor is all wrong, hence the batter, oil, and tartar sauce. On the other hand, the light umami flavor of seared ahi only requires a light coating of salt and pepper. The evidence is pure and unmistakable. Catfish is not good and is far worse for your health.
So the epiphany was this: beef is the catfish, or possibly carp, in the realm of red meat. The fat, the texture, the smell. They all lack the perfection of wild game. While the constant barrage of seasonings had me thoroughly convinced I liked, and actually preferred beef, the evidence of recent years’ meals suggest the aforementioned statement is undeniable. Elk is best served rare with a light coating of salt and pepper. Beef is best served soaked in marinade and grilled until all fat has been rendered to a liquid. And don’t forget to use the steak sauce.
So here I sit after one too many beers with a sense of foreboding about my future in the grocery store, the butcher’s shop, or my now ex-favorite restaurants. My stomach turns and I can feel his heart break. There just isn’t enough opportunity in the world to keep him happy. And beside, my knees simple won’t be able to keep up if I make it to my golden years. So, all I can do is savor the meal served in this time and in this moment. I hope you can too. Here is the recipe.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Tear up six slices, or almost half a loaf, of Italian bread into bite size pieces. Place the bread in a medium size bowl and cover with three-quarters of a cup of whole milk. If you are out of whole milk, any other percentage, or even skim, will work. Let the bread soak up all the milk.
While the bread is working on the milk, pull out a large bowl. Drop in two pounds of ground elk meat. When we grind our elk meat, we do a ratio of 10 percent bacon ends and pieces to 90 percent elk meat. This eliminates the need to add beef fat to the lean meat of elk, and also adds light pork flavor to the elk, which is nice in burgers and this meatloaf. If your elk meat is entirely lean, you could also just add a pound and a half of ground elk and a half pound of ground pork. One of the beautiful things about meatloaf is its flexibility, and even just the ratios you create with the meat can modify your loaf in wonderful ways.
To the ground elk, add two tablespoons of fennel seeds. The seeds will soften up while baking, but I still used a carving knife to crush them up a bit. Next, drop in 1 diced medium yellow onion, six cloves of minced garlic, a cup of minced fresh parsley, a teaspoon of oregano, a half cup of tomato juice, and salt and pepper. Drop in three whole eggs, and with your hands give everything a rough mix. Drop in the milk soaked bread crumbs, and thoroughly mix all the ingredients. The milk from the breadcrumbs will add a lot of liquid to your mixture. I use store-bought Italian breadcrumbs to bring everything to the consistency I desire. I added a half a cup at a time, until the loaf held together nicely. You don’t want it too dry, but at first the entire thing resembles meat soup, which is not what you want. Just add the breadcrumbs slowly, and keep mixing, until it holds together.
Once everything is mixed together, spread out a large piece of parchment paper on the counter top. Drop the entire bowl onto the center of the paper, and start pressing the mixture out. Work the meat into a large, flat rectangle that is about an inch and half to two inches thick. Start layering the pressed meat with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, trust me you want the fresh stuff that comes stored in water. It will change your life! So good. Anyway, also add whole fresh basil leaves and sun-dried tomatoes. Think of this as if you are covering pizza dough, and leave about the same amount of border as you would crust space on the pizza.
When the meat is completely covered, it is time to start rolling. This can seem intimidating because the meat isn’t very sturdy, and things feel like they are completely falling part as you start to roll. Just keep rolling. It will all fall together. Use the parchment paper to help you roll the meat into a large log. Once you have rolled the entire log, drop it on a large baking sheet, and use your hands for a final press. Tent the loaf with a piece of aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes.
While your meatloaf is baking, it is time to start on your topping. One of the best parts of meatloaf is the sticky ketchup most people bake onto the outside of the loaf. Since this is an Italian style meatloaf, ketchup just didn’t sound right. But the loaf needed a sweet, sticky topping or it just wouldn’t be meatloaf. So, this sauce was born, and it is AMAZING! And simple. On their own tray, pop a pint of cherry tomatoes in with the meatloaf. Allow to roast for about twenty minutes. Once the skin starts popping on the tomatoes, remove them from the oven and drop them into a small saucepan on the stove. Add a 12 ounce can of crushed tomatoes, two tablespoons of honey, a tablespoon of Worcestershire, and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Turn the burner to a low heat and allow the sauce to simmer until it thickens.
At the 40 minute mark, pull the aluminum foil off the meatloaf and add a layer of shaved parmesan cheese and the tomato sauce you just made to the top of the meatloaf. Stick that baby back in the oven for 30 more minutes. You will know the meatloaf is ready when the cheese is melted and gooey on top and the edges of the meatloaf are just barely starting to turn golden brown. You can also measure the internal temperature with meat thermometer and it should read 160 degrees.
Serve up a thick slice of the loaf with roasted baby red potatoes simply dressed in olive oil, salt and pepper and crisp, steamed green beans. So delicious, your stomach’s heart will melt.