Building a Better Burger

If you think about it, a hamburger is nothing more than a sausage without a casing. Once you accept this notion, you open yourself up to endless burger possibilities! I mean really, there are as many burger recipes as there are cooks. Everyone has their own little tweaks and a go-to recipe.

With that being said, I am not going to sit here and try to convince you this is a recipe for the best hamburger in the world — even though it is — because someone will undoubtedly draw a line in the sand, slap me with gloves in hand, and challenge me to a duel. It’s inevitable. Continue reading

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Bison Sirloin with Mushroom Ragu

I remember the first time I saw a bison up close and personal. It was out on the rolling prairies of South Dakota. No, it wasn’t wild. Reality is, I am not sure there are to many of those left. Maybe in Canada and Yellowstone but beyond that I think most herds are domesticated, sort of.

When you walk up on a buffalo it is like you stepped back in time, especially if they are starring at you head on. They are huge animals yielding in the neighborhood of four hundred pounds of meat. You heard that right four hundred pounds. I can’t imagine killing one of these with a bow and arrow.  I have a hard time trying to imagine how the Native Americans did it.

It is interesting to note at one time Indiana had bison that followed the Buffalo Trace on their east/west migration through the southern portion of the state. The trace was one of the first roads used by animals and people alike.

The mushroom ragu is really what this dish is all about.  I love buffalo, I can eat it plain without any toppings, but the simple addition of this simple ragu makes the whole dish.

The ragu is an umami bomb.  The deep earthiness of the mushrooms, combined with the red wine and soy, and cooked on the stove top until all the flavors are intensified by reduction makes it a great combination.  Not only is it good on red meat but it also is delicious on salmon and monk fish.

If you don’t want to mess with buffalo, of course this recipe would be great with beef.  I like to pan sear the sirloins but the grill works great too.  Use whichever works best for you.

Buffalo SirloinServes 4
one (1 1/2 to 2 pound) buffalo sirloin
5 cups assorted exotic mushrooms
2 heads garlic, roasted, see step 5
1 teaspoon marjoram
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon canola oil
parsley for garnish

  1. Place a 14 inch saute pan over medium high heat. Let it get good and hot. Then add the oil. Add the oil first to keep the butter from burning.
  2. Now add the mushrooms. Spread them out across the pan and let them sit without shaking or turning them so they get good and brown. Season them with a heavy pinch of salt and some pepper.
  3. When the mushrooms are good and brown flip them and do the same to the other side. Add the shallots and the butter. Let the shallots soften.
    Add the wine, soy sauce and garlic. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook until the wine is almost all absorbed by the mushrooms.
  4. Meanwhile heat a cast iron skillet or if you are using a grill you should already have it going, over high heat. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and cook the sirloin caramelizing both sides of the steak to the internal temp you want it to be.
  5. Let the steak rest, slice and serve with mushrooms on top. Garnish with parsley.

A Real Winner: Seared Cauliflower Steaks with Salsa Verde and Almonds

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Some people collect cars, for others it is playing golf, for me, it’s barbecues. I don’t collect them per se but rather I cook with them. Their value isn’t termed by condition but in hours of use. Much like a cast iron skillet I can gauge the worth of a good smoker by the black patina that coats its inside. While many men might spend their weekends under a car, I prefer to smell like hickory rather then gasoline and motor oil. It’s how I get my kicks.

So you can imagine my excitement to I discover I won a Big Green Egg! Yea, I won. I never win anything but Debra Smith at SmithBites pulls my name from a hat of entrants and I win, I never win.  Nevertheless, it is like getting the Most Improved trophy in grade school.  I sort of treat it like that, it sort of looks like that and I couldn’t be any happier then to be a proud owner of one.  Hell, I park it in the garage if that tells you anything. I don’t even put my car in the garage, the garage is for my tractor, and now the grill.

Cauliflower SteaksThe whole time I am assembling my grill I think about what I am going to cook first.  A steak, a brisket, venison, burgers, pork chops, butt steak, I go through all the possibilities and my head spins in anticipation.  The dogs look on with concern for my well being,  TrixieB even comes over and gives me a lick on the face and some big sad eyes of worry.

As I said, I don’t collect grills.  I have three.  One is a smoker, that is all it does, it smokes meat, charcuterie and hams at low temperatures.  My other grill I hand made.  It is a street food kind of contraption meant to cook fast and furious.  It is for meat on a stick, small stuff that cooks through quickly.  Both serve their purpose.  So maybe I don’t consider my self an aficionado but I do consider myself an expert.  It was my station each day at the restaurant.  I worked the grill day-in and day-out for seven years.  I can cook a steak, a boneless chicken breast and any kind of fish you can imagine but, like professional ball players who sometimes hit a foul ball, I do sometimes miss the mark but rarely, and I mean rarely, do I over cook a steak.

My point being, I am excited to try what many consider to be the Mercedes of grills, the Big Green Egg but I am a little apprehensive having never used one.  Don’t think I wasn’t a little more then cautious too,  I bought a high end Wolfe stove and it’s a piece of crap, so I know just because something has a name doesn’t mean it is going to work but I have to be on my game also.  I am approaching this with a certain err of caution.

But then it hits me.  Friends often accuse me of using appliances differently then anyone else, most recently crock pots were entered as evidence into this court of opinion.  So I asked myself, “why would I grill a steak?”  It took all of a second to answer my own question, “why not sear cauliflower steaks in a pan on the grill?”  That was easy enough, decision made.

Here is why I wanted to cook cauliflower steaks.   The Big Green Egg people claim a lot of things about their grill.  You can cook pizza on it, bread, grill steaks or smoke brisket is what they say.  Which I get, it is sort of like a wood burning oven.  It is ceramic, it holds heat, and it gets very, very hot but can also hold a low temperature for a long time.  It holds a lot of promise.  So my thinking is, I want to put a cast iron pan on the heat, see how hot it gets and how well it sears.  I know, I know, you can cook with a cast iron skillet on your stove.  True, but my stove won’t impart a smokey flavor to whatever I am cooking.  And that is it,  that is what I want to find out, is what is the smoke flavor of the Big Green Egg going to be like.  It is the one character trait I am most interested in.  Will it be bitter and heavy or will it be just right.  When it comes to vegetables the right amount of smoke goes a long way.  To much and you have a very bitter ash tray kind of experience that will keep you from tasting any other part of your meal.  And seriously,  antacids are no kind of dessert.

I am not going to bore you with blow by blow cooking details other then to say the grill is great.  It lights fast, it gets very hot quickly and it imparts a great flavor to whatever you are cooking.  My cast iron casserole heated quickly, I actually thought it might get to hot and burn the cauliflower before it became tender on the inside, but it didn’t.  It cooked the cauliflower with a perfectly light kiss of smokey flavor.  Since then I have roasted chickens to great applause from the family, from me too.  A tri-tip roast delicious, pork chops amazing, cauliflower steaks a home run, and the Big Green Egg, a real winner.

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Seared Cauliflower Steaks (serves 2)

2 small heads of organic cauliflower

1/3 cup flat leaf parsley, minced

1 small garlic clove, grated on a microplane

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 anchovy, rinsed

1/4 cup Asiago cheese

extra virgin olive oil

half a cup of salted almonds, chopped

1. Build a charcoal fire for direct heat grilling in your grill.  You want it to be very hot.  Place a large cast iron skillet right in the middle of  the grilling rack.  Cover the grill.  What happens when you cover the grill is the heat builds, the pan becomes very hot and the lid keeps a little bit of smoke flavor circulating.

2. While the grill is heating make the salsa verde.  In the bowl of a mortar and pestle combine the lemon juice, garlic, anchovy, and parsley.  Beat it up with the pestle.  Add a two finger pinch of salt, a dash of black pepper and a few glugs worth of olive oil.  Stir to combine, taste and add more oil it the salsa is to tart.  Stir in the cheese.

3. Trim the stalk ends of the cauliflower.  Using a good sharp knife cut one steak each out of the center of each head.  To do this turn the floret side of the cauliflower down.  Hold it firmly and place you knife onto the stalk.  Cut through to the florets.  Roughly gauge and inch in width and make another cut leaving yourself a nice center cut cauliflower steak.  Repeat these steps with the second head of cauliflower.  Use the loose outer edges of the cauliflower for another dish.

4. Drizzle the steaks with olive oil and season them with salt.  Take them out to the grill.  If you have a thermometer on your grill it should read about 600˚ F.   Nevertheless when you open the lid the cast iron pan should be beginning to smoke and when you place the cauliflower into the pan it should sizzle.  Cook each side until of the steak until it is very deeply caramelized.  Remove the steaks from the pan.

5. Drizzle the steaks with the salsa verde, top with almonds, minced parsley and serve.

Aside

DSCF4507There is something about big hunks of meat cooked over long periods at low heat that appeals to us at a very basic level. Pit-cooking traditions like hog roasts, barbacoa, and luaus aren’t just barbecues — they’re celebrations. They conjure up visions of earthen pits and long buffet tables with folding chairs, all set up for a multitude of guests.

This kind of cooking takes judgement and practice, though, so unless you host these kinds of events on a regular basis, you’re more than likely cooking blind. After all, you probably aren’t buying a whole lamb or calf more than a couple times a year. It could take you a few years to get it right. Continue reading

Small Batch Barbacoa Beef for Tacos

5 Tips for Better Grilled Chicken Breasts

Grilling boneless skinless chicken breast presents a set of problems. I’m a firm believer that leaving the skin on and the bones in your chicken goes a long way to alleviating tough, dried out breast. But it’s an unpopular decision, because of the convenience and the ease with which we can gobble up the boneless skinless kind.

There are ways, however, to defend yourself against dry chicken.

Bigger is not better when it comes to grilling a chicken breast.
They don’t grow them like they used to. Today’s standard meat bird is a hybrid designed to grow big breasts and nice thighs.

The birds of yesteryear, however, were all about the thighs, and the breast was almost non-existent. These days it’s not unusual to find a double lobe breast that weighs in around two pounds — or bigger. Chicken breast can be the size of a turkey breast if you want it to be.

But you can get chicken breasts in any size you want. Restaurants, for example, will often serve two 4- to 6-ounce breasts as a single serving because seeing two on the plate makes you feel as if you’ve gotten your money’s worth. Your butcher should be able to order these small breasts for you. I prefer a single 6-ounce breast per person because it seems like an appropriate portion size — especially if, like me, you like to serve lots of side dishes.

Shape matters as much as the temperature of the grill.
A chicken breast tapers at each end, more so at the tail end than the neck end, which means the tips are either cooked perfectly while the middle is rare to raw, or the tips are burnt to a crisp and the middle is perfectly cooked. It is a lose-lose scenario.

I always buy the breast still connected in double lobes.
It assures pairs of evenly sized paillards, but I always cut them before pounding them out. It is important to note that sometimes in the middle of a double lobe is a piece of cartilage that needs to be removed. Cut along each side of the center line of fat to get it out.

Choose your instruments of destruction.
I have four pictured in the photo below; any will work fine. I prefer the flat side of a meat cleaver because it’s heavy and gets the job done. If you use a mallet, you will have to start in the middle and work your way to the edges in order to end up with an evenly pounded chicken breast. The pan is a last resort, but it is by no means a slacker.

For sanitation and clean-up purposes I like to use multi-layers of plastic wrap. I place a breast to one side then fold the wrap over the top before I get out my daily aggression.

Keep it hot, but not too hot.
I like the grate to be hot but to use coals that are on their way down from their highest heat. You want grill marks that caramelize without blackening. Chicken flesh becomes stringy and chewy if it is left to dry out on the grill, so use your common sense: preheat your oven if you think you might want to finish cooking the chicken at a low temperature.

 

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(recipe adapted from the Fog City Diner)

Serves 4

The Adobo Marinade:
  • 3ancho chiles
  • 3guajillo chiles
  • 1/2cup reserved soaking water
  • Juice of one lime
  • Juice of one orange
  • 1/4cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4cup olive oil
  • 3garlic cloves, minced
  • 1tablespoon oregano
  • 2teaspoons thyme
  • 2teaspoons cumin seed, ground
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
To finish the dish:

  • 4single lobe chicken breasts
  • 1red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1lime
  • Sour cream
  • Cilantro
  1. Cut the tops off the dried peppers and shake out the seeds into the trash can. Place the peppers into a bowl and cover them with hot water. Let them soak for two hours, making sure they stay submerged. Remove the peppers from the water and place them into the bowl of a food processor. Add a 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid to the bowl. Process until you have a pepper paste. Pass the paste through a strainer set over a bowl. You are removing the skins and seeds. Don’t skip this step or you will be severely disappointed.
  2. Combine 3 tablespoons of the paste with the remaining marinade ingredients and mix to combine. Season it with a healthy pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper.
  3. The marinade can easily be made a day or two in advance and stored in a jar in the fridge. The leftover pepper paste is great for enchiladas, black bean soup or chili. Store the paste in a jar in the the fridge. It holds for a long time.
  4. Pound out the chicken breasts so they are of an even thickness, then place the chicken into a casserole. Use half the marinade and coat the pieces of chicken. Let them marinate for two hours. Be sure to flip them after an hour.
  5. While the chicken marinates, make the lime pickled onions by tossing the red onion rings with the lime juice. Let them sit for at least 20 minutes.
  6. Remove the chicken from the marinade. Place the marinade into a small sauce pan and heat it over low heat. Heat the marinade to a brisk simmer.
  7. Fire up the grill to medium-high heat. Grill the chicken breast. Cook them till done. Serve on rice, spoon the hot marinade over the chicken, top with sour cream, then pickled onions, and garnish with cilantro.

Everything but the Hamburger, Special Sauce Included

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Sadly, as I sit at the bus stop watching my daughters play, I have to tell myself: summer is so last season.

All summer I have been grilling vegetables for salads. Mostly zucchini and summer squash; I char it deeply and then chop it and toss it with basil, lemon juice, and olive oil, in sort of a grilled chopped salad. It captures all the flavors of early summer one could want. But at some point, either the zucchini or I tire and the dish no longer appears on the table. At least not until next summer, when the annual craving for these flavors peaks again. Continue reading

Grilled Bananas with Buttered Maple Sauce and English Toffee

Grilled Bananas

I quit eating bananas years ago because I would buy them and not eat them. They would sit in the fruit bowl idling away, eventually passing through the different stages of ripeness. I would watch, like a gambler calling another’s bluff, knowing that I had until they turned black to do something with them. It was then that I would convince myself I needed to make banana bread. I even froze them for future use and had a stack of them in the freezer, until one day they fell out onto my wife’s toe and broke it.
Continue reading

Taco Night on the Grill

 

I can’t get enough of taco night. Neither can my wife Amy or my daughters. We love it, and especially me, because I can do everything — with the exception of chopping with a knife or the food processor — on the grill. It makes for easy clean-up, and who isn’t for easy clean-up?

I cut my teeth on Tex-Mex in Austin, Texas circa 1984 (does Instagram have a filter for that?). At this point in my life I hadn’t eaten that much Mexican food. For the most part it didn’t exist in Indiana outside of Chi Chi’s and my inner punk rocker wouldn’t allow me to set foot inside any place that colorful or where the waitstaff could happily sing Happy Birthday table side.

Nevertheless, when I would slide into a booth at one of the many hole-in-the-wall eateries (many of them were Spanish-speaking only), I would order as many kinds of salsa as I could point to on the menu. I didn’t know this many kinds of salsa existed, or for that matter soft shell tacos, or the food love of my life, tamales.

As I ate my way around both sides of Highway 35, little did I realize I was becoming an addict, to Texas country music, chili, and to Austin itself. It was hard to come home, and once I was back in Indiana it didn’t take long before I began jonesing for Texas Hill Country, salsa included.

All About Grilled Salsa

The grill is a great way to make an old salsa recipe feel new.
I couldn’t even guess how many varieties of salsa there are in the world, but I do know I haven’t found one yet that can’t be made on the grill. I like a fresh raw salsa as much as the next person, but sometimes I like to shift the flavor and it is an easy thing to do on the grill.

Chile oils on your hands are not your friend.
Be careful with hot chile peppers. I used to go at them in the manly man way and just tough it out, but the night I rubbed my eyes after working with Thai birds I thought a different approach might be appropriate. If you choose to go with bare naked hands in handling them, just realize you will quickly find out just how many places on your body you actually touch and how many places are very sensitive to capsaicin oils.

Get in touch with your inner caveman or woman.
I used to put my peppers and tomatoes on the grill grate and then one day I just decided to plop them right on the coals. It sears them very quickly while leaving the interior raw — the best of both worlds. You can roast whole heads of garlic too, but they need to be left to the side of the coals so they cook and soften slowly or you will burn the cloves which makes them bitter.

Liquidy or dry, it all depends on your tomato variety.
A lot of fresh tomatoes have a high liquid content. If you use too many tomatoes, your salsa will be watery, which isn’t always a bad thing. If you want a thicker salsa, it is a good idea to use plum or San Marzano tomatoes.

The finishing touches matter.
To the finished salsa I always like to add a drizzle of olive oil for mouthfeel and a splash of acid, be it lime, red wine vinegar, or whatever. Make sure you season your salsa with salt and black pepper.

Corn tortillas or flour both can be warmed on the grill, and should be.
I prefer corn tortillas over flour and my preference for cooking corn tortillas is right on the grill. They puff up and blacken in spots and become yummo-licous. Just make sure after searing them to wrap them in foil so they stay soft and don’t dry out.

Choose your toppings accordingly.
Almost every person I have ever met who hails from Central America prefers green cabbage, sliced razor thin, to lettuce for their tacos. It gets even better when you dress the cabbage with a touch of red wine vinegar and olive oil. You probably won’t find a lot of sour cream or cheese on the table either. I tend to go for authentic Mexican but I like Tex-Mex too. If you want to go for healthy, grill up a bunch of vegetables to use for toppings and forgo the dairy altogether.

Grilled Salsa

Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups

Depending on the kind and size of tomatoes you use, this salsa can be liquidy or firm. You will have to judge. Roma tomatoes have little liquid and work well for a chunkier salsa.

  • 1small head of garlic
  • 3 or 4roma tomatoes
  • 1 or 2heirloom variety tomatoes (Box Car Willies or Wisconsin 55 are good)
  • 1poblano pepper or 3 jalapeños or your choice
  • 3 to 4half-inch-thick slices of red onion, left intact
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Handful of cilantro
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  1. Fire up your charcoal grill. Let the coals get blazing hot.
  2. Wash the vegetables.
  3. Place the garlic off to the side of the coals where it will brown the paper skins but not burn the cloves. The garlic will take the longest to cook of everything. Let it get good and brown on all sides.
  4. Now place the tomatoes and peppers right on the coals. Let them blister and blacken. Remove them to a tray. Let the juices collect in the tray.
  5. Place the grill grate on the grill and grill the onions until they are caramelized and soft.
  6. If you plan to grill more stuff, like a nice skirt steak, you will probably need to add a few more coals to the fire. You be the judge.
  7. Peel the pepper, being carful not to spill or lose any pepper juices. I remove the seeds and, obviously, the stems. Put peeled peppers, tomatoes, onion, and peeled roasted garlic cloves into the bowl of a food processor. Add the tomato and pepper juices that collected in the bottom of the tray.
  8. Add a two-finger pinch of salt, some pepper, half the cilantro, the red wine vinegar, and olive oil. Pulse the processor until the salsa reaches your desired consistency. I like this particular salsa smoother than most but still chunky. Taste the salsa and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
  9. Pour into a serving bowl, garnish with cilantro, and serve

Grilling: Tips, Skirt Steak and more…

Skirt Steak with Greek Salsa

I use a pair of kitchen tongs and quickly flip a steak, pull back to let my hand cool for a split second before diving in again behind the safety of the tongs to flip another. The hair on my forearm recoils from the heat. Even with a long pair of kitchen tongs I can’t bear the sting of the glowing coals like I used too.

I have lost my commercial kitchen hands. The hands that could take the heat without flinching, the same hands that could grab thermonuclear plates, or could move steaks around on a grill without ever noticing the heat. The heat abused hands that were once this line cooks badge of honor.

The wind shifts, a wisp of white smoke blows back. My eyes catch a little before I can turn and shut them. The smoke underneath my eyelids stings and my eyes begin to water. Continue reading