What a great stand-by beef mince (ground beef) is when you're feeding a family. I'm not wild about mince (isn't it an annoying and gristly word, 'mince'?) and I loathe the way it goes all lumpy and grey and sticks to the pan when you fry it. However - provided that it's lean mince you're using - it's a good healthy high-protein staple, loved by most kids and teens and also by men hankering after mom's spag bol or meat loaf.
I have shamelessly copied the words above directly from the opening paragraph of my 2007 post on this blog - 'Mince for supper again?' - because I can't be arsed to think up a new way of introducing this most humdrum of ingredients.
I buy mince at least once a week - as do, I'm sure, many other lucky families in the developed world - because it's still relatively inexpensive, it's versatile, it makes good leftovers, and because I firmly believe that my sprouting teens should eat plenty of nourishing, blood-enriching lean red meat.
I think the last time I got excited about cooking mince was in 1982, when I made a killer spag bol in the kitchen of my student digs, cheered on by my admiring housemates, after we'd had many glasses of OB (Old Brown Sherry).
Frankly, mince does not blow my skirt up.
Until last week, when I found myself staring gloomily at a kilogram of fresh minced beef. I toyed with the idea of making a mommy-style meatloaf, baked in a loaf pan and topped with the usual gloopy sauce of sugar, tomato sauce and spices, and then I thought, well, there has to be more to mince...
Anyway, here is the result. These mini-loaves (more like giant muffins, actually) were tender and flavoursome, and they looked rather cheffy, with their puffed-up tops and neat little collars of streaky bacon (yes, I know bacon isn't exactly a staple food in Morocco, or a particularly healthy choice for family food. You can leave it out if you like, but it does add succulence, keep the 'loaves' in shape, and prevent the mince from drying out).
This is a long recipe, with a lot of ingredients, and it takes a while to prepare. But it is worth the effort, especially if you double the quantities and keep the mini-loaves for lunch, or lunchboxes, or the freezer.
The vegetables need to be very finely chopped; I use this wonderful device, which produces a perfect, tiny dice in seconds. You could, at a pinch, grate all the vegetables in a food processor fitted with a coarse grating blade.
If you don't have preserved lemons to hand, use a little finely grated lemon rind instead. See notes about preserved lemons at the end of this post. You can use fresh mint, instead of dried, in the yoghurt sauce, but dried mint has a special flavour. Again, see notes at end of recipe.
Moroccan-Spiced Mini Meat-Loaves with Lemon & Mint Yoghurt
250 g streaky bacon
2 t (10 ml) sunflower or canola oil
1 large onion, very finely chopped
1/2 a green pepper [bell pepper], deseeded and very finely chopped
1/2 a red pepper [bell pepper], deseeded and very finely chopped
2 10-cm sticks celery, very finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 ½ cups (375 ml) fresh breadcrumbs (white or brown bread)
1 kg lean minced beef
100 ml finely chopped fresh parsley
100 ml finely chopped fresh coriander [cilantro]
1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
6 T (90 ml) plain, thick white yoghurt
6 T (90 ml) tomato sauce [ketchup]
2 t (10 ml) Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 ½ t (7.5 ml) Worcestershire sauce
Spicing and seasoning:
1 ½ t (7.5 ml) ground cinnamon
1 T (15 ml) ground cumin
1 t (5 ml) ground coriander
1 t (5 ml) paprika
1 t (5 ml) red chilli powder or cayenne pepper (optional)
1 ½ t (7.5 ml) salt
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
For the yoghurt sauce:
½ a cucumber, finely diced
½ t (2.5 ml) salt
1 ½ (375 ml) cups plain white yoghurt
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
a squeeze of lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 T (15 ml) preserved lemon, very finely chopped or minced
2 t (10 ml) dried mint (see notes at end of recipe)
Take 80 g (about 6 slices, or a quarter of the 250 g packet of streaky bacon) and cut it into a small dice. Set the remaining bacon aside. Heat a frying pan, add the vegetable oil and fry the bacon until it just begins to crisp. Add the finely chopped onion, green and red pepper, celery and garlic, and cook, over a medium heat, and without browning, for 5-7 minutes, or until the vegetables are slightly softened, but not mushy (tender-crisp, in other words). Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Put the mince, breadcrumbs and finely chopped parsley and coriander into a big mixing bowl. Add the egg, the yoghurt, the tomato sauce, the Tabasco sauce and Worcestershire sauce, along with all the spices and the cooked, cooled vegetable/bacon mixture. Season well with salt and pepper. Using your hands, squish and squeeze the mixture until it is thoroughly combined; this should take a good two to three minutes.
Set a large baking tray or oven-proof ceramic dish on the counter. Divide the mixture into eight portions (each about the size of a tennis ball). Roll each portion into a ball, then place each one on a chopping board so that its top and bottom are flattened. Using the palms of your hands, coax the vertical sides of the mixture upwards, turning all the time, until you have a squat, round-topped tower about 6 cm (2 ½ inches) high. Wrap a piece of streaky bacon around the base of each 'tower' and secure the ends with a toothpick. (If the bacon doesn't reach all the way round, pat and prod the 'tower' so it is a little taller, and its base a little smaller).
Arrange the towers, just touching one another, on the baking dish. Brush the tops of the towers with a little olive oil or melted butter and place in the hot oven. Bake at 180 C for 30-35 minutes, or until cooked right through.
In the meantime, make the yoghurt sauce. Put the chopped cucumbers in a sieve over a bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Allow to stand for 15 minutes. Press down well with the back of a spoon to remove excess liquid. Put the chopped cucumbers into a mixing bowl and add all the remaining sauce ingredients. Decant into a clean bowl and place in the fridge until you're ready to serve the meat loaf.
Remove the meat loaves from the oven and allow to rest for a few minutes. Serve hot with a dollop of cool yoghurt dressing and baked potatoes, or steamed baby potatoes.
Preserved lemons: So easy to make at home, but the problem is that they need a month or so to mature. Here's a great recipe for preserved lemons.
Preserving preserved lemons by freezing them: Another drawback of preserved lemons is that they only last for four or five months in the fridge before they lose their flavour and go slimy. The answer is to freeze them, and here is how: when your preserved lemons are ready and at their best, remove the jar from the fridge. Tip the contents of the jar into a colander set over the sink and rinse the lemon slices under cold running water to remove excess salt. Put each wedge, skin-side down, on a chopping board and, using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, its blade held parallel with the chopping board, slice the yellow softened skin away from the white pith and pulp. Discard the pith and pulp and finely chop the skin into tiny pieces. (If you have enough skin, you could whizz it in a food processor to reduce it to a fine shred). Place the chopped lemon rind into a polythene bag or small tupperware box, label and freeze. Use as needed.
Dried mint: To dry fresh mint, wash a bunch of mint and strip off the leaves. Shake well. Spread the leaves loosely on a baking tray, and put them on the middle rack of your oven. Turn the heat down to its lowest setting and bake until they are quite dry. Crumble the leaves and store in a clean, airtight jar for a up to a month.