Friday, August 13, 2010

Hamburger a la Steak au Poivre with Pommes Frites

I’d had this idea swimming around in my head for a while. I’m wasn't entirely sure where it came from at first, but for some reason I wanted to make really delicious hamburgers, cooked in a skillet and then set ablaze in a display of alcoholic pyrotechnics.

I’d been thinking about this and thinking about this for weeks when it finally dawned on me where this spark of inspiration had come from: an episode of Good Eats titled “Tender is the Loin” in which Alton discusses the buying, butchering, and preparation of beef loin. The final flourish in this episode is the production of steak au poivre, a French dish that is as elegant as it is simple. This would be my jumping off point.

The creation of my dish was rooted in the steak’s: a filet cut of the tenderloin, crusted with crushed black peppercorns, and seared in a buttery skillet. Once the steaks are cooked the pan is deglazed with a flambé of brandy and enriched with heavy cream. Once the brandy cream pan sauce has thickened and reduced the steaks are returned to pan and tossed in the cream before serving.

So simple, but so delicious looking. I’ve honestly watched that episode a dozen times or so and every time I see it I want to find the nearest all night grocery store, grab the few ingredients needed and whip up a couple late night steaks. The fact there are no all night liquor stores within hours of me is all that’s kept this from happening. And of course I’d kind of forgotten about this idea for a while, being away from cable and all, but this idea was reignited recently when I purchased a bottle of Christian Brothers brandy a few weeks ago to make sangria (

The stars were starting to align and I began concocting a menu in my head. The centerpiece would be burgers cooked in the vein of steak au poivre, but what would come with? Well, what goes best with burgers always and forever? The ketchup to its mustard? The peanut butter to its jelly? The Tango to its Cash? The Harley Davidson to its Marlboro Man? Fries, natch. But these were going to be “fancy” burgers so I needed "fancy" fries, too, or rather pommes frites. Keeping things in this bullshit bistro vein I decided to concoct some interesting sauces for the fries as well, a homemade garlic aioli and a spicy cheese sauce. Now I just needed someone to share all this with, so I invited some of the best company I know: Nicole.

The menu set I scanned the kitchen and made a shopping list, thankfully my family keeps a relatively well stocked kitchen and I only needed a few items. A short trip to the store later and I was ready. Feel free to play the home version with these recipes:

Fancy-pants Steak Au Poivre Burgers:

Equal quantities of ground chuck and sirloin equaling at least ½ pound
Salt (preferably Kosher)
Whole peppercorns (at least a teaspoon)
Olive oil
1/3 cup brandy or Cognac plus 1 teaspoon (reserved)
Heavy cream

Mix both the chuck and sirloin until they are well combined then form them into ¼ pound patties (about 3¾” diameter and ½” thick if you don’t have a kitchen scale). Liberally salt both sides with the kosher salt. Coarsely crush the peppercorns, I smashed them between a heavy, cast iron skillet and a cutting board, then press both sides of the burger into the crushed pepper ensuring a complete and even crust on all sides. If you are ready to cook allow the burgers to rest, otherwise refrigerate, but allow between half and hour and an hour for the burgers to rest at room temperature before cooking. When ready to cook combine the butter and olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat and allow them to melt and combine until they shimmer. Once the oil/butter combo is ready carefully place burgers into the skillet. Allow them time to sear the surface before flipping. Flip once and continue cooking. Cook until desired doneness is achieved, between 145* F and 160* F for medium-rare or medium, respectively. Remove burgers from pan and place on a plate tented with foil to rest. Drain any remaining fat or juices but do not scrape the pan. Carefully pour the 1/3 cup of brandy into the pan and ignite with a long match or grill lighter (if you are cooking on a gas stove turn off gas before attempting this). Allow the brandy to flame until it puts itself out. Pour in the heavy cream and stir the mixture, scraping all the tasty charred bits off the bottom of the pan. Allow the brandy/cream mixture to come to a boil and slightly reduce until it coats the back of a spoon. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in the reserved brandy. Replace the burgers in the pan and coat with the sauce. Serve.

Next were the pommes frites. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with making and eating the perfect fry since reading Jeffery Steingarten’s Vogue article about the finest points of making fries (apparently the secret ingredient is horse lard!) and was excited to try it at home. Since I was going to have a lot of other cooking going on I opted for a variation of a Joel Robuchon recipe I’d read about. Where a lot of recipes for frites have you double fry the potatoes, first at a lower temp to cook the insides then at a higher to crisp the outside, this recipe boasted the ability to do both with the minimum of work.

Super Simple Pommes Frites:

1¼ - 1½ pounds of good Idaho boiling potatoes
1 quart peanut oil

How To:
Cut your potatoes into strips about 3/8” square, making sure they are all as even as possible. Pat dry then place potato strips in a large pot, at least 4” deep and 10” wide. Pour in oil to just cover potatoes and attach fry thermometer to side of pot making sure it is not touching the bottom. Heat pot and contents on high. Around 200* F the oil will begin to gently bubble. Continue to cook and heat until the oil reaches 350* F. Once the oil reaches 350* turn off heat and scoop fries onto a draining rig. Season with salt just before serving.

Delicious, crispy fries are a thing of beauty, certainly, but even the best fries need some accoutrement as they are, after all, just potatoes. Taking a nod from the Belgians, the originators of the fried potato thank you very much, I decided aioli would be a nice dipping sauce. And since this meal had one foot planted firmly in European cuisine and another in American diner culture, I figured this whole thing needed a little cheese, too.

Garlic Aioli and Spicy Cheese Sauce:

Aioli Ingredients:
3 cloves garlic
1 large egg
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
Fresh chopped parsley (optional)
½ cup olive oil

What to do with it all:
In a food processor, blender, or mixing bowl combine all ingredients except the oil. Once the rest of the ingredients are well combined, slowly drizzle in the oil until a thick, uniform texture is achieved. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Cheese Sauce Ingredients:
¼ cup butter (1/2 stick)
¼ cup flour
1½ cups milk
8oz. shredded cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper (optional)
½ Jalapeno seeded, de-ribbed, and minced extra fine (optional)

Do it:
In a medium sauce pan over medium heat melt the butter. If you’re using the jalapeno now would be a good time to add it, allowing its oils to infuse the butter and everything else that will be added to sauce. Once the butter is melted whisk in the flour and keep stirring. This is called rue and is the base of this and countless other sauces. Keep stirring the rue until in takes on a nutty brown color (it’s actually ready as soon as all the flour is incorporated into the butter, but needs to be cooked longer to toast out the taste of the flour). Once the rue is cooked mix in the milk a little at a time, keeping it constantly moving. After all the milk has been incorporated stir in small handfuls of cheese a bit at a time. It’s tempting to add it all at once but that will create a lumpy mess not smooth, cheesy goodness. Once all the cheese is mixed in taste the sauce and season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste.

Notes and Adjustments:

One small adjustment I made to burgers was the addition of a few veggies. I decided that just the burger and cream sauce on a bun would be too simple. After the burgers were done cooking I placed a quarter of a chopped onion in the renderings with a little extra butter. I let these cook for a few minutes until they started to take some color at the edges. Once they started to caramelize I added several chopped mushrooms to the pan as well and let them sauté. Once the mushrooms were just shy of being done I added the brandy for the flambé, allowing them both to continue cooking and take in some of the brandy.

I somehow got all the timing right on these and everything finished more or less at the same time. Taste wise everything was fine, but there were a few things I thought could’ve been better. First, the buns. I originally wanted these served on a sweeter roll of some sort, like a brioche or challah, unfortunately I could find no such rolls, the whole wheat rolls I had were fine, just not what I had intended. The burgers were, to my taste, a little over done, in the medium-well range, but I didn’t trust my instincts and instead went by thermometer. I also forgot that burgers, thought flat when they begin to cook will seize slightly and form a more meatball-like shape. This is combated by making a slight indentation in the center of the meat just prior to cooking; if the burgers are pinched right they will even out perfectly during cooking. The aioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril, was a little thinner than I had hopped. I chalk this up in part to the use of smaller eggs from a local farm instead of the giant dino-eggs from the grocery store. I’d maybe use a more neutral flavored oil than the extra virgin I had, too. While delicious, the extra virgin almost overpowered the garlic. Almost. Despite minor consistency issues it was a wholly delicious side, rich and fatty and garlicky and lemony. A great summer sauce, a solid base for a salad dressing, and likely a great egg topper; and I’m not really a fan of mayos. The cheese sauce was the only thing that turned out as expected, maybe a little less spicy than I hoped, but the flavor and consistency were great. It just made a lot. Like a lot, a lot. Luckily it was delicious. The fries were the big stumbling block. I’m not sure how much credence I put into this simplified version of the recipe. The fries seemed to cook too fast and were overly browned when I pulled them around 330* F. Maybe it was the stovetop, maybe I didn’t have the thermometer placed correctly, maybe this recipe is too good to be true. Probably a little of all three. The fries did, however, taste pretty great, with a nice crispy outside and a soft, flakey inside. I will admit that my knife skills, especially when it comes to potatoes, is lacking so if I am to continue practicing the dark arts of the fryer I’m going to invest in a fry slicer.

We washed all this down with a few beers, Corsendonk brown ale and Henniger pilsner. The Henniger is a crisp, refreshing, easy drinking German lager. It tastes exactly like the phrase “German lager” would suggest, but not as bitter as most, with a very subtle citrusy finish. The Corsendonk, an abbey brown ale, was at a different end of the spectrum from the Henninger. Its dark brown color and yeasty/malty taste bore aftertastes of robust fruits and artisianal breads. While the former was an excellent counterpoint to the rich, fatty repast we enjoyed, the Corsendonk was a wonderful, robust complement.

I’m pretty proud of how all this turned out, despite a few minor hiccups. But I didn’t burn the house down setting the brandy ablaze and I didn’t start a grease fire either. I didn’t burn myself, cut myself, or touch my eye after chopping the jalapeno. I feel totally confident in repeating the performance with few to no goofs. So, anyone want dinner?

Post Script:
I had a fair amount of the aioli left after dinner, after discussing its future uses with Nicole, we determined that it would make an “egg-celent” topping on eggs. So, for dinner last night I poached two eggs—pretty well for my first try at it, too, I may add—and split an English muffin. Before popping the muffin halves in the toaster I sprinkled them with a chiffonade of fresh basil and some asiago cheese. When the eggs were solid enough to scoop from their water bath I placed them on the two toasty muffins with their toasty cheese and warm, fragrant basil. I poured about a tablespoon and a half of the aioli—which has married and mellowed over the last few days and is amazing now—over the eggs, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, and tucked in. Sha-Zam! Tender, yolky eggs; rich, garlicky, fatty aioli; toasty, nutty cheese; just the right hint of the basil in the background, and all those crackling good nooks and crannies golden brown in the middle, just slightly charred on the edges. Perfection. A wonderful dinner with some medium dry white wine or a Hoegaarden, or an amazing brunch with a mimosa or two. The only thing I would add to this if I had it around would be a few thin slices of prosciutto under the egg and/or pancetta fried crisp and sprinkled over the top. Or keep it veggie with a big slab of fresh heirloom tomato!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Brunch at the TapHouse: Epic Win!

It should come as no surprise that one of Cleveland’s best West Side bars boasts one of the city’s best brunches. Or maybe it does. Should a bar with an impeccable beer selection also offer some of the best late morning meals in the city? They certainly have the audacity to try, but what right do they have to offer excellent drink options AND tongue blowing meals?

I’m speaking of the Tremont TapHouse, of course, where Nicole and I brunched this past Sunday.

After a long, hot day of beer tasting in the sun at Blues and Brews Saturday afternoon and partying all night for Paul’s 30th that evening, we needed a good hearty meal to help undo some of the damage inflicted in the last 24 hours. Having recently been to the TapHouse for drinks and perusing the brunch menus on the tables we were excited to have the chance to take brunch there this past Sunday—until recently we both worked every Sunday. And after a long night of sleeping it off we headed over to TapHouse for some much needed eats.

The often crowded TapHouse was lively but not packed when we arrived and we were quickly seated. Water, coffee (mine), and a Bloody Mary (hers) arrived within a few minutes. Things were off to a good start. And then we started looking at the menu. A problem only in as much as there are quite possibly too many good options on this wonderfully appointed menu. Its opening salvo is oysters on the half shell (oyster power!) with Bloody Mary cocktail sauce, a bold gambit. Antes are upped and re-upped as the menu continues, with a knockout of a grilled cheese and burger. Things are escalated further with a breakfast pizza (eggs + bacon + boursin + tomatoes + mozzarella!), eggs Benedict (with or without crab), a Kentucky style hot brown (look it up), a trio of excellent sounding omelets, and another trio of griddle goodies, just to name a few.

The choice was tough to say the least, and I seriously considered the pizza for a long time, as well as the biscuits and gravy. Ultimately I decided on Chef James Mowcomber’s update on the corned beef hash. The TapHouse’s hash subs out the pickled Ruben fodder for slow braised beef (short rib or shoulder? It’s more or less the same when it’s that tender and beefy!). Mowcomber then steers this down a dusty, vaguely Southwestern path with poblanos, crispy tortilla strips, and salsa. There were also sweet and tender onions, smoked cheddar, and two of the best fried eggs I’ve ever eaten. All this is served over a bed of the TapHouse’s gorgeous potato hash. Gathering a little of each component on my fork, the whole thing is beyond delicious. Succulent, tender beef, sweet caramelized onions, potato crisp and starchy, smokey roast pepper, tender, yolk soaked egg, and just the right amount of crunch from the tortilla bits. A stunning, wonderful celebration of food, assembled beautifully on my plate, and more delicious than it looked.

Nicole chose wisely, if a little safer, as well. Opting for the biscuits and gravy, she received a plate nearly overflowing with tender buttermilk biscuits, rich gravy loaded with chunks of sausage, and two more of those perfect over easy eggs. Having long been averse to the biscuit/gravy pairing and only recently come around my yard stick for good biscuits and gravy is served at Vine and Bean Café on the East Side. The TapHouse’s offering is easily the best I’ve had since. The primary difference being this gravy was more heavily spiced and darker in color as opposed to the white gravy that’s usually ladled on top. But color matters little when food tastes this good. Presented as elegantly as biscuits and gravy can be and in very generous portion, this was an excellent way to get a late start on the day.

Not to completely gush about the greatness of the TapHouse, there was one small aspect of the meal that could’ve been better: the coffee. I suppose there always has to be some flaw somewhere. And it’s not like it was bad, but rather just good. Better than the coffee at most diners, but really nothing special. And I only mention this because it’s a surprise when considered next to the superlative beer selection, brilliant brunch board, and amazing dinner options.

My hat is off to Chris, Jason, James, and everyone else at the TapHouse! Please, continue all this excellent work.

Tremont Tap House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Coming Out of the Cupboard

One the stranger eating habits I’ve developed over the last few years is a taste for healthy cereal. I always liked Cheerios growing up and once I had enough teeth to actually chew it I grew to love Grape-Nuts. I’ve had Shredded Wheat fazes and Wheaties fazes and Corn Flakes fazes. And up until now these cravings for actual nutrition were punctuated by massive binges on the sweet stuff, Luck Charms, Cap’n Crunch both with and without Crunch berries, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch being my chief sugar cereal vices.

But now I don’t feel the pangs, the itchy cravings, the gnawing desire to chow down on these waxy, sugary, marshmallow studded treats. I mean, I’d happily polish off a box or two were they presented to me, but when I’m in the cereal aisle I tend to pass by the brightly colored boxes, emblazoned with cartoon animals and punctuated only by exclamation points, and head towards the area where the floor is heavily scarred by un-tennis-balled walker legs and reeks of Polident and prune juice. That baron wasteland where the fiber is high, taste is low, and texture is somewhere between gravel and wet sawdust; a terrible, emotionally scarring place I swore to never visit.

Or so I thought. A few years ago I started tempering my sugary cereal intake with the healthy stuff. If I ate a bowl of Grape-Nuts there was a bowl of Froot Loops waiting for me, like a morning dessert course. When the Wheat Chex were gone I could dive into a milky, chocolaty bowl of Coco Puffs. It seemed reasonable and assuaged the very small voice in my head that was always clamoring on about how bad these cereals might actually be. But after a while I realized that I was less hungry later on when I ate more healthy cereal and less sugar frosted heaven. A brief scan of almost any health and diet rules will confirm that foods high I dietary fiber are more filling.

Spinning off from that point I began skimming the Kashi and Fiber One and All-Bran boxes, furtively at first, while shopping. A feel of near embarrassment washed over me on those first trips to that musty, old portion of the cereal aisle. Like I was harboring some long hidden secret that was waiting to burst out. Something called out to me from those boxes. Was it the lure of the most fiber? Perhaps the promise of a healthier heart? A desire to explore that which I most despise? Whatever the reason I had to do it. I had to come out of the cupboard.

I am a healthy cereal fan and I’m not afraid to admit it.

It started with granolas and Grape-Nuts, but after comparing nutritional information on those boxes with others in their neighborhoods, I soon realized that I could be doing so much better. My first real foray into this not-even-remotely deviant lifestyle was a box of General Mills’ Original Fiber One. With an extremely low calorie count (60), 0 grams of sugar, and high fiber content (14 grams/57%) per ½ cup serving, surly this had to be one of the least appealing foodstuffs in the world. Surprise, surprise it’s not. In fact it’s actually quite good. With a firm, crunchy texture and subtle sweetness without sugar, Fiber One is an enjoyable bowl in the morning. It’s not going to win the most exciting cereal of the year award anytime soon, a good, strong wheaty flavor is about all it as to offer, but contrary to popular opinion this cereal is infinitely better than the box it comes in.

No, that dubious distinction goes to Kellogg’s All-Bran, the epitome of bad tasting, unappealing health cereal. Where Fiber One resembles those crispy lo-mein noodles that accompany Chinese soups, All-Bran looks like a mix of twigs and dried bugs. It has a bland, sodden taste I’m sure is similar to chewing on raw stalks of wheat. And it becomes soggy almost instantly when milk of any origin is added. And nutritionally it doesn’t quite stack up. All-Bran matches Fiber One’s 60 calorie count, but contains 6 grams of sugar, compared to none, and only 10 grams (40%) dietary fiber. An all around loser and surely root of all jokes made at the expense of other healthy cereals.

But, the All-Bran line isn’t without a saving grace. Last week when my neighborhood grocery store was out of that wonderful manna, Fiber One, I discovered All-Bran’s Bran Buds. Crispy little bits of bran, All-Bran’s Buds have an interesting texture and appearance that rests somewhere between Rice-Krispies and Grape-Nuts. Not as naturally sweet as Fiber One, but flavorful enough to leave patriarch All-Bran in the dust, Bran Buds became a welcome substitute; especially when I considered the 13 grams (51%) of fiber and 70 calories per serving.

As good as some of these twigs and buds are, there’s a lack of variety in both flavor and texture after a few boxes of these breakfast goodies. The ever changing stock of Kashi cereals in the aisle always seemed appealing, despite their hippie overtones, so I compared some side panels and began the taste tests. My first choice was Kashi Vive in the Toasted Graham and Vanilla flavor. With a calorie count in the low hundreds, a fiber content around 10 grams, the promise of “probiotics for healthy digestion,” and the possibility of some outside flavoring I was willing to give it a shot. Vive is comprised of three components: Fiber One-like bran sticks, broad flakes, and little Kix-esque bits. The whole mélange has a pleasing toasty taste, though little discernable vanilla, and stays pleasantly toothsome in milk. A wholly enjoyable bowl and I’m sure a good bridge ceral between the regular world and the healthy… were it not for the fact that it was recently discontinued by Kashi. Boo-urns.

With Kashi Vive seemingly gone forever I had to branch out. Kashi offers so many options that surely one must satisfy mouth and stomach in a similar fashion. But what? Kashi’s GOLEAN seems to be a popular choice as it takes up a good portion of shelf space and seems to be one of their more heavily advertised products. The GOLEAN Crunch with toasted bits of graham, wheaty puffs, and bran twigs is a lightly sweet, crunchy mix, with my only complaint aimed at the toasted graham bits which become soggy very quickly and are so small that they become lost in the mix of the other components. I’ve also been experimenting with Kasha’s Good Friends cereal in its original formulation as I try to abstain from raisins. A similar ménage of cereal bits and pieces Good Friends combines granola clusters, flakes, and those wheaty puffs that come to mine whenever I hear the word “Kashi.” While Good Friends loses to GOLEAN in the taste department, it kills in the texture field by remaining crisp throughout the bowl; even the flakes.

While all cereals I’ve sampled so far have been mostly excellent, if I were forced to rank them, which, let’s face it, I love to do, the standings would look something like this:

1. General Mill’s Original Fiber One
2. Kasha’s Vive (R.I.P.)
3. Kasha’s Original Good Friends
4. Kellogg’s All-Bran Bran Buds
5. Kasha’s GOLEAN Crunch
And, at a very distant 6:
Kellogg’s Original All-Bran

Where once I was ashamed to admit my secret longings for hippie-dippie, twig-n-berry healthy cereal I now embrace this love whole heartedly. Not because it makes me healthier or somehow better than other cereal enthusiasts, but because it’s just fucking delicious and right.

I’m here. I’m regular. Get used to it.

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