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June 2014

What's Your Secret for a Perfect Hamburger?

Hamburger_plate

The New York Times recently ran an article on how to make the perfect hamburger indoors, and I was stunned to learn that I’ve been doing it correctly all along. Here’s the rub, though—my burgers have been far from perfect. I could never get them cooked properly inside (they were either too raw or completely overdone), until I came up with a trick of my own.

First, though, let me go over what I’ve been doing right. According to the Times’ Sam Sifton, whose authoritative voice on food matters is never to be doubted (except once, maybe), the right way to do it is to cook the burgers on “heavy, cast-iron pans.” It has something to do with the way the fat pools and cooks the meat. My trusty cast-iron frying pan is never far from my side, so that was the easy part. I’ve always used it to cook my burgers. 

The article goes on about getting your butcher to grind the beef for your burger, and I haven’t gotten that part right, yet. Still, I always use grass-fed beef from the Park Slope Food Coop, and it’s pretty good. The article talks at length about the proper ration of meat to fat—80/20—and from the looks of it, I’m doing okay on that account.

Sifton seems to be a purist about the beef patty. No flavorings or fillings for him. I differ on this, and the nice thing about cooking for one’s self is there’s no one to say otherwise. I use two things to flavor my burgers:

Onion

Onion, but not too much (and scallions are even better).

 

Diced_onion

Diced, as small as possible. And again, not too much (I used about half of what’s shown here, in a pound of ground beef).

  Anchovies

And, drum-roll please, anchovies. Yes, just one or two, chopped very finely and mixed into the meat. no one will know they are there, but they will say you make a mighty savory burger. Anchovies are salt and umami bombs.

And the way I get them cooked properly is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. I char them nicely on one side, flip them, and then cook until they are 125 degrees in the center. It takes the guess work out of it for me.

My Perfect Burgers (with apologies to The New York Times)

  • 1/4 or less of an onion (or three or so scallions) diced as finely as possible.
  • 1-2 anchovies, diced  
  • 1 pound ground beef

Combine the beef and the onions and the anchovies in a bowl, and mix with well with your hands.

Fashion the pound of beef into four or five patties.

Heat a cast-iron frying pan on a medium to high flame.

Place the burgers in the pan and flatten a bit with the back of a spoon.

Cook undisturbed for about four minutes, until the char starts to creep up the side of the burger.

Flip and cook on the other side until 125 degrees internal as measured by an instant-read thermometer.

Note: I served the burgers tonight with the Fly Sky High Kale Salad, an oldie but a goodie. The kids even like it now. That's the green in the background on the photo at top. Enjoy.

 


Heuristic Living, Cooking, and Corn Salsa

Corn_Salsa_Fish_Taco

I recently came across the word “heuristic,” which, according to Merriam-Webster, can mean “an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods” or “relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques to improve performance.” 

Bingo! To me, that sounds a lot like the process of learning to cook, but more importantly I see see it as a way to approach parenting, and life. We did it as kids—learning to walk by tripping, learning to ride a bike by falling off it, learning to spell by making mistakes. Somewhere between then and now, however, I forgot that way. I became timid with knowledge. I had to know the right way right away. Or else I would give up.

But it’s easy to get that sense of discovery back. I was at a Chipolte Mexican Grill the other day for lunch with my brother, and I employed a heuristic approach. It was only my second time there, and I ordered with care. The first time I ate there—by myself a few week’s previously—I had asked for a burrito saddled with all the sides. I was so stuffed by the end of it that I could barely move. 

Being full is something new for me. Up until just recently, I could eat a burrito and still be hungry ten minutes later. Clearly, a change is upon me. So when I was with my brother, I ordered a taco, and instead of topping it with guacamole, I asked for corn salsa. Their corn salsa was delicious, and thought “I could make that at home.” 

It took some experimentation. I wanted a smoky, charred corn flavor, but I don’t have a grill. I considered using the gas broiler in my oven, but Santa Maria was concerned that I’d start a fire. So I did what any sensible man would do—I Googled it. Turns out, it’s plenty easy to broil corn in one’s kitchen. Not only do you get a sweet and smoky flavor, you get an added benefit—Even not-so-ideal supermarket corn can be redeemed. 

To test my idea, I did it with one ear, which wasn’t winning any awards. It started like this:

Raw_Corn
 

And after about doing it under the broiler for about four minutes a side and rotating it three or four times (about fifteen minutes total), it looked like this:

 

Grilled_corn_tray

After it cooled a few minutes, I stripped the kernels off. I diced a bit of red pepper, onion, and cilantro and combined it with the corn. After I dressed it with lime juice, salt, and olive oil,  I served it with my fish tacos. An easy lesson in how to live.

Indoor Grilled Corn Salsa

  • 1 to 3 ears of corn, depending on size of your party
  • 1/2 to 1 onion, diced
  • 1/2 to 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, or to taste
  • The juice of half a lime, or to taste
  • A bit of oilve oil

Shuck the corn and coat it with a bit of olive oil and salt. Just run it through your hands and spread a drop or two of oil around. Then salt it. Then arrange the ears on a hotel pan or other tray that can go in the oven.

Put it under the broiler, about six or so inches away, and roast it, about four minutes a side, until the kernels start to char. Rotate the ears with tongs until chared on all sides, about fifteen to twenty minutes, total.

Let the ears cool while chopping the other ingredients, then strip the kernels off and combine everything. 


Summer Smoked Ham and Quinoa Salad

Kraft_Quinoa_Salad_3 EDIT

I’m too young to have heard Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the radio when it became a hit, in 1972, and I’m not much of a heavy-metal fan, but know its refrain well, hailing the end of work and the start of something leisurely. My tastes lean more towards Mungo Jerry and their 1970 chart topper, “In the Summertime,” and George Gershwin’s classic “Summertime,” with its line about the living being easy. 

If only things were really that way. June is as busy as any other month (maybe I don’t have to dig out the car from under a pile of snow, but I still have to move it for alternate-side-of-the-street parking), and I’m often packing lunches in the morning (for camp, instead of school), and schlepping the kids to swimming classes and other activities, along with doing the food shop and cooking. And did I mention working? There’s always that, too (and thankfully so). Yes, life’s a rich pageant (and I sometimes feel it makes as much sense as R.E.M.’s “Begin the Begin”).

In many ways, June and July is even more busy than the rest of the year, with graduation parties, beach trips, Father’s Day (okay, I’m goofing about that one—I usually get the day off), and the Fourth of July. All I’m saying is that having a good time takes time. I love entertaining and cooking for people, and with everything that’s typically going on, I have to use my time well. Whether I’m hosting a gathering or taking food to a pot luck, I want a recipe that’s quick, easy, flavorful, and filling. I make a quinoa salad, and I spice it up with a bit of ham to turn it into a dish that can work as a side dish for very large parties—replacing something like a pasta salad, to go with kabobs, say—and yet is tasty and filling enough to be a main course for a smaller gathering.

Ouinoa is a grain from South America that’s been hailed as a super food (maybe you’ve heard of it? 2013 was officially the International Year of Quinoa, according to the United Nations). The Incas reportedly considered it sacred, and it’s full of protein and other nutrients. It’s gluten-free, too. I make my salad with cucumber, tomato, red pepper, scallions, and cilantro, but the dish lends itself to experimentation. Feel free to use whatever vegetables you prefer. I have an outsized appetite, so I like mine with meat. If you’re a vegetarian, you can skip that ingredient, and still have a complete meal. June is national fruit and vegetable month, too, so if you bring this dish to a party, I’m sure people will be singing its praises (and yours).

Recently, I was invited to join the Kraft Tastemakers program, which encourages home cooking, and I’m very excited to be a part of their initiative. I write this blog to help others see how a little time in the kitchen can pay large dividends in their lives. And speaking of dividends, it’s nice to be compensated for my time here sharing recipes. This is the first of a dozen paid posts that I’ll be doing over the coming year. Thanks for coming along for the ride. The recipe for the Summer Smoked Ham and Quinoa Salad can be found over at their site, here.


Father’s Day Prep: Some Uncommon Goods and A Mystery Solved

BH_LMC copy

Father’s Day is next Sunday, and for years the go-to dish around the Stay at Stove Dad household has been what we call a “Dutch Baby.” It’s a creation of Santa Maria, who got the recipe from her mother. We have it for breakfast, though Santa Maria grew up eating it for dessert, when her mother presented it as a “Hawaiian Pancake.” No matter its name, there’s no question about its appeal. A sort of sweet and savory giant popover that rises radically in the oven and then falls before you can serve it, the dish is as delicious as it is dramatic. Its origins, however, have always been obscure to us. Where did this recipe really come from? Now the mystery has been solved. 

Or, more accurately, the mystery was solved in 2007. Amanda Hesser explained the origins of the dish in the New York Times Magazine that year. How did I miss it? 2007 was the year a black-hole of exhaustion swallowed my existence, following the birth of my second child, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That it took me until now to come across Hesser's article online shows how powerful that black hole was. Maybe now that I've found it, this is a sign that I'm escaping its pull!

For as I discovered, the correct name of the dish is “David Eyres Pancake,” as Craig Claiborne christened it in the Times when he first wrote about it, in 1966, describing it thusly, “It was discovered some weeks ago at an informal Sunday brunch in the handsome, Japanese-style home of the David Eyres in Honolulu. With Diamond Head in the distance, a brilliant, palm-ringed sea below and this delicately flavored pancake before us, we seemed to have achieved paradise.”

The Dutch Baby is paradise, but now that I’m sliding into middle age with the speed of a runner stealing home on a squeeze play, I’m eating lighter. This year Santa Maria and company might need to look further afield for a Father’s Day gift for me. 

One place she might want to check out is Uncommon Goods, which is sponsoring this post. I’m delighted to partner with them for ideas for Father’s Day. Uncommon Goods is a retailer that specializes in handmade and recycled goods. They are a B Corp, which means they meet strict standards for fair wages, environmental impact, and other issues. And they have really cool things, such as framed blueprints of famous baseball stadiums, molecular-gastronomy kits, and clever “Puzzle Pizza Stones,” that comes apart for storing and cleaning. These and many more gifts can be found in their guide for Father’s Day giving. They sell things for inside the house and out, for women and for men. More of their selections for men can be found here. And they can personalize gifts in many categories

Never mind my slowing metabolism, the Dutch Baby has a powerful allure. My kids go crazy for it. Pinta wanted it for her birthday a few weeks ago. I think it was then that I realized that I might need a break from it. Once a year is plenty for me. But you should see for yourself. It really is uncommonly good.

Santa Maria's Dutch Baby

 Batter:

  • 3 large eggs at room temperature 30 minutes
  • 2/3 cup 1 % milk at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter 

Topping: 

  • ¼ c powdered sugar
  • ½ lemon, juiced

Put a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on middle rack of oven and preheat oven to 450°F. 

Beat eggs with a whisk until pale and frothy, then beat in milk, flour, nutmeg, and salt and continue to beat until smooth, about 1 minute more (batter will be thin).

Add butter to hot skillet and melt, swirling to coat. Add batter and immediately return skillet to oven. Bake until puffed and golden-brown, 18 to 25 minutes.

Serve immediately, topped with powdered sugar and lemon juice.

Serve with cherry jam. Mmmmmmmmm.

Image credit: The black-hole image at the top is via By User:Alain r (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons


Making Mirepoix and Finding the Truth

Mirepoix

When I was cooking this morning, I started to think about Nietzsche, who, in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” said:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonyms, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

His approach has been commonly explained by using the metaphor of an onion: peel long enough at the layers of language and nothing remains. I was making mirepoix, and though I had no trouble with my onions, when I started to read about mirepoix, I became lost. Before I get to that, however, let me explain the basics of a mirepoix.

Mirepoix is a flavor base made with onions, carrots, and celery. I use it in countless recipes. This morning, I had added bacon to it, for my Bolognese sauce. It’s the base for my chili, my chicken soup, and any number of stews, including my experiments with wild boar and lentils.

The traditional ratio for a mirepoix is two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery. I make mine a bit heavier on the carrot and lighter on the celery, but that’s just my preference. Learn to cook for yourself, and you can change things according to your tastes.

A mirepoix makes use of aromatics, which are various herbs, plants, and spices that impart flavors. Once you start looking at mirepoix on this level, things start to get complex. Michael Ruhlman explains aromatics in this post of his.

According to “Larousse Gastronomique” (by way of the Internet), the term “Mirepoix” dates to the 18th century, and comes from “the cook of the Duc de Levis-Mirepoix, a French field marshal and ambassador of Louis XV.” However old the term “Mirepoix” may be, it’s most likely, though that the cooking technique is even older. The combination shows up all over the world.

The Italians, the Spanish, and countless other cuisines have a similar combination. According to Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” the Italians call it “soffrito, the Spanish “sofregit,” and the Cajuns (with a slight variation of substituting carrots by green capsicums) call it the Trinity. However, “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” has the Spanish making “sofrito” and Marcella Hazan has the Italians making “soffritto.” It’s enough to make one go as mad as Nietzsche.

But all is not lost. In “The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook, Niki Segnit sums up the appeal of the mirepoix perfectly: “Dice carrot, celery, and onion and you have the aromatic base for many stocks, soups and stews known by chefs as mirepoix. Add some salty bacon or cured fat for a mirepoix au gras and it’s a bit like being dealt three of the same-numbered cards in a hand of poker. You’d be unlucky not to end up with something winning.” If you are looking for the truth, there it is.