So here I am back in the Skinny Girls kitchen — my “burger lab.” Eating so many different burgers, thinking and writing about burgers, got me wondering what I’d learned in my odyssey — besides where to go for a good burger, which I mostly already knew. How would what I had discovered, exposited on, praised the virtues of or extolled upon the deficiencies of ultimately affect my own approach to burger making? Had there been an “aha” moment?
Curiously, the two biggest takeaways came from thinking about Umami Burger, which was one of my least favorite of the places I wrote about (less because of their burgers than my reflexive aversion to anything trendy). Two points in particular — first, cooking the burger on a grill or in a skillet at high heat to achieve crisp edges while maintaining a perfectly medium rare interior; secondly, that “umami” could play a significant role in making a better burger, even if I didn’t feel they’d achieved it at that eponymous venue with their shiitake mushroom, parmesan crisp and “umami ketchup”.
Let me explain that second part. Some friends invited us to a barbecue recently. There were burgers for the kids, shish kabobs for the grown ups. I brought some Spanish padron peppers stuffed with cheese, which I pan-fried in some olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Anyone who has ever tried this Galician tapa, highlighted in the delightful José Andres’ cookbook, “Made in Spain,” can attest for the fact that the four simple ingredients hit just the right flavor combinations. But it was when the peppers had all been eaten that I made a remarkable discovery. Dinner was a half hour or more away, I was hungry, and my daughter’s half-eaten burger disc was sitting on her plate, being buzzed by a yellow jacket. I scooped a chunk of the meat up, mashed it around in the leftover olive oil on the pepper dish, and popped it in my mouth. And the flavor literally exploded. I had made a powerful accidental umami discovery. It seemed a fitting footnote to my series of burger posts — that literally the best thing I’d tasted was an abandoned piece of burger wiped across an empty plate.
So armed with my new-found knowledge, I went back to the drawing board. Not that any of my previous burgers — including the blue cheese bacon burger and the chorizo burger with Manchego, caramelized fennel and pimentón aioli (which if this was a just world would’ve won the L.A. Times Best Burger contest) — weren’t good. Consider, if you will, the great painter, Pablo Picasso. He did not paint the same thing over and over again; when he finished one masterpiece, he’d push it aside and start something new. It’s like that.
My new burger, the Skinny Girls burger (for you, because you have walked this journey alongside me), would be based around the umami pop I’d discovered that afternoon with my fried padron peppers. I would forgo my usual inclination toward a pork element (bacon, proscuitto, chorizo, etc.) to instead let the crisped-up peppers and cheese be the stars. As usual, I incorporated supporting notes of sweet, sour and bitter — represented respectively by caramelized ketchup onions, house-cured green tomato pickles and a few spears of belgian endive for crunch. For your approval, I now humbly submit: the Skinny Girls burger. Enjoy.
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The Skinny Girls Burger
2 lbs. (or slightly less) top-quality organic or grass feed ground beef
4 soft buns
1/2 lb. padrón peppers, stems removed
1/4 lb. manchego, gruyere or other hard white cheese, cut into small strips and chunks
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large green tomato, cut in 1/3 inch slices
1 cup Chinese dilluted red vinegar (or Japanese rice wine vinegar)
1 large onion, sliced thinly
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. ketchup
8-12 leaves belgian endive
vegetable oil (canola or grapeseed)
An hour or two to one day ahead of time, make your green tomato pickles. Place sliced pickles in a bowl and pour vinegar over to cover. Store in a cool place while pickling.
Make your caramelized onions using 3/4 of the sliced onion (save some raw onion for the burger). Head 1 tbsp. vegetable oil in a fry pan over medium high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, until onions sweat and begin to brown. Add 1/4 cup water and 1 tbsp. sugar. Cook until water has evaporated, then lower heat to medium-low. Continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are caramelized. Stir in 1 tbsp. ketchup and remove from heat.
Pat meat tightly into 1/3 to 1/2 pound burgers, sprinkle with salt and pepper, plate and place in fridge.
Cut the cheese into small chunks. Using a paring knife, cut a small slit into each pepper and insert a piece of cheese. It’s okay if the pepper seems overstuffed or if some cheese is protruding. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large non-stick pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, add peppers. Let cook for 2-3 minutes, and turn using a spatula. The cheese will melt out and crisp up on the pan, which you want. After another 2-3 minutes, turn again and cook another couple minutes. If you have leftover chunks of cheese, throw them in the pan now and let them crisp up too. Remove to a plate. Save oil.
Remove pickles from vinegar and drain. Brush each side of your rolls with a little mayonnaise.
In the pan you have cooked the peppers in, reheat oil over medium-high until it smokes slightly. Add burgers and cook about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. Do not press down on burger with your spatula. Cook until done to your liking and remove. While the pan is still hot, toast your buns slightly, open mayonnaise-brushed sides facing down, until golden. Remove.
Compose your burgers. Place a burger on each bun, followed by a tomato pickle or two and some caramelized onions. Then a few shards of fresh onion, followed by a pile of padrón peppers and their oozy cheese. Top with a couple spears of belgian endive, and the top bun. Serve with a chilled ale and fried potatoes (below).
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Pan-fried potato batons
This version of french fries forgoes deep frying for pan frying, as you would breakfast potatoes for example. It uses a lot less oil, makes less of a mess and is better for you. It’s a win-win-win!
2 large russet potatoes, washed and cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick batons
3 tbps. grapeseed or canola oil
pimentón (or paprika)
After you’ve cut the potatoes into long batons, parboil them in boiling salted water for about 5 minutes. Drain carefully, being mindful not to break batons (it’s okay if some do break).
Heat oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Place potato batons in oil and cook, carefully moving around with a spatula, for five minutes or until they begin to turn golden. Reduce heat to medium low and continue cooking, again moving and flipping the potatoes every so often, for about 20 minutes, until golden on all sides and beginning to crisp up and brown slightly. Sprinkle with salt, garlic powder and pimentón and remove to plates.
* Serve Euro-style with a small terrine of the world’s best condiment, mayonnaise, and a nice handcrafted ale.
Next time: Outtakes, Afterthoughts & Honorable Mentions