Why do meatballs have such a great reputation but meatloaf gets such a bad rap? Aren’t they really the same, or at least in the same family? They are both excellent ways to turn slightly stale bread into culinary masterpieces, take advantage of cheaper ground meat selections, and sneak veggies where you’d least expect them.
But meatloaf has made a comeback and, if done correctly, can even beat out its competition. It comes together quickly and has enough surface area to support a cheesy, crunchy topping. I used the same method for binding the meatloaf as I do for my meatballs. It keeps everything deliciously moist and pulls it all together without washing out the meatloaf into a bready, flavorless mush.
Bacon can be substituted for the pancetta in this recipe or omitted entirely. If you do use it, it is a major flavor buster and discovering those little nuggets in a slice is delightful. I loaded this recipe with veggies and even thought about renaming it Chicken Cacciatore Meatloaf. In the end the topping was too reminiscent of chicken Parmesan and that was my original inspiration so I stuck with it.
Chicken Parmesan Meatloaf
2 TBSP olive oil, divided
4 oz pancetta, diced
2 slices stale Italian country or ciabatta bread
1 cup whole milk
1 bunch green onions, sliced greens and white parts separated
1 red bell pepper, diced
a handful of cremini mushrooms, diced
1 lb ground chicken
1/2 cup marinara sauce, homemade or store-bought plus additional for serving
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Special Equipment Needed: Food Processor Optional
Preheat oven to 400 deg F. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and add pancetta. Stir until fat is rendered and pancetta is beginning to crisp. Meanwhile soak two slices of bread in 1 cup whole milk. Add the white portion of the green onions, red bell pepper, and mushrooms to the pancetta. Cook 5-7 minutes until vegetables soften. Remove from heat and reserve. Squeeze soaked bread with your hands to rid it of most of the moisture and transfer to a food processor. Process until the texture is uniformly the size of bread crumbs. (Alternatively you could use your hands and a sharp knife.) Mix these bread crumbs together with the ground chicken, vegetables and pancetta, and two eggs. Stir to combine with a fork or your hands
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and form the ground chicken mixture into approximately the shape of a bread loaf. Don’t worry to much about what it looks like. Top with marinara sauce and bake 40-45 minutes. While the meatloaf is cooking combine bread crumbs, Parmesan, and olive oil. I made my bread crumbs from the same stale loaf of bread I was using for the meatloaf. Place breadcrumbs on top of meatloaf for the last 15 minutes. If the breadcrumbs don’t brown and crisp nicely, an additional 2-3 minutes under the broiler at the end will help. Serve with marinara on the side.