One simple trick to avoid a “nothing burger”

I love the presentation of the to-go burger at Country Drive-In. But it’s missing salt.

I stopped in at Country Drive-Inn, a locally famous spot in Clifton Park NY, to pick up some food for a road trip. I ordered their legendary onion rings plus a cheeseburger. Couldn’t resist a nibble of the rings before I hit the road and they were as good as remembered, with a robust yet balanced seasoning. Then an atavistic instinct made me try my cheeseburger. And it was completely devoid of salt.

As a dad, I have often suffered through the bro-speration of watching another dad prepare burgers—on a school camping trip, cub scout expedition or back yard barbecue. The usual practice is to peel pre-formed Bubba’s patties out of a box and drop them onto a grill. How many times was a shake of salt or a proprietary seasoning part of this process? I can’t recall and after today’s experience, I’m thinking never.

Maybe the bro dad/prep team assumes you will season the burger to your liking. And indeed, at Country Drive-Inn salt and pepper shakers were available and I definitely partook. But that first bite is key, and it’s going to disappoint. Plus lifting the bun and digging around in the ingredients spoils the stage management of the burger. I don’t want to know how my sausage or legislation or burger is made, I just want to enjoy it.

I’m not demanding you heavily season your patty as a matter of course (though the fabulous Greek style salt at the original Burger House on Hillcrest is part of its secret). Just a shake or two of salt and a few grains of pepper to establish a flavor base.

Or look at it this way. Would you serve up a steak that was completely devoid of seasoning of any kind, including salt? I have ever had such an item. If you have, please let me know.

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Battle of the tiny tube steaks: mini-hot dog taste test

Mini Hot Dogs

Mini-hot dogs from the National Hot Dog Day tasting. Clockwise starting at 9 o’clock: Famous Lunch, Hot Dog Charlie’s, Gus’s, Country Drive-In, Jack’s.

In honor of National Hot Dog Day we attended a mini-hot dog taste test, comparing five prominent vendors in upstate New York. Interns from Gramercy Communications sped to the five locations and brought back their payload at roughly the same time. The establishments involved were Famous Lunch in Troy, Hot Dog Charlie’s of Lansingburgh, Gus’s in Watervliet, Country Drive-In of Clifton Park and Jack’s in Wyantskill.

A mini-hot dog is one of the defining cuisine items of our area. It features a teeny frankfurter, always made by Helmold, on a wee bun about four inches long. The dogs are often garnished with onions and mustard, but more important there is almost always a meat sauce made from ground beef and various herbs and spices plus possibly a tomato component (there is some debate on that last ingredient). You need at minimum three of these to make a meal, and half a dozen is by no means gluttony.

For a fair contest, each of the entrants should have been garnished the same way, probably with nothing but meat sauce. Two of the dogs I tried added onions, and one was slathered with mustard as well. Looking at my photos of the distribution tables after I left the event, I discovered that all but one of the selections was indeed available with just meat sauce. So the interns who had provided such careful control in the hunting and gathering process ended up pushing their personal favorite condiments when it came to serving. (Nobody ASKED me if I wanted mustard and onions.)

But that’s a distraction, because when it comes down to it these dogs must be, and were, judged on their meat sauce alone. (The buns, like the frankfurters, are generic.) And the clear winner was Famous Lunch of Troy. Their “Zippy” sauce has just the right kick from paprika, spices and an overall well-balanced and greasy flavor profile. Jack’s, Gus’s and Country Drive-In were all equivalent just a slight step below, and Hot Dog Charlie’s unfortunately finished out of the running. Their sauce was uninteresting (too bad, since it’s the only one widely available at retail) and also the buns were stale.

The event took place at the Innovation Garage in Troy and donations supported the Regional Food Bank of Upstate New York. If you’re interested in experimenting with your own sauce, here is one that claims to be like Famous Lunch (no tomato) and here is a replication of Hot Dog Charlie’s sauce.

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Recipe: Digger Bread

Digger Bread

Digger Bread, in “coffee” can and loaf pan versions

Welcome to the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The other day I drove past the Panhandle, a mile long grassy strip where the Diggers gave away bread to keep people nourished while they were grooving. Digger Bread packs a lot of nutrition into a simple, hearty loaf anyone can make. There are two recipes online, one at the Diggers’ archive and the other in a 1970 edition of Mother Earth News. I prefer the latter except for a couple of flaws which I’ve corrected. Note: by making this bread you are swearing an oath you will never sell but only give it away. Makes two 1-lb loaves.

Ingredients:
For the wet mix:
1/2 c lukewarm water or whole milk or yogurt
1 T dry yeast or one (2 ¼ tsp) package
1 T whole wheat or all purpose flour
1 ripe banana, peeled and mashed
1 T honey, sorghum, maple syrup or raw sugar
For the dry mix:
4 c whole wheat flour (enough to fill a 1-lb coffee can* to the brim)
½ c nonfat dry milk**
1 t salt
½ c raisins or currants
½ c or more of “something weird” (I used 1/3 c muesli, 1/3 c wheat germ, ¼ c dried cranberries)
Additional water or milk as needed
Additional honey, fruit, nuts or whatever strikes your fancy if desired

Method: mix the wet ingredients in a 1-lb empty coffee can or equivalent*. Rest for a few minutes to let the yeast feed, then pour into a big bowl with the dry ingredients and mix with a big spoon until no dry patches are left.  You will almost certainly need to add more liquid to accomplish this, up to 1 or 1 ½ c total. (If dough gets too wet, just add some flour. This is a very forgiving recipe.) When dough is thoroughly mixed and uniform, cover bowl and put aside in a warm place until it has risen by half, about 45 minutes.

Knead the dough thoroughly (that’s right, in this recipe you knead after the first rise) until it is firm yet spongy like a baby’s bottom, 10 minutes or more. Divide in half and transfer to two 1-lb coffee cans or equivalent which have been greased with butter, lard or oil. Allow to rise again until it has almost doubled in volume, about 45 minutes to an hour. Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 390 degrees (use a cookie sheet under the cans to prevent accidents) and bake for one hour. Eat with a hearty soup or load up with peanut butter and jelly for a complete meal.

*Alas, coffee cans have changed since the 1960s and most now have a lip which will keep the dough from rising evenly and make it impossible to remove the finished loaf. I substituted a 28 ounce bean can which was as close as I could get to the form factor of a 1-lb coffee can. You could also just bake in a loaf pan, like I did for my second loaf.

**If using milk or yogurt instead of water you can omit the dry milk. I think it was included in the original recipe because the Diggers wanted people to get their dairy, and refrigeration in the parks was unreliable so they didn’t have fresh milk.

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Side towel vs. pot holder

Pot Holder vs Side Towel

It doesn’t show up very well in the picture, but the face of the pot holder at the bottom left has melted from the heat. Not what you want in protection from burns.

Among the many pleasures of Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef is a generous helping of kitchen technique and best practices, gleaned through his introductory Skills class at the Culinary Institute of America. The use of the side towel is a good example. Except when working front of house, every student is required to have a side towel, akin to a home dish towel but with a minimum standard for thickness and sturdiness, tucked into his or her apron string at all times. The side towel is not for wiping counters or washing dishes. It has only one purpose: handling hot pots and pans.

If you thought pot holders were for that purpose, take a look at the picture above. The surface of the pot holder has melted due to excessive heat in our recently acquired home kitchen, which has 15,000 BTU stove burners and two fierce ovens. And with that rubberized face I am sure it was marketed as a high quality pot holder, not a gewgaw. Much worse are “crafty” pot holders that are designed to be pretty rather than functional. I shudder at the thought of grabbing a half sheet pan of baguettes at 500 degrees F with such a rag.

With a side towel you know what you have as long as it’s thick, in good condition, and made without polyester. (Outrageously, some decorative dishtowels contain this or another plastic, which conducts rather than insulates against heat. There oughta be a law!) If you’re not confident in the protection, give it another fold. And keep it dry! Water is a great conductor of heat so a damp towel could poach your fingers. Ouch!

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My take on the David Brooks “I’ll have a side of white privilege” covfefe

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a piece on white privilege in which he pointed out all the ways American society is subtly tilted in favor of people who are already well off, so they and their offspring can become more so. As proof, he cited the discomfort that a friend “with only a high-school degree” experienced when they went out to lunch together.

The friend didn’t know what to make of sandwiches with names like “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata so this was presumably an Italian deli like we have in upstate New York. So they regrouped and “ate Mexican”. I’m hoping this was not Taco Bell but an actual Mexican café with foods and ingredients like tortas, cotija and ideally chapulines, which presumably would have been just as unfamiliar to Brooks as the Italian names were to his guest.

The missed opportunity here was for Brooks to introduce his friend to a new experience, describing the foods and perhaps equating them to the things she enjoys and was familiar with. (A torta, for example, is a lot like an Italian sub, but with mayo and avocado instead of oil and vinegar dressing.) Because sharing food is a prime gateway drug to opening one’s eyes to a different culture.

One could argue that white privilege generates a feeling of self-confidence that would make it easier for Brooks to try something new than for his friend, who’s probably had some rough experiences in her life in which she did not appear to fit in. That should be true, but in my experience it isn’t. Upper class white people I’ve known are often very uncurious and wary about unfamiliar foods and restaurant environments; their loss. While the folks you’ll find in a barbecue stand in Texas, spanning multiple ethnicities and I am pretty sure education and income levels, delight in discovering new tastes.

So, instead of asking your friend what they are comfortable eating like this critic suggests, tell them you’d like to share a dining experience that’s special to you, explain why you think they’ll like it, and listen carefully to any concerns. Then adjust the dining experience accordingly. You’ll both be better off as a result—especially if you are the person with the high school degree, broadening the horizon of a privileged but sheltered person with an experience they would never dare on their own.

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More nuggets and nibbles from the Summer 2017 Fancy Food Show

Mother in Laws Kimchi

Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi at Summer 2017 Fancy Food Show (that’s the actual MIL on the right)

Korean! That’s the food trend that is about to come into its own, if the many Korean-focused exhibitors at the Summer 2017 Fancy Food Show are any guide. We will finally replace sriracha with gochugang, stock our fridges with two or three varieties of gut-healthy kimchi, and rub our ribeye with custom spices to turn them into bulgogi. It’s about time.

Jerky was everywhere at the show, including an inspiring kelp version from Beyond The Shoreline. (They’re about to launch a kickstarter-like funding drive on Pieshell.com, which says it is “crowdfunding for food+beverage”). Also everywhere: cold-brewed coffee, including on-tap versions that are infused with nitrogen for an extra wake-up boost.

Cold Brewed Coffee

Cold Brewed Coffee was everywhere.

Fat Snax is a high fat cookie developed at the CommonWealth Kitchen in Brooklyn. They replace sugar and carbs with just more fat for “keto and paleo friends”. Tasted okay… but I think most commercial cookies are already pretty high fat. Developed at the same incubator, and possibly less healthy, is Boonbox. It starts with jerky then adds freeze-dried or dehydrated veggies and fruit for a complete meal you can eat in your cubbie or bunker. Tasted good, but I wanted more food right after.

On the completely unhealthy but delicious side, Laceys are a product I would definitely buy myself. If your problem is deciding between cookie and toffee… why choose? These guys offer “crisp toffee wafer cookies sandwiched with deliciously rich melted chocolate.”

Bursting Boba

Bursting Boba!

Perhaps, like me, you have been taking the bubble tea phenomenon for granted. But somebody has to provide the equipment and the training to make the little nuggets at the bottom of the drinks. That would be Goleadway.com. Most bubbles are made of chewy tapioca in a different flavor than the tea. Their new Bursting Boba is hollow, created through the alginate spherification technique, and bursts with flavor (“like caviar”) when you bite into it.

On a side note, I highly recommend the Sheraton Four Points on 40th St if you can get a good rate for a stay. It’s within walking distance of Javits (much faster to walk than travel on a shuttle bus) and has had a recent renovation. Across the street is the imposing, but not scary, Port Authority bus terminal and there are many places to eat wihin steps on 9th Ave. I paid $135, not including tax, which is a great rate for summer in NYC. Note, there is another Four Points nearby but stay at this one—much more interesting neighborhood.

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Healthy trends at the Summer 2017 Fancy Food Show

The floor at Summer 2017 Fancy Food Show (this photo encompasses about 2/3 of the top floor, and there’s another floor below)

It was easy to spot the predominant trend at last week’s Fancy Food Show in New York: aggressively healthy products as in paleo (minimally processed, in the tradition of our hunter/gatherer forebears), probiotic (promoting a healthy gut, usually through fermented ingredients), superfoods (rich in components to fight disease) or all of the above. Such items have appeared in years past but they didn’t taste very good and retailers didn’t seem eager to embrace them. This year, perhaps we’ve reached a tipping point.

Snow Monkey founderS with their dairy-free iced dessert

Snow Monkey is a good example. Founded by three female athletes who met at Boston University, it reinvents ice cream without the dairy, using pureed bananas and apple as a base to which goji berry or cacao are added. It’s packaged in pints that reminded me of Ben & Jerry’s. I told them it tasted like energy bars turned into ice cream. I liked it. They took the chance of renting an expensive booth on the main floor (most startups are in the basement) and were attracting lots of traffic.

Beetroot Ketchup

Desiree Parker of Ireland’s Foraging Fox, showing Beetroot Ketchup

Beets are a thing… in smoothies, as a nutritional powder, and especially in Foraging Fox Beetroot Ketchup from Ireland which is really, really good. (They’re looking for a US distributor. Above link goes to their importer.) And so are bees… not to eat per se but as bee pollen or honey products to drink, rub on your face or cook with. We love bees, so let’s support them so they don’t die out. And coconut… lots and lots of coconut made into ice cream, energy bars or just sold as coconut water.

Bees

Bees were everywhere at Summer 2017 Fancy Food Show

Water is, by the way, the fastest growing category according to analysis presented by Gary Lockwood from Mintel. And there was lots of it on hand, including Nothing water from Norway that… tastes like nothing, which is their main selling point. Mintel says local, non-GMO and eco-friendly are the three attributes consumers say they want most in their foods. Organic and fair trade are not on the list, but maybe it’s because people think those will come naturally if a food has the other desired characteristics.

Nothing Water

Nothing Water

And gluten-free? Consumers didn’t mention it in their top five, which may be a problem because producers surveyed said gluten-free would continue to be a growing category. Can we hope a shakeout is finally coming? I respect people with true celiac concerns, but also spot pandering in the many “grain free” products at the show. Some of these truly were different (like Siete tortilla chips, made with cassava and coconut flour) but others contained flaxseed and chia which are seeds, i.e. grains, like wheat.

On a side note, as a baker I was irritated by the many “ancient grains” products which don’t specify exactly which “ancient grains” are included. To me, this concept describes einkorn, emmer and other (gluten-containing) grains which are wheat in its ancestral form, before genetic manipulation began. But flaxseeds and oats are often included in the mix. Consumers think they’re getting something that doesn’t really exist.

Next time, a few micro-trends and discoveries that don’t relate directly to heath.

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Recipe: 4th of July Hamburger

4th of July Burger

4th of July burger with cheese between two patties

Burnt My Fingers has never published a hamburger recipe, because we tend to improvise with what is on hand and tweak as we go. But this 4th of July hamburger demonstrates a couple of basic concepts, and it’s delicious. First, onion is incorporated into the burger grind along with a hearty dose of umami so the meat is crazy good before you add the first condiment. Second, I experimented with my fellow blogger Daniel B’s predilection to serve a double cheeseburger with the cheese melted between the two patties. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Makes 4 individual patties or two double cheeseburgers.

Ingredients:
1 lb ground beef, 85% lean preferred*
2 T Toné or other dried onion**
2 T beer or water**
1 T Worcestershire or fish sauce
1 t salt
½ t pepper
Panko, breadcrumbs or beaten egg as a binding component (if needed)
¼ lb cheddar cheese, sliced to fit the burger

Method: in a bowl, soak the dried onion in beer or water for 10 minutes or longer. Add other ingredients, except the binding component, and thoroughly mix with your hands. If the meat is very lean it may be crumbly; if so add breadcrumbs, panko or beaten egg to bind it. Separate into four balls and mash each into a 6 inch patty. Fry in a cast iron pan for a few minutes until bottom has shrunk and released a good amount of juice; flip and do the same with the other side. When the meat has cooked down and is crispy, add the cheese slices on two of the patties and cover with the other two patties***. Cover the pan and cook a couple more minutes till the cheese is thoroughly melted and oozing out the sides. Serve immediately on toasted bun with your favorite condiments.

*The fat content makes a big difference. 90% is too lean and tends to fall apart; 80% is greasy and gets all over your hands. 85% is the way to go.
**If dried onions aren’t available, substitute 1 medium onion and chop it VERY fine so the bits don’t fall out of the burger as it is cooking.
***Daniel claims the melted cheese between the fatty patties is a superb tasting experience, but to me it throws off the meat/vegetable balance. I prefer a single cheeseburger with the works. You decide for yourself.

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Edwards Surryano ham… it’s back (almost)!

Edwards Surryano Ham

Edwards’ Keith Roberts with test-run leg of Surryano ham

Tucked away in the regional food aisles of the 2017 Summer Fancy Food Show was something mighty exciting: an authentic leg of Surryano ham from Edwards Smokehouse of Virginia. As I’ve mentioned previously, Edwards’ main smokehouse burned down and has been rebuilt, but due to a self-mandated 400-day curing time the Surryano (as in, Serrano-style hams from Surry, VA) won’t be available for a few more months.

However, national wholesale sales manager Keith Roberts informed me they’ve been quietly QA’ing the new smokehouse for several months and he felt the new product was close enough that he could bring it to the show for select tasting. (The samples were tucked away behind the counter; the ones in the photo are a less-aged ham.) What did I think? I chewed a morsel and my eyes rolled back in my head. It had the perfect balance of salt and smoke but, beyond that, it was incredibly tender like a fine-grained filet mignon. How the f* did they achieve that? I now understand why Surryanos cost far more than other hams and will scheme to get some when I can.

Edwards Meets Fermin

Roberts greets a competitor from Jamon Fermin in the Iberico region of Spain.

Roberts and I proceeded to some ham talk in which he informed me they had recently conducted a blind tasting for chefs and other stakeholders, with their hams and those from a number of local and international competitors, and it was striking how many hams could be immediately identified on the palate. There was Benton’s from Arkansas, which makes no secret of its aggressive smoking (by the way, these folks did a beautiful job of making things right for our reader who had an issue with her ham) and Nancy Newcomb from Kentucky, a name new to me I want to investigate.

As we talked we were joined by a woman who listened for awhile and finally said she had to identify herself because was a competitor, a partner in Fermin Serrano hams in Spain. I left the two of them to plot the takeover of the world with flavorful hams. If all goes well, and I suspect it will, Surryanos will be available in time for 2017 holiday ordering.

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The best exhibitor at the Fancy Food Show has a local (Albany) connection

Food Matters Agin

Food Matters Again booth at Summer 2017 Fancy Food Show

I just got back from the Summer Fancy Food Show at NYC’s Javits Convention Center. I go to this show to see what’s new and keep up with trends in the food industry, but I also take personal pleasure in grabbing a few nibbles here and there. A lot of very, very high quality cheese and charcuterie was on offer, which invited comparative tasting across several favorite categories. And the winner, across the board, was a Brooklyn importer and distributor called Food Matters Again.

Sacre Bleu! Eric turned me on to this astonishing mountain of bleu but the name is covered by the sign holder!

Cheese Porn

Cheese Porn at Food Matters Again booth (if you click through to the higher rez version then blow it up you can read most of the labels.

According to the minimal info currently available (the website is under construction), FMA was founded by a long time cheese monger and recently added cured American meats. The selection and affinage was unbelievable… magnificent funky specimens, perfectly aged, presented at the peak of ripeness. My personal favorite was a 10-month Gourmino (love anything Gourmino) Schallenberger, but I could have stayed there gobbling one toenail-tasting tidbit after another till they dragged me out.

And about that local connection: roaming the booth was none other than Cheese Traveler’s Eric Paul. As it turns out, Eric already sells many of these cheeses in his shop and is about to become a local distributor in the Capital District. He doesn’t (currently) have the Schallenberger, but he guided me to a similar-tasting Gruyere d’Alpage which comes from the highest mountains in Switzerland where there is less grazing traffic so the grass grows especially lush and sweet.

Eric Paul Food Matters Again

Eric Paul at FMA booth at 2017 Summer Fancy Food Show

Stay tuned for more reports from the 2017 Summer Fancy Food Show.

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