Thursday, July 24, 2008

Burger Doodle

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times wrote about how hamburgers were now chic in Paris. The French have always had hamburger of sorts, what they call haché. It’s likely served sauced but never on a bun. When I first traveled in Europe as a student in 1969 McDonald’s had yet to appear on the scene. That’s not to say there weren’t hamburgers there back then. The name itself after all derives from a German city, though in Hamburg it was originally a budget dish of cheap shredded beef eaten both cooked and raw. The UK had Wimpys, their own Anglicized version of our celebrated American sandwich. In Belgium, there was the Grand Cuckoo, a kind of pre-Big Mac topped with a fried egg. In most big European cities there were restaurants that tried to allure American tourist with a taste of home: hamburger and iced beverages, both oddities there during that era. Most of the burgers weren’t worth writing home about.

But it was some years later that McDonald’s really popularized burgers on the Continent. I don’t think it a surprise that Europeans would embrace this sandwich nor that they would try to improve upon it. In this country it’s still very much a work in progress.

The invention of the true American-style, meat-patty-on-a bun hamburger is contentious despite the fact that the Wisconsin legislature last year officially declared Seymour its home town. Supposedly, Charlie Nagreen at age 15 went to the Outagamie County Fair to sell meatballs. Business was bad. He hit upon the idea of flattening the meatballs, slipping them between two slices of bread and, voila! Hamburger Charlie as he became known continued to sell his creation at the county fair until his death in 1951. Today, Seymour honors him with a statue and the annual Burger Fest (August 8-9, 2008).

I can’t profess to remember when or where I ate my first hamburger … they always seemed to be around. There is no food I enjoyed so much as a child that I still crave today. There’s just something enormously satisfying and reassuring about a burger.

What have evolved are basically two types of hamburgers. The thin patty that is cooked on a grill, inherent to the success of so many fast food franchises. In my opinion, the California In-N-Out Burger chain has taken this form to the state of the art. Sonic, another popular burgerteria that started in Oklahoma in 1953 recently announced it would soon be opening locations around Madison.

The other burger is the fat, hand-formed patty cooked over an open flame. This is my kind of burger. This is the type of burger I’d expect to find at a good restaurant or bar, but my favorite ones are made at home.

Having eaten and made who knows how many hamburgers during my life, I’ve learned one thing. Excluding the actual meat, it’s more important what goes on top of the burger than what goes in it. Mixing too much stuff in the ground meat gives it a meatloaf-like texture. On the other hand, when it comes to toppings almost anything is fair game.

I stopped buying pre-ground beef several years ago. It’s really not that much trouble to grind my own (I use the attachment on my Kitchen Aid mixer) and it’s well worth the trouble. To say the least, it’s fresher, has more flavor and I prefer the coarser texture. My favorite burger is made from half chuck and half brisket but all chuck is more than acceptable. Ideally, the mixture should contain about 20% fat.

Sometime when you want a burger you just have to have it … now. So …

Madison’s Best Burgers. And, the winners are…

Best Gourmet Burger: V Burger at Brasserie V. A big burger (2/3 pound) made from Prairie Farm’s dry aged ground beef, topped with Munster cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and aioli.

Best Upscale Restaurant Burger: Build Your Own Burger at the Capitol Chophouse. Half a pound of fine Allen Brothers beef dressed with your choice of bacon, mushrooms, Cheddar, Swiss or blue cheese.

Best Classic Burger: Original Hamburger at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry. Six ounces of ground chuck, grilled, and served with your choice of toppings. This is simply all a burger should be.

Best Double Decker Burger: The Big Gritt at The Nitty Gritty. This has so much more soul than a Big Mac. Two all beef patties, with Wisconsin Cheddar, lettuce, tomato, red onion and secret Gritty Sauce served on a dark, seeded bun.

Best Unusual Burger: The Old Fashioned House Burger. Grilled over a wood fire, it’s topped with fried onions, aged Cheddar, garlic sauce and a soft-cooked egg; nestled in a butter-toasted bun.

Best Bar Burger: Mickey Burger at Mickey’s Tavern. One-third a pound ground beef mixed with spicy Italian giardiniera, finished with sliced tomato, fried onions and chili aioli; wrapped in a nice roll.

Best Bar Burger, Runner-Up: Bad Breath Burger at Weary Traveler. Ground Black Angus beef patty slathered in cream cheese, lots of garlic (of course), and caramelized onions.

Best Vegetarian Burger: Walnut Burger at the Harmony Bar. Ingredients include ground walnuts, various cheeses, spices and herbs. It’s much yummier than the average veggie burger made from texturized vegetable protein.

Best Nostalgia Burger: Bistro Burger at the Wilson Street Grill. Alas, this ground-breaking restaurant run by Nancy Christy and Andrea Craig is no more and their delicious wine-sauced burger a fading but delicious memory.

Traditionally, burgers are beef but they can successfully made from ground chicken, turkey, lamb, pork, salmon, tuna, shrimp and dried legumes.

Pork Burgers

2 pounds fatty pork shoulder, in chunks
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon white pepper

Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill.

Put meat, fennel seeds, garlic salt and pepper in food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Handling the meat as little as possible, lightly shape the mixture into four burgers. Chill burgers, covered, until cooking time.

When the fire is hot—you should barely be able to hold your hand over grilling rack for 3 to 4 seconds. Grill burgers about 5 minutes on each side, turning once, or until medium well. Top with mozzarella cheese if desired and serve on bun with a little marinara sauce and grilled peppers.

Makes 4 Large Burgers.

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