Beef. It is, still, what’s for dinner.
I grew up in a place (Cleveland, Ohio) where, and time (the 70’s and 80’s) when anything for dinner that wasn’t a) beef and b) potato was thought of as, well, just plain evil. Of course we had the singular chinese take-out joint from time to time (yeah!) and those two really, reeaalllly bad pizza places (each slice had enough cheese on top to sink a latest generation aircraft carrier. Maybe a whole fleet. And if you waited t’ill the pizza got cold, well, its resulting density was only slighter more than your average neutron star. Set it near a lamp and the light would bend.) And we ate spaghetti sometimes but with ragout so most nights there was something that used to ‘moo’ on the plate and, ex-noodles, something vaguely green and a potato in some form as side dishes.
Not that that’s a bad or good thing. Or even evil. But my mother tended to adopt her cooking times to my father and older brother’s specific…tastes. Both of them tended to like food… cooked. As in dead-real-dead, petrified really. Steaks were, until university, dry, dark things that could be used as roof shingles in a pinch. I would need at least 12 glasses of milk just to swallow half of whatever abused remnants of a moo-moo was placed in front of me at the table. Even Rio, our small collie mix, couldn’t manage to grind down the… oddly brown-black beef tile leftovers. And burgers… were useful in that I could use those leftovers for shot-put practice. I’d say she cooked them usually about…. 50 minutes or so on each side. Throw one hard enough and you could have, in the right circumstances, killed somebody. Well, if not murder at least put them in the hospital awhile.
Luckily the round-ish lumps were often grilled outside and made of good quality ground round so if you topped them with enough ketchup, say, about a half gallon… you could mush them down enough to eat and notice that the flavors were good. Surprisingly. Intense, I suppose you could have described them. Like having to sit and watch an entire Wagnerian opera. Kiww the wabbit. Anyway.
That last part stuck with me – the quality of the meat you use, and the grilling, are what determine whether a burger is something oddly perfect, a grand dish, or, uh… something more adapt for a drive-through, paid for across a window, necessitating suger-coated fried potatoes as a side distraction, various special and not-so-special sauces to mask the meat’s mediocrity while the whole eaten quickly, parked aside where few if anyone else can spy, radio on softly, motor running, in shame: ‘Bless me father for I have sinned…’ ‘Eat 3 green salads and drink 2 cups of herbal tea. Amen.’ Still, the lovely feel of a thick, juicy grilled patty with a slice of melted cheese on top remained second to apple pie, mom’s, of course, in the list of culinary things missed when overseas.
So much like everyone else from the midwest… there was a time when cheeseburger was the concept and word of the first thing I ate whenever returning from overseas. I would change my itinerary, literally, to pass through an airport with a decent burger place, paying that little extra a few times or maybe extending travel time a few hours to make sure I had time for the much anticipated ritual, the bland tiredness of after a longish flight, passing through customs, picking up and re-checking bags, strolling to transport to change terminals, walking slowly through the rush of people to the restaurant, wheedling through the tables with my handbags filled with stuff to give, plop down at a wooden table, order the double or biggest cheeseburger they had, smile quietly as the waiter or tress strode over to me tray in hand, breath in deep, plop on the ketchup, wrap my hands around the warmed bun, open up and—ahhhhhh.
That was long ago… now we almost have access globally, pretty much, to all sorts of decent burgers, even burger oddness: roadhouse grills, black angus pseudo-american diners, burgers topped with truffles and gold foil, tofu vegan burgers, turkey burgers, triple bacon burgers, pineapple toppings, mushroom, wasabi, mexican chile, soy, ginger, red bean … all sorts of stuff. Agreeable, mostly: make them as you want them. Not just your way right away, though the ‘right away’ part is still often requisite.
I still thoroughly enjoy a good burger from time to time and despite the globalization of the food industry away from the states, if you want a pretty good burger…your safest bet is to do it yourself. Which I do. The first step, of course, is the beef.
Finding a competent, honest butcher is worth your while. I buy mine from a crusty, aged, silver-haired one, thin and serious, who demonstrates an avid passion for both his market and meat in general. Half and half I use usually, half beef and half ‘vitellone’ or veal but not of the milkish kind (adolescent I suppose you could call them – it might sound a bit monstrous but if you’re going to be eating it…it’s not a bad thing to recall, show some respect. Adult but less than a year old.) The color of the meat is clearer than beef yet darker than the veal you’re likely used to. And if not local then at least as close by as possible – my butcher only uses certified piedmont beef.
The cuts and relative fat content is then a personal issue. Ie, you can use any ground meat really, almost, mixing and matching, lamb, pork, ecc., adding flavors into the mix, artichokes, olives, suaces, etc. I’m more of a purist with regards to the meat, and I prefer my burgers fairly lean and large, about 180 grams or so – if the patty is pure, you don’t need to cover up its flavor but enhance it. Something like this –
Of late I make a topping sauce out of sweet scallions and ginger. It’s easy to do, better tasting and much cheeper than most stuff (onion jam) you can find in a jar. Simply slice through (thin strips) the body of a scallion or two (or sweet red onion), salt and pepper, lightly toss them in butter with maybe a drop or two of olive oil (always virgin. Don’t ever use the chemically extracted cheap stuff,) for a minute -or three- until the slices just begin to become translucent, then add some water, sugar, and honey maybe. Like this –
…and slowly at lowest temperature, cover and boil. Later, grate in some ginger juice or not. If you don’t have a grating plane like the one shown, well, get one. They’re worth it. On lowest heat let the onion sauce-chutney go for about 15-20 minutes or so or until it’s thick, taste and adjust for sweetness and flavor, and let it simmer until you get something that looks like this below –
Next of course is the bread…and that, to, depends on what kind of finished burger you’re shooting for. Make it proportional to the beef and toppings and use the kind of bread that fits well with whatever’s going into the sandwich. Well, as best you can. I usually add fresh sliced scallion, tomato and mayo, sometimes an egg gently fried sunny side up, sometimes cheese, mixed greens, you know, the usual.
Penultimate…the potatoes. Sometimes instead of fries I try to prep them with a little more flavor, boiling wedges in broth before tossing and crisping them in flavored butter, whatever your taste. I often lightly crush a garlic clove and add a little sage, salt and pepper. Let the butter melt on lowest of heat as the potatoes are almost ready, then turn off the flame below them while putting the butter on high some seconds while you strain, transfer and toss. Then lower the heat – only a bit – and wait. And wait some more. And when you think you should turn the wedges, wait another minute before doing so – you’ll find they’ve turned a lovely golden-brown on the down side. I turn them over one-by-one to make sure but you can simply roughly toss them – but then be sure not to over-cook those potatoes that didn’t turn over. Then, once they’re crispy, transfer them into the now empty pan you prepped the burgers in to sweep up those small flakes of caramelized beef, and plate. Like this:
….which, along with a good beer, is still: Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.