Wednesday, October 3, 2012

UnRecipe: Why I Hate(d) Hamburgers

Food Confession: I never liked hamburgers as a child. If we were at a fast food place or a carnival of junk food, I'd opt for a hot dog, corn dog, chicken or filet-o-fish type of sandwich, or just tuck into a side of fries. But absolutely no hamburger. What the hell was wrong with me? Clearly I was a Bad Seed in the making, an abomination set for global destruction. But somehow, the Good Burger Fairy intervened along the way, cast out whatever demon was possessing my unholy soul, and I not only crave hamburgers regularly, I'll periodically write about them like I somehow know what the hell I'm doing.

Craving avocado more than hamburgers - Photo by Wasabi Prime
When I have time, I still write burger pieces for Serious Eats' A Hamburger Today, but it always feels like a house of cards ready to crumble, knowing I really didn't grow up mainlining this classic Americana grub that so many others couldn't imagine life without. It's only been within the latter years of my life that I came to appreciate The Hamburger, which isn't a small amount of time, but compared to so many people whose first food memory likely came out of a Happy Meal coveted by the Hamburgler, I'm a Fresh-On-the-Burger "FOB" initiate. I was never much of a beef fan when I was little. I hated steak and I barely tolerated meat loaf. My only appreciation for cow-flesh was the salty-sweet teriyaki beef that my mother would make, with paper-thin sheets of beef marinated to the point where all you could taste was the seasoning (this is Hawaii-style teriyaki, mind you, much more salty), or the Korean-style marinated beef, dipped in an egg batter and pan-fried, sliced and served with rice. This is not Americana. Not even a little. And maybe this had something to do with why hamburgers never excited me, at least not ones from the burger chains. Quite frankly, I found them to be flavorless and boring, as most ten-gazillion-served fast food joints sling 'em out to the masses.  It's no wonder I reviled burgers, and frankly surprised those fast food hockey pucks were likely the first hit of burger-ecstasy that got so many others on the junk food junkie train. And you were wondering what was wrong with me??

My new(ish) love affair with real hamburgers - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Maybe if my first taste of a hamburger was like the fancy-schmancy gourmet style burgers you can get at restaurants, I'd have changed my tune about burgers at a much younger age. My current favorites include the lamb burger at Willows Lodge, anything that sounds dangerous from Lunchbox Lab and the sunrise/fried egg burger at our local place in Duvall, Pickle Time. I'll even hit up Red Robin now and then -- technically it's local, the first location was in Seattle. Granted, the point of burgers is that it's an inexpensive food, so why pay more than a few bucks? My reasoning is, the negative health benefits are bad all around, regardless of the pricetag, so I may as well enjoy myself in the First Class section of a one-way ticket to Heart Attack-opia. Pass the basket of Endless Fries, please.

Having enjoyed many over-the-top hamburgers, seeking out ones that add different ingredients or meat patties for both writing and my personal belly-widening enjoyment, it really makes a burger worth savoring. I get just as excited when I make a burger at home, because the restaurants just inspire me to pile on the toppings, carte blanche. I've taken to grinding our own burger patty meat, combining different meats like pork, bacon and beef. Fresh-ground beef, as long as it's not formed too tightly into the burger shape, is extra-tender, plus you can cook it to a more rare state since you did the grind yourself. Pressing a well into the center of the patty before cooking keeps its shape when the meat shrinks up over the heat. For beef, I prefer several shakes of Worcestershire sauce into the beef mix, it gives it a little bit of a deeper, almost aged flavor.

Indy agrees, burger "research" from Red Robin is delicious - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I used to mix finely-ground garlic and rosemary into the meat, but the flavor just became too overpowering; those ingredients are better used in an aioli to spread on the bun. Flavor notes, not a sledgehammer to the face. My latest favorite topping is a chipotle "ketchup," which is soaked chipotle peppers stewed with a mix of way too many ingredients to list, and then blended into a sauce. Even without all the extra ingredients, chipotle peppers add a wonderful smoky sweetness and heat to a burger. It's not too overpowering, it just enhances that grilled, seared flavor on the meat. Soaking a small chipotle pepper and blending it down with mayonnaise would be a fantastic burger condiment. With slices of avocado and fresh cilantro piled on top, it makes for a fantastic Southwest-inspired burger.

Non-fried zucchini stick magic - Photos by Wasabi Prime
You can't have burgers without fries, but therein lies the rub: fried. I have no qualms about eating fried food, I relish every crispy moment where the roof of my mouth comes perilously close to being burned off with every impatient bite. I just don't like doing it at home, due to a mediocre vent that gums up every time I blink my eyes and the fact that I don't wish to release an airborne cloud of fry grease into our house that will likely permeate every nook and cranny until next Easter. I learned this early on when the Mister used to live in his Casa de Bachelor with several other dudes, and one of the dudes thought using a Fry Daddy indoors to make French fries was awfully wizard thing to do. The house never stopped smelling like a greasy, stale potato, and it served as yet another example of what happens when you rent a house to a bunch of dudes. Just remember: Knowing is half the battle.

My alternative to non-fried fries is baked zucchini fries. "But it's not a potato," you're saying, giving me that dirty look again that I'm completely missing the point. Listen here, Grumpypants, I cook for my needs, and one of my greatest needs is pandering to an immature lack of patience. Zucchini cooks a lot faster than potatoes, and when cut into narrow sticks, dipped in flour, then an egg wash, and a final roll in some panko crumbs and Parmesan shavings, it becomes the perfect trompe l'oeil baked fry. Shoved in a high-heat oven temperature of 420 degrees, the fast-cooking squash gets tender while the coating gets crisp and browned. Spuds take time, I don't care how quick and easy the oven potato fry recipes promise, and they wind up either soggy or burnt. While the zucchini won't be crispy and light like a golden potato fry, you've likely had fried zucchini before and your expectation levels are set for a crisp outer shell and a soft, roasted interior, which is exactly what the baked versions are.

Gourmet burger and fries done at home - Photos by Wasabi Prime
And so another childhood finicky food moment is laid to rest and all is right in the Hamburger Universe. Praise the Beef and pass the Fry Sauce!

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