Monday, September 16, 2013

OMG a Recipe: I Can Haz Mac and Cheezeburger

In the beginning, there was bread and ground beef. And that begat the almighty Hamburger. And this was anointed with cheese, and thus begat the Cheeseburger. And from that holy union came forth... the Macaroni and Cheeseburger. *cue angelic light and choir music*

All the Favorite Things! Macaroni and Cheeseburger - Photo by Wasabi Prime

So, well done, you haven't been totally offended by this sacri-licious intro, describing what can only be considered a Comfort Food Religious Experience. We're finally out of the heat of summer, a safe enough distance from bathing suit season, and we can indulge in the rich, delectable dishes that are designed for the chilly nights ahead. It's easy enough to throw some favorite things into a pot and make a delicious stew or soup, but there's nothing quite as comfort food-perfect as an ooey-gooey skillet of macaroni and cheese. It's a real treat when I make it, since it's such an indulgent dish, so I want to make it count when it finds its way on our dinner table. So how does one make macaroni and cheese truly extraordinary?

Sullivan's Steakhouse in downtown Seattle - putting a Northwest stamp on their menu - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I found my mac n' cheese inspiration in, of of all things, a flavorful cheeseburger. I was invited to preview the new menu at Sullivan's Steakhouse in Seattle. They sound familiar because they have several locations across the country, and they're all rolling out new menu items, but the Seattle location is unique in that it has the opportunity to really highlight local ingredients. Their daily specials are heavily sourced from Pike Place Market. New executive chef, Zack Martinez, was telling me that he walks through the market in the early morning hours, four to five times a week to see what's fresh, he's getting to know the vendors, and integrating as much locally-produced ingredients as he can into the menu. Our fortunate proximity to the water gives them the benefit of offering a lot of seafood, as well as their signature steaks. The Sullivan's in Seattle is the only one with a raw bar, their happy hour is one of the most popular in the downtown area, given the large bar section of the restaurant, and they do several fresh fruit infusions into their cocktails. Even though chain restaurants need to maintain a certain level of familiarity to maintain their overall brand, it's nice to see that they can still reflect the uniqueness of the city they operate from.

Butcher Shop Burger - so tasty, it's downright inspirational - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Looking through Sullivan's new menu items, they weren't changing their signature dishes, it was more about adding new things to remind people that just because it's a steakhouse, you don't have to have a steak, and a meal there doesn't have to be a formal occasion. It's Seattle -- we're all about casual comfort, even with our food. Something they were particularly pleased with was their Butcher Shop Burger, a wonderfully rich burger topped with gooey gruyere cheese, sweet caramelized onions, a buttery toasted brioche-style bun  made locally by a SoDo bakery, tart pickle slices and a slathering of a Dijon-mayonnaise on the bun. The burger is a mix of fresh-ground short rib and ribeye, a custom mix that Sullivan's cuts down and sets aside specifically for their burgers. It's cooked to order, and having it medium with some pinkness in the center is the only way to go. The specific combination of beef cuts makes for an especially hearty flavor, with the right balance of fat-to-meat so that you're getting a tender, juicy bite with good texture. It stands up remarkably well with all the strong flavors in this cheeseburger. Gruyere is a wonderfully nutty-flavored cheese; combined with the caramelized onions and Dijonnaise sauce, it's a lot for your tastebuds to handle, so it's a compliment to Sullivan's for building a custom burger mix that can hold its own against such strong flavors. Their use of pickles are a good reminder of the need to balance something acidic and vinegary to cut through the richness; your palate would get lost in the ingredients if the pickles weren't nestled into this cheeseburger.

I wanted to replicate this combination of flavors at home. I knew I'd never be able to remake the cheeseburger exactly -- and really, why should I, when I can just have the original when the craving strikes? But comfort foods being foremost in my mind, I wanted a meal that would hit every craving, inspired by the Butcher Shop Burger. I decided to make the hybrid macaroni and cheese-burger, as well as some simple tomato soup, infused with fresh basil, since my plant was on its last legs for the season. The acidic tomato soup would nicely balance out the creamy mac and cheese, and pay homage to that other favorite combination -- grilled cheese and tomato soup.

Soup is good food, and it makes your tummy happy - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The tomato soup was pretty basic, and more of a way to clear some leftovers from the fridge -- I actually used leftover tomato juice for the base. I seared some garlic and canned tomatoes in some olive oil, then used the tomato juice to deglaze the pot, added the fresh basil, and used a hand blender to fully buzz the whole thing down into a smooth consistency. I also added in half a block of cream cheese -- another random leftover in the fridge -- which made it extra creamy. Whole milk, sour cream or even plain yogurt would provide a similar result. Taste as you go, seeing if the soup needs a pinch of sugar or a dollop of honey -- the sweetness will help balance the tangy acidity of the tomatoes.

The main event was the mac n' cheeseburger. Even the Mister was excited when I was making it -- and he never gets excited when I make bready-pasta dishes -- but when he smelled the onions getting caramelized and the ground beef getting all crispy-seared in the pan, his interest in dinner was piqued. If you're like me who hates washing dishes, you can pretty much do almost everything in a single pan, but you'll need bowls to contain cooked ingredients in a holding pattern, since everything requires its own separate cooking time. For this dish, I used jarlsberg cheese instead of gruyere -- similar nutty flavor profile, the jarlsberg melts very nicely and at the time, was easier to get from our regular grocery store. Everything comes together after you've made the cheese sauce, fold in all the separate ingredients into the pan, a finishing sprinkle of breadcrumbs, extra cheese, and into the oven for a final bake-off and browning the crust. When it's finally served, it tastes like you're eating a wonderful combination of gooey macaroni and cheese, with the flavor of a burger. I was calling it Fancy Hamburger Helper, but it was far more extraordinary than anything that could have come out of a box. No freaky hand-shaped spokesperson required. 

Skillet dinner greatness that didn't come out of a box - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I Can Haz Mac and Cheezeburger

1/2 pound ground beef (80/20 meat to fat ratio preferred, not extra-lean)
3 cups shredded jarlsberg cheese
1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese 
1 large onion, peeled and sliced thin
4 cups of whole milk
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon sherry or Marsala wine
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 a stick of butter and 2 tablespoons of butter
1/2 pound of uncooked pasta - small shells or elbow shape 
1/2 cup of breadcrumbs (for topping)
1/4 cup of jarlsberg (for topping)
salt and pepper to taste

Prepare pasta first -- boil salted water, cook pasta until slightly undercooked or al dente, drain and set aside. 

To caramelize the onions, take a large, high-sided pan, heat to medium and melt two tablespoons of butter, swirling until surface is coated. Add the thinly sliced onions and stir constantly until the onions are softened, the water is cooked out and starts to caramelize. You can do this while the pasta is cooking, the caramelized onions will take about 20-25 minutes to fully brown and develop the yummy sugars. You want to do this slowly, not with high heat, otherwise the butter and onions will burn. 

Remove the caramelized onions from the pan, set aside in a bowl, and add the ground beef to the same pan, heated to medium-high. Break up the beef and cook until it's fully browned. Add a pinch of salt and pepper as you're cooking. When the beef is fully cooked with a nice browned, slight crispness, remove from the pan and set aside. The beef can sit in the same bowl with the onions, everything will be mixed together eventually.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

To make the cheese sauce, add the half stick of butter to the pan and let it melt on a medium setting. Sprinkle in the flour and use a whisk to incorporate the flour and butter to begin the roux. Toast the mixture lightly, just until the flour has fully absorbed the butter and is still light-colored and crumbly. Start slowly adding in the milk, whisking as you go, to break down the clumps and let the roux incorporate with the milk. Keep whisking until all the clumps are broken down, the sauce will have a texture of a loose gravy. Add the sherry or Marsala, and the Dijon mustard. Sprinkle in both cheeses, one handful at a time, continuing to whisk the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste. The finished sauce should have the consistency of a thick cream sauce, but not too stiff -- add more milk to loosen. Fold in the cooked beef, caramelized onions and pasta. Mix until everything is coated and turn off the burner.

Sprinkle the top evenly with extra jarlsberg and breadcrumbs before placing in the preheated oven. Bake until the top starts to brown and the sauce is bubbly, about 10-15 minutes. If you want a crispier crust, turn on the broiler for just a minute or two. Remove pan from oven, let it rest for a few minutes before serving.

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