Meatloaf may be poor man's pate, but isn't it good in all its rustic splendor?

Gourmets hardly ever insist that you eat it with mango salsa, sprinkle cilantro over it or fill it with exotic mushrooms.No one at the same table will look askance if you dump ketchup all over meatloaf. The cook might have already done it during the last part of baking, giving the loaf a sweet-sour glaze of ketchup, mustard and brown sugar.

There may even be a lot of ketchup in the meatloaf mix. (You remember ketchup. It's the plastic squeeze bottle pushed to the back of the fridge or glued to the shelf in the refrigerator door since salsa has become a staple).

Unfortunately, as good as meatloaf is, and as often as people develop cravings for it, in its classic form it requires at least an hour to bake. You can cook mini-meatloaves more quickly, of course, or convoluted microwave recipes that end up in a conventional oven just to brown the loaf. But such shortcuts don't seem to be as satisfying.

And there is a simpler way to get meatloaf flavor in minutes: Make a long open-face sandwich with a baked-on meatloaf topping.

This is unusual treatment for ground beef; the raw beef mixture is spread on bread and quickly baked in a really hot oven. It turns out to be really tasty and rather attractive, too, if you add last-minute frills of tomato slices, green-pepper rings and triangles of processed Swiss cheese.

Cut the long, crispy loaf crosswise after baking to form each serving. This is a guaranteed family winner.

The bonus is that ultra-lean ground round is used to best advantage for this meatloaf sandwich recipe. The beef must be really lean so that it doesn't soak the bread base with drippings as the sandwich bakes at a high temperature.

The recipe was tested with 96 percent fat-free ground round bought at a service meat counter. This is ground beef so lean that it makes burgers too dry, but it's perfect for this meatloaf topping, because you add moisture and the concentrated flavor and nutrients of tomato paste - an entire 6-ounce can for a pound or less of beef.

More and more canned tomato products, including tomato pastes, are available with a variety of seasonings already in the can. The sandwich recipe was tested with Italian-flavored tomato paste; if using plain paste, stir in 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano and a little garlic, if you like. The most important point is to be sure you're using tomato paste, not tomato sauce, for the recipe. You want an intense tomato flavor in the meatloaf topping. Shredded Parmesan cheese adds more Italian flavor, plus its saltiness, to the ground-beef mixture.

As for the bread base, any loaf of Italian bread will do, even Vienna. Use a long-bladed serrated knife to gently saw the long loaf of bread in half lengthwise.

Pepperidge Farm brown-and-serve Italian bread, one loaf from a twin-pack, worked well for the open-face sandwich. French baguettes may be too crisp; the high oven temperature can render the twice-baked bread as hard as Melba toast. That's why softer loaves, such as the brown-and-serve type or less crusty Italian bread, work so well for the recipe.

Here are directions for the quick-and-easy meatloaf sandwich, plus a recipe for old-fashioned meatloaf from the comfort-food cookbook, "Diner: The Best of Casual American Cooking," by Diane Rossen Worthington (Sunset Books, 1995, $19.95 hardcover).

The Los-Angeles food writer recommends using ground beef with 20 percent fat for a tender, moist meatloaf.

To help drain off the fatty drippings, Worthington mentions a nifty invention, a specialized meatloaf baking vessel consisting of one pan with drainage holes set inside a second pan. They're available in some housewares departments and specialty kitchenware shops.

Lacking such a pan, you can drain excess drippings by baking your meatloaf on top of a broiler pan instead of in the usual loaf pan. The tradeoff is that the perfect loaf shape will be transformed into a slightly flattened oval.

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Recipes

OPEN FACE MEATLOAF SANDWICH

Yield: 6 servings

Prep time: 10 minutes

Baking: 15 minutes

3/4 pound ground round (ultra-lean beef)

1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 (6-ounce) can Italian-flavored tomato paste (not sauce)

Hot-pepper sauce to taste

1 long loaf Italian or brown-and-serve bread, unsliced

2 small tomatoes, thinly sliced

1/2 small green bell pepper, cut into rings

3 or 4 processed Swiss cheese slices, cut in triangles

Have oven heating to 450 degrees F. In a small mixing bowl, use a kitchen fork to blend the uncooked ground round with the Parmesan cheese, onion, tomato paste and hot sauce. Blend well.

Use a long-bladed, serrated knife to slice the long loaf of bread in half lengthwise. Turn each half of the loaf cut side up on a baking sheet, placing them side by side. Divide the beef mixture in half and spread each portion the length of the bread in an even layer, covering the cut side of the bread completely, right to the edges.

Bake for about 10 minutes (the beef layer is thin enough to cook through in this short time). Remove the baking sheet from the oven and alternate slices of tomato, bell pepper and Swiss cheese on top of each sandwich half. Return to the oven to melt the cheese and finish cooking the beef so no pink color remains. (The tomato paste turns the meat a rosy color, so check carefully for doneness.) Slice crosswise into chunks to serve.

OLD FASHIONED MEATLOAF

Yield: 6 servings

Prep time: 30 minutes

Baking: 1 1/4 hours

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 carrot, scraped, shredded or finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds lean ground beef

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2/3 cup ketchup

1/2 cup tomato sauce (see note)

In a nonstick skillet over medium heat, warm the vegetable oil. Use for sauteing the onion and carrot, stirring occasionally, until the carrot begins to soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Have oven heating to 350. Locate a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. Lightly oil the sides, if it's not a nonstick baking pan.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the beef, bread crumbs and the vegetable mixture. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt, pepper, thyme, parsley, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup. Pour the egg mixture over the beef and use your hands or a sturdy kitchen fork to mix the ingredients. Handle just enough to combine evenly. Do not overmix or the loaf will be too compact and dry.

Pat the meat mixture gently into the loaf pan; don't press too firmly. Pour the 1/2 cup tomato sauce evenly over the top. Bake until the loaf has begun to shrink from the sides of the pan and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 150 degrees, about 11/4 hours. Transfer to a rack and let cool for 10 minutes.

Cut the meat loaf into thick slices and, using a spatula, lift out of the pan and place on warmed individual plates. Serve warm or cold, accompanied with more of the tomato sauce, if desired.

Note: For a sweet-sour glaze, delete the 1/2 cup tomato sauce and substitute 1/3 cup ketchup, 1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard and 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar. Spread over the meatloaf after the first hour of baking so brown sugar doesn't burn (ketchup also contains sugar).

(Recipe adapted from "Diner" by Diane Rossen Worthington.)