Meatloaf is one of those comfort foods I fall back on every couple of months; the only problem with it is that a decent-size one (hello, leftovers) takes forever to bake in the oven—always longer than I expect, which doesn’t work very well for weekdays, exactly when I tend to want comforting meals. I’ll admit I was surprised to discover only recently that an excellent old-school meatloaf can be made in a slow cooker. The top doesn’t get as browned and crusty as it does in the oven, but that’s fixed here with a toasted bread crumb topping that’s added just before serving.
In a large bowl, combine the torn bread and the milk, then add the eggs, salt, several grindings of pepper, and the fennel, if using, and stir well. Stir in the spinach, parsley, and carrot, then add the ground meat and mix with your hands to thoroughly incorporate them into the spinach mixture. Shape into a loaf in the bowl.
Arrange the celery sticks crosswise in the bottom of the slow cooker pot (to hold the meatloaf up over the liquid it will release), then drape a large sheet of aluminum foil crosswise in the cooker over the celery and up and over the sides of the pot. Turn the meatloaf out of the bowl and onto the foil in the cooker. Cover the cooker (catching the foil under the lid) and cook on low for 8 hours. If you’re cooking for less than 8 hours, check the internal temperature of the meatloaf with an instant-read thermometer; it should be at least 160°F (70°C).
Tear the reserved bread crusts into small crumbs and spread on a baking sheet in the oven to dry out until evening.
Drizzle the crumbs with the oil and season with salt and pepper.
Carefully use the foil to lift the meatloaf out of the cooker and transfer it to a platter. Top with the toasted crumbs and serve.
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