Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Gourmand's Cheeseburger

Since leaving home to attend college—and remaining away—each visit back holds significance: My mother moved out the home I grew up in and into the city; My friends (now also in the city) have other friends outside of “the group” I am obliged to be with; In the spring, I returned with D in tow, to attend the wedding of one of my childhood friends-- When did we get so old? This recent trip home was marked by the holidays and upon further scrutiny, noticing how much my group of friends has matured-- in some ways.

I say “in some ways” because when we get together, really, we are the only ones that understand the jokes that make us laugh until we cry. We will beat a saying (or even a word) into the ground, and continue until it comes back to life. We recently gathered to create some pathetic looking sugar cookies (see picture at right). They tasted great, don’t get me wrong, but 5 bottles of wine down the line, well… we were decorating like we were 5 years old. We also will make it a point to travel to the suburbs for our old favorite restaurants and scoff in amazement (and hide) when we see people we know from high school (why is she at my restaurant?!). Then proceed to the local beach to run around the playground, even if our hands are freezing. But now, even though our gatherings are far and too few between, we also discuss our real fears, have real arguments, and no Di, I am not next on your marriage train.

My dear city is home to a lot that makes me proud (other than my own brat pack of friends). I used to (and often still do) spout all the films and actors that graced “my” doorstep rather matter-of-factly: Home Alone was filmed 10 blocks from me. Bobbie Brown (the makeup artist) went to my high school, as did Moses—oh, I mean, Charlton Heston. Uncle Buck picked his niece up around the corner. Chris O’Donnell bought Robin figurines “for my nephew” at the toy store I worked at in high school. The Breakfast Club was based on my high school. And these are just my own suburban town’s claim to fame. The city itself is a jackpot for culture: Home of the blues, deep-dish pizza, the tallest building in North America, a thriving standup comedy/ improv scene, Chicago-style ‘dogs, the dear Cubbies with their ivy-laden walls, a breathtaking waterfront…. Chicago is the fabulous hub of the Midwest.

Indian for “field of onion,” or as I knew it growing up, “The Smelly Onion.” The city received its more recent nickname of The Windy City in the 1800’s. I have heard this phrase defined two ways: 1) Chicago is a very windy city (I have actually, literally, been stopped in my tracks by the wind of a late fall storm) and 2) because of all the politicians who blow their hot air through the city. I think it can go both ways.

But if you are in Chicago, onions should definitely be had, at least on a proper Chicago hot dog. And probably the best place to quench the ‘dog thirst is at Wrigley Field enjoying a Cubs game. Though it is a little cold for that now, and the ivy walls of one of the oldest ballparks in this country must be missed, head to any number of ‘dog joints that surround Wrigley (or nearby bars). My favorite is Demon Dogs, located conveniently close to my mother’s apartment, under the Fullerton El stop (others claim The Wiener’s Circle on Clark is top dog).

This time of year, I think it is more pleasing to snuggle up with a juicy burger and cold beer in front of a fireplace (also with onions, but caramelized) on some good pumpernickel or rye bread. Which brings to mind Chicago’s seedy past. I am not talking about Al Capone and his gangsters, booze and girls. I am talking about the meat industry highlighted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It has worked its way out thankfully, and a great piece of meat can now be found in this city. From steaks to ribs to burgers, some of my favorite memories include the smell of BBQ emanating from peoples’ backyards and balconies all over the city, regardless of the temperature.

Below, my recipe for the cheeseburger all of us love, with the necessary (hidden) gourmand flare. These burgers are amazing on a grill, but can still be made inside on the stovetop. I produced this recipe a few years ago one humid summer’s night in New York. We were grilling at my friend A’s place and I took over the grill. I like to think it was not just the beer in people, but man and woman alike returned for seconds and thirds. They spouted their accolades: I should sell the recipe and retire off the wealth it would bring. But here, gratis, I offer you this fabulous burger that reminds me of my sweet home, Chicago:

Makes 4 burgers
1 lb freshly ground beef
½ cup red wine
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium white onion, (1/2 chopped, 1/2 sliced)
¼ cup loosely packed fresh basil, chopped
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
4 dashes Worchester sauce
fresh pepper (to taste)
fresh goat cheese (I prefer this recipe with plain goat cheese. It can also be made with mozzarella or plain)
Spicy mustard
Fresh tomato
8 slices dark rye or pumpernickel bread

1) In a small pan on the stove, carmelize the sliced onion. To carmelize, keep the pan on medium-low heat. Add about 1 Tbl butter and cook the onions SLOWLY until they brown, sweetened to carmelized to goodness. Watch the cooking while you proceed with the burgers and stir periodically. Total cook time for the onions is about 20 min.
2) Mix the first 8 ingredients by hand (use only the chopped onion). Folding until evenly distributed.
3) (If using a stovetop, heat a sauté pan on medium high.) Break apart the mixture and form 4 thick patties.
4) Make an indentation with your thumb in the middle of each patty, about a 1inch diameter hole, halfway through the patty.
5) Place a spoonful of goat cheese into each hole. Using your fingertips, pinch the patties up and around to close the hole, hiding the goat cheese inside.
6) Place on hot grill or stovetop pan, cook until desired doneness (I cooked mine about 4 min each side on medium high heat).
7) While these are cooking, prepare the “buns”: lay out the 8 slices of dark rye or pumpernickel. Brush all 8 pieces of bread with about 2 tsp honey, spread mustard on 4 slices, place tomato on top of the mustard (you can also top this with 1-2 large basil leaves).
8) When meat is ready, place on “bun” and enjoy.

Note: The honey and goat cheese are a great sweet combination and delight playing upon the saltiness of the meat. When I recently made these, I had no honey. I substituted a small amount of maple syrup on the bread instead. It was a little sweeter, but worked well. I also ran out of onion and was unable to carmelize any. The burgers were still delicious without.

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