Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Into the Meat Grinder: Bittman's Best Burgers

Since I'm on quite a New York Times recipe kick, I might as well post my long-ignored and semi-ignoble effort from this summer at grinding my own meat for burgers. I'm generally not a fanatical DIY cook. I don't can things. I don't bake bread. I only make stock grudgingly and as a sous chef. But ol' Bittman convinced me that burger nirvana was right around the corner if only I ground my own.

And he didn't just convince me, he convinced Toast-Mother-in-Law, a New Yorker and avid reader of the Times. So this summer she brought some chunks of sirloin out to Long Island and we went to work.

After singing the praises of hand-ground meat--and reassuring us that all we needed was a food processor, not some hand-cranked machine manned by a beefy guy in a bloody apron--Bittman warns readers: "Don’t overprocess. You want the equivalent of chopped meat, not a meat purée. The finer you grind the meat, the more likely you are to pack it together too tightly, which will make the burger tough."

These seemingly low-key words struck a little too much fear in my heart and I underprocessed. Bittman has also exhorted us to buy fatty meat, and my burgers had too many pieces of insufficiently ground fat in them to really be enjoyable. Still, they were very flavorful and I might try again next summer.

If you're looking to recall summer on the first day of flurries (in Boston, anyway) try these under the broiler on on the stove top. And don't be afraid to grind aggressively.

Bittman's Burgers
As printed in The New York Times

1 1/2 to 2 pounds not-too-lean sirloin, in chunks
1/2 white onion, peeled and in chunks, optional
Salt and pepper to taste.

1. Start a charcoal or wood fire or preheat a gas grill. Or, on stove top, heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat for 3 or 4 minutes.

2. Put meat and onion in a food processor, in batches if necessary, and pulse until coarsely ground: finer than chopped, but not much. Put it in a bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Taste, then add more seasoning if necessary. (If desired, cook a teaspoon of meat in a pan before tasting.) Handling meat as little as possible to avoid compressing it, shape it lightly into 4 or more burgers.

3. Fire is hot enough when you can barely stand to hold your hand 3 or 4 inches over rack for a few seconds. Grill burgers about 3 minutes a side for very rare, and another minute a side for each increasing stage of doneness, but no more than 10 minutes total unless you like hockey pucks. (Timing on stove top is the same.)

4. Serve on buns, toast or hard rolls, garnished as you like.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mango Chicken with Caramelized Onions

I'm not sure when it happened, but I am pretty much exclusively a sweet onion gal. Sure, I'll buy the occasional red onion for a particular recipe, or a big mesh bag of plain yellow onions if I must. But if there are Vidalias available, I'll grab them every time.

I suspect that this has something to do with my serious impatience as a cook. Waiting for onions to soften, or God forbid, caramelize is torture for me. So I cheat with high-sugar, already softish sweet onions.

For a while I was on a campaign to convince the Human Vacuum that sweet onions don't make you tear up as much, in an effort to keep him from fleeing the kitchen when the onion slicing began. I've stalwartly stuck to this position, but he and I both know it's pretty much a lie.

Below, a recipe for when you're up to some serious onion frying.

Mango Chicken with Caramelized Onions

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm:
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter

2 large sweet onions, very thinly sliced

Saute until onions are very soft and quite brown--this is where the flavor comes from, so don't skimp. Turn the heat up to high and add:
Glug of vermouth or white wine

Wait for most of the liquid to cook off, then add:
1 pound chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1 inch chunks

Brown chicken, then add:
2 ripe mangoes, peeled , cored, and cut into 1 inch chunks
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Tablespoon dried cilantro, or 2 Tablespoons fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

Cook until mangoes soften slightly and serve over rice.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sinful/Ethical Macaroni and Cheese

There has been a lot going on Chez ToastPoint in recent months, not least of which is that its denizens decided to stop living in sin. So I am now Mrs. Human Vacuum. But just when the sinfulness quotient had fallen to near zero in our household, I decided to make mac and cheese. What’s that you say? Mac and cheese--the dinner of choice for millions of angelic children everywhere--seems innocent enough? Ha. Not if the ratio of cheese to pasta is 2:1. You read that right: the dish pictured above contains one half of a pound of pasta and a full pound of cheese.

This recipe was on the “most emailed” list at The New York Times homepage for weeks, and deservedly so. Before now, I’d never made mac and cheese at home from scratch, but restaurant mac and cheese nearly always disappoints. Too much white sauce, not enough cheese, and never enough crisped, chewy top layer. This recipe answers all those objections. It is the Platonic form of mac and cheese. (And easy to make too!)

So what occasioned this dive into gluttony now? Lately, H.V. has been playing tennis with a friend of his on the occasional weekend evening. The boys return from their game and I feed them--a pleasingly domestic event. This particular friend is a very ethical eater. He is the sort of person who carries around a card in his wallet with lists of which fish are OK and which are off limits from an ecological standpoint. He’s evangelical about his decisions in an ultra-low key way. He’s also a gratifying big eater, which makes a cook forgive the slight inconvenience of a big list of verboten ingredients. And this meal goes to show that you can be ethical and sinful all at once.

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
The recipe, as provided in The New York Times, which I followed very nearly exactly, with excellent results.

2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup cottage cheese (not lowfat) (NOTE: I used 2 percent)
2 cups milk (not skim) (NOTE: I used whole milk)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1⁄2 pound elbow pasta, uncooked.

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use 1 tablespoon butter to butter a 9-inch round or square baking pan. (NOTE: I used a 7 inch round deep casserole and it was fine)

2. In a blender, purée cottage cheese, milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together. Reserve 1⁄4 cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes. (NOTE: Whirl everything but the milk first, to break up the cottage cheese curds)

3. Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

We started with my favorite pea soup and finished with homemade pumpkin bread, but The New York Times suggests pairing this perfect mac and cheese with a green salad and a glass of wine, which sounds about right to me, too.