In the Burger Lab

I like entering contests of skill. I won a big Le Creuset dutch oven recently in a contest where I had to write a semi-autobiographical essay about my childhood memories and how Le Creuset fit warmly into them. (There must’ve been one somewhere in my childhood, right? Anyway…) A recent item caught my eye in the Los Angeles Times food section: Best Burger Contest.

My entry in the Best Burger Contest — the Chorizo burger with Manchego, caramelized fennel and spicy sweet pimenton aioli

My go-to burger is sort of a knock-off of the now-famous burger from my old neighborhood dive bar, Father’s Office: thick medium-rare burgers, blue cheese, caramelized onions, bacon and arugula. I figured two thirds of the recipes submitted to the contest were going to be some variation on that theme, so I decided to enter the Burger Lab (my kitchen) and get to work on coming up with something utterly original, and unbeatably delicious. More


Here’s a neat trick. If you wanna get a skinny yoga student or starlet to eat mayonnaise, just call it “aioli.”

Aioli is, in reality, a kind of a mayonnaise. In Southern France, it is made — like mayonnaise — from an emulsion of oil, egg yolk and lemon juice, with a lot of garlic added. Though you will find lime/ginger aiolis and chipotle aiolis and the like at TGIF or Chili’s or Claim Jumper or whatever other fine dining establishments you frequent, a true aioli is simply what I’ve described above. In Spain, they make a version called “alioli” (notice the extra “l”), which is emulsified without the egg — a dandy trick I will now demonstrate for you:

You can mix the alioli with some mayonnaise to make a fantastic dip for artichoke leaves or french fries. It’s also killer on steak sandwiches or on top of freshly grilled fish. But my favorite application is a kind of paella from Spain’s Valencia region called “fideus,” which is made with noodles instead of the traditional rice, and on top of which you plop a big glop of alioli at the end. (You’ll need fish stock for this recipe. It’s really important, so don’t use chicken stock. You’d be better off using a Knorr’s fish bouillon cube, which actually aren’t bad in a pinch. You can buy fish stock at fancy stores, or ask the fish guy for some heads and bones and take them home, throw them in a pot of water, and boil with an onion and salt for about an hour. Then strain.) Here is a recipe that will serve 4 to 6:


1 lb. spaghetti, broken into 2-inch pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
1 quart fish stock, plus water as needed
2 large very ripe tomatoes
1 chopped onion
1/2 tsp. saffron

You’ll need a very large pan for this. A traditional paella pan, around 15 to 20 inches, is preferable — both for cooking and presentation. But any large, flat pan will do. Heat the olive oil over medium heat, and add the spaghetti, tossing until all the noodles are coated and are beginning to toast. Puree the two tomatoes in a blender and add to noodles with the chopped onion. Then add the stock and the saffron.

Cook the fideus over medium/low heat for around 20 minutes, adding water or more stock if the first round cooks away. You may need to turn the pan once or twice if you’re getting hot spots to ensure all the noodles cook evenly. When the noodles appear well cooked and the stock has turned thick and saucy, remove from the stove and place in a very hot pre-heated oven. Broil for a few minutes, until some of the noodles begin to curl and burn at the edges (you can also do this final step in a hot barbecue, which is more traditional — in Spain, paellas are traditionally cooked over open fires).

To serve, either place the entire paella pan in the center of the table (this is very impressive!) and let each guest scoop some onto their plate and top with alioli. In Spain, everyone would just eat right from the paella pan, which you can do if your guests won’t freak out. Or you can plate some fideus for each guest and top with a spoonful of alioli. You’ve got options.

for the alioli:

Four large garlic cloves (or six medium cloves)
1 tsp salt
olive oil

Place the garlic cloves in the mortar and pestle with the salt. Mash repeatedly until a smooth paste forms. Then begin to drizzle in a little olive oil, continue mashing constantly. When the olive oil is incorporated into the paste, drizzle in a little bit more. Continue until a fine, thick mayonnaise forms. Squeeze a couple drops of lemon juice in at some point — especially if the emulsion seems to be breaking down. You’ll probably add 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil in all, and the process should take a good 10 minutes.