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.)


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.


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

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.

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
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.


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.


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


Beef, Leftover Recycling, preserving, Sandwich, Science


Thanksgiving came and went without a hitch. I know this because my mother in law came to stay for two nights and my husband’s efforts to fix a whole bunch of little things around the house paid off in the form of a relatively pleasant visit.

I get a lot of questions about cooking technique in the weeks leading up to the holiday. This isn’t all that surprising – most people think about food more during the holidays, and cook more during the holidays. Food anxiety apparently plays a much greater role on television as well. We don’t have TV at home – a long story involving a severe, folie à deux-type addiction to late night reality television and a bitter argument with DirecTV seven years ago – but a couple of weeks back, while in Kansas City on business, I took the opportunity to check out the Food Network programming in the hotel room. Let’s just say that holiday cooking doesn’t make me anxious, but if I had been at all worried about achieving a crispy brown skin on a moist turkey, avoiding dry dressing, or producing the dreaded leaden pumpkin pie, I wouldn’t have felt any better after watching Food Network in the two weeks before Thanksgiving. I suspect that’s how they like it, too.

Anyway, as always, I received a lot of questions about brining this year. My answer, again as always, was the same. If you’re going to roast your turkey whole (and there are many, many reasons not to do so), you should consider a short brine. Honestly, though – who really likes turkey all that much, other than my husband? He’s still eating it, by the way, with gusto. We had the leftovers for dinner the other night – and I must admit that they were good, especially the chestnut and sausage stuffing, which tasted even better after the flavors had a few more days to meld – but I really don’t need to eat more than one turkey meal a year, brined or no. Now, the brined food I do like to eat … that’s salt beef, or corned beef.

Corning refers to “corn,” the archaic English term for a hard, coarse, granular substance, like those big grains of salt formerly used for preservation. While in times past one might have preserved meat by packing it in salt corns for a dry cure, today corned or salt beef generally is cured in a wet brine. As much as salt beef is a pretty lowbrow food, enjoyed between slabs of rustic caraway rye and accented with fiery English mustard, the best hot salt beef sandwich I’ve ever enjoyed comes from a distinctly posh venue. The Fifth Floor food hall at Harvey Nichols department store in London has a hot salt beef carving station where you can get a great fatty piece of salt brisket on rye. If you’re tired out from buying expensive clothes downstairs, go sit in the Fifth Floor Bar and order a salt beef sandwich. It comes with pickles, hot mustard, and beautiful plate presentation. Some people say Selfridge’s is best, but those people are nuts.

Salt beef

Use a kitchen scale when making the brine. From chemistry class (and all those metrics lessons in the 70s) you should recall that water weighs one gram per milliliter, so a liter of water weighs one kg. You want a 10% salt solution with adequate sugar, and it is essential that you not include too much curing salt. A note about that curing salt, by the way. Many of you may eschew nitrites, having read about their potential negative health consequences. Since we rarely brine meat these days for preservation, you can omit the curing salt from the brine if you like, without any ill effect. The salt beef will, however, cook to a grayish-brown if you cook it conventionally, since curing salt preserves color. (If you are interested in cooking the salt beef sous vide to preserve color, I do provide instructions.)

1.5 kg (3 lbs) brisket
2 liters (2000 ml) cold water
200g salt
75g sugar
10g curing salt (Prague Powder #1)
2 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled
several branches thyme
10g black peppercorn
10g pickling spice [combine whole allspice, cloves, mace, celery seed, juniper]

Bring 200g of the water, and the rest of the brine ingredients, to a simmer until dissolved. Combine with the rest of the water. Trim the brisket of extraneous gristle and place in a large, thick, sealable plastic bag (a gallon bag should do if you have a slightly smaller brisket than specified, but otherwise use a two gallon bag). I strongly recommend double bagging.


Add the brine and seal the bags. To be really safe against leaks or bursting, place the bag in a deep bowl (such as a steel prep bowl). Place in the refrigerator, in the coldest part. Every day for about a week, rotate the bag to ensure that all parts of the brisket are cured consistently. You can cure for up to two weeks but it does become progressively more salty. If you intend to cook sous vide (especially if not using curing salt), pull from the brine after five days and rinse well before proceeding.

After two weeks.

After a week to ten days (or up to two weeks), remove the brisket from the bag and rinse in cold water. Discard the brine.

1 onion, quartered
2 carrots, scraped and chopped
1 large celery stalk, chopped

Place the brisket in a large stockpot or Dutch oven with the onion, carrot, and celery. Add water to cover. Bring just to a simmer and keep at a bare simmer for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your brisket. When the brisket is ready, it will be fork-tender. During cooking, the brisket will become quite tough for a period of time. This is normal – keep simmering and do not at any time allow the water to boil. Remove the brisket from the cooking liquid. Slice across the grain.

To prepare sous vide, rinse well to be sure that none of the pickling spices adhere to the meat because spices will become unbearably strong otherwise. Bag the brisket and vacuum seal. Cook in the SVS or in an immersion circulator at 136F/58C for medium rare meat, or 140F/60C for medium, about 42-48 hours depending on meat thickness and composition.

Serve on sliced rye bread, with house-made pickles and hot English mustard. As pictured, the sandwich comes with potato chips made by slicing a russet on a mandoline directly into hot oil.

Salt beef on rye

Corned beef hash

What do you do with leftover corned beef? Hash, of course – the blandness of the potato is the perfect foil to the salty meat.

I specify 1/4″ dice because I like it small. Don’t knock yourself out. It’s hash, it’s a rustic dish; if you like larger dice or even a rough chop, suit yourself.

Corned beef hash.

Leftover salt beef, from above, diced about 1/4″
one russet potato, diced 1/4″
one small yellow onion, diced 1/4″
vegetable oil or clarified butter
thyme leaves
black pepper
optional: poached egg

Place a large sauté pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add a little oil. Add the potato to the pan and toss once to coat on all sides; then cook, undisturbed, until golden on one side. Flip the potatoes to turn and add the onion. Brown on the other side and add the corned beef and thyme leaves. Redistribute in the pan and continue to brown until golden. Season with salt if necessary (the beef is quite salty, so you should not need much salt). Season with black pepper and chives. Turn out onto a plate.

If you like, top with a poached or fried egg. Ketchup is not verboten.

Cheese, Random Thoughts, Sandwich

In praise of Borough Market.

Previously, on The Upstart Kitchen: yours truly and husband roast a heritage chicken and prepare confit tomatoes in the dark, using a wood-fired brick oven and a long stick, without burning down a 500 year-old property in the south of France. Good times.

One five-hour drive to Barcelona, one French air traffic control strike, and one exceptionally inconvenient rush-hour Tube strike later, we arrived in central London, ready to take in the excellent British culinary scene. That’s not actually why we went to London – we were meeting up with my dad and then I was going to sit a panel on international economic crime at Cambridge late in the week – but still and all. If you’ve not been to Britain in the past twenty years, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. After all, it long ago established a reputation for humorously named mush like spotted dick, the gratuitous use of kidneys, and vegetables boiled beyond recognition. Well, that’s true. My first trips to Britain were memorable only in that I ate lots of jacket potatoes with butter because they were more appetizing than the alternative. My husband’s father, who was English until the day he died, apparently displayed great aptitude in the kitchen when Julia Child provided the inspiration, but was prone to boiling vegetables for days before serving and attempting to pass off kidneys as mushrooms in the steak pie – unsuccessfully, by the way, because, unlike mushrooms, kidneys taste like urine however long you soak them.

But times change, and Britain has changed. Welcome to the “Best of Britain” – the products that make hearty, wholesome, fresh-tasting synonymous with British food. In fairness, many of these items are nothing new. There’s British dairy – thick, faintly golden milk from Jersey, fine wheels of craft Stilton and Cheddar, Devon cream and delicate butter. For many years, if you knew where to look, you satisfied yourself with juicy, sage-scented Lincolnshire sausage and rich Melton Mowbray pork pies. In summer, the red currants, strawberries, and raspberries formed the basis for classic summer pudding and trifles. But in recent years, British pride in seasonal homegrown products has surged. The evidence abounds – fish pies lightly binding moist smoked haddock with garden peas and cream; proprietary bangers and buttery pureed potatoes; scotch eggs encased in venison sausage and encased in a light, crispy crumb.

Nowhere is this revival in more spectacular evidence than at Borough Market, on the southern bank of the Thames River in London. Borough has existed in its present location since 1756, after an act of Parliament declared it a public nuisance and mandated its closure. As a well-situated market by both London Bridge and the Thames, Borough plays host to a wholesale market every day, but its primary appeal for Londoners and tourists alike is the weekly public market on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. On those days, a staggering variety of British produce, local heritage meat and poultry, and artisanal food products cater to the crowds of food crazies toting eco-friendly canvas bags in one hand while feasting with the other.

Late summer's bounty at Borough

Pheasant and hare hang to age outside a meat stall

Primo meat.

Every year, when I visit London, I do the circuit – late summer fruit to eat during the week; cold smoked haddock from the Orkneys, pint of cider, check out the seeds, why not a pork pie. The lineup changes somewhat from year to year, and although some of the change is down to consumer demand, other changes have provoked controversy. We’re seeing more prepared food, like grilled cheese sandwiches and Cumberland sausage, and less fresh product. In fact, a number of fruit and vegetable merchangs are suing the Borough Market trustees, claiming that the trustees are attempting to force them out, whereas the trustees counter that the addition of more prepared food stalls merely reflects the changes in consumer demand. Earlier, the proposed construction of the certain upgrades to Network Rail, partly in preparation for the 2012 Olympics in London and partly to ease existing congestion, led to concerns about the market’s viability.

But anyway – the market’s still around, and when we went in September – twice! – it was completely packed with happy gluttons. Fruit and veg stands, as well as the meat and fish guys, were all in evidence. If you’re in London at the end of a week, go to Borough.

Diver scallops, cooked à la minute.

Grilled cheese sandwich, à la Kappacasein

I know what you’re thinking – Really? A grilled cheese sandwich? All I can say is that you need to try this particular sandwich before getting all judgmental about my recipe choices. I recommend you go to Borough Market and have one from the Kappacasein stand (if you can resist the raclette potatoes), but airfare to London being what it is even in the low season, this is the next best thing.

Kappacasein doesn’t keep the makeup of their sandwiches any big secret. In fact, the ingredients are marked off on a chalkboard right in front of their stand. As with so many other things, technique makes a simple dish extraordinary. The Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar (perhaps from the shop right across the street) is grated into large shreds that melt evenly; the poilâne sourdough bread is just tart enough to be interesting, not overpowering; and the addition of browned onion, leek, and garlic add a note of sweetness and savor to the sandwich. Don’t stint on the butter. That would just be dumb, since the sandwich isn’t diet food in the first place.

I was excited to make this the other day when, on a walk with my husband through Washington, I stopped at Cowgirl Creamery and discovered they have Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar. You say you can’t get Neal’s Yard cheeses or artisanal poilâne where you are? Improvise, using the finest Cheddar and rustic, crusty bread you can manage. Even at the Safeway you can find fine loaves of crusty bread resembling pain de campagne and mature Cheddar from Vermont and Wisconsin.

Grilled cheese, à la Kappacasein

one loaf of poilâne or another rustic white sourdough like pain de campagne or a levain, not too sour, sliced 1/2″
6-8 oz mature Cheddar, such as Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
one small red onion, peeled and diced 1/4″
one leek, white and light green only, washed very well and diced 1/4″
one clove garlic, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
olive oil

Grate the cheese, using the large holes on a grater. Set aside.

Place a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. When hot, add a knob of butter and a little olive oil if necessary. Add the leeks and onion and sauté until golden and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and cook several minutes more, taking care that the garlic does not brown and become acrid. Remove from heat, cool, and when cool, toss with the grated cheese.

Leek and onion.

Butter each slice of bread on the outside only. Put about 1.5 to 2 oz grated cheese (a decent handful) between the slices to form sandwiches (buttered side out). Place a large skillet or griddle over medium heat and, when hot, add the sandwiches. Press down with a grill press if you have one; otherwise, press from time to time with a spatula. Flip the sandwiches over when deep golden brown and crisp on one side; repeat. [Note: if you have a sandwich press or panino grill, you can use that.] Any cheese that oozes or falls out of the sandwich onto the pan and turns bubbly and brown is good stuff; make sure to scoop it onto the sandwich.

To pretend you’re at Borough, wrap the sandwich in waxed paper and enjoy with a pint of cider. Otherwise, slice in half and enjoy with some pickles (and your beverage of choice).

Cheese bounty at Neal's Yard Dairy.

Chicken, eggs, preserving, Quick Meals, Sandwich, Southeast Asian

Chicken tonight, Part 2

Recently, in response to the sausage burger post, a reader asked whether I plan what I’m going to cook every day, or just throw something together. This is where I admit that I’m not a morning person. It’s all I can do to get out of the house in one piece every day and menu planning just doesn’t happen. Sometimes we stop at the market on the way home from the office and I decide what to make based on what looks good that day. Other days, though, it’s a trip into the reach in freezer.

One night last week, my journey into the reach in yielded a vacuum package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. These types of small boneless cuts of somewhat fatty meat are what I like to call “pre-sausage.” You can dice them while they’re still frozen, and run them through the meat grinder. The fact that they’re frozen is a boon, not a curse – frozen cuts yield a better ground product, at least using home grinders like the KitchenAid attachment – so you can dispense with thawing time. Once ground, you can season and patty them right up. Within 35 minutes of our arrival home, we were eating these burgers, with Vietnamese flavors of pickled carrot and radish, mint, and chili sauce, influenced by the delicious Vietnamese sandwich, báhn mi. Not bad for an impromptu weekday meal out of the freezer.

Chicken burger, carrot and daikon pickle, sriracha mayonnaise.

Chicken burgers “báhn mi”

You may wonder why I have added whole egg and panko to the chicken before pattying and cooking these burgers, since I never would recommend any such thing for a beef or pork sausage-type burger. Here’s the thing – I find that ground chicken cooked in a patty without any binder tends to form a somewhat solid puck. You need a little extra fat to keep things moist.

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 large egg
3 tbsp panko
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp Vietnamese fish sauce
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
vegetable oil

4 soft buns
1 c carrot and daikon pickle, from below recipe
4-8 butter lettuce leaves (depending on size), washed and dried
1 c mint leaves, washed and spun dry
1/2 c cilantro (coriander) leaves, washed and spun dry (optional)
1/2 c sriracha mayonnaise (from below)

Freeze the chicken thighs until solid (but not rock-hard), and cut into 1″ chunks. If you’re using product straight from the freezer, let them thaw just slightly before cubing and grinding so they’re not like chicken boulders. Season with salt. Grind the chicken through a medium die.

Combine the panko and white pepper. Sprinkle the fish sauce over the chicken and add the panko mixture and egg. Mix with your hand until combined, but do not overwork.

Form four patties on a plate or cutting board. Do not stack, since these burgers will be very soft.

Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Use a large spatula to transfer each burger to the hot skillet and brown on the bottom side. Flip the burger over, cook until golden brown, and reduce the heat to the lowest setting to permit the burger to cook through. Remove the pan from heat. Burgers should have a moist texture and hold together well.

While burgers cook, toast the buns on a sheet pan, cut side up, under the broiler until just golden. Spread both halves of each bun with sriracha mayonnaise. Place a chicken burger atop each bottom bun, top with carrot and daikon pickle, lettuce leaf, and a generous quantity of mint leaves and coriander (if using).

Carrot and daikon pickle

2 large carrots, shredded
1 medium daikon, shredded
3/4 c filtered water
3/4 c distilled white vinegar
1/4 c granulated sugar
2 tbsp kosher salt

Bring 1/4 c each of the water and vinegar to a simmer with the sugar and salt, just to dissolve. Add it to the other liquid and combine well. Pour the vinegar-water mixture over the daikon and carrot in a nonreactive, sealable container and refrigerate at least two hours. You can leave the vegetables in the pickling liquid for a week or so. If you don’t have two hours – say because you got home late from work and you’re starving now – let them pickle at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

Sriracha mayonnaise

I’m not going to be one of these people who says “You must make your own mayonnaise! Don’t ever use mayonnaise from a jar!” because I live in the real world. People who flog home cooks to make their own mayonnaise every time they need a couple of tablespoons are prone to other ridiculous pronouncements, like “pesto must be made using a mortar and pestle,” and similar impractical nonsense. House-made mayonnaise is delicious, I do prefer it to the jarred product, and I do often make my own, but not always. For starters, it doesn’t keep that long. Unlike commercial product, made with pasteurized egg, a higher acid content, and, let’s face it, preservatives, house-made product will keep about a week. I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat much mayonnaise, jarred or house-made. Unless I’m feeding a crowd, house-made mayonnaise and aioli often go to waste, and I hate to waste food.

So if you need to use a jarred product, go ahead. Widely available products like Duke’s and Hellman’s are fine. Delouis Fils makes the best jarred mayonnaise I have tried, but it is more expensive and not as widely available. You can freshen up any jarred product with a few drops of lemon juice.

Having said all that, here’s the truth about making mayonnaise. It’s easy. Egg-based emulsions like mayonnaise can hold a ridiculous amount of oil before they begin to break – that is, before the oil separates. Harold McGee, food scientist extraordinaire, famously once emulsified one egg yolk with 100 cups of oil. (He added water to increase the ratio of oil to water-based product to 3:1, but that esoterica is not going to help you make mayonnaise you actually want to eat). Generally, though, 3/4 c oil per egg yolk provides a good guideline. The presence of mustard – which also contains lecithin, an emulsifier – helps stabilize the emulsion, as well as lending a piquant taste. If you have a strong arm, you can whisk the mayonnaise by hand, but I feel a more stable product emerges from the blender or food processor.

1 egg yolk
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
large pinch salt
large pinch sugar
3/4 c sunflower or grapeseed oil (you can substitute up to 1/4 c of this with an equal quantity of olive oil)

Additionally, for sriracha mayonnaise: increase sugar to 1 tsp; 3 tbsp sriracha (chili sauce)

If preparing by hand, whisk together all the ingredients but the oil. Otherwise, blitz them in the blender or food processor until combined.

If preparing by hand, begin whisking in the oil, one drop at a time at first, and then more quickly in a thin stream (I find it helps to use a squeeze bottle to control flow). Otherwise, with the food processor or blender running, drip in oil one drop at a time, and then a little more quickly. Once the quantity of oil is equal to the quantity of egg yolk and other liquid, you should have a fairly stable emulsion – you will be able to tell because the mixture will be somewhat thick and not show any signs of separation. At this point, you can stop adding the oil drop by drop and increase the volume to a thin stream or even add the oil more quickly.

If making the sriracha mayonnaise, stir in the sriracha until well-combined. Cover and hold under refrigeration.

Beef, Pork Products, Quick Meals, Sandwich

Burgermeister meisterburger.

I have standards, sometimes set by long-ago dining experiences. The patty melt, for example. When I was in high school, I waited tables at the Woolworth’s Coffee Shop in the Brookfield Square Mall, your basic diner with sandwiches, pie, soups and burgers. The best of these was the patty melt. Served in a brown skillet plate, atop a pile of crisp, salty fries, the Woolworth’s patty melt boasted melted American cheese, a tangle of sweet, golden onion, and, most importantly, buttery griddled rye. For me, it was a perfect sandwich, and today, if I order a patty melt, I expect it to taste like that.

The problem with maintaining standards is that, inevitably, someone will disappoint you. Last weekend, in the Los Angeles area, I had a terrible patty melt. Let me count the ways in which the Kobe burger failed to meet my expectations. First of all, no way was that Kobe beef. Second, even if it was Kobe, they killed it, cooking the burger to a charred, dried out puck. Third, I think they cooked it on the flattop right after cooking my mom’s swordfish, because it came with an odd, fishy aroma. Fourth (yes – I have a lot of complaints about this burger), I couldn’t taste the few strings of caramelized onion through the burnt, fishy lump of meat. And finally, the bread. Marble rye could’ve been a cute twist, but patty melts need to be buttered and then griddled on the flattop. What you’re looking for, see, is a grilled cheese on rye, essentially, but with a burger and some caramelized onions in between. What I got was rye bread, too dry to be fresh, not dry enough to have been toasted. And no butter. Expectations not met.

I couldn’t eat it. Once we returned from LA, all I could think about was that total failure burger.

Having read too many gross stories about commercially-available ground beef, I always grind my own meat. As an added bonus, I get to choose the cuts and season them before grinding for perfect salt integration. For the burgers we eat at home, I use a blend of short rib, brisket, and tri-tip (if I can get it – otherwise, I just use any sirloin I can get). It’s kind of a fat bomb, but we only eat burgers at home maybe two or three times a year. If you don’t grind the meat yourself, substitute 1 1/2 lbs of any high quality fresh-ground beef – meaning that the butcher or market grinds the meat from whole cuts in-house. You will notice from the pictures that the burgers are not medium-rare. This is because my husband dislikes the thick medium-rare burger, preferring instead a fully cooked but very thin patty, such as you might get at In ‘N’ Out Burger. You can suit yourself, but if you want to cook the thin patties, each one should be 2 oz, and you can double them up on your burger.

Patty melt

Now and then I encounter attempts to fancy up a perfectly good burger with artisanal cheese. For purposes of the patty melt, that’s wrong. The cheese you want is American, which melts evenly and provides a mildly tangy, salty quality that doesn’t compete with the meat. Blue cheeses take you into Spotted Pig territory, which is great and all, but this is a patty melt. Cheddar just isn’t salty enough and melts into a greasy, sweaty-looking blob. Swiss, even though traditional, poses the same problem. And with the holes in the cheese, you don’t get perfect burger coverage.

1/2 lb beef short rib (boneless)
1/2 lb beef brisket
1/2 lb bottom sirloin (or other sirloin)
kosher salt
12 slices American cheese
2 large red onions, sliced into 1/4″ rings
12 slices rye bread
unsalted butter, softened

Cut the beef into 1″ cubes and spread evenly on a sheet pan. Season with 1/2 tsp kosher salt per pound of meat. If you have to use a table salt, cut this quantity in half. Freeze the meat until firm (about 30 minutes) and pass through a grinder with a medium die.

Butter each slice of bread on one side.

Place a skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add a knob of butter. Add the onion and cook until translucent and soft with deep golden brown edges. Season with a little salt and set aside.

Form the meat into six patties, 4 oz each. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, film with oil. Fry the burgers on one side until browned, and flip with a spatula. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook to the desired doneness, topping with a slice of cheese. Alternatively, you can grill the burger, but you usually wouldn’t grill a patty melt.

In a second skillet, place the bread, butter side down, topped with a slice of cheese. Place the cooked burgers on top of the cheese, top with a generous quantity of onion, and top with the second slice of buttered rye, butter side-up. Press down with the spatula. When the bread is golden brown on the skillet side, flip the sandwich over and cook until the other slice of bread is golden brown. Slice in half and serve.

Patty melt.

Korean BBQ burger

There’s nothing like the savory, mildly sweet, smoky taste of galbi, the Korean dish of beef short ribs, marinated and grilled. It’s often served as ssam – a wrapped food – with a lettuce leaf and a smear of gochujang, the spicy red pepper bean paste, and assorted side dishes like kimchi. I thought it might be delicious to incorporate these flavors into a burger, especially one using ground short rib.

Instead of a big dab of gochujang, this burger features a spicy mayonnaise. I make my own, but you can substitute a good quality jarred mayonnaise, such as Hellman’s or Duke’s.

1/2 lb beef short rib (boneless)
1/2 lb beef brisket
1/2 lb bottom sirloin (or other sirloin)
kosher salt
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp soy sauce
clove garlic
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
large pinch sugar
butter lettuce or crisphead lettuce (like iceberg)
1 c baechu kimchi (cabbage kimchi), chopped coarsely
1/2 c mayonnaise
1 tbsp gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)
6 burger buns

Combine the mayonnaise and gochujang in a small bowl. Cover and keep refrigerated. Rub a separate small bowl with the garlic clove and, in the bowl, combine the soy, sesame oil, white pepper, and sugar.

Cut the beef into 1″ cubes and spread evenly on a sheet pan. Season with 1/2 tsp kosher salt per pound of meat. If you have to use a table salt, cut this quantity in half. Freeze the meat until firm (about 30 minutes) and pass through a grinder with a medium die.

Split the buns and place, cut side up, on a baking sheet. Place under a hot broiler until lightly toasted on the cut side. Remove and set aside.

Form the meat into six patties, 4 oz each. Brush each very lightly with the sesame-soy mixture. Sesame oil has a strong taste, so more is not better in this situation. When I say lightly, I mean lightly. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, film with oil. Fry the burgers on one side until browned, and flip with a spatula. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook to the desired doneness. Alternatively, you can grill the burger.

Spread gochujang mayonnaise on the cut side of each bun. Top the bottom halves with lettuce. Place the burger on top and top with kimchi. Serve immediately.

Korean BBQ burger

Sausage burger

While I’ve got you here, let me share another burger favorite. This one features pork, the king of meats, and Italian flavors. The bitterness of the radicchio cuts right through the fattiness of the sausage, and the mushrooms and Parmigiano cheese turn this sandwich into an umami festival. Combine caramelized onion for sweetness and pickled onion for acidity and you’ve got a perfect bite.

1 1/2 lbs sausage, from this recipe
10 oz white button mushrooms, sliced thinly (1/8″ or so)
unsalted butter
salt (truffle salt is especially good) and pepper
1/4 c dry white wine
radicchio leaves, washed and dried
12 paper-thin slices Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 oz Fontina Val d’Aosta, in 12 slices
Pickled onion, from this recipe
Dijon mustard
6 burger buns

Split the buns and place, cut side up, on a baking sheet. Place under a hot broiler until lightly toasted on the cut side. Remove and set aside.

Place skillet on high heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. Add mushrooms and saute until they have given up their liquid and reabsorbed it; add wine. Cook, stirring from time to time, until all liquid is absorbed. Once liquid is absorbed, cook, stirring infrequently, until mushrooms are golden brown. Season with salt and pepper.

Form the meat into six patties. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, film with oil. Fry the burgers on one side until browned, and flip with a spatula. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook through completely, topping with a slice of cheese. Don’t overcook them, though – they need to be moist.

Spread the bottom halves of each bun with mustard and top with radicchio. Place the burger on top and top with sauteed mushrooms and pickled onion. Serve immediately.

Sausage burger

Latin, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Quick Meals, Sandwich

Pressed for time.

The Cuban food fest of the past weekend yielded some leftovers, by design. See, I really like Cubanos. As sandwiches go, I don’t think you can beat them.

If you don’t already know, a Cubano – the archetypical Cuban sandwich – is a sandwich of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and sliced pickles between the halves of a Cuban loaf, slathered with mustard. The sandwich is heated and pressed using a device called the plancha, which resembles a panino maker. Unlike the panino maker, the plancha is not grooved and does not leave grill marks. Its heavy plates flatten the bread, compressing the layers of meat and pickle, and melting the Swiss cheese.

Which brings us to Baltimore, 2010. I have leftover roast pork and a jar of house-made dill pickles. To me, that means Cubanos. The origins of the Cubano are open to dispute – no one is really sure whether the sandwich originated in Florida, among the cigar workers in Tampa’s Ybor City and Key West, or in Cuba, but it is clear that the sandwich was popular both on the continent and the island. The Cubano probably first appeared – wherever it appeared – at the beginning of the 20th century, and by the 1960s, it was eaten widely throughout South Florida and cosmopolitan Cuba.

Pickles and mustard lend tang to the sandwich, and the plancha-pressing produces a crisp, brown crust. The melted Swiss cheese holds all the sandwich fillings together. It’s a perfect sandwich. Although a Tampa variant sometimes includes Genoa salami – a tangy, garlicky sausage – most versions of the sandwich do not. Lettuce, tomato, and condiments besides mustard (such like mayonnaise) generally are considered inauthentic.


If you can find Cuban bread, use it. It’s not easy to come by outside Central and South Florida. If, like me, you live in the Land Without Cubans, use a baguette, preferably not a really good one, You want something supermarkety, not as crisp-crusty as a baguette really should be, and split down the length of the top, if you can find that. Sadly, I don’t have a panino maker or a plancha, so I use a grill press (a flat plate of stainless steel with a wooden handle). It’s not quite as effective, but it comes close. And I only had good baguettes. Whatever, it’s still a delicious, crusty sandwich.

Yellow mustard is traditional, but I prefer the mellower bite of a green peppercorn Dijon mustard. The pickled red onion also is atypical, but I had them, and I used them.

One loaf Cuban bread, or a baguette
1/4 lb thinly sliced ham – a glazed, Virginia, or maple ham is good
1/4 lb thinly sliced roast pork
2 dill pickles, thinly sliced
Optional: pickled red onions, from recipe
4-6 slices Swiss cheese (depending on size of baguette)

Slice the Cuban loaf or the baguette lengthwise. Spread the mustard on the cut sides of the bread and layer the fillings within the loaf. Replace the top and press down.

Place the sandwich in a heated plancha or panino press (with a flat plate), on a hot flat top, or in a heated dry skillet. Lower the top of the plancha or panino press, or place a heavy weight (such as a foil-wrapped brick or another skillet) over the sandwich. Press hard. If heating on a flat top or in a skillet, flip over the sandwich and repeat. When golden and crisp, remove the sandwich from heat and slice.