Consider, if you will, the hamburger.
A simple food that is nonetheless the quintessential American sandwich, despite its being rooted in Hamburg, Germany. It is rarely given quarter in fine dining establishments, but is readily available at most drive-thru restaurants, chains, and diners.
It is such a part of our culinary fabric that vegans and vegetarians crave them so badly that fake burgers are now available that have more chemicals than one can even imagine. Apparently, they taste like the forbidden meat. Go figure.
They are a staple—not the fake ones—at cookouts and picnics, where they are grilled over wood or charcoal. They are great fried or griddled and placed between slices of bread or a bun and topped with a variety of condiments, many of which stir the pot of preferences among the most ardent of those who believe their way is the only way to properly dress a burger. (Believe me, I get it. To me, there’s only one way to properly adorn a hot dog.)
As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown fonder of hamburgers. I don’t eat as much as I used to and a four-ounce serving of beef is about the most I can handle, assuming there will be fries and/or beans as accompaniments. I like the texture of ground or minced meat as much as I like well-crafted sausages. At this point in my life, I could no more face a 16-ounce T-bone than I could a pound of anything.
The quality of hamburgers run the gamut from “Are you kidding me?” to “Are you kidding me?” Inflection is everything. I recently had a burger that was two, two-ounce burgers smashed together before being placed on a brioche-style bun. The meat was dried out, the bun was too big, and the lettuce was wilted. But, hey, it was only $14.
The smash burger is trending these days and there’s even a chain of restaurants called Smashburger. Based in Denver, I had one of its burgers on my last day in the hospital a couple of years ago. After nearly five months of institutional cooking, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
My family responded to their burgers with “meh.”
The hamburger can serve as a canvas for myriad ingredients, many of which disguise the taste of the beef. Cheese, bacon, avocado, and pineapple come to mind, as does McDonald’s Big Mac—an unsatisfying sandwich of Thousand Island dressing with bread and pickles. Then there are the burgers with various flavorings mixed into the beef that also alter the flavor of the meat. Garlic and oregano mixed and topped with mozzarella create an Italian burger, though actually it’s just a flattened meatball. Ground lamb, mixed with rosemary, garlic, and feta cheese, becomes a Greek burger. The French burger, if you believe Julia Child (which I do), is a blend of ground beef with minced onion and thyme.
I won’t waste my time with ground chicken or turkey.
The secret to a great burger is, of course, the meat. If you buy packaged ground beef in any of its fat-to-muscle ratios, you’re not having the best burger experience. I like to grind my own burger from a blend of two parts chuck, and one part each of brisket and short ribs. The beef should be graded Choice. I grind it first using the large holes on the grinder and give it a second grind through the medium disc. The amount of fat in those cuts is perfect to provide the juiciness I like in a medium-rare patty.
I baked all of my own bread at our restaurant, and I chose to use our ciabatta for hamburger buns. They were light and airy, buttered and quickly grilled on the char-broiler. The patty protruded slightly from the edges, which was just fine. I served them the usual host of condiments, along with crisp iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, and sliced onion. I also served zucchini pickles on the side. Today, I buy generic hamburger buns that are soft, yet provide the grip necessary to eat a burger with one hand.
Condiments and adornments are up to personal taste. My son-in-law makes as good a burger as I’ve ever had. His secret, I think, is a splash of soy sauce at the end of cooking the patties on a flat-top grill. He won’t eat raw onion, so I believe he’s missing one the great elements of the flavor profile of a great burger. My daughter thinks lettuce is what food eats, so her burgers have nothing green on them.
Geri likes grilled onions on her burger, and I like raw Spanish onion with lettuce and tomato. I don’t much care for ketchup, which is Jacques Pepin’s condiment of choice for the burgers he serves on toasted English muffins. I like mayonnaise, which is also what I prefer as a dipping sauce for French fries. I don’t care for any of the bottled barbeque sauces—most of which are sweet enough to ice a cake.
I don’t usually have cheese on my burger, but when I do there are only two kinds: bleu or American. I never have bacon (kind of a mixed message of flavors) or pepperoni or mushrooms. When I crave a hamburger, I want it to be as simple as it was once meant to be.
I’m not much of a fan of fast-food burger places unless I happen to be in one of the few states where there are In-N-Out Burger joints. Stop the car! Gimme a double-double! And a chocolate shake!
Photography and food styling by Courtney A. Liska
During her ordeal with the cancer that killed her, I gave my mother the task of finding a great pickle for my restaurant. She found this one from an early edition of “The Joy of Cooking.” She might have tweaked it a bit. The pickles are delicious, and just in time for that moment in August-September when you need to lock your car doors lest somebody leave a box or two of zucchini on the back seat.
2 # zucchini
2 small yellow onions
4 Tbs. kosher salt
4 cups cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
3 tsp. dry mustard
3 tsp. mustard seeds
2 tsp. turmeric
Wash and trim zucchini, slice thinly. Slice onion. Place in iced water. Add salt. Combine brine ingredients and bring to a boil; simmer for three minutes. Cool completely. Drain vegetables. Add to brine. Let cool.