Where have you enjoyed your best hamburgers? The famous White Castle mini-burger strips eaten in a rented Buick on the interstate out of Chicago up to Green Bay and onto Osh-Gosh, or some other red neck delight on the shores of Lake Winnebago. We were there when they were cutting the thick ice to fish through holes the size of a dustbin lid for sport. They didn’t take to strangers on Lake Winnebago.
That was my initiation to real America even though it was in Wisconsin that I had my first shocking sight of huge, crowded dairy cattle lots - hundreds of continually lactating dairy cows up to and over their knees in mud in a wet February, probably all doped and docile on BST. The image of their misery has stayed with me.
These brutalised milk machines had a no life – their sole use for Mankind was to produce some of the world’s more ordinary, one dimensional cheese – better called ‘fat blocks’. One day it will finally register that bad dairying is quite the filthest sector of all farming – and beware, it’s not limited to Wisconsin, but it’s maybe in a field near you.
Brutalised Milk Cows
Please, please, only buy your milk, cheese, butter, etc, from sources you know care for their beasts. Look the retailer straight in the eye and pin them down to give a straight answer, so awful is this sector if done badly. Cows with hip dysplacia from carrying a twice daily, over-sized, fit-to-bursting udder with their hind quarters forced apart whilst walking to and from the milking parlours several fields away. In much of mainland Europe, good dairy farmers have mobile milking units they drive to the field – and most care for their cows, never allowing udders to become too large.
Badly kept dairy animals suffer from osteoporis from extremes of calcium deficiency so their bones crumble until they dry up and get slaughtered at eight or ten years of age for nothing better than cheap saugage or ‘burgers – so this is the opposite end to the hamburger I am writing about. Beware, I plan a very shocking urgent post very soon on this cruel trade.
Back to hamburgers and celebration. For me, Chicago is my kinda town to sample some of the best – in restaurants, diners and on the street. But American hamburgers they remain.
In Venice one day, a few short Martini’s behind me, and I saw a hamburger vision go out of the kitchen to a corner table in the downstairs salon. The presentation was simple and amazing – and one we have copied many times since – making tweaks to the Harry’s Bar enviable simplicity to make it our own.
First we ditch the sesame coated, pappy bun. Instead we use the best white sliced bread we can find – easier in Venice than England – find a local baker and stay loyal is the best option. We remove the crust and cut bread into rounds or squares that overhang the meat. Then we think about accompaniments and there we can go crazy. No rules apply.
Best Beef Only
For the hamburger itself you need the best aged beef – we went for freshly minced rump from our friends at Dring’s (Greenwich). Then some variations on a hamburger chic theme – follow me or take inspiration and go your own way.
A good handful of meat, pressed and hand formed - seared in a hot steel fry pan in the minimum of EV olive oil. Three minutes a side for a rare steak that’s just short of 2″ tall. Only eat it this rare when you make your own – in fact, only make your own.
Layer for Flavour
Toast the bread in a dry pan alongside. Then start building from bread base up - we used German horseradish, some Italian rocket, the meat – top that with a slice of Camembert cut across the middle of the round, topped generously with Lucullus Morello Cherry and Port Confit – some more rocket and the bread – all held in place with a long toothpick.
Another – again see here – was the meat topped with seared raw white onion, lettuce and Lucullus St Emilion Confit, held together with roasted red pepper and a green queen olive (stone in, of course).
Keep on imagining – two or even three thin slices of either Roquefort, Lardo, Bury Black Pudding (boudin’s better still), fresh Foie Gras, Comte, Abondance, or even strong Cabrales from Asturias. Stay away from hard, crumbly and rubbery factory cheeses – they won’t compliment your art. Invest in a Scandinavian cheese slicer (all good kitchen shops and IKEA have them). Explore Confits because they cut through the richesse of the topping take the flavour onto yet another plane as you bite into the meat. Hamburgers are permissably messy; that’s also their appeal.
Completely solo is also great – but the meat quality has to carry this. Only a good butcher who knows his meat will be able to oblige for this level of simple eating. The very best way for the home cook to chop the meat is using two large and heavy sharp knives and methodically chop the meat like a military drummer until you reach the coarseness or finesse you prefer. This specially applies to Steak Tartare, where you should be using nothing less than entrecote or filet – rib-eye isn’t lean enough for raw eating. Don’t even consider any other cuts, perfectly good though they are for hamburgers.
Anything but the Sesame Bun
Ciabatta rolls – baked off at home from a well known Food Store near you – are good too. Anything and everything beats the sesame bun. The hamburger must be fresh and have depth so you can cook it to your taste – I like saignant (one up from ‘blue’). Cook longer for rare, medium or well done. The softer to the touch, the less cooked it’ll be; the firmer to your index finger, the more cooked it is. Your index finger is one of your best friends in the kitchen.
Unless you know otherwise, make Hamburger Heaven your own kitchen. Otherwise for Londoners it’s down to Joe Allen (Exeter Street, W1) where they make fine hamburgers and never list them on the menu because they credit you with the intelligence to figure a genuine American diner would, of course, sell hamburgers. Few places can better these two special places for fully fledged Blue Collar Gastronomy.