February 21, 2011

Old-Fashioned Burgers

Usually when I think of a burger, it’s char-grilled, medium or medium-rare, and topped with a slice of tomato, some red onion, and crisp iceberg lettuce. The bun is thrown on the grill for a minute to make it nice and toasty, then slathered with a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise. Yes, it’s essentially an upscale Whopper, minus the cheese.

This burger ain’t that burger. This is America’s Test Kitchen’s best old-fashioned burger. The kind, they say, that you’d find at a drive in. (Having never been to a drive in, I have to take their word for it.)

In a lot of ways, this burger reminded me (in a good way) of a Philly cheesesteak. The meat is really tender, it’s held together with just enough ooey, gooey cheese, and it’s topped with finely sliced onions that add just enough sharpness and tang to balance the richness of the burger and cheese.

And then there’s the sauce. To be honest, the sauce is what originally drew me to this recipe. It sounded for all the world like the special sauce on a Big Mac. Yes, another fast food reference. What can I say, I grew up at a time when the advertising geniuses at McDonald’s had every kid in America singing “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!” Anyway, the sauce in this recipe was good, but not great. It was a bit sweet for my taste so I’d probably leave out the sugar next time.

The recipe looks involved, but it’s really not hard. Basically, you buy two kinds of meat (steak tips and short ribs) and cut them into cubes, which you freeze for 15 to 25 minutes. This makes them easier to chop up in the food processor.

Once the meat is cold, you grind it up. America’s Test Kitchen being, well, America’s Test Kitchen, they provide detailed pictures of what the meat should look like when it’s properly processed. This is one of the keys to these burgers. If you don’t process the meat enough, they fall apart. If you overprocess it, they become dense hockey pucks.

Once you’ve ground the meat, you gently form it into patties. Gently is the operative word here and it’s the second key to this recipe. You want to handle the meat as little as possible so that it doesn’t get tough when you cook it.

Once the burgers are formed into patties, you toast the buns in butter. Now really, how bad could  a recipe be that starts with buttery toasted buns? Then you cook the burgers on a screaming hot skillet. I found that the burgers fell apart a bit when I transferred them into the skillet. But I just used my fingers to gently reform the patties in the pan and they were just fine. The meat separated a little again when I turned them over and again, reforming the patties in the pan worked great.

Once you flip the burgers, you top them with American cheese. The cheese melts into every nook and cranny of the beef and really binds these babies together. (Sorry, I should have gotten a photo of this.) Top them with some onion and a saucy bun and you’re ready to eat.

I know that when summer rolls around I’ll go back to my grilled backyard burgers. But on this cold, February evening, these rich, tender burgers, oozing with cheese, sauce and onions, really hit the spot!

Old-Fashioned Burgers

Recipe by: America’s Test Kitchen
Yields: 4 burgers


10 ounces sirloin steak tips, cut into 1-inch chunks (look for meat that has a striated texture to be sure you have the right cut. Flank steak may be substituted)
6 ounces boneless beef short ribs, cut into 1-inch chunks
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 soft hamburger buns (potato rolls)
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
4 slices American cheese (don’t substitute! American cheese has the perfect texture for this recipe)
Thinly sliced onion

Classic Burger Sauce Ingredients:
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/2 teaspoon sweet pickle relish
1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper


1. Mix ingredients for burger sauce and refrigerate it until you’re ready for it.

2. Place chunks of meat onto baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart. Freeze until very firm, hard around the edges, but still pliable (15-25 minutes).

3. Grind meat in a food processor in two batches, using 10 to 15 one-second pulses and redistributing meat in the processor as necessary. Transfer the meat to a tray or baking sheet without touching it — just overturn the processor bowl onto the tray. You want to touch the meat as little as possible from here on out. Discard gristle or hunks of fat.

4. Gently separate ground meat into 4 equal mounds using a spatula. Shape each mound gently (without picking it up) into a patty about 4 inches in diameter and thin (about 1/4 inch thick), leaving edges ragged and crevices in the burger. Season top of each patty liberally with salt and pepper. Use a spatula to flip patties and season the other side. Stick them in the refrigerator while you toast the buns.

5. Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until it foams. Toast 4 buns, tops and bottoms, in batches until golden brown. Set aside and wipe out the skillet.

6. Put skillet on high heat. Add oil and heat until just smoking. Using a spatula, put all 4 patties into the skillet and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Flip burgers over gently and cook for 1 minute. Top each with a slice of American cheese and cook for another minute.

7. Place patties onto bun bottoms and place sliced onions on top. Spread burger sauce on each bun top, cover burgers, and serve immediately.

February 19, 2011

Cream of Cauliflower Soup

I usually make my husband a special dinner on his birthday. In the past I’ve prepared filet mignon with brandy cream sauce, roasted Cornish game hens, and pork tenderloin with a port and fig sauce. You get the idea. There’s usually meat on the table. But this year my husband’s birthday fell on a Tuesday. This presented a bit of a challenge because we’re vegetarian on Tuesdays. Would I be able to create a vegetarian menu with the same wow factor as Boeuf Bourguignon?

I combed through my cookbooks until I came across Thomas Keller’s recipe for Cream of Cauliflower Soup. Thomas Keller is a genius. He is serious about food and expects that you are too. He explains why certain steps are important and teaches you to fully engage all of your senses when you’re cooking. This is not the cookbook you want to use if you're looking for an easy recipe or an acceptable shortcut. But if your aim is to wow your tastebuds, then this is the book to reach for.

But back to the soup. It is truly the essence of cauliflower. Creamy, intense, and utterly delicious. Don’t be intimidated by the recipe. You can simplify it a bit as I did. Keller’s recipe calls for topping the soup with homemade beet chips (I used Terra chips) and torn garlic croutons, which I just omitted. But don’t play around with the actual soup. It’s perfect just as written. I topped my soup with the purchased beet chips, a drizzle of olive oil, and some chives for color. Absolute heaven.

And no one missed the meat.

Cream of Cauliflower Soup with Red Beet Chips

Recipe from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home

Serves: 6

2 heads cauliflower (4-5 lbs total)
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup coarsely chopped onion
3/4 cup coarsely chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)
1/4 tsp curry powder
Kosher salt
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups water
Peanut or canola oil for deep-frying
1 medium red beet
1 tsp distilled white vinegar
Torn Croutons, recipe follows
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Remove the leaves from the cauliflower, and cut out the core. Trim off the stems and reserve them. For the garnish, trim 2 cups florets about the size of a quarter and set aside. Coarsely chop the remaining cauliflower and the stems into 1-inch pieces so that they will cook in the same amount of time. You need 8 cups of cauliflower (reserve any extra for another use).

Melt 3 Tbsp. of the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks, curry, and coarsely chopped cauliflower, season with 2 tsp. salt, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are almost tender, about 20 minutes.

Pour in the milk, cream, and water, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer uncovered. Simmer for 30 minutes, skimming off the foam from time to time.

Working in batches, transfer the cauliflower mixture to a blender (leave an opening in the lid for steam to escape). Begin pureeing the cauliflower on the lowest speed, slowing increasing the speed, until smooth and velvety. (Note: I used an immersion blender and it worked just fine.) Check the seasoning and add more salt if needed. Transfer to a large saucepan and keep warm. The soup can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Fill a small deep pot with 1 inch of peanut oil and heat over medium heat to 300 degrees F. Set a cooling rack over a baking sheet. Line the rack with paper towels. While the oil heats, peel the beet and slice off about 1/2 inch from the top. Using a Japanese mandolin or other vegetable slicer, slice the beet into rounds that are slightly thicker than paper-thin. Reserve only the full rounds.

Carefully add a few beet rounds to the oil and fry, turning them with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon as the edges begin to curl and pressing gently on the chips to keep them submerged. You will see a great deal of bubbling around the beets as the moisture in them evaporates; when the bubbling stops the beets will be crisp. Transfer the beets to a paper-towel-lined rack and season with salt. Fry the remaining chips in batches. The chips can be kept warm in a low oven.

Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the vinegar and the reserved cauliflower florets and blanch until tender, 4 to 6 minutes. The vinegar will help keep the cauliflower white. Drain.

Melt the remaining 1 Tbsp. butter in a medium frying pan over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until the butter turns a rich golden brown. Add the florets and sauté until a rich golden brown. Set aside.

To serve, reheat the soup. This is a thick soup, but if it seems too thick, add water to thin it to the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the soup into a serving bowl or soup tureen. Top each serving with a few cauliflower florets, several torn croutons, and a stack of beet chips (if the beet chips sit in the soup, they will become soggy and discolor it). Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with pepper. Serve the remaining florets, croutons, and chips in separate bowls on the side.

Torn Croutons:
1 loaf country bread
Canola oil
5 crushed, peeled garlic cloves
2 Tbsp unsalted butter

Cut the crusts off the loaf of bread. Tear the bread into irregular pieces no larger than 2 inches. You need about 3 cups of croutons; reserve any remaining bread for another use.

Pour 1/8 inch of canola oil into a large sauté pan, add garlic cloves, and heat over low heat until the garlic cloves are golden brown, flipping the cloves from time to time. Remove the garlic cloves and use the oil for the croutons.

Heat garlic oil over medium heat until hot. Spread the bread in a single layer in the pan (or cook them in two smaller pans). Add the butter. The oil and butter should be bubbling, but if you hear sizzling, the heat is too high. Adjust the heat as necessary, and stir the croutons often as they cook. Cook until the croutons are crisp and a beautiful rich golden brown on all sides, 5 minutes. Move the croutons to one side of the pan and keep warm until ready to serve. Torn croutons should be used the day they are made; you can reheat them in a low oven before serving if necessary.