Frenchy Things, Pork Products, preserving, Q&A

Rillons.

A reader follows up on The Lardy Boys with a question about rillons. Learn about this Loire Valley specialty and get more pork belly-related goodness on the Rillons page.

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Chicken, Dessert, preserving, Random Thoughts

Butter Queen.

Invariably, at some time between kindergarten and second grade, every Wisconsin child learns to make butter. I don’t think this is universal in other states – a quick poll of my contemporaries on the east coast yielded mostly fond, pity-the-rube chuckles and in one case, a pat on the head – but in Wisconsin, it is an essential part of the dairy industry’s youth indoctrination program. I’m not sure when California surpassed Wisconsin as the nation’s number one milk producer, but I assure you that California has not assumed the America’s Dairyland title, and it never will. That indelible association belongs to my home state, which will release its kung-fu grip on the moniker when California stops being the land of hippies and market-flooding high-alcohol Cabernets. (Crazily, Idaho is the nation’s third largest milk producer, right behind Wisconsin. Everyone knows that Idaho is the potato state, not the dairy state, so to avoid upsetting long-held commodity/geography associations and causing the universe to collapse on itself, let’s just shake our heads in disbelief and move on.)

Before you get too excited about Little House on the Prairie-like visions of Wisconsin children taking turns plunging a broom handle up and down an old-fashioned wooden butter churn, let me tell you how we did it in 1974, because the process probably hasn’t changed since then in first grade classrooms around the state. The teacher pours a quart of heavy cream into a giant bowl and plugs in an electric hand mixer. The kids crowd around in a circle and murmur excitedly at first as billows of whipped cream form. This early enthusiasm fades to disappointment and a certain loss of focus as the cream ceases to resemble Cool Whip. “Is it butter yet?” a kid invariably will call out after some minutes, tense and worried that the thick smear of cream will never become butter and that he’s going to have to stand there forever, watching the teacher circle the bowl with the beaters, and maybe miss recess. It is true that this intermediate stage takes kind of a long time. To keep this kind of kid from ruining everyone’s fond butter memories with crying, teachers with risk-seeking personalities may let the kids take turns holding the mixer and bowl. Mine did, which increased the fun quotient considerably, although in today’s bike helmet-wearing culture I doubt anyone would chance it. All of a sudden, the cream, which until that point had seemed to become thicker and thicker like whipped butter, collapses into a pool of liquid. The butter-making experiment seems to have gone horribly wrong. Moments later, though, a thin, milky liquid sloshes around the bowl and the teacher turns off the mixer. The beaters emerge, covered in butter, and after a quick rinse in the sink in the back of the room, everyone, including the panicky kid, lines up for a slice of bread with fresh butter and a little sprinkling of salt. And that, my friends, is how we party in Wisconsin.

Butter-making: so easy even a kid can watch a machine do it.

Of course, you can buy butter. Salted and unsalted, cultured butter, goat’s butter, the butter made from the cream skimmed off the milk used to make Parmigiano-Reggiano (yes, I know), organic butter, conventional butter. Why am I suggesting that you make your own, with all the options available? Because you owe it to yourself to taste just-made butter from fresh cream, before it’s had a chance to sit in some supermarket inventory for weeks, or even in your refrigerator, going rancid and absorbing all the weird smells of leftovers and vegetables going bad.

I’m not suggesting you make all or even most of the butter you use – that’s crazy talk, especially if you mostly use butter for baking or cooking, and you probably shouldn’t use house-made butter for baking because it’s just not cost effective. But if you compare the cost of house-made butter using a really good fresh cream with the cost of an organic cultured butter to spread on bread or finish a sauce, I think you’ll find that the cost is about even up or lower. For example, pints of heavy cream from Trickling Springs Creamery – an organic dairy just over the Maryland border in south central Pennsylvania – cost about $4.59 at my local organic market, but $2 of that is the bottle deposit, so the cream is just $2.59/pint. I used two pints – a quart, in other words – to make cultured cream, which I turned into almost a pound of butter. Eight ounces of organic cultured butter runs about $6 or so; my eight ounces of butter rang in at well under $3 after the bottle deposit. So this isn’t such a bad deal, and you get buttermilk as well.

Try not to make more than you’ll use in a week. This is about enjoying the freshest product, after all, and why let your delicious butter go rancid? If you make too much, though, it keeps well in the freezer, tightly sealed. Your butter yield will depend on the fat content of the cream, so go for something rich.

A load of rich creamery butter
Ever wonder why certain boxes of supermarket butter say “Sweet Cream Butter” and others don’t? “Sweet Cream Butter” is made from fresh, unfermented cream. Contrary to popular belief, the “sweet” designation has nothing to do with whether the butter has been salted or not – it refers only to the use of fresh cream. Sweet cream butter, when fresh, has a super-clean, pure taste and shouldn’t smell or taste “buttery” when cold; it will smell buttery once it meets a hot pan.

Cultured butter, sometimes called “European-style butter” in the United States, is made from cream that has undergone lactic acid fermentation, the same process that gives us crème fraîche, sour cream, and yoghurt. Cultured butter, when fresh, does have a little of that “buttery” smell and taste even when cold. That’s because lactic acid fermentation produces diacetyl, the compound responsible for butter’s “buttery” quality. In larger quantities – such as in rancid butter, or in artificial butter – it can overwhelm. Diacetyl is one of the principal components of artificial butter flavor; if you’ve ever wondered why movie theater and microwave popcorns have that too-pungent buttery character, blame the diacetyl. Rancid butter – sweet or cultured – also develops butyric acid, a sour milk-cheesy-barnyardy smelling compound. Butyric acid is nasty. So keep your butter in the freezer if you’re not going to use it within a week or so.

One pint of cold heavy cream (50% or more butterfat)
Fine salt (sea salt is best)
3 tbsp cultured buttermilk or 2.5g dried yoghurt starter culture [optional]

To prepare cultured butter, bring the cream to 110F and add the buttermilk/yoghurt starter culture. Place in a jar or similar container and leave at room temperature for 8-10 hours (wrap well in kitchen towels). If the idea of doing this freaks you out, use a yoghurt maker. At this point, you will have crème fraîche. Refrigerate well before using. Feel free to skip this step entirely if you want to make sweet cream butter.

If you have a stand mixer with a whip, use it. And if you have one of those mixer bowl pouring shields (I don’t), use that as well. You’ll see why later. Otherwise, use a large bowl – as large as you can find –and a hand mixer, electric or otherwise.

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Pour the fresh cream or crème fraîche into the bowl. Begin beating (I like speed 6 on the KitchenAid; you don’t gain anything by going slower and I do think you run the risk of warming the cream if you go faster). The cream will form soft peaks, then stiff-ish peaks, and then become overbeaten. In this step, the fat particles form a network with air bubbles.

Continue beating. The cream will continue to thicken and form a mass resembling buttercream, or whipped butter, around the bowl. In this step, the fat droplets clump together and the air bubbles pop. You can scrape it down with a silicone spatula from time to time, but you don’t have to.

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Eventually – if you use speed 6 and don’t scrape the bowl it takes less than ten minutes from the start of the process – a thin, milky liquid will start to collect at the bottom of the bowl and the cream will become more clotted-looking. In this last step, almost all the fat has clumped together, and separated from the non-fat liquid. That liquid is buttermilk. Keep going. Soon after, the solids will collapse into the buttermilk. Don’t freak out – it’s just because the speed of the mixer temporarily has distributed the fat particles throughout the buttermilk. It hasn’t turned back into cream and you won’t have to start over.

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Within a minute or two, you should experience a great sloshing as the butter clumps together, sticking to itself in the bowl and around the whisk or beaters. This is where the pouring shield comes in handy, because the sloshing can make quite a mess. Turn off the mixer.

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Place the whisk or beaters in a clean bowl full of cold water and pour the buttermilk through a chinois or fine sieve into a jar. Save the buttermilk. Combine the butter solids with the rest of your butter in the bowl of cold water.

Remove the butter from the whisk and combine into a mass. Rinse well several times in ice water until your water runs clear. Knead the butter into a smooth, pliable lump, expelling as much liquid as possible. This is a good time to add sea salt, maybe ½ tsp, if you want salted butter. Rinse again.

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And there’s your butter. You should have about 8 ounces from a pint of 50% butterfat cream. Don’t throw out the buttermilk!

Buttermilk

The buttermilk that remains after butter-making is called “churn buttermilk.” It doesn’t really resemble the stuff you buy in quart containers in the store, which is just nonfat or low-fat milk that’s been cultured with bacteria to initiate lactic acid fermentation, and thickened with carrageenan (a naturally occurring hydrocolloid which forms gels in the presence of calcium and is a popular dairy thickener for this reason), and locust bean gum. Churn buttermilk is less tart than this so-called cultured buttermilk (even if a byproduct of butter made from cultured cream), and is thin, like milk, not thick. Most churn buttermilk is freeze-dried for commercial food processing and baking.

You can drink it, of course, or you can use it to make buttermilk biscuits. Or use it to make fried chicken, or buttermilk ice cream!

Buttermilk fried chicken
One whole chicken, cut up into ten pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breasts cut in half with a cleaver)
3-4 c buttermilk from above recipe
1 tbsp kosher salt (plus 1 tsp if using 4 c buttermilk)
1 tsp garlic powder
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

2 c flour
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper

Vegetable oil or lard

Combine the buttermilk, salt, garlic powder, thyme, and bay leaf. Mix well, ensuring the salt is dissolved. Add the chicken, cover the container, and refrigerate overnight.

Combine the flour, salt, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and cayenne in a large bowl. Prepare a sheet pan with a rack. Place a heavy and 2 to 3 inch deep pan (such as a sauté pan or cast iron pan) over medium heat with about ¾” oil. Bring the oil to 365F/185C. Unless you intend to cook in batches, you may wish to cook in two pans.

Drain the chicken but do not pat dry. Dredge each piece in flour, coating completely (leave no wet spots) and shaking off excess. Lower the chicken pieces into the hot fat. Do not crowd the pan or pans. Fry until golden on one side; turn over and cook until golden on the other side. Turn over twice to crisp. The chicken must have an internal temperature of at least 165F/74C at the bone but you may prefer it somewhat more done. I like chicken around 170F/76C. Remove from the oil with a wire skimmer or tongs and drain on the racks (don’t use paper towels; they can trap steam and make your crust soggy). To keep warm, place the racks in a 250F/120C oven.

Serve with biscuits and pickles.

Buttermilk ice cream
Use buttermilk instead of milk in this light, refreshing ice cream, a natural with fresh berries. I prefer the Philadelphia-style ice creams – containing no egg – to the custard type, so like most of the ice creams I make, this one contains no egg. Without the heavy, rich egg yolk coating your tongue, everything else has a more intense taste.

2 c buttermilk from above recipe
2 c heavy cream, as rich as possible
1 ¼ c sugar (caster/superfine sugar is best)
Zest of one lemon, minced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp vodka

Combine buttermilk, cream, and sugar in a heavy pot and bring to 170C, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely. Add the lemon zest.

Cool quickly in a bain marie full of ice and, when cool, stir in the lemon juice and vodka. Whisk well to incorporate. Freeze as appropriate for your ice cream maker and scoop into two pint containers. Transfer to the freezer and freeze hard for at least 4-6 hours.

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East Asian, Frenchy Things, Pork Products, preserving

The Lardy Boys.

One of the great culinary travesties of the twentieth century was the industry-driven transformation of pork from a rich, fatty meat of deep flavor to a dry, stringy, neutral-tasting protein bred to compete with chicken breast meat. “Pork. The Other White Meat.” I was in college when I started seeing the logo – a slightly skewed circle, resembling a cross-cut slice of tenderloin, bearing the word “Pork” in delicate, slightly Asiatic, script. Soon after, the recipes began to emerge: grilled pork loin with orange glaze; roast tenderloin with cherry sauce. Maple-bourbon marinades, teriyaki sauces, and all that. We dressed up the pork to make up for the fact that the meat no longer had any flavor, and we sauced it to death to compensate for its terrible dryness. Pork became our blank canvas. It was a terrible thing.

Well, the king is dead. Say hello to “Pork Be Inspired.” I don’t know who comes up with this stuff.

How’s this for inspiration: let’s make the most of pork in all its rich, hoggy glory. Here’s the thing. Even while the pork industry touted its product as the alternative to chicken and sought to breed nearly all the fat and flavor out of the meat, the USDA considers pork a red meat. You should too. When I travel abroad, I’m reminded of the pork I ate as a little kid, before the industry got its mitts all over our hogs and turned them into generic white protein. Well, if I wanted that, I’d eat tofu. Also, there’s more to pork than tenderloin and loin chops.

Look at these lardy boys – a rosy pork shoulder and a pork belly with layers of deep pink meat and creamy white fat. Make the most of them by cooking them slowly, at low temperatures, to melt down the tough collagen and the fat. Don’t cringe because it’ll wreck your diet or shrink in fear of your hardening arteries. Consider this: people around the world in countries with longer life expectancies and lower obesity rates than the United States eat pork in delicious, fatty forms like rillettes and pâtés, red-cooked pork belly, lardo. They just don’t eat them in ludicrous quantities. Let’s do the same.

Super fatty shoulder (sorry, forgot to take it out of the bag first).

Say hello to Mr Belly.

Pork rillettes

Easiest thing ever, just a bunch of hours curing in the refrigerator and then cooking in its own fat in the oven. Pig meat won’t stay pink unless you add nitrite in the form of tinted curing mix (“pink salt”) during the short cure. I recognize the whole nitrite thing is controversial, so decide for yourself whether you want your rillettes on the brownish gray but natural side, or whether you prefer a dusky rose color and the slight nitric tang of nitrite-treated meat. I suppose I prefer the untreated rillettes, but that’s just me.

If your shoulder cut is super lardy – like the one depicted in this photo – you’ll come out with more melted fat than you want to incorporate into the rillettes. In that case, save it. Keep it in the freezer, tightly sealed, and use it for frying. You won’t have to thaw the fat every time you want to use it – the lard doesn’t freeze rock solid. You can add to your lard stockpile whenever you have leftover rendered pork fat.

4 lb slab of pork shoulder or butt, the fattiest you can find
6 tsp kosher salt
6 sprigs thyme
1/2 c Italian parsley leaves, washed and spun dry
Optional: 1/8 tsp TCM (pink salt)
4 sprigs thyme
2 tsp each black peppercorns, coriander seed
If you have it, about 225 ml/1c rendered pork or duck fat from a previous preparation; otherwise, you can omit

Dijon mustard
Black pepper, ground
Bay leaves

Two days before cooking, blitz the salt, TCM (if using), thyme, and parsley in a spice grinder or food processor and coat the pork, as well as any fat pockets, with the green salt. Wrap in plastic clingfilm, place in a stainless steel or plastic pan, and place in the refrigerator for two days. Turn over once after a day.

With green salt.

Oven 190F/85C. Rinse the pork well of green salt and dry with towels. Place in the smallest possible roasting pan, deep enough to rise up to the sides and, if possible, tight enough to touch the roast on all sides.

Rinsed of green salt, dried, and tucked into a small baking pan (notice it touches the sides).

Tie up one teaspoon each of the coriander and peppercorn in separate cheesecloth bundles and tuck on opposite sides of the pork with the thyme sprigs. Place the cold pork or duck fat on top if you have it. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast for 10-12 hours. Remove and chill the pork in the fat.

After twelve hours.

Lift the pork from the fat and measure out about 1 c fat. Keep both cold. Remove the pork meat from the bones, if present, and separate the meat from any chunks of unrendered fat by hand (save that to render separately – see the Cracklings instructions below). You should have two pounds of meat or more. Chop the meat very coarsely (about 1 1/2″ long) if the strands are long and ropy. In a bowl, combine two pounds of the pork meat (reserving the rest), 2 tbsp mustard, a little black pepper (about ¼ tsp), and about 1/2 c cold pork fat.

Stir using a sturdy, large fork, incorporating the fat. Add another ¼ tsp pepper, another 2 tbsp mustard, and another ¼ c pork fat. Continue stirring, breaking up the fibers. Taste at this point for texture, which should be rich and neither overly lean nor greasy. If it is too lean, add another 2 tbsp to ¼ c pork fat (or more); if is too fat, add a little more meat and mustard. Otherwise, just taste for mustard and pepper. Cover and keep cold. If you have any leftover meat, keep it for another use.

Melt the remaining pork fat (again, see Cracklings, below). When melted, pack rillettes into sterilized lidded jars and cover with ¼ inch liquid pork fat and a bay leaf. Insert rubber gasket into jar and close. Keep refrigerated and do not open until ready to serve. Store refrigerated and unopened for two months or so. Once opened, consume within the week.

Pork rillettes, bay.

Cracklings

The crispy crunchy bits left over when you render the fat from the pork shoulder are similar to the crackling from a properly air-dried and roasted pork belly. They’re far easier to produce, though, because you don’t have to worry about drying the skin with salt, wiping off the moisture, roasting it at a properly high temperature, and so on. All you need to do is roast the pieces of fat until they melt, leaving behind crisp bits frying in the bubbling pork fat.

Liquid pork fat from previous recipe
Scraps of solid, unrendered pork fat, diced

Oven 350F/227C.

Place the fats in an small baking dish. Bake until the fats bubble and the fat renders from the scraps, leaving them golden and crisp. Stir to redistribute or break up if necessary. Drain the fat through a strainer and refrigerate or freeze for another purpose. Use the cracklings as a garniture for salads or to add texture to other dishes, such as cassoulet.

Crackling.

Bacon and eggs

Why do eggs and pork taste so great together? I don’t know – maybe it’s the mildly sulfurous quality of the eggs plus the pork’s sweet fattiness, or something – but it’s an almost universal combination in pork-eating cultures. From bacon and fried eggs in the classic English breakfast, to Scotch eggs, to country pâtés encasing a hard-boiled egg, to braised pork belly and salted duck eggs in the Chinese steamed rice dumpling, zongzi (粽子), rich fatty pork and eggs are a classic combination. Hell, just today on NPR’s website, I read about a sandwich in Chicago that involves smoked ham, a breaded pork tenderloin, bacon, and a fried egg. See? Universal combination. I’m trying to move us closer to Chicago so I can get reliable access to that sandwich. Oh, and EggMcMuffin! I rest my case.

Speaking of zongzi. When I was a kid, my dad occasionally came home from trips to Chicago with a bag of zongzi, meaning he’d somehow managed to visit Chicago’s Chinatown. This was a real treat, since I didn’t get to eat them often – maybe once a year – and was in the same vein as other occasional food souvenirs, like the Baltimore crabs Dad would bring home from trips to Washington DC, or the rare lobster from Boston that always went right into the pot as soon as he walked in the door. Actually, the food souvenirs I think I received the most often were the little waxed cardboard box lunches served on short flights from the East Coast back to Milwaukee. My dad would bring the entire box home to me – little ham sandwich, cookie and all – and I considered it extremely glamorous. Is that sad? Well, I was eight years old, so I think it’s not as sad as getting excited about getting some stupid tiny little dry cookie on a Delta flight just because it’s still free.

Anyway, this is a modernized and deconstructed zongzi using a poached egg instead of a salted duck’s egg, and a seasoned sticky rice instead of a bamboo leaf-wrapped dumpling. When you eat it together, it tastes just like zongzi. I don’t kid myself that you’ll ever make this dish but maybe you’ll try one or two components. Try the pork and the egg, of course, even if you serve it over steamed rice or ramen. In fact, soy sauce-braised pork with hard boiled eggs is a classic Taiwanese dish, so that would be awesome. Or try the rice and the egg, and add some diced Chinese sausage (la chang, or lap cheong in Cantonese, 臘腸) to the rice for the pork component).

The belly:

2 lb pork belly, skin on, bone removed
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1-1/2″ cube yellow rock sugar
1 pod star anise
2 tbsp soy sauce (Japanese white soy preferably)
1 bay leaf (Turkish)
4 sprigs thyme
4 cloves garlic

Prepare the belly the day before.

Blanch belly, starting in cold filtered water. Remove once water just comes to a boil. Belly may be blanched ahead of time and refrigerated or proceed immediately to the next step.

Place blanched belly in stock, in a single layer in a deep heavy pot, with the other ingredients. Bring to a bare simmer and reduce heat. Cover with parchment and a slightly ajar lid. Braise six hours.

Discard parchment and remove belly from stock and place in a small pan (1/4 hotel is good). Cover with strained braising liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and then foil, and then weight the top of the belly with a heavy flat object. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.

The mushroom:

2-3 hen of the woods/maitake mushrooms, broken into segments, or 1/2 lb shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/2″ thick, or a mixture
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
white pepper
vegetable oil

Place a deep, heavy pan over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil to the pan. Add the mushrooms, browning well on each side, until tender.

Add the Shaoxing wine to the pan and cook until the mushrooms absorb the liquid. Finish with soy. Season with pepper. Keep warm. Alternatively, these may be prepared a day before service and chilled.

The rice:

Note: glutinous rice , also known as sticky rice or sweet rice, is not the same thing as short-grain rice, sushi rice, Arborio rice, or any of those things. In its raw form, it is chalk-white and totally opaque, unlike the other translucent-looking varieties of rice, whatever their grain lengths. Do not substitute another type of rice using this cooking method – it will fall apart.

If you cannot find glutinous rice, dispense with soaking the rice and do not steam it. Rather, cook the rice by adding water in the appropriate ratio to the rice you use after sautéing the rice in oil or XO sauce and cook over lowest heat, covered, until the water is absorbed. The rice will not have the same sticky texture as the glutinous rice.

1 c glutinous (sweet) rice
1 tsp soy sauce
1/4 white pepper
1 1/2 tbsp XO sauce or 2 tsp dried shrimp
vegetable oil

Rinse the glutinous rice and soak in 3c water, in the refrigerator, for at least three hours and up to overnight. Drain thoroughly.

Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the XO sauce or, if using dried shrimp, add a small amount of vegetable oil. and then add the dried shrimp. Sauté until fragrant. Add the rice and sauté a minute more until well coated. Season with pepper and soy and remove from heat. You can prepare this component the day before service to this point and refrigerate.

Bring a pot of water to a simmer. Lightly oil a bamboo rice steamer basket (with pork fat if you have it, or with vegetable oil). If you do not have such a basket, line a bamboo or metal steamer with a triple thickness of cheesecloth draping it over the sides.. Scoop the rice mixture into the basket. Close the lid tightly. Place over the pot of simmering water and steam for 40 minutes until the rice is tender but still firm. Remove from heat and remove lid; turn out into a 6″ x 9″ pan, like a breading pan or a plastic food storage container. Press down well to compress. Slice through with a moist sharp knife into equal portions.

Compress the rice.

To assemble dish:

Oven 250F/121C.

Remove fat from liquid (liquid will have gelled – be sure to save as much liquid as possible). Remove bellies and trim to square off edges. Reserve trimmings for future use. Cut into squares or rectangles of uniform size.

After weighting.

Place skillet on high heat. Place belly slices in skillet, skin side down, and cook until the skin is crisp and fat renders. Turn over and place in the oven to heat through, about 20 minutes.

The sauce:

3 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 c gelled pork braising stock from braise/chill, defatted

Place a small saucepan over medium low heat and add the Shaoxing wine. Reduce by two-thirds. Add the soy sauce and reduce by half. Add the stock and reduce until the sauce has thickened and has the consistency of a pan sauce. Hold until service (add water and reheat/reduce again if necessary).

Poach eggs and pat dry on clean kitchen towels.

Serve the belly with the rice, the poached egg, mushroom, and a spoon of sauce.

Pork belly, soft egg, sticky rice "zongzi" style.

Yolk.

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Beef, Quick Meals, Random Thoughts, Sandwich

Talk of the Town.

Sometimes, on days when the drive home takes a really long time and the road rage of fellow drivers is especially savage, and Baltimore seems so … Baltimore, I think about moving back to the midwest. At times like this, my husband and I casually entertain crazy ideas like moving to such a place as, say, Kansas City.

Kansas City? Sure. I’m as surprised as you are, of course. I spent a summer there at a law firm while in law school, back in 1992, and I hated it. No, no – that’s too strong a term. I just didn’t consider it at the time. After a couple of weeks in town dealing with my weird housemate, a senior associate at my firm who arose at 4:00 every morning to set her hair in rollers, sit under a giant Oster hairdryer embellished with a Don’t Mess With Texas bumper sticker, and paint herself a fresh manicure while giving me the evil eye from under a pair of great big false eyelashes, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with Kansas City and started spending weekends driving back to Minneapolis. Not all weekends, though. And I spent my fair share of afternoons at Royals games sitting on the first base side, and nights at The Levee in Westport, drinking cold Boulevards outside and trying to avoid a guy the summer associates of Kansas City had derisively named Eggs Benedict. Looking back, I guess it was more fun than it seemed at the time, but in ’92, it struck me as a lot of heat and humidity in a cowtown under the crabby watch of Miss Texas Big Hair.

So it came as something of a surprise when, last November, I traveled to Kansas City for business and discovered a lot to like about the city. I had learned a few things in my nearly twenty years’ absence – first, that a number of very fine restaurants like Bluestem and Julian had opened in Kansas City; and second, that I had overlooked nearly all of the city’s many strong points during my summer.

Town Topic, for example. I didn’t know about this place when I lived in Kansas City, which is surprising considering how late it stays open and how much beer we customarily drank. Back then, the firm’s attorneys shuttled out of town summer associates between Gates’ BBQ and Arthur Bryant’s – neither of which is all that awesome, especially once you’ve had, say, Oklahoma Joe’s – with occasional detours to the mediocre and now defunct Kansas City Athletic Club, or Jess and Jim’s for steak. Strictly tourist material, in other words, and hardly compelling. Last fall, though, I drove past Town Topic every day for almost a week and had to resist the urge to make a u-turn with my staff in the car each time. It just looked right.

Town Topic.

Grubby and good.

My final day in town, on the way to the airport, I made a last-minute decision – I was going to get a burger at Town Topic for the plane ride home. One thing led to another, and after a quick phone call to my husband, one burger became a sack of double cheeseburgers and a couple of orders of fries. Those burgers made the flight home, but just barely – I almost ate them all on the flight. As it stood, I did eat all the thin and crispy fries – those don’t travel, see, so I had no choice. Town Topic probably makes the best burgers of their kind I’ve ever eaten – the so-called “slider,” covered with caramelized onions and tangy garlic dills, held together with plenty of melted American cheese.

We talk about those little burgers kind of a lot. Once in a while, we make them at home. I try to remember the guy working the flattop at Town Topic, tossing on those small lumps of ground beef, smashing them flat, steaming the buns on top, pushing the onions back and forth across the flavorsome surface. We eat them while I tell Nat about the way the Nelson-Atkins sculpture garden looked in the fall, and the sweetbreads on Colby Garrelts’s menu at Bluestem, and the ruined empty Art Deco downtown of Kansas City, Kansas, and the Latino neighborhood out on Southwest Boulevard I don’t remember from my summer, and the endless wheat fields off to the west of town.

ps. Town Topic has pie.

Nelson-Atkins in the fall.

Sliders, Town Topic-style

Grind your own beef. Seriously. We’ve been through the reasons why before -at best, the store-bought stuff is too finely ground and a little paste-like; at worst, it’s bits and scraps processed with things like ammonia. Grinding beef takes minutes and gives you quality control.

To really do it right, make your own dill pickles and slice them up for the sliders. This obviously requires a certain amount of planning, so just make the pickles for their own sake and not specifically for this dish, and just have them around. If you buy pickles to garnish your sliders, just make sure they’re the dill kind kind, not the sweet kind – sweet pickles will make this sandwich cloying and gross, given the sweetish white bun, the cheese, the ketchup, and the fried onion.

Serves about six, maybe four.

18 oz chuck, sirloin tip, or another well-exercised and slightly fatty cut of beef, ground as described here
12 slider buns (soft white or potato), split
one large yellow onion, peeled and sliced pole-to-pole
butter
salt
12 slices American cheese
2 dill pickles, sliced thinly (1/4″)

Divide the ground beef into 12 1.5 ounce lumps/balls, not too tightly packed. Set aside.

Heat a flattop or plancha, or a cast iron pan. When hot, place a knob of butter in the pan and add the onions. Season lightly with salt and fry, tossing from time to time, until golden brown. Set aside (you can slide them to a cool section of the flattop or remove to a container off the heat).

Add a little extra butter or vegetable oil to the flattop or pan and distribute evenly to grease. Add the beef about 4 inches apart and smash flat with a spatula. Season with salt.

On the flattop.

Smash.

When browned on the bottom side, flip over and add the onions. Place the buns, one atop the other, over the onion-topped burgers to steam slightly.

Onions.

Remove the buns to serving plates. Place a slice of cheese on each burger and melt.

Melt.

Place on buns and garnish with sliced house-made or other dill pickles. Serve two or three to a person with lots of ketchup and mustard.

Sliderrific.

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