Plain Jane Garlic Sausage

It recently dawned on me that I don’t have any sausage recipes on this site.  Which is crazy.  So I’m going to post a bunch.  For details on procedure and technique, I have two posts linked below.  Also… I happen to be teaching a sausage-making class for Metro Continuing Education on October 19, 2016.

 

A plate of sausage, toast, apple sauce, and braised red cabbage.This simple sausage goes by many names in my house, among them “everyday sausage”, “plain Jane”, and occasionally “garlic brat”, though it is not a bratwurst in the strictest sense.[1]

I wanted a relatively neutral sausage that would go well with most of the food I cook at home, which I would describe as North American farmstead with a serious central/eastern European slant.  So instead of making ten different types of sausage each year, I could make one or two and have all my bases covered.  This sausage is most often eaten on a bun, or with Austrian potato salad, or other simple plates like the one at left.

The predominant flavours in this recipe are pork, garlic, and black pepper, with some secondary, supporting flavours in the background.  Since I so often eat my sausages with something from the mustard family (prepared mustard and cabbage, especially) there is a touch of mustard powder in the recipe.  There is also a hint of cayenne pepper, enough to warm the palate and reinforce the black pepper, but not enough to make this a “spicy” sausage.

My ideal texture for this sausage is achieved by what I call the “lazy brat” method.  All the meat is ground through a 3/16″ plate, then a portion of the meat, anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2, is set aside, and the remaining meat is ground a second time.  Then all the meat is re-combined for the mixing process.

Here’s the detailed recipe.

 

Plain Jane Garlic Sausage
your everyday sausage

Ingredients

  • 2 kgs pork butt, boneless and skinless, but with entire fat cap (about 1.5″ thick)
  • 33 g kosher salt
  • 40 g fresh garlic, minced fine
  • 6 g black pepper, coarsely ground
  • 10 g mustard powder
  • 2.8 g cayenne
  • 200 mL ice-cold water
  • about 10′ hog casing

Procedure

  1. Chill the pork butt thoroughly by spreading it out on a sheet tray lined with parchment and storing in the freezer.  The meat should be slightly crunchy on the exterior, but not frozen solid, and still with some give.
  2. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate.  Set aside about 1/3 of the ground meat.
  3. Re-chill the remaining 2/3 ground meat as described in step 1.
  4. Grind the chilled 2/3 meat through a 3/16″ plate a second time.
  5. Re-combine all the ground meat.  Add the remaining ingredients (except the casings…) to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with the paddle attachment for 90 seconds on a medium speed, then 30 seconds on a medium-high speed.
  6. Fry a small piece of the mixture in a pan.  Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  7. Stuff into hog casings.
  8. Twist into 6″ links.
  9. Poach until the meat is just cooked, reaching an internal temperature of 150°F.  Transfer the links to an ice bath to arrest cooking.
  10. Let links dry thoroughly.

Yield: about 20 x 6″ links

 

 

Footnotes

  1. It’s a common misconception that bratwurst are so-called because they are fresh sausages that are pan-fried.  “Brat” does happen to mean roast, or fry, as in Schweinsbraten (roast pork), but that is a coincidence.  A true bratwurst is made with a fine-textured emulsified mass called a “brat”, which is studded with small chunks of chopped or coarsely ground meat.
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Breakfast Sausage

It recently dawned on me that I don’t have any sausage recipes on this site.  Which is crazy.  So I’m going to post a bunch.  For details on procedure and technique, I have two posts linked below.  Also… I happen to be teaching a sausage-making class for Metro Continuing Education on October 19, 2016.

 

Breakfast sausages frying on a griddle.I wanted to create an artisan version of the little sausages you get at dive-y breakfast institutions like the Commodore.  The kind of diners that that pour you bad coffee all morning.

North American breakfast sausage is usually made entirely of pork.  It is ground quite fine and mixed to emulsify so that it has a very delicate texture.  It is often flavoured with sage and other versatile herbs.  And, most characteristically, the links are narrow and short compared to, say a smoky or even a hot dog.

For my fancy breakfast sausage I use pork butt with all of the 1.5″ fat cap.  It is flavoured with both fresh and dried sage.  I find you have to add a prohibitively expensive amount of fresh herbs to get the flavour to come through in a sausage.  And to amp the fancy-factor up a notch I use orange zest and ginger.

I double-grind the meat for delicate texture.  That’s two passes through a 3/16″ plate.

And finally to get the narrow diameter characteristic of breakfast sausage I use lamb casings.  Being lamb, these are a bit expensive, but they’re essential here.  I twist the links into 4″ lengths.

A detailed recipe follows.

 

Breakfast Sausage
with sage, ginger, and orange

Ingredients

  • 2 kgs pork butt, boneless and skinless, but with entire fat cap (about 1.5″ thick)
  • 40 g kosher salt
  • 44 g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1.6 g dried sage
  • 18 g fresh sage, chopped
  • 47 g fresh garlic, minced fine
  • 5.4 g black pepper, coarsely ground
  • 22 g orange zest (I use a packaged orange zest made by The Perfect Purée)
  • 222 mL ice-cold water
  • about 2 m lamb casing

Procedure

  1. Chill the pork butt thoroughly by spreading it out on a sheet tray lined with parchment and storing in the freezer.  The meat should be slightly crunchy on the exterior, but not frozen solid, and still with some give.
  2. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate.
  3. Re-chill the ground meat as described in step 1.
  4. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate a second time.
  5. Add the remaining ingredients (except the casings…) to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with the paddle attachment for 90 seconds on a medium speed, then 30 seconds on a medium-high speed.
  6. Fry a small piece of the mixture in a pan.  Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  7. Stuff into lamb casings.
  8. Twist into 4″ links.
  9. Poach until the meat is just cooked, reaching an internal temperature of 150°F.  Transfer the links to an ice bath to arrest cooking.
  10. Let links dry thoroughly.

Yield: about 35 x 4″ links

A plate with breakfast sausage, fried eggs, and toast.

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Candy Apples

Candy apples, rank and fileI really want to like candy apples.  They are so closely associated with fall and carnivals and country fairs, they seem like a fantastic way to celebrate our local apples.

In practice they are usually disappointing.  They are often died a garish red.  The candy coating is either adamantine, or it sticks to your teeth and threatens to pull out your molars.  And usually the fruit is so large that it cannot be eaten comfortably from the end of a stick.  You have to unhinge your jaw, which compromises your ability to break the adamantine candy coating.

In theory all these problems can be solved.

Let’s talk apples.  Any good eating-apple is a good candy-apple.  Firm, crisp, juicy.  Apples that may be a touch sour to eat out of hand can still make good candy apples.  As I hinted above, small apples are key.  I say 2.5″ in diameter at the most.  Edmonton is awash in many varieties of smaller apple that you can comfortably fit between your teeth.

As an aside, to make candy apples you have to use whole, intact apples; you can’t use segments or slices.  The skin of the apple acts as a moisture barrier between the flesh of the fruit and the hard candy.  If the hard candy comes into contact with moisture it starts to melt.  Candied slices of apple will deteriorate within 10 minutes of the sugar setting.

Candy coating.  Here we use white sugar, corn syrup to prevent crystallization, and a bit of water to slow down the caramelization.  The name of the game is hard crack.  The syrup needs to reach 310°F.  Any lower and the the candy will not be brittle, and will stick to the teeth.

Most candy apples are dyed an intense, impossible red.  Personally I think they look better without food colouring, as you can see the natural colour of the apple.  Edmonton-grown apples come in a shocking array of colours, from gecko green to straw yellow to lipstick red.

I know it’s a bit crafty, Pinterest-y, even Martha Stewart-y, but I love using twigs from an apple tree as the sticks for candy apples.

 

Candy Apples

Ingredients

  • 480 g granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 180 g water
  • 8-12 apples, firm, crispy specimens not more than 2.5″ across

Procedure

  1. Skewer each of the apples with a thick twig from an apple tree.  Line them up on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot.  Stir briefly to moisten all the sugar.  Turn the heat to medium high.  Monitor the temperature of the syrup with a candy thermometer.
  3. As soon as the syrup temperature reaches 310°F, remove the pot from the stove.  Working quickly, dip each of the apples in the syrup, rolling the apple to ensure the entire surface is coated with the candy.
  4. Allow the syrup to cool and harden before serving.  Obviously.
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Apple Must

Apple must reductionWhen you have hundreds of pounds of something you start thinking deeply on how you can preserve and consume the bounty.  This time of year apples are the subject of those deep thoughts.  Of course cider is the supreme way to preserve and consume apples, but I’ve been experimenting with some other techniques that involve cooking and reducing the fresh apple juice.

I got the idea from the cuisine of Modena.  Obviously they have an abundance of grapes, and obviously the majority of those grapes end up as wine or liquor, but they also have a few preparations made by cooking and reducing fresh grape juice.  The most famous is traditional balsamic vinegar, but there is also a little-known preparation called saba.  It is a simple grape must reduction, once commonly used as a sweetener.

Above, at left, is an apple must reduction.  It started as 16 L of fresh apple juice, pressed from Edmonton apples.  Before fermentation could start I brought the juice to a simmer using my turkey-fryer.  I maintained the gentle boil for about 12 hours, after which I had less than 4 L of liquid remaining.

The must is a beautiful, dark red-brown colour, like dried dates.  It is tart, and somewhat sweet, maybe a touch sweeter than grape juice.  It is slightly syrupy on the tongue, and it has a remarkably concentrated aroma that reminds me of dried fruit like prunes.

So what do you do with this stuff?  If you whisk it with a touch of vinegar or mustard and shallot it makes a great dressing.  Diluted with a bit of cold water it also makes a delicious drink.  But I think its supreme use is in making reduction sauces for meat and vegetables.  To make the dish pictured below I pan-roasted pork tenderloin, then deglazed the pan with apple must, reducing it to make a sweet-and-sour sauce that also played will with the roasted root vegetables.

Roast pork, root vegetables, and an apple must pan sauce.

 

As a side note, I’ve also used this apple must to make a superlative vinegar.  You may have even tasted some of this vinegar if you’ve eaten at RGE RD; they’ve purchased a few bottles from me over the past year or so.

I don’t see myself making gallons and gallons of apple must reduction every year, as it is extremely energy intensive, but it’s one more interesting way that apples could feature in our regional cuisine.

 

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Sour Cherry Pâte de Fruits

Originally published December 14, 2013.

 

Evans cherry gelsPâte de fruits, literally “fruit paste,” is a simple confection made of fruit, sugar, and pectin, though some recipes call for gelatin instead.

Pâtes de fruits have a very distinct texture.  They are firmer than a spreadable breakfast jelly, but without the persistent chew of a gummy bear or gummy worm or any other fauna from the gummy kingdom.  One of my chefs compared the texture to a medium ganache.

Another distinction between true pâte de fruits and inferior industrial candies is flavour.  They are very bright, pure expressions of the fruit from which they are made.  They tend to be tart, though well-balanced.

The chemistry behind pâtes de fruits is the same as that behind jellies (see this post).  We require three things to form good pectin bonds:

  • heat, to evaporate moisture and concentrate the pectin
  • acid (hydrogen ions), to neutralize the negative charge that repels pectin molecules
  • sugar, to draw in moisture and make room for the pectin molecules to get intimate

The only difference between a spreadable jelly and this jelly candy is the concentration of the above-listed ingredients.  The real trick is finding the right pectin content: too little and the paste will not cut into clean squares, too much and they will be very firm and have a slightly mealy texture on the tongue.

Estimating the required pectin quantity is especially hard if you are using fresh fruit.  Bakery supply shops carry fruit concentrates designed to be used in this type of confectionery, and each is carefully blended to have uniform characteristics across batches.  Fresh fruit, however, is not and cannot be controlled in this manner.  Pectin content varies from plant to plant and within the same plant as the fruit ripens.

I’ve been trying to make a great Evans cherry pâte de fruits for some time now.  For the Eat Alberta 2013 tasting board I set out to make a pâte de fruits with some of the Evans cherries left in my freezer from last season. I wanted to give folks a really clear idea of what our sour cherries taste like.  Since we were still three or four months away from having fresh cherries, I thought that jelly candy was the best way to do this.  To be completely honest they had too much pectin in them, so the texture was a bit too firm and mealy.  Interestingly, I let some of the candies leftover from Eat Alberta sit, covered, at room temperature for a few weeks, and the texture smoothed out and they were exactly the right consistency.  My working theory is that pectin bonds degrade over time.

Anyways, for my latest batch of Evans cherry jelly candies I used the recipe below and they turned out great.  As mentioned above, due to natural variations in pectin content, you might need to tweak the quantities for your cherries.

I have omitted extra acid such as citric acid solution from the recipe because I think that Evans cherries are plenty sour on their own.

I’ll share two more details before leaving you with the recipe.  First: boil the jelly very aggressively.  This preserves a lot of the flavour of the fresh fruit.  Second: when selecting a dish to pour the jelly into to set, pick one that is a size that will make your jelly candies about 1/2″ high.  Making the candies too flat makes them hard to pick up.

 

Evans Cherry Pâte de Fruits 

Ingredients

  •  600 g Evans cherry purée (pitted cherries run through the blender)
  • 170 g liquid pectin
  • 300 g white corn syrup
  • 600 g granulated sugar

Procedure

  1. Combine the cherry purée, the liquid pectin, and the corn syrup in a large pot.  Heat and stir to dissolve the pectin.
  2. Add the sugar and stir gently to dissolve.
  3. Crank the heat and boil aggressively until a candy thermometer reads 218°F.
  4. Immediately and quickly pour into a casserole.
  5. Allow to cool and stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
  6. Cut into squares or diamonds and roll in sugar.

 

Can you imagine if Edmonton restaurants started serving these when they brought you the cheque, instead of a mint?

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Dandelion Crowns

We’ve tried a lot of things with dandelions.  The leaves are great.  Hopefully everybody knows that by now.  I’ve made syrups with the flowers, but truthfully they don’t have much flavour and are only good for their sunny colour.  The roots are delicious roasted and useful in bitter infusions, but they are such a bitch to harvest I rarely bother.  The flower buds can be pickled, but while they look a good deal like capers they don’t actually have much flavour of their own, and certainly don’t have the distinct mustard-like pop of their Mediterranean look-alikes.

Dandelion crowns might be the tastiest part of the plant.

The crown is where the root transitions to the stalks.  It is only slightly easier to harvest than the root, and probably more difficult to clean, but it delivers a serious flavour payoff.

Fresh dandelion crowns.

 

Pan-roasted, dandelion crowns remind me of rutabaga: soft, savoury, and faintly bitter.

The dish below was entirely conceived and executed by my partner Lisa.  She sautéed the crowns, then added a bit of water to the pan and covered.  Once the crowns were tender she added dandelion greens and cooked until they were wilted but still vibrant green.  She finished the dish with balsamic vinegar.

A dandelion dish: sautéed crowns with wilted greens.

 

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Arm of Lamb

Roast lamb foreleg, or "arm of lamb"One of the great things about purchasing your meat as a whole animal and cutting it yourself (besides getting high-quality ethically produced meat for a fraction of its farmers’ market price) is that you have total control over how the meat is divided.

I’ve written about this before (Alternative Pork Primals) but I have another great example of an unorthodox meat-cutting practice: arm of lamb.  While lambs have four legs, the traditional roast leg of lamb is always a hind leg.  The shank meat is trimmed away, leaving relatively tender, lean meat that is best roasted medium rare.

The foreleg is a very different piece of meat.  It could simply be billed as “foreleg of lamb” but I think we need a better way to properly distinguish it from the hind part.  So I propose “arm of lamb”. [1]

The foreleg of lamb is typically broken up in the meat shop: the butcher uses a bandsaw to cut across the bones so that the uppermost part is left on the shoulder, the lowermost part is removed as a bone-in shank, and everything in between is trim for sausages.

You can, however, remove the entire foreleg in one piece.  It looks rather similar to the hind leg, with the characteristic club shape, but the meat is completely different: tough and fatty, with several small, irregular muscle groups.  So instead of being roasted at high heat to medium rare, the foreleg is best braised, or slow-roasted until it is falling-apart-tender, like a lamb shoulder.

I probably get a bigger kick out of this than most, but I like that it looks like a leg of lamb, but it is a braise instead of a roast.

Arm of lamb is harder to carve tableside, as it contains the shoulder blade, but the meat is tender enough that careful carving isn’t really necessary: if you cook the meat till it is thoroughly tender you can push a fork into the joint and pull and shred as much meat as you please.

 

  1. I’ll concede that “arm” doesn’t quite have the same appetizing ring to it as leg, and that it somehow even sounds cannibalistic.  I suppose the reason is that legs are for locomotion, arms are for manipulation of objects; animals do not manipulate objects the same way humans do; their four limbs are used chiefly for locomotion; ergo they do not have arms; only humans have arms.  That’s why is sounds weird to eat an arm.  That being said, the lamb’s humerus is often referred to as the arm bone, and the sub-primal cut that contains the humerus can be called the lamb should arm, but these are technical meat-cutting terms that would never appear on consumer packaging.
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Greek Food

Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things.

-Jeffrey Steingarten, on Greek food

Dawn at the harbour at Iraklio, Crete

As the above quote from Vogue’s food critic demonstrates, Greek food is not often taken seriously in North America.[1]  In fact, a trip to a Greek restaurant is not even about the food, as the food is more or less the same at all Greek restaurants.  In our part of the world, dining at a Greek restaurant is about the experience, an experience that usually involves tables for twelve, bazuki music, belly dancing, liquor, repetition of the phrase “Opa!”, smashing plates, and of course setting cheese on fire.  All of this commotion invariably occurs between whitewashed walls supporting plastic grape vines.

It’s cyclical and self-perpetuating: the public has come to expect a zany, raucous, experience, so Greek restaurants deliver to make a buck, which reinforces our ridiculous idea about Greek cuisine and culture.

I haven’t done any solid research on the issue, but I’m pretty sure the initial misconception comes from a movie that is a half-century old: Zorba the Greek.  Based on a Kazantzakis novel, the movie is about a stuffy half Greek half English writer who moves to Crete to run a lignite mine. In Piraeus he is approached by a Macedonian named Zorba who offers his services as a mining crew chief.  Zorba: the name itself is wild.  He is obsessed with women and wine and dancing and in short drinks deeply and lustily from the cup of life.  This has become a stereotype throughout television and film, in everything from My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

In the movie, Zorba is the Greek spirit teaching the prudish Englishman how to enjoy life.  Interestingly in the book, both of the main characters are Greek.  Zorba is perhaps the ancient Greek spirit, standing in stark contrast to his contemporary compatriots, who are all fettered by the Orthodox Church, superstition, and poverty.

But I digress.

The day after I wrote my last university exam I departed for a five week trip to southern Greece with my girlfriend Lisa.  My degree was in electrical engineering.  At the time I had a part time job in a kitchen.  Our time in Greece did a lot to make me forget about engineering and work as a cook when we returned to Canada.

Before the trip I considered the word “cuisine” a fancy way of saying “food”, and to me the two terms could be used interchangeably.  The trip (by which I mean the reading I did beforehand, the five weeks of travel, and the hundred or so meals Lisa and I ate in Greece, almost entirely at markets and tavernas) taught me that cuisine was a cohesive set of traditions that informed how a society interacted with the natural world.

I learned that there was a seasonal rhythm to the traditional food of Greece.  One restaurant owner explained that true Greek salad is actually just raw onion, feta, and olive oil, ingredients that are available year round.  Only in the height of summer were flourishes like tomatoes and cucumbers added.  This seems so obvious to me now having spent the last eight years immersed in food, but at the time it was a revelation.[2]

I was fascinated to see how these traditions were interpreted differently by each taverna. Saganaki, for instance, which is essentially just fried cheese, was different in every place we ate.  Sometimes it was made with kefalotiri and flamed with brandy so that the cheese melted into a gooey mat.  At a beachside taverna on the island of Syros it was made with a firm local cheese called San Michiali and gently warmed in the oven, simply to heighten the aroma and flavour.

If I had to characterize Greek food I would say it is above all else simple and elemental.  Your salad is tomatoes, capers, potatoes, and corn.  Your dinner is fish, or octopus, and lemon, and herbs.  Your dessert is melon and raki.  Of course there are exceptions (one does not easily whip up a batch of baklava) but generally food is prepared with minimal intervention using simple techniques that don’t significantly alter or mask the ingredients.

Likewise meals are served without any ostentation.  The entire trip I didn’t see a single belly dancer (maybe one in Plaka…)  No plates were smashed.  The meals were always outside, on a sidewalk or in a garden (Tamam was literally the only exception, the only time we ate indoors in an entire month).  Rarely was there music playing.  Our meals were quiet, humble, and (again) elemental.

One of the most memorable parts of our trip to Greece was the August full moon.  We were staying on the island of Paros, in a small town called Dryos.  For several days leading up to the lunar event the owner of our hotel told us that the August full moon was one of the greatest, most festive nights of the summer.  We had absolutely no idea what to expect, and we let our imaginations run wild with visions of a beachside bacchanalia.  The reality was much more restrained (we ate dinner and went out for drinks with some other tourists) but we remember it fondly.

Every full moon in August Lisa and I eat Greek food and take some time to reflect on that trip.  Some years it’s just a glass of ouzo and water with some small mezze, maybe tzatziki and pita. Other times it’s a full meal, with roast lamb with wine.

Today happens to be this year’s August full moon, which is why I have Greece on the brain.

A Greek dinner for the August full moon: roast lamb shoulder, potatoes, olives, tzatziki, and horiatiki.

 

  1.  This quote is from The Man Who Ate Everything, an article in which Steingarten tries to learn to appreciate his least favourite foods, which include (among many others) kimchi and Greek food.  Here he is referring to feta, which is aged and stored in brine (not actually that weird…) and retsina, a wine from Attica that is flavoured with pine resin.
  2. Of course, this seasonality is a thing of the past, and whether you are in Athens Greece or Athens Ontario (look it up), and whether it is July or January, a Greek salad always has cucumber and tomato.
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Squash Blossoms

Originally published August 17, 2011.

A squash blossom, still on the plantIf any food can be described as ephemeral, it’s squash blossoms. They’re only around for a short while, and once picked they deteriorate rapidly, which is why you usually can’t get them at grocery stores, only farmers’ markets and neighbourhood gardens.

Squash plants actually produce two different types of flowers: male and female.  The male flowers grow on the end of long, slender stems.  The female flowers grow on thicker stems that buldge where they meet the flower.  This bulge is what will eventually become a squash.

Generally there are more male flowers than female.  The male flowers can be picked without affecting the production of fruit, so long as a few are left behind to pollinate the females.  Some sources say to remove the stamens from the interior of the male flowers before eating.  I don’t.  I hope it’s not a safety thing.  Picking the female flowers will prevent fruit from developing on that stem.  Even so, it’s worth picking a few females, especially once the buldge on the stem has grown into a tiny, malformed squash.

The flowers of both summer and winter squash are edible.  (Summer squash are varieties that are picked young, and therefore have tender, edible seeds and skin, like zucchinis and pattypans.  Winter squash are varieties that are mature when picked, and therefore have tough, inedible seeds and skin, like butternut squash and pumpkins.)

While they can be eaten raw, squash blossoms are usually lightly battered and fried.  They can also be stuffed.

Below are some blossoms from a zucchini plant.  The female flowers are distinguished by the tiny zucchinis attached to their bases.  The male flowers have their characteristic long, slender stem in tact.

In the final picture below the blossoms are filled with a homemade cottage cheese (something my ancestors would have called “clabbered milk”) mixed with green onions and a bit of lemon juice.  I used a piping bag to stuff the flowers.

The batter is just skim milk with flour and salt.  The flowers are lightly coated with the batter, then fried in canola oil at 350°F.  You can shallow fry in a straight-sided pan (just add enough oil to come about half way up the side of the flowers) or deep fry in a pot.  Once the batter is crisp and the interior hot, maybe one minute, remove the flowers to a bowl lined with paper towel.  Season and consume immediately.

August on a plate:

Male blossoms, and some female blossoms with the nascent sqash

Squash blossoms, filled with cottage cheese and onions, battered and fried

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Burger Freak-Out

Originally published September 29, 2012.

Burger: A Sneak PeekThis summer I had a little burger freak-out.  I thought about hamburgers more in the last few months than my entire life previous, and I came to realize that, despite eating them for about twenty five years, I knew very little about them.

The following burger info will be obvious to many of you, but circumstances conspired to stunt my burger knowledge from a very young age.  For instance, the burgers I ate growing up were a bit like squished meatballs: they contained bread crumbs and eggs and were mixed to bind the ingredients together.  They were tasty and comforting, but they hampered my understanding of proper hamburger flavour and texture for years.  To aggravate the situation, I make sausages at work every week, and in days past I would often apply the same theories and practices to hamburgers.

In other words I had to unlearn everything that I thought I knew about burgers.

Let’s start at the beginning.

 

Beef.  The best burgers are made from quality beef that you’ve ground yourself.  Chuck usually forms the bulk of the mixture.  Fat is important as a source of beefy flavour and moist mouthfeel, so I usually spike the mix with a bit of brisket.  I aim for roughly 25% fat by volume.  There’s no science to this: you have to eyeball it.   I trim my chuck and brisket of all connective tissue, then give it one pass through a 1/4″ plate.  If you’re using meat from which you can’t remove all the silverskin, like shank, you’ll need at least two passes through the grinder to tenderize properly.

Of course, you can make good burgers with pre-ground meat, just make sure it’s not lean or, God forbid, extra-lean.  I’ll say it again, in case the recent E. coli outbreaks haven’t already convinced you: only buy quality beef from trusted producers!

Other Ingredients.  As I mentioned above, I grew up on homemade burgers that contained eggs and bread crumbs.  Some burger joints swear by Worcestershire and granulated garlic.  For reasons that will be discussed in the “Mixing” section below, I currently add two ingredients to my ground beef: salt and pepper.

One big way that burgers differ from sausages is salt content.  If you season a burger mix as you would a sausage mix, for some reason the burgers taste way too salty.  The right amount of salt is also important for the final texture of the patty.  Salt aids in protein-extraction, and helps bind the ground meat together.  This is something that we encourage in sausage-making, but discourage in burger-making.  Again, this will be discussed further in the “Mixing” section.  For sausages I take the weight of the meat and fat, divide by 60, and that is the amount of salt I add.  For burgers I divide by 90.  In other words my burgers have 2/3 the amount of salt that my sausages do, about 1.11% of the weight of the beef.  Even this is fairly aggressive seasoning for a burger.

If you want to taste pepper in the final patty, add 0.2% of the weight of the meat in freshly ground black pepper.

Mixing.  This is where my sausage-making background seriously affected my understanding of burgers.  Sausages are ground meat, combined with salt and water, then mixed to develop a cohesive, springy texture.  The large dose of salt helps extract proteins.  The water and the mixing develop those proteins into a strong network, very much like kneading bread.  Sausages are usually stuffed into casings.  Sausage patties are not stuffed into casings, but they are still combined with salt and water and mixed prior to shaping, so that they have the resilient texture of a sausage.

Burgers are emphatically not sausage patties, because they have not been mixed.  They have a texture all their own.  To quote Harold McGee: “the gently gathered ground beef in a good hamburger has a delicate quality quite unlike even a tender steak.”

The most critical part of burger preparation, once the right grind has been selected, is to season and shape the patties without developing a protein network.  We have lowered the amount of salt added because salt extracts protein from the meat.  We have omitted all liquids, whether egg yolks or Worcestershire sauce, to discourage protein development.  Now we must minimize mechanical agitation.

When grinding my own meat for burger mix, I add the salt and pepper to the cubed meat, before grinding.  This way the salt is evenly distributed through the grind, without my having to mix the meat and develop the protein.

Working with pre-ground meat, I add the salt and pepper, then, instead of folding and compressing the meat, I pretend I’m tossing a delicate salad.  I lift the ground meat, then let the individual strands fall between my fingers so that they don’t get pressed together.

A raw beef patty

Shaping.  Gather the desired amount of seasoned, ground beef, then gently compress it between your palms, using your fingers to maintain the round shape of the patty.

The diameter of the patty should be tailored to the diameter of the bun.  The height of the patty should be tailored to the size of the diner’s mouth.  A lot of people like tall, messy burgers that you can barely get your mouth around.  I don’t.  I find that once the bun and condiments are in play, a final patty height of 3/4″ is all I can handle comfotably.

Remember that the burger will shrink in diameter and grow in thickness as it cooks.  The raw patty should therefore a bit wider than the bun, and very thin.  I start with a patty that is 5″ across, and 1/2″ tall.  After cooking it will be 4″ across, and 3/4″ tall.

Cooking.  The cooking of hamburgers is taken very seriously.  Anthony Bourdain says to order a burger anything besides medium-rare is “un-American.”  On the other hand it is actually illegal to serve a burger anything less than well-done in Canada, though apparently a few places are doing it.

Frankly I think the whole issue is overblown.  Well-done burgers can be moist and tender, as long as they contain the right amount of fat and haven’t been over-mixed.  Medium-rare burgers are safe to eat as long as the meat as been handled properly.  I would never buy factory-raised, ground beef from a grocery store and eat it anything but well-done.  At home, using quality beef that I have cut and stored myself, I aim to cook my burgers through, but if there’s some pink meat in the middle, I don’t freak out.

If you subscribe to Bourdain’s jingo and absolutely must prepare a medium-rare burger, here’s Harold McGee’s suggested method:

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, immerse the pieces of meat in the water for 30-60 seconds, then remove, drain and pat dry, and grind in a scrupulously clean meat grinder.  The blanching kills surface bacteria while overcooking only the outer 1-2 millimeters, which grinding then disperses invisibly throughout the rest of the meat.

Note that if you’re cooking a burger mid-rare, there will be less patty-shrinkage.

While there is a time and a place for cooking burgers on the barbecue, most afficianados maintain that very hot griddles or skillets are the ideal cooking surface.  These methods don’t develop the open-flame char flavours of the barbecue, but you can get a very heavy, uniform crust on the flat sides of the burger.  The crust has good flavour and a distinctive crunch.  Burger-freaks call this “burger candy.”

Bun.  My childhood burger was placed on a lean kaiser roll.  We have gone to great length to avoid developing the protein in the meat so that we have a loose, tender amalgam of beef.  If we put this burger on a kaiser bun, with its lean, glutenous chew, we have ruined dinner.

True burger buns are a bit like cake: pains have been taken to avoid the development of gluten.  Fat and sugar have been added to the recipe to interrupt gluten strands.  The batter has been mixed only to combine the ingredients, not a stroke further.  Burger buns are therefore rich, sweet, and tender.

I’ve never tried my hand at baking my own burger bun.  My understanding is that the dough is quite runny, and very hard to work with by hand.  Many joints around town use brioche batter for their burger buns.  I use commercial hamburger buns (sorry…)

Whichever bun you decide to use, show it some love and toast it.  One of the advantages of cooking your patty on a griddle or in a skillet is that you’ll have a bit of burger fat in which to fry the bun.

Condiments.  These are obviously a matter of personal taste.  My own thoughts:

Some form of tomato is necessary.  If I have fresh tomatoes, I use fresh tomatoes.  If I don’t, I use ketchup.  I don’t like using both.  If I use fresh tomatoes, I add mustard.  Raw onion and dill pickles are also required.

While I do have a soft-spot for processed cheese, I usually use gouda, Gruyere or Emmenthal for cheeseburgers.  The younger versions have better melting properties.  I find that the cheese-flavour is stronger if the slices are only partially melted.  Overheating will thin out the cheese and make it run off the burger.

Money Shot

The finished burger, top bun removed for full photographic affect

My burger, half eaten

 

Addendum: Cherry Coke

Traditionalists will argue that I’m ruining coke; locavores will say I’m ruining Evans cherries.

This is my perfect cherry Coke, the ideal accompaniment for burgers, Montreal smoked meat, and fried chicken:

 

Sources

My two main sources of burger info were Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Heston Blumethal’s In Search of Perfection episode on the burger, which you can watch here.

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