Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden
When the wind blows cool and the scent of autumn is in the air; when a black cat springs across our path and the mailboxes look like gravestones; when pumpkins appear on stoops and teakettles whistle . . . this is when my sister and I devour Practical Magic. Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel is a delight of magical realism—a story of multiple generations of sisters and the bonds between them that transcend the merely practical. The 1998 film adaptation (starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) focuses on Gillian and Sally Owens, sisters as different as night and day, practical Sally taking charge around their aunts’ ramshackle house while hedonistic Gillian idles away her days.
For me, the line between food and magic is always thin. There’s a kind of implicit magic to cooking—the transformation of ingredients through combination and heat—just as there’s an earthy practicality in the mixture of herbs and ingredients in spells. The creation of a dish and the creation of a spell, that is, are close as sisters.
It’s no wonder, then, that Hoffman’s novel is packed full of descriptions of food: everything from the goopy chocolate bars that Gillian munches for breakfast and the pizzas that she later shares with a stranger, so wrapped up in each other that they consume food ordered for five, to the well-balanced meals Sally cooks in spite of her aunts’ laissez-faire attitude toward nutrition and the tinned pears she slurps when she’s too deep in her own grief to bother cooking.
The film version echoes this preoccupation with food: nearly all the central scenes take place in the aunts’ kitchen, where there are bowls heaped with loaves of bread, baskets of lemons and limes, dusty bottles of wine, and enough china to feed the whole town in which the Owens women are outsiders. Indeed, the spells that populate the film are all cooked up in the kitchen, stirred like soups and administered as palliatives. Gillian and Sally even use whipped cream to draw a pentagram on the chest of a man they’re trying to bring back to life.
Both the book and the film ruminate on the necessary balance that must be struck between the practical and the magical in order to be fulfilled, so it seems only fitting that I prepare a thematic dish that does the same. Sally and Gillian go to live with their aunts’ after their parents’ deaths and they are allowed to run wild, eating and sleeping as they wish. Gillian takes to this immediately, but Sally is another story:
“From the time she was in third grade, and Gillian in second, Sally was the one who cooked healthy dinners of meat loaf and fresh green beans and barley soup, using recipes from a copy of Joy of Cooking she’d managed to smuggle into the house. She fixed their lunch-boxes each morning, packing up turkey-and-tomato sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, adding carrot sticks and iced oatmeal cookies, all of which Gillian tossed in the trash the instant after Sally had deposited her in her classroom, since she preferred the sloppy joes and brownies sold in the school cafeteria” (7).
Today, I’ve made a meatloaf of which Sally would approve, but which tastes a bit like the sloppy joes that Gillian loves. It’s a barbecue meatloaf that’s as moist and flavorful as it gets, and I’ve paired it with green beans in smashed roasted garlic and paprika to echo the smokiness of the meatloaf. My meatloaf is half ground sirloin and half ground pork, but you can use whatever combination of meat you prefer.
I’ve made mine in two mini-loaf pans instead of one large so that I can freeze one; that’s the magic of the practical. This version gets coated with barbecue sauce, but you could also lay strips of bacon across it, or stud it with a beautiful smoked cheddar—whatever your favorite way to dress up meatloaf may be. To serve leftovers, I like to reheat a slice in the oven with barbecue sauce spooned over it.
Ultimately, whether we’re reading aloud from Hoffman’s novel or watching the (admittedly slightly silly) antics of Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman while we eat, sharing food with my sister is about the most magical thing there is. I hope you cook up this dinner of meatloaf and green beans and share the magic with favorite people of your own.
Practical Magic Meatloaf and Green Beans
Prep time:20 minutes
Total time:1 hour 30 minutes
Makes 1 large (9×5-inch) meatloaf or 2 small (5×3-inch) meatloaves; serves four
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 teaspoon fresh oregano
- 1/2 cup chicken or beef broth
- 1/4 cup coffee
- 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce + additional barbecue sauce for brushing the meatloaf and serving
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon bourbon
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons tamari or soy sauce
- 1 canned chipotle in adobo, chopped, + 1 tablespoon adobo from can
- 1/4 cup rolled or quick oats
- 1 pound ground meat (I used 1/2 pound ground sirloin and 1/2 pound ground pork)
adapted from Flavors by Pamela Morgan
- Green Beans
- 4 garlic cloves, halved
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika or adobo from can
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound fresh green beans, rinsed and trimmed
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Make the meatloaf:
Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan or skillet over medium heat until it shimmers.
Stir in the onion and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent and tender. Add the thyme and oregano and cook for about 5 minutes more.
Add the broth, coffee, cocoa powder, cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until the liquid has evaporated.
Scrape into a medium mixing bowl and stir in the barbecue sauce. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk the egg, bourbon, Worcestershire, tamari, chopped chipotle, and adobo sauce together.
In a large bowl, stir the cooled barbecue mixture, egg mixture, meat, and oats together with a spatula or your hands.
Spoon the meatloaf into your loaf pan(s) and brush a thin, even layer of barbecue sauce on top of the loaf.
Bake for about 45-55 minutes (mini loaf pans) or 60-70 minutes (standard loaf pan), until a thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf registers 165˚F. Let the meatloaf rest for 15 minutes before serving.
Prepare the green beans while the meatloaf bakes:
Fold a large piece of foil in half and place the 4 garlic cloves in the center. Drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
Fold the foil up tightly to seal and roast alongside the meatloaf for about 40 minutes, or until the garlic is golden, soft, and spreadable.
When your garlic is ready, remove from the oven and carefully pour into a medium mixing bowl. Smash the garlic with the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil, paprika or adobo, salt, and pepper.
Blanch or steam the green beans: bring a 3-4 quart stockpot filled or half-filled with water to a boil.
Add the prepped green beans directly to the water if blanching, or add a steamer basket if steaming. Cook for 5-7 minutes until the beans are tender.
Drain the beans and add to the mixing bowl with the garlic. Toss together with tongs or a spatula.
Now you’re ready for a healthy dinner, Sally- and Gillian-style!