Beef, Leftover Recycling, Offal, Random Thoughts

Mother tongue.

Are we done talking about nose-to-tail cooking yet? Is everyone sick of being lectured to about eating all the parts of the animal? Then don’t consider this a lecture but just a statement of fact. The head of pretty much any mammal contains some of its most delicious meats.

Many people express reservations about eating the head of an animal, possibly for anthropomorphic reasons or just qualms about killing. Unlike a cut like the tenderloin or a boneless chicken breast, or even something a little more obviously connected to a living animal like a ham or short ribs, it’s hard to look at the head without an awareness that an animal was killed for food. Then there are the eyes and the brain, which are inevitable sources of comparison to our own brains, our own eyes. It’s not surprising the head is a little challenging.

"It's chock full of ... heady goodness."

“It’s chock full of … heady goodness.”

An easier and more accessible way to approach the head is to use the tongue and the cheeks. Beef tongue looks sort of terrifying, but once you make your peace with what it is, which is just a great big floppy cow’s tongue, you’ll find it easy to work with. It’s a tough cut that takes long, low temperature cooking, which is inherently forgiving. It’s also just basically a muscle, so unlike the organ meats some people find literally too visceral to eat (mmm, glands), it has the familiarity of cuts more usually encountered. Cheeks are even easier to work with – the muscle is more like the kind you find in shank or short rib, tough and full of connective tissue that melts to gelatin after lots of long braising.

Tongue and cheek

Tongue and cheek

Tongue and cheek

Smoking the tongue not only imparts great flavor, but helps dry it out a little, which normally seems like a bad thing – who wants dry meat? But the muscle graining on tongue is dense and fine, and interspersed with large quantities of intramuscular fat and collagen. When you slice it warm, tongue can fall apart and seem sodden. To ameliorate this tendency, smoke it, chill it, and slice it thinly while still cold. Cold smoked tongue is great with mustard and pickles on rye. It’s also great draped over a hot risotto or grain porridge, where the heat of the porridge softens and melts the fat and gelatin in the thinly sliced meat. You can warm it slightly as well; just don’t overdo.

A final note about tongue: you must remove the skin. I once went to a wedding reception at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown that served a cold braised tongue appetizer. The tongue meat was delicious with soy and five spice flavors but I couldn’t get past the skin. Even when the tongue is sliced paper-thin, it’s still present in a thin ring, it’s not tender, and it’s gross. So remove it.

For the tongue:

one large beef tongue
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar (white or brown)
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp granulated garlic
6 bay leaves

Combine all the dry ingredients but the bay leaves. Rub evenly all over the tongue and place in a pan just large enough for the tongue, atop three bay leaves. Place the remaining bay leaves on top. Cover tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate. You will turn the tongue every other day for ten days. Note: if you have a blade tenderizer (the kind that looks like an upside-down bed of needles), you can make tiny cuts in the tongue skin before curing. In this case, cure for four days.

Curing tongue

Curing tongue

Transfer the tongue, with its seasoning and any accumulated liquid, to a pot with just enough cold water to cover. Cover and bring to a bare simmer (180F). Place in an 180F oven. Cook for 6-8 hours (depending on size) or until the tongue is tender and a knife inserted to the center meets no resistance beyond the skin. Cool in enough liquid to cover and then refrigerate (in the liquid) at least overnight.

Peel the tongue. This should not be difficult but requires the use of a sharp knife. The tongue’s skin should come off easily. Discard the skin.

Smoke at 200F for about two to three hours (depending on the size of the tongue). Cool and then wrap in clingfilm (and then foil) and chill completely.

Smoked tongue

Smoked tongue

Use in any way you see fit. Tongue is great in hot/warm dishes but should be sliced cold, very thinly, and then rethermed in the dish.

For the cheek:

Cheek cooking times vary widely depending on size and the extent of the connective tissue. It is best to budget at least twelve hours to cook the cheeks even though it will likely take far less time. You do not have to babysit the braise in the oven.

3 lb beef cheek, large and very tough sinews trimmed
unsalted butter or beef tallow
one medium onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
6 garlic cloves, whole
3 c dry red wine
4 c beef stock (chicken stock acceptable)
4 branches thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and black pepper

Oven 180F.

Salt the cheek on both sides. Place a heavy saucepot over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. Brown the cheek well and set aside. Sweat the vegetables and garlic cloves in the residual fat and fond. Deglaze with red wine and reduce over medium low heat by 1/2. Add the beef stock and bring just to a simmer. Add the herbs and the browned cheek (and any juices). Cover with parchment and then the lid and place in the oven.

Cook for about 7 hours. The cheeks are done when the collagen has completely softened and the meat is fork-tender.

Remove the meat to a plate and strain the remaining liquid. Return the meat to the strained liquid and cool.

When ready to serve, bring the liquid to a simmer, uncovered, and reduce by 1/2 to 2/3 until proper glazing consistency is reached. Return the cheeks to the reduction, cover, and keep warm.

Service:

Per four plates:

two bunches spring onions (bulbed), washed and green section removed and reserved
butter
red radishes
compressed celery pickle
pickled ramps
bitter greens (arugula, nasturtium, cress)
assorted herbs, edible flowers, etc
prepared mustard

Slice the spring onion bulbs lengthwise and brown in butter.
Slice the ramp pickles lengthwise and the radishes 1/16″ thin lengthwise.
Serve the sliced tongue and braised cheek with the onion, radish, ramps, pickled celery, and garnish with herbs and flowers, the braising reduction, and a spoon of mustard. (The plating shown also includes ground chilmole.)

Coda: Other uses for tongue

Tongue is a pretty rich, densely-textured meat. Some people can eat huge quantities in a sitting (such as in a deli sandwich, with mustard and pickles), but not me. If you find yourself with 2+ pounds of smoked beef tongue and are unsure how to use it, consider these suggestions.

Tongue on rye (porridge) with pickles

Tongue on rye (porridge) with pickles

For a straightforward porridge recipe, see this earlier post. If you are using rye grain instead of farro, the cooking duration is basically the same. Other grains require more or less cooking time. I do not recommend cooking short grain rice sous vide. Garnish with pickled celery, red onion (or shallot), and Granny Smith apple, as well as herbs and buttered pumpernickel toast crumb.

Lengua tacos

Lengua tacos

Noodles with tongue (tossed in smoked beef fat)

Noodles with tongue (tossed in smoked beef fat and served with smoked beef consommé)

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Beans, Beef, Cheese, Grains, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southern

American Beauty.

I recently took some grief on Facebook for posting a photo of a sausage, potato, and cabbage supper – specifically, the bratwurst from a couple weeks ago. To quote my critic: “Funny … if I made medisterpølse with rødkål and brasekartofler, I probably wouldn’t post it,” followed by the smiley face icon that is universal internet shorthand for “I’m just sayin.” In other words, barely a step up from unwrapping and snapping a photo of Lunchables. I guess some Danes are all uppity about Noma and Geranium and Formel B these days, what with being the epicenter of modern microcuisine and all. That’s fine. It doesn’t change the basic fact that great house made sausage is one of the most delicious things you can eat.

“I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary,” preened Angela Hayes in American Beauty, without a clue what ordinariness means. There’s an idea among some food people that familiar foods are categorically ordinary – declassé, and “unhealthy.” It’s a little like people who move to Manhattan or Los Angeles and try to erase all vestiges of their midwestern upbringing in favor of a more sophisticated mien. A recent discussion of the merits/demerits of the KFC Double Down was a virtual clinic on the taxonomy of food snobs. In the “Fancier than Thou” category (and overlapping with “My Body Is a Temple”), were dramatic statements like “Buying food from chain restaurants is cultural destruction” and “We’re eating the values that go with the food.” From “Ill Informed Know-It-All” (overlapping with “Fancier Than Thou”), came declarations like “The Guardian [news] is in the vanguard of pimping ‘American Casual Dining’ to its sheep-like, trend-obsessed readers. … The middle classses are now gorging on the same food marketed as ‘hipster’ and ‘gourmet.'” Everyone has encountered “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” in at least one of its many guises, including “I don’t eat it if it’s not organic” and “I don’t have celiac disease but gluten is as evil as vaccination,” especially if said gluten takes the form of supermarket white bread or mass-produced pasta, not grains hand-threshed by seed-saving heirloom farmers with Master’s degrees in pre-revolutionary French history. I’m not defending the Double Down, you understand, but if I pound out two organic chicken breasts, bread them using fresh crumbs from homebaked bread, fry them in the rendered fat from ibérico bacon strips and bind the sandwich together with Fontina Val d’Aosta, is the result any less caloric? Comparatively speaking, is this sandwich or the Double Down more or less the supposed culinary equivalent of knocking over the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the name of religious fanaticism?

food snob taxonomy

Interestingly, you can get a pass from the food snobs if the foods of your childhood happen to be “ethnic” – and accordingly out of the ordinary – by American standards. Packaged ramen, for example, was basically the lowest form of college poverty shame food in the US until David Chang declared in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach that, as a kid, he totally would eat the uncooked brick of ramen for a snack, whereupon it became a cheeky sort of treat. (Full disclosure: Yours truly did this as well as a kid, and the desk drawers in my bedroom were always littered with broken ramen crumbs.) This kind of fetishism is its own kind of food snobbery, and one with a hideously ethnocentric and sometimes even racist component, but that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s deal with the idea that “traditional American” food, if that’s even a meaningful concept, can be extraordinary and is not something to run from in embarrassment.

Knackwurst and Cheddarwurst

Cheddarwurst is a Wisconsin thing. If you’re from Wisconsin, you’ve had it, and if you haven’t had it, you probably aren’t from Wisconsin. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a smoked sausage with Cheddar cheese. Cheddarwurst horrifies food snobs because, despite combining two delicious foods in one compact, tubular package, its most readily available representation is from the likes of Hillshire Farms, a dreaded manufacturer of processed foods. And you won’t find cheddarwurst anywhere in Germany, so get out your Food Snob Taxonomy and shade in the intersection of “Fancier Than Thou” and “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” the bright annatto hue of melted American cheese. Crayola Yellow-Orange will do nicely. You can hand it over to the authenticity police when they come to haul you away.

As a Wisconsin girl, I found cheddarwurst a matter of great interest in my youth. I always assumed some sort of high-pressure cheese squirting device was involved in its manufacture. Now, as an experienced sausagemaker, I know the truth is probably far simpler – a stabilized cheese is mixed into the sausage meat before stuffing. Because cheddarwurst is an emulsified sausage – typically based on knackwurst – the melted cheese will not leach into the sausage and disappear, as it might with looser-structured sausages like the bratwurst. Instead, it merely resides, melted, in little pockets until someone bites or cuts through those pockets (or until the sausage cools and the cheese regains its integrity). The sausage meat should be deep pink from curing and smoking, and should virtually explode with juice as you bite through the skin. A little sausage erudition: the reason knackwurst, cheddarwurst, and similar emulsified sausages are snappy and juicy is the water within. When the sausages are heated, the water expands within the casing. The contents of the casing are literally under pressure. You’re welcome.

If you want knackwurst instead of cheddarwurst, just leave out the cheese. I recommend going half and half, making about 3 lbs each knackwurst and cheddarwurst. You must use some form of stabilized cheese to make this or risk greasy pools of orange cheese fat when you heat the sausages. I have provided a recipe for the stabilized cheese I used in this sausage.

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1150g beef chuck (with interior fat)
780g pork shoulder (with fat cap)
220g pork belly
40g salt
5g TCM
7g paprika
4g mace
2g ground coriander
13g black pepper
2g smoked garlic powder
large pinch cloves
120g nonfat dry milk
220g ice water
250g processed cheese (see Extra: Processed Cheese elsewhere on this site)
hog casings

Cube all the meats and fat and freeze until firm but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients. Set aside. Soak the hog casings in ice water for 30 minutes; rinse three times under running water. Hold in ice water until ready to use.

Toss the frozen meats with about half the dry seasonings. Grind through a medium die into a large metal mixer bowl. Immediately toss well with the remaining dry ingredients and incorporate thoroughly by hand. Then add the ice water and mix well to emulsify, increasing mixer speed from low to medium-high. Do not overmix to avoid breakage. The mixture must be ice cold when you add the water. It will become somewhat loose when you first pour in the water but will firm up somewhat as the water is incorporated. Cook a test quenelle and add more salt or other seasonings as necessary.

Before emulsifying.

Before emulsifying.

Once emulsified.

Once emulsified.

Dice the cheese about 1/4″. By hand, stir it into the emulsified sausage, distributing as evenly as possible.

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Fill a sausage stuffer and load on the soaked and rinsed hog casings. Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Place in a single layer on a sheet pan and dry in the refrigerator 12-24 hours. Turn over and dry the other side another 12-24 hours.

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Drape the links over a rotisserie skewer or similar and smoke over hardwood for about 2 hours at 88C/190F to an internal temperature of about 71C/160F. Try to avoid letting the individual links touch or you will have to reposition them to ensure even smoking.

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Depending on the size of your links, this may take somewhat longer. Do not allow the smoker to heat over 120C/250F and watch it carefully if it reaches temperatures over 100C/212F or your sausages may burst or leak during smoking.

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Brown in an oiled pan over low heat, or grill indirectly over coals, before serving.

Red beans and rice, auf Deutsch

Why auf Deutsch? Well, red beans and rice are traditionally made with tasso, andouille, or other Louisiana cured, pickled, or smoked pork products, and I’m using the knackwurst made above. I don’t want the authenticity police on my back, so let’s call it German-influenced Creole, or Creole-influenced German.

In keeping with the Creole aspect of the dish, I used a Louisiana popcorn rice, bred for its nutty, buttery flavor. After learning of Sean Brock’s method of preparing Carolina Gold, which he has served to great effect at Husk in a dish called Charleston Ice Cream, I tried it out with the Louisiana rice, aging the rice in sealed containers for a year with bay leaves from our garden, and parboiling the finished product before finishing in a low oven, with butter. The results are spectacular, even if you don’t age the rice first with bay. Try it on its own before adding the red beans and sausage.

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For the beans:

2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 whole head garlic
1/2 lb dried red kidney beans

For the broth:

3 stalks celery
1 medium yellow onion
2 serrano chiles or one very hot jalepeño, seeded and stemmed
1 cubanelle pepper
3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp rendered bacon fat
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 1/2 c smoked chicken stock or pork stock

For the rice:

1 1/2 c Louisiana popcorn rice
6 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
2 branches parsley
3 tbsp butter

To finish:

2 knackwurst, from above
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
Tabasco
pickled ramps
3 scallions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
chives, sliced thinly
assorted herbs and flowers: chive blossom, dianthus, oxalis, thyme, woodruff, sorrel, pea tendrils, anything growing at the moment that is edible and sounds good to you

Cover the kidney beans in water to cover plus three inches, with 1 tsp salt. Cover and stand 12 hours.

Combine the kidney beans with about 6 c water, bay leaves, halved garlic head, thyme, and 1 tsp salt, and cook for about 8 minutes at 15 psi in a pressure cooker (25 minutes if you do not soak). After releasing pressure, drain well and set aside in a colander.

Finely dice (1/4″) each of the celery, onion, and serrano chile. Thinly slice the garlic. Roast the cubanelle over an open flame and place in a sealed bag to steam off the skin. Dice finely, removing the seeds. Sweat the vegetables in bacon fat over low heat, seasoning with a little salt. Add the spices and dried thyme, and saute a minute to bring out the aromas. Add the bay leaves and thyme, and the stock. Simmer, uncovered, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the drained beans. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Add white pepper, salt, and Tabasco to taste.

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Meanwhile, cook the rice. 200F oven. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 bay leaves, thyme, parsley, and 1 tbsp salt. When it comes to a boil, add the rice and stir to prevent sticking. Maintain heat at a low boil for 15 minutes and drain, discarding the herbs. Spread on a sheet pan in a thin, even layer. [At this point, if you are preparing for later service, chill it down immediately in the freezer, cover with clingfilm once completely cold, and refrigerate until 30 minutes before service.] Stud with the butter and the remaining bay leaves. Bake another 18 minutes and stir.

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Cook the knackwurst over low heat until the sausage is taut and plump. Slice each into four pieces. Ladle the beans and broth in the bottom of a bowl, add a mound of rice, garnish with the sausage and the various herbs and flowers.

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Beef, Holidays, Random Thoughts, Sandwich, Science, Summer

National Burger Month.

Reliable sources inform me that May is National Burger Month. This seems uniquely fitting – burgers are the food of warm nights on the patio and summer days at the drive-thru. And those of us from the upper Midwest have always regarded Memorial Day as the start of the official grilling season.

Despite its official-sounding endorsement, the “National … Day” appellation is somewhat misleading, suggesting that some arm of the state has conferred recognition on a particularly deserving food. As a matter of fact, no such honorific has been bestowed on any of the hundreds of food days, weeks, or months. Although it is indeed possible to obtain official recognition for a particular cause, through act of Congress or presidential proclamation, that process is cumbersome and generally reserved for subjects with more gravitas or general relevance than, say, a chili dog or saltwater taffy. Indeed, but for Ronald Reagan’s exaltation of frozen food on March 6, 1984 (mark your calendars), not one president has recognized the national significance of any food, whether commodity or local speciality – not even the burger. (If you’re interested, the University of Houston political science department maintains a searchable database of presidential proclamations.)

Rather, the National Food Days are a creation of food industry groups and corporations, with no more formality than selecting a specific date to honor a particular food, and trying to remember to celebrate it from year to year. If you liked, you could simply declare a national day for a preferred food, although odds are that someone’s already though of it. If you were really committed, you might instead start a festival to celebrate in more elaborate fashion. You might have heard, for example, of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a late July observance of the annual garlic harvest, or the longstanding ramp festival in Helvetica, West Virginia. Harvest festivals are an ancient and universal tradition; a couple of summers ago, toward the end of August, my husband and I found ourselves in Arles just before the Feria du Riz, or Rice Bullfight. The festival, meant to both mark the Camarguais rice harvest and celebrate French tauromachy, takes place annually in mid-September. The next year, passing through Vézénobres in Languedoc, we encoutered remnants of the annual Fête de la Figue, an apt celebration as the town overlooks a vast garrigue punctuated with fig trees both wild and cultivated. In the case of the hamburger, Seymour, Wisconsin hosts an annual Hamburger Festival in early August, reinforcing its claim as the rightful home of America’s preeminent dish. (As an aside, the burger’s invention remains a matter of dispute. Although my home state has recognized Seymour as the birthplace of the American classic, the Library of Congress has identified Louis’ Lunch of New Haven as the home of the burger, and perhaps half a dozen others, from Texas, Oklahoma, and the too-conveniently named Hamburg, New York, also lay claim.)

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The garrigue below Vézénobres, viewed through a fig tree

The garrigue below Vézénobres, viewed through a fig tree

There exists no harvest (or slaughter) season for burgers in this modern era of year-round meat production. Indeed, the hamburger has become so ubiquitous that it is synonymous with cheap, instant gratification – an unfortunate association, because a well-made burger is unbeatable. What makes a great burger? First, whether your patty is made from beef or turkey or plant matter, don’t skimp on the fat, and add some if you must. Burgers aren’t diet food, and if you’re concerned about calorie counts or fat content, the solution is to eat a smaller burger, not to serve yourself a dog chew toy. Second, if you use meat, grind it yourself from whole cuts. Mince is a great way to use up trim and scrap, and that’s good for long-cooked dishes like chili, but the best burgers require high quality meat. Third, the burger is as much about the accompaniments as the meat. Without tang, salt, and crunch, the burger-eating experience is somewhat soft and bland. And finally, a burger requires a bun, preferably a tender and fluffy one. If you’re an anti-carbohydrate fetishist, or committed to heresy as a way of life, you are free to reject the bun, but you’d then be eating steak hâché, not a burger.

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Ready to eat.

Ready to eat.

Burger architecture

Your goal, when crafting the perfect burger, should be to achieve the right balance of savory and sweet, tender and crisp, rich and acidic.

The meat:

If you’re making a beef burger, choose a meat with a prototypically “beefy” flavor. This means, of course, choosing a fatty cut from a well-exercised part of the cow. Filet mignon won’t do; apart from being far too costly to grind in good conscience, it’s also not very flavorful and somewhat mushy. Think about the beefiest cuts you’ve eaten, like a ribeye, or short rib, or tri-tip (as much I I love hangers, I don’t use them for burgers as they can taste somewhat kidney-ish when cooked to or past medium). Go for between 70 and 80 percent lean, and 20 to 30 percent fat. This is a mix I use, which takes away a lot of the guesswork and leans toward the fattier side (ratio by weight):

2 portions beef short ribs
3 portions beef chuck
salt

I use the KitchenAid food grinder attachment, which seems a popular way to grind meat at home. Cut your meat into 1″ chunks and freeze on a sheet pan for about 30-45 minutes if you can, to firm up the fat and connective tissue and reduce the chances of smearing. Grind with the smaller die. Your first pass through will be somewhat loose; if you grind a second time, the mince will more closely resemble ground beef from the market. You’ve probably been told not to “overwork” your meat when making the patty. It’s not because the meat changes character when you touch it; rather, the more you squeeze or pack the mince, the more tightly-knit your patty will be. Using a single-ground mince alleviates this problem because you just won’t be able to pack it that close, leaving plenty of room for the meat to shrink without becoming hard. A double-ground mince will, if over-packed, shrink and tighten more firmly. At the same time, however, single-ground mince can be harder to form into a patty that coheres.

The optimal patty size for a generous burger is 5 ounces/140 grams. Larger than that and you will overwhelm the typical bun. If you grind your own meat, don’t worry too much about packing too tightly – especially with a mince made from whole cuts with a decent amount of fat, your burgers will not become hockey pucks. If you buy store-ground mince, especially cryovacked meat, be sure to avoid packing too tightly as its high connective tissue content all but guarantees it will toughen as it cooks. Flatten the patty slightly in the center to account for tightening-up; if you don’t, you’ll be left with a golf ball at the end of cooking. Salt the hell out of both sides, or your burger will be bland however high quality the meat.

Grilling enthusiasts may consider this heresy, but a juicy burger with a crusty, browned exterior is the province of the flattop/skillet, not the grill. If you use frozen or pre-formed patties from the store (see Note below), you probably will have greater success on the grill than you would with fresh product.

Patties from freshly-ground beef (single-grind).

Patties from freshly-ground beef (single-grind).

By way of comparison, frozen Ripken Burger patty.

By way of comparison, frozen Ripken Burger patty.

The bun:

As important as the meat is, you should consider baking your own buns if you have the time. It sounds like crazy talk, but baking buns is easy and requires nothing more than a sheet pan, an oven, and about two hours of mostly hands-off time. I’m not a baker so I rely on others for these recipes, and the best is a recipe from Comme Ça, published a few years ago in the New York Times. It is foolproof, less rich than a standard brioche, and sturdy enough to absorb meat juices without disintegrating.

Light brioche bun

Light brioche bun

For added savor, toast your buns (on the cut side only) before serving, or place them, cut-side down, in the hot pan of burger drippings so they can soak up the fatty, meaty goodness.

Everything else:

Burgers require pickles, or something pickled to cut the richness of the meat and perk up the blandness of the bun. This is where you can have some fun. Crunchy cucumber pickles are pretty standard, but provide crunch and sourness, especially when you make your own. For a Korean twist on your burger, top it with spicy-sour kimchi; for Vietnamese flair, with pickled carrots and daikon. My favorite pickle for burgers is rounds of flash-pickled red onion, tart with sherry vinegar.

Flash-pickled red onion in sherry vinegar.

Flash-pickled red onion in sherry vinegar.

Burgers do not require raw vegetables. Unless they’ve been partially dried (or compressed), tomatoes just turn the bun into a soggy mess. Raw onions are just harsh and you’ll be tasting them for days. Although I almost never use it for any other purpose, I recommend iceberg lettuce, stored in ice water in the refrigerator, and dried well. Cut the lettuce into thick-ish (1/3″) shreds and toss with mayonnaise. Butter lettuce, although delicious and sturdy, slips around too much and delicate salad greens are immediately wilted by the burger’s heat, becoming slimy.

If you like cheese on your burger – and many people consider it essential – choose a cheese that melts well. Not only does it coat the meat uniformly, but it helps some of the more slippery toppings like pickles stick to the sandwich. American cheese is the obvious winner in the meltability category, with Port Salut a close second, but other, stronger cheeses may stand up better, flavor-wise, to the meaty burger. I’m partial to smoked Cheddar, or a five-year aged Cheddar from Vermont, but the older the cheese, the more crumbly. If you are of a scientific or adventuresome turn, consider making your own “processed cheese” from your preferred cheeses: it melts like Velveeta, but tastes like something you’d rather be eating. You can make it in varying quantities; ratios are expressed below in percentages by weight. I typically use the cheese scraps and ends in my refrigerator, and ale, like a copper ale.

100% cheese, any rennet-based type (note: non-rennet, acid-curdled cheese like ricotta does not melt and is unsuitable)
105% non-dairy liquid, including water or beer
6% sodium citrate
5% salt

Shred the cheese or break it into very small chunks.

Combine the sodium citrate, salt, and liquid in a pot and bring to a simmer, dissolving the sodium citrate and salt entirely. The mixture will have the consistency of a gel. Maintain a bare simmer

Using an immersion blender, blend the cheese bit by bit into the simmering liquid, pausing to incorporate the cheese completely before adding more. Blend until the sauce is completely smooth. Pour into a clingfilm-lined mold, fold the clingfilm over the top, and chill.

Slice with a wet, sharp knife when ready to use. Refrigerated, this will keep for several months.

Note: as an exercise in doing things a little differently, I agreed to try the Ripken Burger, a frozen product of Maryland’s esteemed Roseda Black Angus Farm. Roseda supplies beef to a number of esteemed restaurants in the Baltimore area, including Woodberry Kitchen, so I looked forward to good quality meat. The resulting burger, cooked in a skillet, was pretty juicy and tasty, for a frozen product.

The Ripken Burger, on a brioche bun with house-made "velveeta"

The Ripken Burger, on a brioche bun with house-made “velveeta”

At six ounces, it was about 20 percent bigger than I typically would serve – see how it is out of proportion with the bun. I haven’t cooked a frozen burger since my grad school days (a ritual, with Swiss cheese and mushrooms atop a toasted English muffin, before Golden State Warriors games), and I’ll stick with my habit of grinding meat just before cooking, as it only takes a few minutes, but if you are the sort of person who wants to keep burger patties in the freezer for impromptu grilling, you certainly could do worse than these. Their firmer texture makes them good candidates for the grill, as they are far less likely to fall apart when turning.

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Beef, Brassicas, Cheese, Offal, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Soup, Vegetables

Cheeky.

One of the most interesting aspects of social networking is its potential to unintentionally reveal the truth about the self, the person behind the crafted public image. Along these lines, a surprisingly large number of self-described “foodies” – the kind of people who TiVo Food Network and would throw their panties at Michael Symon if he turned up in a local supermarket – evidently find certain foods too scary to eat. “I love ya Chef but sweetbreads I don’t think so……LOL!” goes one recent zinger on Facebook. “Ewwww….tongue!” says another. You can’t beat it for wit.

You already know about my low tolerance for this infantile attitude toward food. This goes back a long time. The summer after graduating from law school, I went to Spain and Portugal with some friends, a trip that reached its nadir one night in Seville when, nerves frayed from two weeks of hairpin turns in a packed Peugeot, sweaty nights in a series of hostels without air conditioning, and a couple of travel companions who displayed a surprising lack of dietary sang-froid, we got into an argument at the restaurant. Sitting beside the Guadalquivir and surveying the platters landing at tables around us, one travel companion complained that nothing on the menu was edible because all the seafood and poultry came head-on and bone-in.

“Just … order it,” I gritted tightly. “That’s how it comes in Spain.”

“Well, it’s gross,” she shot back. “I don’t eat food with the heads on. I don’t care where we are.”

“We’re not in Roseville, Brenda*. Shrimp has heads. Chicken has bones. There is no goddamn boneless chicken ranch.”

At this point there was a great scraping of metal on concrete as Brenda pushed back her chair, stood up, and threw her napkin down on the table. “You – are – such – a – @$%&^*@ – $#@&$!” she shouted, storming off and attracting the full attention of the other diners, who I’m pretty sure got the gist of her outburst even if they didn’t speak English. Good times, good times.

Looking back, I probably could’ve been nicer about it. For example, if I were trying to ease someone into the idea of eating offal today, I’d serve them braised cheeks. They’re basically like any other cut of meat but better, with all the flavor concentrated in one small disc, bathed in a glossy sauce. The plentiful collagen in the cheeks – heavily exercised by all that chewing – accounts for the sauce’s body.

Iberico pork cheeks.

Cheeks aren’t always the easiest cut to find, but I encourage you to look around, because they’re well worth the hunt. If you’ve got access to a market that caters to a Latino clientele, you might find them, as they’re a favored cut (and I’ve heard that Wal-Marts with well-stocked meat departments sometimes carry them in the freezer section, so give that a shot – it may be the only time I ever endorse stopping into the Wal-Mart). If you can’t find cheeks, substitute shank, shoulder (in the case of pork), or short rib (in the case of beef). Don’t substitute pork belly; it’s a lot fattier than the cheek, and you’ll wind up with a greasy braise. And don’t substitute hog jowl; it resembles the belly more than the cheek.

Pork cheeks, celeriac pancake, apple

If you subscribe to the textural variation school of cooking – and I do – you will want something firm or crisp to accompany the cheeks, since they’re falling-apart tender and saucy. A celeriac-potato rösti-like cake makes a great accompaniment. Relieve the richness of the cheeks with a fresh apple salad. If you have leftover cheeks, enjoy them with toast points, cornichons, and mustard for lunch.

I used ibérico cheeks and highly recommend them; they had an intensely meaty, nutty flavor that I haven’t encountered in any other type of pork. If you’d like to try them, Iberico USA carries them. The long braising process in the flavorful liquid makes up for a lot of the shortcomings of conventional pork, though, so don’t hesitate to make this dish if you can’t spring for the ibérico cheeks. Keep the cooking temperature low, as near to 180F as you can, to ensure tenderness rather than stringiness. The intention of long cooking at low temperatures is to break the collagen down into gelatin, which then bathes the meat’s muscle fibers. Although it may seem that braised meats cannot become dry, this is untrue; the fibers in the cheek, like those in other heavily-exercised parts of the animal, are long and will become tough, dry, and unpleasantly stringy if they lose too much moisture. If that happens, you can notice the stringiness even when the meat is adequately coated in sauce. So don’t be tempted to cook at a higher temperature, and always be careful when reheating.

One last thing: in a conventional braise, the meat is browned first to develop rich, savory flavors via the Maillard reaction. I dispensed with this step because the cheeks are quite small and I wanted to reduce the possibility that the meat would toughen up. It turns out not to be necessary.

Oh, actually, one last last thing: the ibérico cheeks came in a pretty large Cryovac package and, when thawed, gave up a few cups of blood. I saved the blood, which smelled sweet and clean, and not slaughterhouse-y in that way that factory-farmed (CAFO) pork smells. I’ll be making blood sausage with that in the future, so watch for the post.

2 lb pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
16 oz ale
1 1/2 quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp grated fresh horseradish root
bouquet garni

2 granny smith apples
lemon juice
chives, minced

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the vegetables and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the ale and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half. This step is necessary to reduce the booziness of the beer.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Stir in the mustard and horseradish; place the pork cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

After removing the cheeks

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Heat through.

Prepare a brunoise of the granny smith apples and toss with a little lemon juice to prevent browning. Then combine with the chives.

Serve the cheeks with celeriac rösti wedges and the apple-herb salad.

Iberico cheek, celeriac rosti, mustard, celeriac purée.

For the celeriac rösti:

This isn’t strictly a rösti, which classically features just potatoes and butter. It just sort of resembles one.

1/2 celeriac root, washed and peeled (use a knife to peel, not a peeler)
1/2 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 medium yellow onions, minced
1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp ground celery seed
pinch of cayenne or espelette pepper
4 large eggs, beaten with a fork
kosher salt to taste, at least 1 tsp and probably more
black pepper
celery salt to finish
vegetable oil and butter

Oven 425F on broil. Set the rack in the middle position of the oven.

Place a 12″ skillet over medium heat and, when hot add 1 tbsp oil. Sauté the onion until translucent and just beginning to color slightly. Do not brown. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Combine the eggs, flour, celery seed, cayenne, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet.

Shred the celeriac in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Toss with about 1/2 tsp lemon juice to prevent browning (try not to use more or it will be sour). Shred the potatoes in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Place in a clean kitchen towel (one that does not smell of detergent or dryer sheets), fold the towel over, twist the ends, and squeeze the towel over a bowl. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potato. If necessary, repeat in another towel. Add the grated potatoes and celeriac to the egg mixture and stir well to combine.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add about 1 tbsp each butter and oil to the pan. Swirl the pan once the butter foams to coat the sides about 1″ up. Add the entire mixture and distribute evenly throughout the pan, patting to compress somewhat. Cook until the underside is golden brown and pulls away slightly from the sides; transfer to the broiler.

Cook until the top is golden brown. Remove,cool slightly, and transfer to a cutting board. Slice into wedges. Season with a grind of black pepper and a little celery salt.

Golden brown cake.

Beef cheek, ricotta dumpling, cauliflower soup

Certain cuts of beef taste to me like “generic meat.” Beef tenderloin, for example – I’ve never really understood the great love of filet mignon (although I imagine it corresponds with the fear of offal). Or the round – there’s nothing really wrong with it, but I’ve had a lot of roast beef made from the round, which tastes to me like AnyMeat. It could be the reason why I’ve never been able to get excited about deli roast beef sandwiches.

Beef cheek, though? You’ll never mistake that for anything other than beef. Along with the deckle and the short rib, it is one of the three cuts that deliver the most intense beef flavor per bite. The dish below – beef cheeks with dumplings and a creamy cauliflower soup, garnished with flash-fried cauliflower florets – is pretty rich, and a small-portions kind of thing. If you have fresh truffle, now is the time to use it.

You’ll have leftover beef cheek and braising reduction; you can shred up the cheeks in the reduction and toss it with tagliatelle or pappardelle.

For the beef cheek:

1 1/2 lb beef cheeks, cleaned of the most obvious gristle and silverskin
medium onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
bouquet garni (leek w/bay leaf, thyme, parsley)
2 c dry red wine
1 quart white beef stock or veal stock

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Sear the beef cheeks on all sides until deep brown (a couple of minutes per side). Remove to a plate. Add the vegetables to the pan and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Return the beef cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Gently heat through.

Serve with the cauliflower soup, flash fried cauliflower florets, and the dumplings. If you have fresh white truffle (or black), slice a little bit over the top.

Beef cheek, cauliflower, ricotta dumpling

Cauliflower soup

2/3 lb cauliflower florets and stems, sliced 1/4″
2 1/2 c white veal stock or chicken stock
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar (to taste)
5 tbsp butter
2/3 c heavy cream
salt and white pepper

To prepare sous vide:

Bag the cauliflower with the salt and 1 tbsp butter. Vacuum seal and drop into a circulator at 183F/84C for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the stock to a simmer with the bay and thyme.

Remove herbs. Transfer both cauliflower and stock to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

To prepare conventionally:

Bring the stock to a simmer with the thyme and bay leaf and, when add the cauliflower. Simmer until tender, about 8 minutes; do not continue to simmer beyond that point. Remove herbs.

Transfer to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

For the dumplings:

1/2 lb whole milk ricotta
1 egg, beaten
between 3-5 tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
minced assorted herbs – thyme, chives, tarragon, parsley

Combine the beaten egg with the minced herbs, salt, and the ricotta. Incorporate well. Spread out on a flat surface and sprinkle flour evenly over the surface; working quickly, fold the ricotta/egg mixture over itself again and again, using a bench scraper or knife to incorporate the flour into the ricotta, to form a small square. Transfer it back into a bowl and let it rest (you can rest it in the refrigerator for up to a day at this point, tightly covered).

At serving time, bring a pot of salted water to a simmer and, using a small scoop or two spoons, drop balls or quenelles of dumpling dough about 3/4″ into the simmering water. When the dumplings float, let them simmer for about a minute. Remove from the water with a skimmer and drain briefly on a clean kitchen towel.

With a cauliflower soup.

*names have been changed to protect the food-cowardly.

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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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