The Best Burger Doesn’t Have Be Expensive…But Sometimes It Is

One of the best hamburgers I have ever had was the Original DB Burger at DB Bistro Moderne. I went to this restaurant knowing that I was going to order this monstrosity of a hamburger. $29 for a burger? Shocking. I also knew that it would be obscenely overrated — probably some weird Gallic interpretation of a glorious American dish. And that I would be able to smugly criticize Daniel Boulud, the New York Food Scene, everyone who has ever ordered this burger and said it was good, my wife for suggesting the restaurant, and even the passersby on the street while we ate.

My plan worked perfectly until I actually started to eat. To my horror, the burger was spectacular. Not just good, but in the pantheon of burgers. It is actually a combination of short ribs, ground prime rib, fois gras, with a hint of truffles. The bun has parmesan cheese in it. That’s just not fair! And the fries were pretty good, too. So what could I do? I had to cleanse my palate of this trickery. I sought out the other end of the hamburger spectrum. I went to Hackensack’s claim to fame,  White Manna. Less than two bucks for a double cheeseburger with sautéed onions. I ordered three of the little buggers. And guess what? They were great! And small. And completely different. I would call them sliders. But they were the equal of Daniel Boulud’s creation.

So, I have examined each end of the hamburger price curve. What about the middle? That would be the excellent burger at Porter House, in Park Ridge, New Jersey. Completely unlike the White Manna slider and the DB…thing. This is a simple, grilled burger, but it is made with good quality beef and served on a bun that isn’t six sizes too big for the burger. Cooked correctly (rare or medium-rare is the only civilized doneness) and served with some good fries. A classic dish, prepared very well.

The moral of the story is simple. There is no logic when it comes to hamburgers.

Marquis Philips Holly’s Blend 2006

Because my lovely wife will spit out any wine that isn’t chardonnay made in California, my opportunities for trying other white wines are limited. But we had a bunch of people over and I thought I could sneak one into the mix. Shocking as it may seem, not everyone is enamored of oaky, buttery chardonnays. So this wine was a perfect foil, almost the opposite of the typical California chard. But not quite…it had a few of the characteristics that make those typical chardonnays very popular, such as abundant fruit and a lush mouth feel. But unlike many of those cookie-cutter chards, this Verdelho based wine had just enough structure to make it easy to drink. The fruit seemed to me to be sort of appley (is that a word?), but not sour, just crisp. And since it is Australian, it has a screw top, which makes me very happy. It wasn’t overwhelming, just nice and fruity, with a touch of richness. And even a bit of acid and structure to make you feel like you were getting your money’s worth — a whopping $8 a bottle!

I have never had a bad or even mediocre bottle of wine from Marquis Philips. Everything they make is at least good, with the high-end stuff verging on great. Oh, and I was shocked when I offered my wife a taste and she said, “I could drink this.” High praise indeed!

What To Do With All That Cheese

Make macaroni and cheese, of course. But every time I make it, the cheese sauce separates. While it still tastes good, it isn’t the most appealing looking dish I have made. And getting the kids to eat it can be a problem. So what am I doing wrong? Does anyone have a great recipe for mac and cheese that will allow me to use whatever scraps and shards I have floating around in the refrigerator?

Beware Of Other Cooks

I blew up my oven once. Oh, not really. It was my mother’s babba-ghanoush recipe that blew up the oven. Or, to be more precise, it was the lack of an accurate description of the process of roasting an eggplant in preparation for making babba-ghanoush that led to the explosion. I had just moved into an apartment that had a fairly nice kitchen (for a change), and I wanted to start cooking. I needed a snack for some friends who were coming over, so I called my  mother and made a simple request, nothing outrageous like her Duck a L’orange recipe, which she had been perfecting for 20 years. No, I needed a recipe for dip. “Great! No problem! Here it is, dear. I hope you like it!”

So I headed over to The Berkeley Bowl for the few ingredients I needed. It was, and probably still is, an incredible place, filled with amazingly fresh produce in mind-numbing variety. I chose the eggplant carefully, following my mom’s instructions perfectly. I even got some fresh pita (that was my special touch). Now realize, this was before I became the gastronomic genius that I am today. I could make a few things, but I wasn’t particularly skilled in the kitchen, and I certainly didn’t think about cooking as a technical exercise. My mom told me to put the eggplant on a baking sheet in a 375°F oven, so I put the eggplant on a baking sheet in a 375°F oven. What’s so tough about that? I retired to the living room (about ten feet away — I wasn’t living in the lap of luxury at the time), turned on the TV and watched some baseball!

Then, the kitchen exploded. The eggplant, without the benefit of any air holes poked into it with a fork, had heated up quickly, and the very hot and rapidly expanding air inside had nowhere to go. It fought off detonation for a good 20 minutes, but in the end, Boyle’s Law had to be obeyed. It blew with such force that the oven door banged against its hinges, bounced closed, and banged against the hinges again. And that wasn’t all. Mixed in with the rapidly expanding gas was the meat of the eggplant, now artfully sprayed across my kitchen floor and wall. After spending not nearly as much time cleaning as I should have, I poked around and found a jar of crappy salsa. That, along with the fresh pita, was the snack for the day.

I was hell-bent on babba-ghanoush, however, so a few days later, I tried again. And I’m no moron; I figured out what had happened and stabbed the new victim with a knife a few times (more like 30 or 40 times — I wasn’t taking any chances). Everything went well; I even spent a few minutes getting some of the seeds out of the flesh of the eggplant. Hey, attention to detail is everything in a pro’s kitchen! Except that the babba-ghanoush tasted pretty boring. So, I tucked my tail between my legs and called my mother, who promptly told me that I had forgotten the garlic. What garlic? “Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you.”

Why do I bring this up? Because last weekend, my wife’s aunt brought a large container of hummus to our house for the Yom Kippur break-fast. She makes excellent hummus, but this batch was incredible. I didn’t get much, and I had to fight off the rest of the gluttons for what little I did get. So I e-mailed her the next day and asked for the recipe. Now, this woman is a lovely, kind, gentle, and generous soul. And what did she do? She sent me a recipe that was, to say the least, somewhat lacking in detail. There is a common thread here. But I don’t think that it is that no one wants to share great recipes. It is not as simple as that, or even conscious. Destroying my paint job just to be the only one who can make great babba-ghanoush? Sending me an obviously disingenuous recipe, hoping that I try  it, and fail, just so that she can be the queen of hummus? No, I think that the omissions are completely unintended and are a product of the way that some people think about cooking. My mom rarely uses measuring tools; she just seems to know how much salt or cream or thyme or oil is needed. And while I have never watched my wife’s aunt cook, I’ll bet that she is the same way. And because cooking is more visceral, the idea that I would have to be told that babba-ghanoush needs garlic or exactly how much olive oil the hummus needs is just…silly. Of course it needs garlic! What are you, an idiot? And you put enough olive oil in the hummus to make it taste good. What’s so difficult about that?

But I’m stubborn. I am going to get that recipe for hummus. She’s coming over next week, and in exchange for a cup of my fantastic coffee, she is going to make hummus, in my kitchen, under my watchful and, quite frankly, suspicious eye. Hopefully, she won’t slip in some secret ingredient while I’m not looking.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

In matters of pasta, I will usually defer to Marcella Hazan; she is as close to a food god as I know. But for this dish, I must disagree with her. She doesn’t like using bacon, because the smoky flavor “adds a sharpness that wearies the palate after the first bitefuls.” She’s wrong about the bacon, but I wish I could write like that! Hazan says that pancetta is the only way to go. While pancetta makes a good carbonara, try both and you will see that the smokiness of good bacon adds a wonderful component to the egg and cheese flavors.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 pound dry spaghetti or linguine.
8- to 12-ounces bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips
2 ounces extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 extra-large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Black pepper (Fresh!)
½ cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped

Cook the pasta in a large quantity of salted water until it is al dente, or firm to the bite. Drain it, reserving a cup or so of the pasta water.

While the water for the pasta is heating, put the bacon into a large sauté pan, along with an ounce or two of good olive oil. Cook the bacon on medium heat until it just begins to crisp, then add the chopped garlic. Turn the heat down a bit and continue cooking until the bacon is crispy and thegarlic is soft. Be careful — if the garlic browns too much or burns, it will add a bitterness to the dish that can only be masked by several large glasses of a good Chianti. Try to time it so that the pasta is finished cooking at the same time as the bacon and garlic.

Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk them until they start to become frothy. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and whisk until the cheese is completely absorbed by the eggs.

Add the pasta to the bacon and toss until the spaghetti is completely coated with the bacon fat and olive oil. Add the egg and cheese mixture (do this off of the heat), spreading it over the pasta as you pour, and toss again, coating the pasta and lightly cooking the eggs. This is the tough part. The pasta has to be hot enough to barely cook the eggs as they coat the pasta, but not too hot; otherwise, you will have scrambled eggs. That’s not a bad combination, but it isn’t Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

Crack some black pepper into the pasta and toss again. I like tossing the parsley in with the pepper, but you can also use it as garnish after you serve it. If the sauce seems to be too thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta water.

As for serving? I use a pair of tongs and try to get a bit of everything into the serving. It looks great if you twist the tongs as you lower them into the plate. It mounds the pasta and makes you look like a professional.

Fried Shoes Are Probably Good To Eat

I have never encountered a food that doesn’t benefit from a quick dunk in hot oil. The usual suspects are fantastic. Potatoes, clams, every vegetable (onions are tough to do well) I can think of, even Snickers are great. I have been told that fried Twinkies are a culinary joy. What about fried fish? One of my favorite foods. And if you haven’t had a deep-fried hot dog, you have not lived life to the fullest (try Hiram’s in Fort Lee, New Jersey). The list goes on. Beef is fantastic on the grill, but Fondue Bourguignonne, which is really just fried beef  with a nice dipping sauce, is pretty spectacular. I remember reading an article about a famous restaurant in France — I think it was Lesperance — whose signature dish was fried fois gras. In the article, the author quoted a woman diner who giggled to the chef that the little morsels of fois gras reminded her of an orgasm, at which point, the chef said, “Madame, where do you think I got the idea?”

Making simple fried foods, like french-fried potatoes, or potato chips, or deep-fried chicken, is easy. For that matter, most fried foods require very simple technique. I can think of a few that are tough, like the potato puffs into which you stuff caviar. They are fried twice, and the slices of potato have to be the perfect thickness to puff up. I have made them, but only by mistake. Most are straightforward and require only the correct oil, a big enough pot and a thermometer.

So what’s the problem? There are two, actually. Frying has the potential to make a huge mess. Ignoring the small possibility of a fire that will quickly race out of control and burn your house down . . . your stove, anything on your stove and the floor around the stove will become liberally coated in a layer of frying oil. The other problem? That fun and exciting aroma of crisp french fries just out of the oil will become extremely overpowering and unpleasant after several minutes of standing over a hot pot of oil. And walking away (don’t slip!) won’t do much. Unless you have a restaurant quality vent hood, your whole house will smell of frying.

And yet I keep doing it. Because a perfectly fried potato, or a crunchy-on-the-outside but tender-and-flaky-on-the-inside piece of cod, or a crispy, juicy chicken leg is great food. Plus, for all of its mess and smell, it is easy cooking that is tremendously rewarding. If you want to impress your kids, make them french fries and cheeseburgers. Or if you want them to move back in after college, make chicken nuggets, but with real chicken.

Frying technique really is easy, and if you want to minimize the mess, you could spring for one of the covered rotating fryers that Delonghi makes. The only trick is finding good recipes for batter. Most of them require some ingredient that adds volume to the batter so it is light and fluffy and crunchy. I have used beer, baking powder, yeast, and seltzer, and I am sure that there are a few others. Another trick for potatoes and other starchy foods is to fry them twice. The first time at low temperature (250°F), and then, after the food has drained and cooled, fried again, but this time at a high temperature (360°F). I also soak the freshly cut potatoes in cold water, changing the water a few times to get rid of some of the starch. It seems to make them crispier. If you try this, don’t forget to dry them carefully before you plunge them into the oil.

The Joy of Cooking is a good source for basic frying recipes and technique. And, once you become confident that you aren’t going to torch the house, try something that hasn’t been done before . . . but I am kidding about the shoes.

Who Doesn’t Like Guacamole? (But get good chips)

I make guacamole whenever I find nice, big, fat, ripe avocados. And that is the problem. Most of the time the avocados can be stand-ins for baseballs at the Little League game down the street. And most of the ripe ones are bruised because idiots (like me) are constantly squeezing them to check their ripeness. That last avocado you bought with the huge brown spot inside? That’s my thumb print. But if you find a great looking avocado, grab it. By the way, I don’t need the lecture about how avocados ripen off of the vine, and if I were only patient I could have as much ripe avocado as I want. Not true! The unripe avocados can still bruise, and when they ripen they also turn completely brown. No thanks.

1 Large, ripe avocado
1 small ripe tomato, seeded
and chopped (optional)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 shallot, minced fine
½ garlic clove, crushed or
minced fine
pinch of cayenne
pinch of salt
a few grinds of fresh black
A sprinkle of cumin

Dump everything except the avocado and tomato into a small bowl, whisk a bit just to make sure that everything is dissolved, then add the tomato and set aside until you have attacked the avocado.

Avocados are easy to prepare for guacamole since it doesn’t matter if they get a bit mashed. Slicing them into pretty discs for garnish is a different, and messier matter. Besides, anything that tastes good with a slice of avocado will probably taste better with a spoonful of this guacamole.

Cut the avocado lengthwise, just missing the stem and rotating around the fruit so the end of the cut meets the beginning on the other side. Cut through to the pit and then just rotate around the avocado. Twist gently apart and set the pitless side down. Using the middle of your knife tap the blade firmly into the middle of the pit, and then twist a few degrees to loosen it from the flesh. It should pull away easily. Then whack the handle of the knife onto the edge of the sink and watch the slippery pit pop off the blade and careen around the bottom of the sink, hopefully not smashing your expensive wine glasses.

Holding the now pitless avocado in one hand, carefully cut a grid pattern through the flesh, but not through the skin. I use a bread knife with a slightly rounded tip so I don’t gouge my hand. But you can do it with a sharp tipped knife, just be very careful. Repeat on the other half. Just pop the chunks out of the skin by turning it inside out. Sometimes some flesh will be left in the skin, but that can be dealt with quickly with a spoon. Spending a bit of time cutting the fruit this way instead of just scooping it out makes it easier to mix with the rest of the ingredients. And I feel like I am more of a professional sous chef.

Now comes the hard part: mixing everything up in a bowl. Use a fork to break up the big chunks, and mix until you reach your desired consistency (remember, you’re the one who will be eating it). Try to avoid tasting, especially if you have some really good chips. The guacamole doesn’t need any resting time or to be chilled, but one avocado does not make that much guacamole, and I can polish of an entire bowl without too much trouble. The real issue is the chips. It is imperative that you find a source for good quality tortilla chips. The mass produced ones just don’t make the grade. It is also possible, and not too difficult, to make your own tortilla chips, but that is a bit obsessive/compulsive, although hot chips fresh from the oil are hard to beat.

This recipe can be doubled or tripled or quadrupled. Whatever you want. And I like my guacamole on the lemony side, so if it’s a bit tart for your taste then cut the lemon a bit, or add some more cayenne. Whatever floats your boat.

Forget Oysters; Who First Ate A Steamer?

Everyone jokes about who ate the first oyster; and that is a good question. Oysters are a bit…odd looking, certainly compared with a piece of steak or a carrot. But steamers are even stranger looking. At least an oyster looks like a plain old rock until you open it. Steamers look like aliens in their natural state! But whoever that brave soul was: thank you, thank you, thank you. A clean, perfectly cooked bowl of steamers, or long-neck clams, or piss-clams, or Ipswich-clams, or whatever they are called in your neighborhood, is easily the top of the clam pecking order. Yes, I know, clams don’t have beaks, but steamers have that nose (snout?), so it isn’t a completely tortured metaphor.

I cooked a dozen or so steamers a few nights ago and they were glorious. I don’t know if it is because they were particularly fresh, or I purged them in salt water (this has my vote) for a few hours before cooking, or I cooked them perfectly. What I do know is that they were wonderfully sweet, with just a bit of saltiness. They were firm but tender, certainly not mushy or chewy. They were simply great. And preparing them couldn’t be easier.

I started with a big bowl of salted water. I tried to replicate the salinity of the ocean, so I made it with 10 cups of fresh, cold water and 3 ounces of salt (that makes a 3.5% solution). I dumped the clams into the water and stuck the bowl in the refrigerator for a few hours. The clams purged themselves of most of the mud and sand, so when I cooked them, they were wonderfully clean. And cooking them is simply steaming them in a pot with about a cup of fresh water. I let them steam for a few minutes after the water began to boil. Then, I took the clams out of the pot, poured the liquid into two cups, added a bit of butter in each, cut up a baguette, and feasted. Dipping the bread into the broth is about as decadent as eating can be. This was the first time that I bothered to purge the clams, and I think that it made a big difference. Some recipes call for corn meal, as well as salt water for purging, but I am not sure that would add anything other than a mess.

This is an American dish, specifically from New England, although they are popular as far south as Maryland. Supposedly, the British eat steamers, but I have never seen them there, or for that matter, anywhere in the world but here in America. So, my many international readers, you are out of luck. But the exchange rate is great for you, so zip over here for a bowl of some fantastic American steamers — you won’t be sorry.

Where Oh Where Did The Great Tomatoes Go?

Everyone waxes poetic about the glories of family farms, sustainable agriculture, locally grown produce, blah, blah blah. While I am happy for the residents of Manhattan who can afford the $5 peaches at the Union Square Market, I am curious how the less well off among them will be able to eat a healthy diet purchased from hip farm stands and organic pig growers.  The fact is that most people can’t afford to eat the kind of stuff that Alice Waters pontificates about at every opportunity. Luckily, capitalism has created an incredibly efficient food distribution system that gets us our food very quickly and cheaply. Some of it is very good, and some of it? Not so good. Like tomatoes.

When I was working in Northern California I had a colleague who had just been moved to the Bay Area from Bakersfield, in the heart of the Central Valley of California. He and his dad grew tomatoes in the hot, dry weather that they have for oh, 360 days each year. One weekend he went back home and on Monday presented me with about 2 pounds of home grown grape tomatoes and a few beefsteak* tomatoes. I remember thinking that it was a very nice gesture and stuck the bag in my desk, thinking no more about them. When I got home  I fired up the grill and made a vinaigrette for the tomatoes. I thought I would nibble on a few tomatoes until the coals were ready for the real event of the evening; a big steak. I never got to the steak. I never even cooked the steak. I ate an entire bag of grape tomatoes, certainly the best tomatoes I had ever eaten, and maybe one of the best foods! I used the vinaigrette for the first couple but didn’t bother after I had tasted these incredibly sweet, flavorful little bursts of delight. The beefsteaks were just as good for lunch the next day. I picked up a fresh baguette in the morning and sliced the tomatoes onto the bread for amazing sandwiches.

Why can’t I get tomatoes of similar quality at my local supermarket?  Lots of reasons, but mostly the vagaries of modern transportation and farming practices, and the fact that tomatoes are fragile, and the good ones don’t lend themselves to bouncing around in a refrigerated trailer for 60 hours. I am lucky because I have access to farm stands and locally grown stuff during the summer, but I still can’t get anything like what my friend Jim gave me.

Whatever your feelings about corporate farming and, for that matter, capitalism; some fresh fruits and vegetables just can’t be produced for mass consumption without a huge drop-off in quality. And, unfortunately, tomatoes seem to be to best example of this flaw.

*Jim just e-mailed me to tell me that they were not beefsteak (he says they suck!), but Better Boy. According to him they are the best there is! And a short growing season to boot.