Thursday, February 23, 2012

Burger Quest, I Bid You Adieu

As all good things must come to an end, so too must the Burger Quest.  Ironically, it ends at the beginning.  Louis Lunch in New Haven Connecticut. Ground zero for ground beef.  Louis Lunch has the distinction of being the first hamburger joint in America.  The story goes that in 1900 a businessman ran into the New Haven lunch wagon and demanded a lunch to go.  Louis Lassen, the proprietor, slapped together a blend of beef trimmings between two pieces of toast and sent the harried gentleman on his way.  Thus the hamburger was born. 

At Louis Lunch, little has changed in one hundred-twelve years.  Their hamburger is a proprietary blend of five different cuts of fresh ground beef. The menu is limited.  Hamburger or cheeseburger.  Tomato, grilled onions or both.  On toasted white bread.  That’s it.  No condiments and don’t even ask because they will look at  you like you are an idiot.  You can get potato chips, or potato salad.  Drinks are soda or water. 

We walked into the restaurant and were struck by how tiny it is.  About the size of a small living room.  The place was packed wall to wall with people.  There was a large table for communal eating on the right, a small table on the left and some curious pew looking chairs with a tiny table  attached to the chair.  The walls were a dark tobacco color.  Curiously out of place were some antique firearms hanging from the roof.  The windows were an interesting Tudor diamond pattern.  Every conceivable surface was covered with initials, names poems and such carved into the surface.  The tables, chairs, walls, window muntins; everything.  I immediately wished I had brought my knife to mark my territory.

You don’t have to ponder the menu too much to figure out what you going to have.  I took more time figuring out my potato chip order.  My wife and I ordered two cheeseburgers (American cheese; what else) with onions and tomatoes; cooked rare.  We managed to get a seat and sat down to wait. And wait. And wait.  We waited about a half an hour.  The hamburgers are cooked to order in in four gas fired cast iron vertical braziers that date back to the original store.  Since they can only cook four burgers at a time, bring something to amuse yourself.  Like “War and Peace!”  One guy next to me celebrated two birthdays that same day!
Finally they called my name.  Here comes the big moment.  This was a good sized burger as far as burgers go.  Some of the reviews I read said the burgers were tiny.  I didn’t have a scale but it appeared to be about 5 ounces after cooking.  The toast was perfectly browned.  I took one bite and wow, I was stunned.  The burger was perfectly cooked rare, it was very juicy, and had a lot of flavor.  The meat had great texture and you could tell the meat was fresh.  The onions added a nice sweetness and the tomato contributed just a touch of sour.  This burger stands on its own.  No need to dress it up with sauces, condiments, pickles or truffles.  The burger is the star.

We slowly finished our meal and sat and chatted savoring the experience.  Yeah, there are sexier burgers out there, but for a unique experience, get yourself down to Louis Lunch. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

This Is Where I Leave You: A Novel by Jonathan Tropper

Think your family is dysfunctional?  Think again.  One of the funniest books I've read in a while.  A death in the family brings all of the family together for a week.  Love, sex, high school, mommy issues, sibling rivalry. Check it out.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Home Made Corned Beef; Simple And Delicious. Thanks Alton!

Corned Beef

For me, one of life’s simple pleasures is to tuck into a delicious corned beef sandwich.  Richly marbled beef, with a melt in your mouth texture and a slight salty tang.  Pile it on soft rye bread, add a smear of deli mustard, and you have a great sandwich. 

Store bought corned beef has never done it for me.  Too salty, too chemical tasting, tough meat, no flavor.  Sorry, but it just doesn’t cut it.  Rein’s Deli in Vernon is an alternative, but It's a schlep to get out there.  So I decided to try my hand at homemade corned beef.  I wanted to see if I could duplicate the flavor and texture of New York deli style corned beef.  Naturally I turned to the Internet for some guidance.  After researching various recipes, I settled on Alton Brown’s recipe for corned beef. It had mostly positive reviews and I have used his other recipes with great success.

(The recipe has the list of ingredients and cooking instructions.  I substituted the saltpeter for the Prague Powder #1.) 

Corned beef has nothing to do with corn.  Rather it is beef that has been cured or pickled in a brine solution.  The term corn comes from the old English term for coarse-grained salt.  Before refrigeration, salt was used to preserve meat.  The brine also has herbs and aromatics to enhance the flavor of the beef.   Pink salt can be added to act as a preservative and to give the corned beef its characteristic pink color. I used Prague Powder #1 which has 93.75% table salt and 6.25% sodium nitrite.  It is not necessary to add it to the brine, but I wanted the preservative aspect as well as the color.  Sodium Nitrite's main use in food is to prevent botulism.  A very nasty disease.

I picked up a nice brisket from Stew Leonard’s in Newington.  I have used their brisket in the past for making BBQ and have always been satisfied with the meat.  If you are lucky they may even have it on sale for $3.99 a pound.  I wasn’t so lucky; I paid $4.99.  I look for one with a nice thick fat cap and good marbling. Yes, I know, fat is not that good for you, but it does add a lot of taste.  Besides, you are not going to eat this everyday.  Right?

Next I started to get all of the necessary herbs, spices and aromatics together.  I had most of the items in my spice drawer.  The allspice and juniper berries necessitated a trip to Penzey’s Spices in West Hartford.  The Pink Salt was a whole ‘nother story.  I could not find it in any grocery or specialty store in my area.  I eventually had to piggy-back it on a book order from Amazon.  Finally I could assemble the troops. 

The recipe is very straightforward.  Everything into the pool and boil until the salt is dissolved. Cool the mixture to about 45 degrees.  I added a few cups of ice per the recipe and then put the pot out in the garage for a few hours.  You could stick in the refrigerator if you have room.  

I placed the brisket and brine in a large Zip-Lock bag, squeezed the air out and made sure that the brine covered the brisket.  I put that inside another bag,  placed the whole thing into a large TupperWare container and put it into the refrigerator.  The recipe calls for a brine of ten days, but I left it in for fifteen.  I also turned it everyday to make sure that the brisket was completely submerged.

I removed the brisket from the brine and rinsed it for a few minutes under cold water to remove any residual salt.  The brisket went into a pot of water with a large onion and a handful of baby carrots.  The recipe called for a stalk of celery too, but I didn’t have any celery in the house. It was eight in the morning, and I wasn’t leaving the confines of my warm, cozy house.  Trust me, you won’t miss it. 

I boiled it for a total of three hours.  After two and a half hours, I checked for doneness, but it was still not fork tender.  Three hours was the magic number.  I pulled it out of the water, put it on the cutting board and let it rest for twenty minutes.  

I sliced off a few pieces, placed them on some fresh rye bread and gave it a good "schmear" of Grey Poupon Country Dijon.  Now the moment of truth.  Did I just waste twenty some odd dollars on meat and spices?  One bite told me otherwise.  WOW! Rich, succulent meat that melted in my mouth.  The meat was so tender it nearly fell apart.  The herbs and spices from the brining process gave it that distinctive corned beef taste. Honestly, as good OR better than New York deli corned beef.  Add the salty bite from the mustard to the tart taste from the rye and this sandwich is a home run.  Rein's, eat your heart out!

Friday, February 10, 2012

I'm Just One Of The Girls!

Today I found out that I was one of the girls. In some circles that bit of cheery news would probably be viewed as fantastic.  Not in my circle though. I am a guy. So just how did this gender inversion happen? Well, truth be told, I am an elementary school teacher in a profession pretty much dominated by women.  In most cases, I am either the only guy in the building or one of a small minority.  That’s okay with me until the lunchroom talk starts centering on ”women talk.”

I have had to sit through untold discussions of pregnancies, complete with blow-by-blow descriptions of water breaking, childbirth, and nursing.  Stories of wedding plans, doofus husbands, inconsiderate boyfriends, bridal showers and pediatricians liven up my day.   Today the discussion was about how uncomfortable it was doing Pilates when you are bloated and cramping. I immediately looked skyward, silently pleaded to make it stop, and started to roll my eyes. It was then I was informed of my new status.  That was when my cramped and  bloated colleague looked at me and said, "Oh Barry, I consider you one of the girls!"   My worst nightmare has now come true.   Barry Scott, expert in martial arts, Giants, Bruins, UFC fan, and all around tough guy is now one of the girls.  I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or go home and tuck into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. 

We don't discuss  sports much, although we had some good critiques of the Super Bowl commercials. The David Beckham commercial was a big hit with my girls.  I, being a former guy, was too wrapped up in the game to concentrate on the commercials.  I watched it on Youtube and wasn’t too impressed.  Too many tats and he did misspell his wife’s name in Sanskrit.  I do manage to talk a bit about the Boston Bruins, but invitations to the newest handbag party usually shout me down.  Handbags/manbags; I hear they are big in Europe. 

Well, maybe my newfound gender won’t be too bad.  I can talk about the latest chick-flick without being embarrassed. I can have my wife mow the lawn or plow the driveway and not feel guilty.  Most importantly, I can finally ask for directions. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Burger Quest Continues; BGR The Burger Joint

I know it’s hard to believe, but I haven’t had a good burger in a while.  A colleague of mine told me about a burger place that recently opened in West Hartford Center; BGR The Burger Joint.  I was immediately intrigued because there is some stiff burger competition in that area.  So my wife and I decided to check it out.

BGR The Burger Joint is a franchise burger restaurant.  The beef is hormone and antibiotic free, grain-fed beef.  In addition to hamburgers, they also offer turkey, lamb, ahi tuna and of course a veggie burger.  The veggie burger was interesting in that you can actually order it with applewood smoked bacon.  Must be for the porcine-vegetarians.  Yum!  The lamb burger (The Greek) won a Bobby Flay “throwdown.” 

We walked into the place at around seven in the evening and it was fairly crowded.  The walls were dark blue with maple wood trim.  The ceilings were painted black giving the place an industrial look. Classic album covers festooned the walls.  Aja, by Steely Dan, Born In The USA, by Springsteen and my current workout jam, Some Girls by the Rolling Stones.  We found a table and sat down.  Immediately, I wasn’t happy, as there was some food left on the table, from the previous customer.  Looking at the floor also revealed more food and paper goods.  On top of the filth, it was freezing cold at our table—cold enough for patrons to be wearing their coats. This did not bode well.  It was pretty much downhill from there. 

I walked up to the counter and was told to “hang on for a sec” by one of the clerks.  Apparently talking on his cell phone was more important than talking to a customer.  After more than a few “secs” a young lady with an inordinate number of facial piercings took my order.  I was beginning to lose my appetite.   I ordered the “The Wellington; Roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, garlic with a touch of mustard seed and blue cheese. Served on a fresh, buttery toasted brioche bun with mojo sauce.”  My wife ordered “The Burger.  This is the one that ‘put them on the map.’ Served on a fresh, buttery toasted brioche bun with applewood smoked  bacon and cheese.”   Your basic bacon cheeseburger.  We ordered Yukon Gold Fries, onion rings and, get this, grilled asparagus spears served with Parmesan cheese. Gotta have some fiber in this sea of protein and fat.  

The pierced one took my order and gave me a pager.  A few minutes later our order was ready.  Visually it looked stunning.  One bite from my burger told me otherwise.  The blue (bleu) cheese was way too salty. This cancelled out any other flavor from the burger. The burger itself was, well, McDonald’s-ish.  Dry, bland, and chewy meat.  The only juice was the mojo (mo-ho? mo-fo?) sauce, which was dripping off the burger in buckets.  The onions and mushrooms were lost.  Maybe they drowned in the mojo sauce. My wife was equally un-impressed.  Her burger was dry and overcooked.  Mojo sauce was not going to help hers either.  The only saving grace was the brioche buns. They were phenomenal.  Fresh, soft as a cloud, and very flavorful. 

The onion rings were very good.  Huge rings of sweet onion, lightly battered and absolutely grease free.  A dipping sauce would have been nice.  The Yukon Gold fries were supposed to have been cooked with some special overnight secret process.  They tasted like every other order of French Fries I’ve ever had in some less than average diner.  The grilled asparagus were good. The Parmesan cheese was freshly grated and very tasty. 

All that with two Cokes set me back $35 and some change.  To say we were disappointed was an understatement.  We were within walking distance of The Counter and Max Burger.  Both stellar burger joints.  If they want to compete against these two places, they are going to have to step up their game.  BGR The Burger Joint will not be seeing the likes of us again. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

I, Am An iPod!

I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of people who go to the gym; the iPods and the noPods.  The iPods are plugged into their devices and are happily humming tunes as they work out.  The NoPods have no devices and therefore their only source of entertainment at the gym is you.  Yes, the noPods will try to engage you in conversations when all you are trying to do is to sweat off last night’s meal. 

I was enjoying my workout reverie when a dreaded New Year’s Resolution noPod newbie cornered me. “Is this the chest press?” she innocently asked.  Well, I had to stop, unplug myself and actually engage her in a conversation.  “Yes it is,” I gruffly answered as I pointed to the rather large CHEST PRESS label prominently displayed on the machine.  Then in an unexplained fit of kindness I showed her the MILITARY PRESS, the ROWING MACHINE and the LAT PULL DOWN.  I’m sure she got the point. I quickly shooed her away and went on with my workout.  The nerve!

It got to the point where as soon as I entered the locker room, I plugged myself into my iPod.  That stopped when I was changing my shirt, got tangled in the earbud wires, and nearly choked myself.  I now change at work thus minimizing my time in the locker room.  Most guys my age (present company included) don’t look too terrific with their clothes on.  Trust me, having a conversation about earned run averages with a fat, sweaty, naked, guy whose junk is gently swaying in the breeze from the electric hand dryer is no walk in the park. 

As I walked into the locker room today the talk was naturally about the Superbowl.  I was the only iPod in the room. Uh oh, this can’t be good. I actually turned the volume up before I sat down to change.  I pulled off my running shoes, quickly got into my old sneakers and hoodie, and jammed my New York Giants watch cap on my head.  The cap is bright red with a large white NY logo.  As I was leaving someone asked me who do I like for the Superbowl.  Still plugged in, I pointed to my cap and replied, “New Yengland!”