I happen to think that meatloaf is pretty high up there on the comfort food scale. It’s kind of like mac n’ cheese or mashed potatoes. When you eat it you just feel good. I’ll be the first to admit though that meatloaf can be…well…kind of boring. It’s one of those dishes that I would never order in a restaurant for fear that it might be tasteless, or dry, or just down right bad tasting. At home though, it’s a different story. I consider myself somewhat of a meatloaf aficionado and over the years I’ve perfected my meatloaf recipe to the point where I can now proudly declare this to be the Best Meatloaf Ever. I know it’s a bold claim to make, but I stand by it. What makes this meatloaf so special, besides the topping of gooey cheese and candy-sweet caramelized onions, is the addition of lots of veggies. Sounds weird right? I mean it’s called meatloaf, not vegetable loaf. Stick with me though- I promise this will be good. The veggies in the meatloaf serve three purposes. First, they add moisture, second they add flavor, and third they add the ever important healthy bits. The last part is especially important the next day when your eating a huge slab of meatloaf in between two pieces of thick bread…and oops now you’re too full for salad. No big deal- the veggies are already in the loaf!
I’ve tried all sorts of different veggie combinations in my meatloaf. Zucchini, spinach, green beans, peas, corn, you name it, it’s gone in meatloaf. In the end I always come back to the simple pairing of carrot and sweet red pepper.This combo provides just the right amount of moisture and as a bonus it adds a nice punch of color to what would otherwise be just a boring brown loaf. I also add a bit of flat leaf parsley if I have it on hand because I like its mild peppery flavor…it also rounds out the color spectrum quite nicely. I used to cook the veggies before I added them to the meat, but over the years I’ve learned that if you chop them up fairly small (especially the carrots) and add them raw they will cook inside the loaf and infuse the meat with juicy vegetable goodness.
The other trick to a winning meatloaf- a free formed loaf. Traditionally meatloaf is cooked inside a bread loaf pan. While this method does yield a perfectly shaped loaf, it also means that you have to cook the meatloaf longer (increasing the chance it could dry out) and it eliminates the delicious extra “crust” that results from the free form method. I’ve found that if you cook your loaf in a baking pan just a bit bigger than loaf itself (about a 1-inch border of space around the edge) the air circulates around the meat allowing it to cook evenly and creating a tasty crisp exterior all around.
Now for the topping. This meatloaf is quite excellent on it’s own. It really doesn’t need a thick layer of melted cheese and sweet onions to be delicious. But let’s face it, good food is almost never about need and almost always about want. And you WANT these onions. If I had my way caramelized onions would be packaged and sold as candy. Sweet, oniony candy that I want to eat by the bowlful. Okay, that’s a little strange I admit, but what I’m trying to say is that even on their own caramelized onions rock and when combined with cheese and meatloaf…well words alone can’t describe the perfection of this combination. Yes, making the caramelized onions is an extra step- a 40 minutes extra step- but totally worth it. I promise.
Turkey Veggie Meatloaf with Caramelized Onions
- 1 1/2 pounds ground turkey
- 2 carrots finely chopped
- 1/2 sweet red pepper finely chopped
- 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley finely chopped
- 1 egg lightly beaten
- 1 slice soft whole wheat bread crumbled
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 medium yellow onions thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 3-4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese sliced
- Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Combine the turkey, carrots, red pepper, parsley, egg and bread in a medium bowl. In a small bowl mix together the ketchup and chili powder. Add half the ketchup-chili mixture to the meat. Season with a dash of salt and few grounds of pepper. Mixt well with a wooden spoon or your hands.
- Form the meat mixture in a loaf shape and place in a baking pan only slightly larger than the loaf. You can smooth the edges with a spoon but don’t worry too much about making it perfect. Spread the remaining ketchup-chili sauce over the top of the loaf.
- Bake for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, lay the cheese slices over the top and pile on the caramelized onions (instructions below). Return to the oven for another 15 minutes. Let stand for about 10 minutes before serving.
- The most efficient way to make this dish is to have the onions sliced and ready to go in the pan before you assemble the meatloaf. Don’t try to cook them while you are assembling the meatloaf though because they need frequent attention and if you’re anything like me two tasks at once is one too many. When the meatloaf goes in the oven melt the butter in a shallow pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often for about 10 minutes or until the onions begin to brown.
- Turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook for another 20 minutes. Stir frequently, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. If it seems like the onions are burning turn the heat down. You can even add a tablespoon of water if you need to. The idea is to cook these onions slowly so they caramelize and not to brown them too quickly. After 20 minutes the onions should be complete wilted and have turned a deep golden brown. Now is when you add the brown sugar and balsamic vinegar. Stir well, turn the heat down a bit more and cook for another 10 minutes. Don’t forget to stir and scrape frequently. When the onions are done follow the instructions above to finish off the meatloaf.