Monday, November 19, 2012

I flirted with excellence and she slapped me in the face

If you want to skip the sappy personal stuff, click through the jump.

I come from a tradition of solid home cookery. Growing up, my mother was expert with a spatula, writing a popular cooking column for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and running a successful wedding cake business for over ten years despite having a tactile allergy to chocolate. Ron Eade once did a big piece on her latkes that caused her to briefly be known as the "latke queen of Canada" because it was republished in newspapers across the country. My father was - and continues to be - a passionate backyard griller who probably ranks meat cooked on flame as one of the ten best things that Earth has to offer. He doesn't have a broad repetoire but what he does make, he makes with great pride.

So needless to say I am a very, very lucky guy that grew up ridiculously well-fed, and with the appreciation of quality, from-scratch food. It was only when I moved to the United Kingdom for grad school that I bothered cooking for myself, but when I did I went all in. In a year I went from boiling pasta to making paella valenciana, feijoada, Belgian rabbit stew with a rabbit I cleaned myself, and my very favourite dish, khoreshe fesanjan. I discovered food through my friends; each new culture brought their ingredients to the table and I used them with very, very mixed results.

I'm proud of what I accomplished because, as you probably know by now, I only have the use of one hand and two functioning hands is pretty important in the kitchen. Some things simply overwhelmed me because of my disability. Cleaning an octopus was the worst. I have problems removing fish skin and butchering a chicken properly. Scrabble would have been easier hobby.

I'll be honest though; even with my disability aside, I'm kinda just okay. I don't compare myself to Ottawa's extraordinary cadre of so-called "amateur" foodie-bloggers that our community is so lucky to have.  FoodiePrints; The Gouda Life; Sheltered Girl Meets World; If Music be the Food of Love, Play On; RoughChop; Simply Fresh - these are just a few places among many where you can read and see an unpretentious love for cuisine and drink. They travel and document everything from casual wall-holes to epic concoctions only for the faint of heart. As for recipes, they do a great job alternating between the quick, weekday gourmet foods for the 9-to-5ers, to serious projects for veteran home cooks. And, unlike yours truly, they can operate a camera at a level that exceeds a four year old.

I first wanted to join their ranks. This was a step in the evolution of me as Homo coquendam that started from childhood but I got gun shy, so I decided to just write about burgers. Given that I was occupying  narrow culinary space, I wanted to do right by the burger. One way of achieving that was to do an absurd amount of research like Kenji did, develop a signature blend, and following that a burger of untold magnificence that would shake the very foundations of burger history.

This was okay.
Attempt #1 was a home-ground oxtail and brisket burger with tomato and tarragon salsa (aka, tomatogon), manchego cheese, Belgian endive and topped with a Maudite reduction.

So was it excellent? Meh, not really. It was just okay; could have been better. The flavour combinations were very good but texturally, I failed to consider the need to grind the meat finely enough. I flirted with excellence and she laughed me off because despite all my swagger my fly was open (proverbially). It was a (again proverbial) slap in the face because despite my experience I let myself down.  That's okay though. Life's about learning from mistakes and moving on.

You can read on for instructions and learn from my mistakes.

Instructions: Mike's Just Okay Burger

(Makes 4-6 burgers. What? I don't know how big you like your burgers!)

It goes without saying that you'll need a food processor or a meat grinder for this recipe.

250g of mixed meat and fat from the oxtail
500g beef brisket, cut into 3cm cubes
Sea salt to taste

Tomatogon Salsa
Four tomatoes, halved and with the watery cores removed
1 bunch tarragon
1/3 cup olive oil

12 leaves from a Belgian endive (2 per burger)
100g manchego cheese, shredded
3 bottles of dark beer - I used the legendary La Maudite from Unibroue but use what you've got
1 bun of choice per burger

The salsa

Preheat your oven to 400 F/205 C. Grease the bottom of an appropriately-sized baking pan and place the tomatoes on face-up. Generously drop the shredded tarragon over the tomatoes like leaves shed from an autumn oak. Finally, pour the remaining olive oil over the tomatoes and tarragon, sprinkle with sea salt and bake for 45 minutes. Why the quantity of oil? The tomatoes will half-roast, half-poach like a confit.

Roasting tomatogons with hot pink salt from The Salty Don

Once finished place the tomatogon and oil into a glass bowl and roughly chop until it's a coarse salsa. Refrigerate until cool.

The burger
If you have never worked with oxtail before, here is a brief introduction. Oxtail is not actually the tail of the ox; instead it is the tail of the legendary manticore,* which is farmed in the wilds of Iran and Afghanistan, flash frozen and shipped to Canada. As a whole, an oxtail is bony, fatty, sinewy appendage with as much cartilage as meat and teeming with gelatin. Yummy! A burger made entirely of the stuff is a greasy mess because of the proportion of protein to fat that it offers. Despite the extreme danger that the manticore poses to its hunters - it can shoot poisonous barbs at its prey from a great distance** - you can usually pick up a complete oxtail for about $20, which is good buying sense given its many uses.

A manti... oxtail. Bag to prevent counter grease.
You can ask your butcher to trim the bones and grind the meat/fat for you; I know for a fact that Saslove's does this with a bit of advance notice. This is certainly an easier option, and if the butcher is willing to reserve the bones for you, you lose nothing from the deal. The second is to remove the meat from the long, bony tail yourself, which requires a sharp knife, patience and a bit of swearing. Enduring through this rewards you with more delicious oxtail bits, which can grant incredible flavour to soups and stews if you are enterprising.

As I mentioned, oxtail meat is greasy because of the fat marbling contained within the meat. I employed brisket to offset the texture of tail. A brisket is a cut of beef taken from the lower chest of Texan or Jewish cows***. It contains a pronounced grain and minimal marbling - the fat resides around the cut rather than within it - and so proffers a very satisfying meaty texture that oxtail misses. When the two are added together in a 1:2 oxtail to brisket ratio, you get a satisfyingly meaty burger with enough fat and gelatin to result in a very juicy and meaty patty.
Oxtail trimmings (left) versus brisket (right).
Notice the huge difference in marbling.

If you are using a food processor to grind your meat, please refer to my tutorial here. For this burger, I would suggest putting the bowl and blade of the processor in the freezer. Unfortunately I have to mention that this will work a lot better with a meat grinder; a food processor will have a tough time mixing the two meats sufficiently.
Four of six patties. Notice how the fat is not well integrated.
I thought the fat would render anyway, and I was only partly correct. Partly.

It is important to grind the meats in small batches together so that they can mix well together. If using a food processor ensure that your meat is ground thoroughly, because if it isn't then you will find little globs of unrendered fat in the odd bite. One of those bites can turn you or your guests off the burger immediately, so inspect your ground carefully before forming your patties.

Form into six patties (depending on how large you like your burgers) and refrigerate. Don't overwork your meat or some of the grease is going to come off in your hands - that's lost flavour - and the burger will taste spongy rather than satisfyingly beefy. You don't have to salt until your meat hits the pan; it will muck up the moisture levels in your beef. You can read a torturous experiment here that you can read which justifies my decision, or you can just believe me. Preheat a pan until it's nice and hot and fry your burgers to the desired doneness. A general rule is about four minutes per side until medium. Once you flip the burger, place grated manchego onto each patty to ensure good meltage and get your buns toasted.

Remove your burgers from the heat when completed, but keep the heat on. Pour the beer into the pan, grin like a little kid when you hear the sizzle, and simmer until it reduces by half - about 3-5 minutes. Scrape any fry-bits and stir occasionally into the beery meat broth. Once reduced transfer to an appropriate pouring receptacle and begin construction.


Place the patty on the bottom bun, pour a wee bit of beer jus on, and then construct as below. The patty should be juicy, so don't pour on too much extra liquid or else your bun will disintegrate.

Top bun
Tomatogon salsa
Bottom bun

The patty is designed to be juicy and very flavourful, with a richness afforded by the oxtail and protein by the brisket. The manchego adds a pleasant creaminess and slight acidity, and the tomatogon salsa a fresh herbaciousness that cleanses the palate from the fat effectively. Finally, the endive adds a touch of crispiness, freshness and bitterness that helps round out the balance.

As I mentioned earlier, I went wrong in my execution by failing to meticulously mix the fat and protein, leading to the odd fat bomb that was unsavoury. Don't do this and this should be a good burger. Excellent? Well, that's for another time.
You're just okay, but you know it.

* Note: manticores don't exist; oxtails come from cows
** Note: unlike the fantastical manticores, cows can not shoot poisonous barbs from their tails - they do so from their hooves, so you have nothing to worry about.
***According to Wikipedia, all cows with chests apparently have briskets too. Who knew?

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