Messing with meatloaf

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Messing with meatloaf

Durango Elks members compete for pride points in annual cook-off
James Chavez prepares meatloaf at his home on Friday for a competition at the Elks Lodge in Durango later that night. Chavez didn’t win, but said he had fun while cooking.
James Chavez prepares meatloaf at his home for a competition at the Elks Lodge in Durango.
James Chavez finishes his meatloaf with a ketchup-based sauce at his home for a competition at the Elks Lodge in Durango.
Dean Fagner, right, and Mark Engelbrecht judge meatloaf entries at the Elks Club Meatloaf Cook-off at the Elks Lodge in Durango.

Who was it that said it’s probably easier to split an atom than to resist tweaking a meatloaf recipe?

This iconic American mélange begs to be messed with, no matter how good Mom, Grandma or Aunt Lydia make it.

Aunt Lydia’s Meatloaf, a longtime Durango favorite on the menu at Ken & Sue’s, wasn’t among the entries judged Friday night at the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks Chapter 509 Annual Meatloaf Cook-off.

Maybe that’s because 94-year-old Lydia, the aunt of restaurant owner Sue Fusco, isn’t an Elk. Yet.

But if the South Florida retiree were an Elk, she would have gone up against some serious cooks, said Kurt Schuster, this year’s winner by a nose.

“Tough, tough, tough competition tonight,” Schuster said. “Yeah, I was surprised that I won.”

Schuster joined the local chapter of the BPOE two years ago. It wasn’t long before the Durango real estate agent heard about the annual competition that pits brother against brother in a serious throw-down that can earn the winner up to a $30 bar credit.

The bigger prize is bragging rights, especially when you can edge out frequent cook-off winner Mike Murphy by a hair, as Schuster did.

Murphy, one of the cook-off’s founders, was looking to make Friday night’s win a double. Less than a month ago, he walked away with a first-place win at the BPOE chili cook-off.

Both Murphy and Schuster relied on tried-and-true recipes from meatloaf know-it-alls and tweaked them just right.

Schuster’s mother, Leah Schuster, found the original meatloaf recipe in a 50-year-old copy of an Ohio Mennonite cookbook, now held together with rubber bands. It was the family favorite her son recalled from his youth.

“I grew up on this recipe,” Kurt Schuster said. “Of course, I tweaked it.”

Slow cooking to keep the loaf from drying out is critical. Adding Lipton onion soup mix and filling the center with grated cheddar cheese kicks up the flavor, he said.

Leah Schuster said onion soup mix wasn’t a secret she got from the Mennonites.

“I use Lipton onion soup in my goulash, too. It really adds to the flavor,” she said.

Leah Schuster was among the cheering section whooping and hollering as event organizer Jim Shoultz announced the winner.

Arms raised high in a victory stance, Kurt Schuster paraded past Murphy, who was among the crowd waiting in line for a $3.50 sandwich crafted from the remains of the entries.

Murphy, who finished second, wasn’t sure how long local Elks have been meatloafing, but he has entered the contest about 10 or 12 times in the last 15 years, he said.

Murphy gets the credit for raising the bar by limiting ingredients to no more than 20 percent filler per 4 pounds of meat.

“My recipe originally came from the Waldorf Astoria. The Cajun Creole topping is right out of a Paul Prudhomme cookbook – but I modified it,” he said.

James Chavez, owner of Durango Barbecue Co. and a frequent prize-winner in local cooking contests, including Snowdown’s chili cook-off and the Kiwanis Club Fourth of July Barbecue Shoot-Off, walked away from the meatloaf contest empty-handed, but it won’t discourage the first-timer from trying again next year.

“Yeah, I’ll enter again. I had fun with it,” Chavez said.

Chavez said appearance matters most.

“First, the meatloaf has to look good if anyone is going to eat it,” he said.

But the judges disagreed.

“It’s all about taste,” said BPOE trustee Ed Lacey, who developed the judging criteria and instructed the judges about how to assign quarter- and half-point differences in scores.

Uniform slices cut from the center of each entry were divided among three judges, who forked at barbecue, salsa and bacon-topped crusts, guessing at ingredients and commenting openly about subtle differences.

“At least they’re all edible,” judge Dean Fagner, owner of Four Leagues Winery, said with relief.

kbanesi@durangoherald.com

Tradition defines taste

Meatloaf cook-off “rules” may reflect food trends and the economy, but individual taste preferences more often reflect those long-ago family suppers around the kitchen table.
“Meatloaf is something most people grow up with. It’s a nostalgic thing,” said Ken & Sue’s restaurant chef Beau Black, a native of Bayfield.
“I ate my dad’s meatloaf, and it was just all right. Often it was (made with) deer or elk. Back then I didn’t like the way he added onions,” Black said.
Years later, however, he realized that he missed his father’s meatloaf and started making it himself, adjusting the original mixture to satisfy his adult preferences.
“You perfect it over time,” he said.
As a chef at Ken & Sue’s, Black prepares what is arguably Durango’s best-known restaurant meatloaf – Aunt Lydia’s Meatloaf – two or three times a week, meeting 25 to 30 requests for the popular comfort food. The dish remains on the menu 13 years after co-owner Sue Fusco first honored her elderly Aunt Lydia by offering a gussied-up version of her original recipe.
Ken and Sue’s version is a far cry from the concoction most of us know as the best way to stretch lesser cuts of meat with filler and seasoning.
Black grinds fresh tenderloin, strip loin and pork. To the traditional meatloaf seasonings, he then adds Panko bread crumbs, half-and-half, garlic, fennel and red pepper flakes.
No onions are in the mix, but caramelized onions and crisp, thinly sliced tobacco onion wisps garnish the meatloaf, which is served open-faced on house-made focaccia, with hand-smashed potatoes and gravy. The dinner portion includes a side of sauteed spinach.
Many of the meatloaf recipes offered at Friday’s meatloaf cook-off at the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks included a bacon-strip topping, a reflection of a national trend that features bacon front and center. Once married only to beans, bacon has become the garnish du jour for everything from cupcakes to chocolate.
Tomato – and its chopped-up Southwestern cousins, salsa and picante – sauced several of the contest entries. Ketchup was the basis of many sweetened meatloaf glazes.
Retiree and longtime Elks member Carrell Shubert, one of several cooks who launched the inaugural meatloaf competition, adds a Southwestern twist to the meatloaf that his mother, Retha Shubert, made 60 years ago.
Although he didn’t compete this year, Shubert has won multiple times in the past. His secret? He adds shredded colby cheese and Pace brand picante sauce to a meatloaf base of chopped tomatoes, cumin, oregano, ground round and a half sleeve of saltines crackers for every 2.5 pounds of meat.
“They won’t let me participate anymore,” he said jokingly.
Bacon toppings and onion soup mix may have been key components of this year’s winning recipes, but neither ingredient is anything new. The 10th edition of the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, published in 1959, suggests adding “two tablespoons of dried onion soup mix or flakes,” before patting the mixture “into a greased loaf pan… Over the top lay 4 strips of bacon.”
All three judges for the BPOE meatloaf competition talked of their Midwestern beef-belt roots, where meatloaf was a staple of their childhood meals.
Geography, too, influences the peculiarity of meatloaf ingredients. Some home cooks add oatmeal, rice, carrots, celery and Worcestershire sauce to beef, pork or a combination of ground meats. Dairy, including eggs, added to bread or crackers, usually is the binder.
But any abundant ingredient can land in the mix, one of the judges said. When it comes to meatloaf, it’s all fair game.
kbanesi@durangoherald.com

Kurt Schuster’s Winning Meatloaf

NOtes: Like all good meatloaf recipes, this one begs to be messed with. Schuster adds shredded cheddar cheese to the mix and places strips of bacon over the top of the loaf before baking.


Ingredients:


2 pounds ground beef
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup milk
3-4 eggs, beaten
1-2 packages Lipton Beefy Onion Soup mix
1 medium onion, minced

METHOD:


Preheat oven to 375 F. Combine all ingredients, taking care not to over-mix. Shape into a loaf and place in a loaf pan. Bake until core temperature reaches 170 F.
Recipe adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Messing with meatloaf

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James Chavez prepares meatloaf at his home on Friday for a competition at the Elks Lodge in Durango later that night. Chavez didn’t win, but said he had fun while cooking.
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James Chavez prepares meatloaf at his home for a competition at the Elks Lodge in Durango.
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James Chavez finishes his meatloaf with a ketchup-based sauce at his home for a competition at the Elks Lodge in Durango.
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Dean Fagner, right, and Mark Engelbrecht judge meatloaf entries at the Elks Club Meatloaf Cook-off at the Elks Lodge in Durango.
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