The other day, I found myself at home with 2 two year olds, one of which wasn't feeling so great due to possible ear infection, molar teething and/or a cold, and my 82 year old mom. My plan at the start of the day was to go grocery shopping but taking that motley crew to the grocery store was one daunting task that I was willing to avoid at all costs. I knew I was low on some of my go-to staples but that didn't change the fact that supper had to be cooked. What to do, what to do? In my freezer was one lowly package of lean ground beef. Meatloaf? As much as my family really loves my meatloaf, I wasn't exactly in the mood for the tried and true. So I thought, 'Why not take meatloaf to another level?'. Usually I roll my meatloaf around a stuffing and make what I've always known as Nanny's Secret Sauce, which is ketchup based. A quick glance in my fridge and pantry for things that might strike my fancy, I found pesto sauce and a can of no salt added, unseasoned diced tomatoes. Hmmm....how could I make that work? Then it occurred to me: Pesto Meatloaf might be darn tasty. Given that pesto originates in Italy, maybe do something Italian-ish with the canned tomatoes, like a Marinara Sauce. From there, things all started to fall into place in my head. Pesto Meatloaf with Marinara Sauce and a side of spaghetti....kinda like a deconstructed spaghetti and meatballs thing!
Marinara Sauce is an Italian sauce that originated in Naples. Traditionally, marinara sauce is a basic combination of tomatoes, garlic, herbs and onion, occasionally sweetened with a dash of red wine. There are many variations on marinara sauce, with everyone having their own little secret ingredients, like adding carrots, capers, olives and other spices. Marinara is also known as 'Sunday Gravy', which is derived from the Italian tradition of having a large, family dinner on Sunday afternoon that inevitably involved some kind of tomato sauce. The word 'gravy' is actually an erroneous English translation from the Italian 'sugo' which means juice or sauce. The key thing to note about Marinara Sauce is that it has very few ingredients. The biggest requirement for making Marinara Sauce is patience...the sauce needs time to simmer and reduce and for the flavour to deepen, often up to 6 to 8 hours! My sauce doesn't take quite that long, but the longer you let it simmer, the richer the sauce will be.
Having a plan of action, knowing I didn't have to venture out of the house with the two kiddies and my mom, I had plenty of time to get my sauce started and let it simmer away until suppertime. I diced up one medium onion, two small carrots and minced a clove of garlic, making a mirepoix of sorts. Mirepoix, and every time I say or write that word I chuckle silently to myself because for a long time I called it 'mirequois', is pronounced meer PWAH, like you have a rich French accent. (Makes people think you might actually know a thing or two about cooking too, which can't hurt right?). Mirepoix is roughly chopped veggies, usually a mixture of onion, carrot and celery, that is made as a flavour base for a variety of stocks, soups, sauces ad stews. I didn't have any celery but even if I did, I probably wouldn't have used it...just a personal preference thing. I do like diced carrots in my Marinara Sauce because I feel the carrots add a nice colour and texture to the end product. Again, that's a personal preference, not a rule of thumb.
Anyway...back to the plan of action. I diced up my veg and sauteed it in a little olive oil over medium high heat. I seasoned the vegetables with about 1/4 tsp dry oregano, 1/4 tsp dry basil, and 1/4 tsp dry thyme. (I say 'about' because I usually pour a little in my palm, scrunch it up with my fingers to release the natural oils and rarely use a measuring spoon....that's the beauty of cooking as opposed to baking...you have leeway). When the onions were tender and translucent, meaning slightly transparent, I splashed in about 1/4 c. chianti, note the word 'about' again...chef's perogative I figure. I let the wine gently boil and reduce, or the liquid evaporate, and while it was doing so, I scraped the skillet with my trusty wooden spoon to make sure all those yummy brown bits from the sauteed veggies got incorporated into the final sauce....those brown bits add some SERIOUS flavour profile to everything you make...just so long as they're not burned. The burned bits aren't so desirable.
Here's the mirepoix pre-red wine:
And here it is getting slightly tipsy:
Actually, the alcohol cooks off leaving a rich, slightly acidic flavour on the vegetables. I then added in a can of no salt added, unseasoned diced tomatoes and about a cup of no salt added unseasoned tomatoe sauce and stirred it all around to get everything all acquainted. Once the sauce came to a low boil, I reduced the heat and let it simmer for about 3 and 1/2 hours, giving it a little stir every now and then. This is what the Marinara Sauce looked like just after adding the tomatoes:
And this is how the sauce looked after simmering and reducing, with the flavours deepening and developing, (note the difference in volume and consistency):
I've gotten a little ahead of myself because before the sauce was finished, I actually did make a meatloaf, but I'll get to that right after I say this: once you've made your own Marinara Sauce, you'll never go back to jarred sauce again! It's so versatile for spaghetti, lasagna or even as pizza sauce! (I'd blend it though before using on pizza, just because my kids aren't particularly fond of 'lumpy' pizza sauce). Anyway....onto the Pesto Meatloaf, which was really where all this started!
I placed 2 lbs of ground beef into a large bowl, added in 1/2 a medium onion, finely diced, 1/3 cup pesto sauce, 2 tsp dry Italian seasoning, 1 egg and about 1/2 c. bread crumbs. Pesto has a very unique, and certainly a very Italian, flavour. It originates in Genoa and traditionally consists of garlic, basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese. It's super easy to whip up but it's also readily available in any grocery store. (Just click here for my recipe for Pesto Sauce).
After adding everything to the bowl, I plunged my very clean hands right in there and mixed and mushed it all up until it was completely blended. (Makes perfect sense to me now why Play Doh was probably my favourite childhood toy!). I then placed all of the meat mixture in a medium sized loaf pan and packed it right in!
While it was smelling pretty darn awesome already with the pesto and onions, it was looking a tad anemic to me so, on a whim, I took a couple of spoonfuls of the simmering Marinara Sauce and spread it on top of the meatloaf.
Awww.....that looked much better....and saucier! I placed the meatloaf into a preheated 350 degree Fahrenheit oven and let it cook for 45 minutes. When the timer was down to about 10 minutes, I placed a large pot of salted water on to boil because, well, what goes better with Marinara Sauce than spaghetti? Nothin' I say! When the water was at a rolling boil, I added in the pasta and cooked it until it was 'al dente', which loosely translated means 'to the tooth', and as a cooking term it means cooking pasta, rice, beans, vegetables, whatever happens to be the case, until it's still slightly firm to bite. With that, it was all ready to plate! (And let me tell you, by this point, the aroma that filled our house was absolutely INCREDIBLE!).
First, I sliced the meatloaf:
Next, I drained the pasta and laddled about 1/3 of the Marinara Sauce into the pot with the pasta and tossed it so that every singled strand of pasta was kissed by the sauce. (This is actually the traditional way to have spaghetti with tomato sauce in Italy as opposed to how most have it here in Canada and the U.S.).
Now to plate. A side dish portion of spaghetti topped with a little more Marinara Sauce, a couple of slices of Pesto Meatloaf, all of it sprinkled with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and chopped fresh Italian parsley.
The Pesto Meatloaf was moist and the pesto flavour was infused into every bite. The Marinara Sauce seemed to stimulate every part of the mouth with this rich, pleasant, savoury flavour. Everyone cleaned their plates and what was even better, my mom, daughter AND husband all asked for lefovers for lunch the next day! Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face, (well, almost nothing), than the satisfaction of cooking something healthy that my family raves about and looks forward to having again the very next day!