Every year, I have the good fortune of attending a dinner at the home of a generous Bordeaux collector. The deal: I cook a meal for eight people, she opens eight bottles of great vintage wine. This year’s dinner, scheduled for mid-May, was the Fifth Annual. For the first four years, I had prepared menus that were decidedly old-wine-friendly—simply prepared neo-classical meat-and-potatoes meals that would not overshadow the wines, many of which were upwards of 40 years old, brickish in color, and transient in the strength of their flavor.
The problem was, in an effort to make the food second fiddle to the wine, I’d also made it, well, boring.
For the Fifth Annual dinner I called an eating audible and cooked a meal that seemed about as Bordeaux-worthy as Chinese takeout (perhaps that’s a bad example; I think Chinese takeout goes well with everything)--hamburgers and onion rings. Here was my logic: 1) I happened to know this to be the favorite food of the hostess; 2) the theme of this year’s dinner was a vertical of 1975 Bordeaux (including First Growth Chateaux Haut-Brion and Margaux), a controversial vintage, but one that might yield some full-flavored wines, even 35 years later; and 3) the problem with making the meal fancy was that it made everyone feel a bit on ceremony--and I figured some food you eat with your hands would make short work of that.
The dilemma: what kind of burger to make that would still feel special, and that would turn out as well in an urban kitchen as it would on a country grill. As usual, Mock Turtle came to the rescue with a recipe from Nancy Silverton (Mozza), published in the LA Times. It called for having the butcher grind a quirky blend of beef (mostly prime chuck, plus some sirloin fat—not meat, fat) on a coarse setting.
I must admit, I was a little skeptical as I insisted to the butcher that he go against normal protocol. He took a beautiful prime chuck roast (3.5 pounds) from the meat case and said, “Are you sure you want me to add fat to this? There’s already a lot on here.” I was sure. He took a whole side of sirloin from the walk-in and began to slice strips of pure fat from it. I was starting to become less sure, but figured I’d come this far. The butcher shook his head a little while changing the disc on the grinder from the small-holed standard to a dauntingly large-holed one; the resulting ground meat looked like ultra-wide bucatini as opposed to the more spaghetti-like ribbons I’m used to. I’m not going to lie; it looked gross.
Fast forward three hours: the guests and I are in the kitchen, snacking on 24-month-aged prosciutto, drinking Chateau Gruaud Larose (a second-growth from St. Julien that was surprisingly lively; a good omen for the evening), letting the cast iron double-burner grill pan that I’d lugged from home get really hot on high flame. I nervously formed loose patties, dusted them with kosher salt, and waited another few minutes. The recipe claimed that the burgers, despite their high fat content (about 25%) would not be greasy, and indeed my hands felt pretty clean after patty-making.
What happened next is a bit of a blur, in part because I was spending most of the burgers’ cooking time furiously removing liquid fat from the shallow moat around the edge of the pan (I used a turkey baster, but it was hard to keep up with the amount of fat coming off the burgers). Grease was splattering everywhere—the pan was unbelievably hot—and smoke was being sucked up by the range’s hood at a near-smoke-alarming rate.
But when the dust—er, grease—settled, I was left with an absolutely exceptional specimen of a hamburger. Crusted with a salty char on both sides, the burgers looked overcooked at best, hockey pucks at worst. But then, once we’d fixed them with toppings—cheese (aged cheddar; in my frenzy I’d forgotten to add it on the cooking burgers for those who had requested it), avocado (another Mock Turtle tip that changed my life), ketchup, mayo, mustard, onion rings (delicious, by the way; here’s the recipe), even some of the leftover prosciutto—we each bit in to discover a beautiful red, juicy (without being runny), flavorful patty. You could taste the difference—and I’m convinced it was all about the coarse grind.
I wish I had photos of the cooking process and the resulting crispy-but-juicy burgers (one guest at the dinner quoted a famed chef’s New Yorkerism that cooking is often about “taking something flabby and making it crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside”). Alas, there was no camera on hand.
However, two weeks later I tried to recreate the miracle burgers, this time adhering even closer to the recipe by grilling them outside. While I was not able to match the originals’ char (cast iron crisps better than a grill, I suspect because it’s an even, flat surface) or interior texture (the upstate butcher’s grind was not nearly so coarse), there was the element of “grill flavor” (not to be underestimated) and I did have a camera to capture some of it.
A word to the wise for those attempting these fatty (but again, somehow light and ungreasy) burgers: beware of grease spills/fires (cast iron) and major flare-ups (grill), and maybe keep a fire extinguisher and camera handy.
Adapted from Nancy Silverton in the Los Angeles Times
Note from Nancy Silverton: Silverton says burgers are the perfect party food because the toppings can be done in advance, then guests use them to personalize their burgers. Though she offers three cheeses, she says that from experience, most takers are for Gruyere, 25% might take cheddar and one of a group will want blue. Crumble out enough blue to look pretty in a bowl, 2 to 3 ounces, and know it may go into salad dressing for the next meal. Ditto cheddar, but this may fill an omelet. The cheeses should be good-quality, such as Point Reyes Blue, aged Gruyere and Grafton cheddar from Vermont or Fiscalini or Straus cheddar from California. The buns should be good-quality soft sesame or poppy seed hamburger buns. For the beef, ask the butcher to grind 2 3/4 pounds of prime chuck (10% to 15% fat) with 4 to 6 ounces of prime sirloin fat (the combination should have 20% to 28% fat total).
Note from Le Snarf: I used Arnold supermarket buns and they were delicious. I skipped the tomatoes (never liked them on burgers), bacon, and blue cheese, and I don’t think they were missed--the burger has so much flavor, bacon (dare I say this?) isn’t even warranted.
12 strips applewood-smoked bacon, fried crisp
2 ripe avocados, sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice to avoid discoloration
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large, ripe heirloom tomato
1/2 red onion
3 ounces blue cheese
3 ounces cheddar
3 ounces Gruyere
6 iceberg lettuce leaves, each about 5 inches wide
Best Foods mayonnaise (or Hellman's east of the Rockies)
Dijon mustard, smooth and coarse-grained
Burgers and assembly:
6 large sesame or poppy seed hamburger buns
Extra virgin olive oil
About 3 pounds ground beef (see note)
3 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Brush the cut side of each bun with olive oil and set aside. Light an outdoor grill or place a seasoned cast-iron skillet over high heat.
2. Being careful not to overwork the meat, shape it into 6 patties, about 2 inches thick and 4 inches in diameter. Sprinkle each side of each patty with about one-fourth teaspoon of kosher salt and 4 to 6 grindings of freshly ground black pepper.
3. Place the burgers on the hot grill or in the hot cast-iron skillet. Sear them until they can be turned without sticking, then turn them. For rare, cook about 4 minutes, then flip and cook another 4 minutes (for medium-rare, 5 minutes on each side; for medium, 6 minutes).
4. As the burgers are cooking, toast the buns, cut side on grill or pan, for a minute or two. Just before the burgers are done cooking, garnish with a little good-quality sea salt, then top with cheese and let it melt. Have guests place lettuce, onion, tomato, bacon and avocado on the bottom half of their toasted bun. Place the burger on top, then the top of the bun. Serve ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard with burgers.