Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Smashing Burgers!

When I was a kid, I would love it when my mom would take me to Hamlin Pharmacy and Fountain in Corpus Christi, Texas. The thought of a pharmacy, a gift shop, and a soda fountain all-in-one made me giddy! Not only could you enjoy old-timey lunch counter cuisine, cooked right in front of you on a griddle, you could wash it down with a milkshake and buy yourself something new before you left! Great fun when you're a kid! While soda fountains and lunch counters are relics of a bygone era, I have always had an affinity for the greasy cuisine. In fact, this lead me to create a fantastic burger, not cooked on a grill, but on the stove, just like they did in the old days!

When my husband first saw me cook burgers this way, he shook his head and thought I was absolutely nuts. Why? Well, basically I ignored all the rules about how to cook a burger. I relied on my experience at Hamlin's, a vague memory of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin making burgers on TV, as well as what I observed in the plethora of diners that I frequented when I lived in the northeast. On first bite, my husband was shocked at how delicious and juicy the burgers were! Even today, I may suggest cooking burgers on my Weber grill, but am always met with resistance, "Make diner burgers!" (which they have become known), "You know they're always better!", and they always are.

The technique is really simple. In a large pan (see Gadgets for my favorite nonstick pan), melt a pat of butter topped with thinly sliced onions for each burger, shape the ground beef into individual balls, season generously with salt and pepper, and using a spatula, smash each ball down on each butter/onion mound. Bobby Flay would freak! By smashing them, you get the jagged edges that create a nice crispy texture. Once they begin to brown on the edges, flip them and smash them again! This creates the perfect meat to bun ratio. Top each burger with two slices of good old American cheese and cover until the cheese is melted and the burgers are done to your liking. For those of you who judge my smashing technique, how do you explain the wildly popular Denver-based burger chain Smashburger, or the fact that Hamlin's is still thriving today? Why not try my "Ultimate Diner Burger with Bacon and Egg?" Although they are a cardiologists nightmare, they are fantastic! Try it and you'll never make burgers the same again! 
Ultimate Diner Burger with Bacon and Egg

Serves 4


1 lb ground chuck
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick slices bacon 
1/4 cup very thinly sliced onion
8 slices American cheese (yes, Kraft!)
4 eggs
4 good quality burger buns, toasted
Mayonnaise, for the buns


Divide the beef into four and shape into round balls. Set aside.

Cook the bacon over medium heat in a large pan, drain on paper towels. In the pan that you cooked the bacon, raise the heat to high and make four even mounds of the onions. Season the balls generously with salt and pepper. When the onions are starting to sizzle, using a spatula, smash each ball down on each onion mound.

Once the edges begin to brown, a few minutes, flip them over and smash them again. (A splatter guard is recommended to control the mess.) After a minute, reduce the heat to medium and top each burger with two slices of the cheese, cover the pan until the cheese is melted and the burgers are done to your liking, just a minute or two.

Set the burgers on a platter. In the pan with the grease, cook two eggs at a time until the whites are set and the yolks are still soft, just a few minutes. (Covering the pan helps to cook the whites faster.) Set aside while cooking the remaining two eggs.

To serve, place each burger on the toasted and mayonnaised buns, top with the bacon (break the bacon in half so they fit well), and top with a fried egg. Fabulous!

*You may also be interested in my Green Chili Cheeseburgers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Swiss Shepherds and T.J. Sochi!

In honor of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, I wanted to throw a party for the opening ceremony and began researching Russian cuisine. After an exhausted search, I concluded that meat jello, pickled everything, salted herring, salo (cured pork fat), beets, and vodka would not make a festive affair for my American comrades. While Russia does have some specialties, such as Salad Olivier and Veal Orloff, these were created by Belgium and French chefs who were hired by the Russian nobility, no doubt in search of better cuisine. After this horrifying picture, I gave up!

"A picture is worth a thousand words!"

So, with the weather as cold and snowy as I can ever remember, I decided to borrow from the Swiss. No, not fondue, but raclette! Raclette is a melted cheese dish that has been popular for many centuries and originated with the Swiss shepherds. The shepherds would move their herds into the mountains for grazing in the warm summer months. With limited supplies of potatoes, flour, gherkins, and a round of cheese, they would cut the wheel of cheese in half and place it on a rock near the fire's edge. As the cheese began to melt, they would scrape some off to a plate of potatoes and pickles. The word "raclette" comes from the French word "racler" meaning "to scrape off," and is the same name of the cheese that is traditionally used for this dish. 

So, I dusted off my Swissmar Raclette/Grill, purchased some Raclette cheese and some Apremont Vin De Savoie Blanc (which my cheesemonger said was authentic with raclette), made room on my luckily large-enough coffee table, set out some low stools and pillows, and let the party begin! This is a great party idea that can all be prepped ahead of time! Everyone had a great time, even my kids! In fact, it was so much fun that instead of packing my raclette away, I plan on having another party to watch the US Men's Hockey game, which I am currently recording! Go Blues!

How to Throw a Raclette Party

Ingredients (Pick and choose as you like!):

Traditional Raclette
1/4 lb Raclette cheese per person, sliced (e.g., 1 lb for 4) (Other Swiss cheeses can be used, such as Tilsit, Grey Alp Cheese, Appenzeller, etc.)
Sausage, such as smoked sausage like Kielbasa, etc., cut into slices (see package information for serving size)
Ham, sliced
Bacon, sliced and cut in half
Thinly sliced onions
1 lb boiled baby potatoes per 4 people
Baguette slices
Pickled pearl onions
Paprika (to sprinkle as desired)
Salt and white pepper

Contemporary Raclette
Vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, etc.)
Fruit, sliced (pineapple, apple, banana, etc.)
Chicken, Beef, or Pork (cut into small pieces or skewered)
Fish (cut into small pieces)
Seafood (such as shrimp)
Pizza sauce and pizza cheese
Tortillas and Monterrey jack


Set up
Place a large cutting board on a table large enough to hold all your ingredients, raclette/grill, and plates/utensils. Set raclette on large cutting board and make sure you have an outlet available. (You may have to use an extension cord.) Make separate platters to attractively arrange the meat(s), fish or shellfish, cheese(s), and vegetables, etc. Organize condiments with spoons and forks, as needed. Set aside enough wine glasses and napkins, as needed. 

Once everyone has arrived, turn on raclette. Once hot, place little slices of cheese in the nonstick dishes that slide in under the nonstick ribbed grill plate. Once the cheese is melted, using the plastic scrapers, slide cheese onto individual serving plates and eat with potatoes or bread (toasted on top grill plate and sprinkled with a little wine). Grill the sausage, bacon, or other meat or seafood on top, as you go. All the combinations are up to you and your guests. The sky's the limit! For my picky young ones, they like to make mini "pizzas," grill fruit, or make little quesadillas to their liking, with adult supervision, of course! Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Birth of Aphrodite

Botticelli Birth of Venus 450x230 Botticellis Birth of Venus
Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1484-86
Botticelli's Birth of Venus is my favorite painting from the Italian Renaissance. Venus, in all her naked glory, is depicted riding to shore on a scallop shell and sea foam, being blown by Zephyrus (who is carrying the nymph Chloris) to be greeted by Pomona, the goddess of Spring. Venus's beauty was so great that wherever she stepped flowers would bloom and sand would turn to grass. Impressive! Venus embodies love, beauty, sex, fertility and prosperity in Roman mythology. She is also known as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. But do you know the story of her birth?

According to Hesiod's poem, Theogony, Gaia was the primal Greek Mother Goddess, creator of the Earth and all the Universe. Gaia created and married Uranus (primal Greek God of the sky) and had many children. Some of the children became the Titans, three were cyclopes, and three were monsters known as "hecatonchires" (which had 100 arms and 50 heads each), some became giants, and the youngest child, a Titan, was named Cronus. Uranus could not bear the sight of his hideous children, specifically the cyclopes and hecatonchires, and hid them away in the bowels of the earth. Well, Gaia wasn't too happy with this and set out for revenge. She created a flint sickle and with the help of Cronus set up a trap. As Uranus was coming to join Gaia, Cronos castrated him and threw his "stuff" into the sea. The sea began to bubble and foam "from the immortal flesh" and "with it a girl grew." Yes, it was Aphrodite, whose name means "risen from the foam." Wow and gross! That would make an interesting family tree!

Anyway, it was the birth of Aphrodite/Venus gliding on a scallop shell that has given scallops their aphrodisiac reputation. In fact, scallops are believed to raise sexual hormones in men and women, and have the ability to elevate moods! Check and check! This exquisite recipe, from Chef Eric Brenner, for "Seared Scallops, Saffron Risotto and Beurre Blanc" is the perfect Valentine meal! Luscious sweet scallops, served on a bed of creamy saffron risotto, and a generous drizzle of the best damn beurre blanc I've ever tasted is sexy, elegant, and extremely romantic! In addition, you will need to enlist the help of your mate to stir the risotto while you finish the rest! Cooking together is sexy! So, light the candles, pour some wine, and let the pleasure begin!   

Seared Scallops, Saffron Risotto and Beurre Blanc

Serves 4 (I have halved this recipe with great success, if you prefer dinner for two!)

For the Beurre Blanc
1 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons white wine
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 pound (8 tablespoons) butter, softened

For the Saffron Risotto
1 pinch saffron
2 quarts chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup minced shallots
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh peas
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

For the Scallops
12 dry-packed sea scallops
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

Remove and discard the side muscle from the scallops. Set the scallops on a paper towel and allow to come to room temperature while you make the beurre blanc and risotto.

For the Beurre Blanc
Remove the zest from the lemon with a vegetable peeler and place in a small saucepan. Add the juice of the lemon. Place the bay leaf, shallot, wine and vinegar in the saucepan and reduce by half. Add the cream and reduce to less than 1/4 cup. Remove from the heat, strain into another small pan and gradually whisk in the softened butter. Don't let the sauce go over 130 degrees. Do no try to reheat or refrigerate the sauce. (Sounds tricky, but it's not. You can do it!)

For the Saffron Risotto
In a saucepan, combine the saffron and chicken stock and set over low heat until almost simmering. In a medium saucepot, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add the shallots and saute until translucent. Add the rice and saute until lightly toasted, but not browned. Add the white wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated. Slowly incorporate the chicken stock a few ladles at a time, stirring constantly, until reduced and the rice is tender. (This can take anywhere from 25-40 minutes. Taste, taste, taste!) When tender, fold in the remaining tablespoon of butter with a rubber spatula. Fold in the peas and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve right away.

For the Scallops
Just before you think your risotto is almost ready, lightly season one side of the scallops with the salt. Heat a heavy skillet until it is screaming hot. (I use my cast iron pan!) Add the 3 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil begins to "dance" (just before smoking), place the scallops in the pan salt-side down. Cook until the scallops begin to caramelize, just a couple minutes. Flip the scallops and immediately remove the pan from the heat. The heat of the pan will cook the scallops through in about 3 to 4 minutes. 

To Plate
Place a 1/2-3/4 cup risotto onto each serving plate. Top each with three scallops. Spoon the sauce around the perimeter of each plate.

Recipe slightly adapted from Chef Eric Brenner.