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!


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