Click here to get the recipe used in this post: The Blue Cheese Bacon Burger.
Not too long ago, the door would close behind me after a long day at the office and I'd head straight to the kitchen. Knives were drawn, fires were stoked, imaginary photo stylists were awed by my plating skills. But I can't remember much more than that, including what exactly I created. And no one else was there to bear witness.
Think of this less as the depressing admission of a young bachelor in Manhattan and more as a blissful prelude to my latest culinary challenge. Now, the stoking and plating is reserved for Friday nights, when I cook for Julie.
Thanks to a new gig in Washington, DC, dinner at my place now requires her to travel more than 200 miles by rail, basically leaving me no choice but to create something worth the trip. At the very same moment, we're rushing toward the same place -- my dinner table -- while fighting the pandemonium around us. She's contending with the train engine din and endless scenes streaming by at Amtrak's disappointing pace. I'm dealing with menu ideas racing through my mind -- mostly bad ones that need to be quickly discarded.
The race begins: It is 6:30 p.m., 4 hours before she's expected.
At the very same moment, we're rushing toward the same place -- my dinner table -- while fighting the pandemonium around us.
This time, I went for something deeply satisfying yet completely underrated as a worthy culinary mission: the bacon cheeseburger. Sure, Tyler Florence has trademarked his Ultimate version on one of my favorite Food Network shows of all time, but a second opinion seemed prudent after he staked his name on something called the Bruschetta Burger at Applebees.
''You want a simple white country loaf, not sourdough, and one that has a coarse crumb with big holes,'' she told The Times. ''Ciabatta is good. But not baguette -- there's too much crust. And you can't start with a fresh loaf because it will be too tender. When I say not fresh I don't mean dried out but a little stiffened, like you would not want to serve it plain."
So I bought her award-winning book, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Unfortunately, the several-page-long essay on cooking an omelette -- full of that same precision and confidence -- sent me back to less demanding instructors for six or seven years.
Photo by Mike Nizza
Things, as they say, change. Now, I'm older and wiser. Now, my reading comprehension and kitchen experience have prepared me to finally understand the Zuni message. Now, most importantly, I'm cooking for Julie.
On page 366 of Zuni, I found what may be the finest essay on hamburger meat of all time. It begins by recalling the year 1973, when the brothers in charge of the "most revered kitchen in France" turned their attention to a beef preparation seemingly beneath them. "The Troisgros brothers' rogue attitudes," she says, "still color my every culinary decision."
Photo courtesy http://www.troisgros.fr
Eager to have my many culinary decisions colored by figures as fascinating as they, I gave in. Judy Rodgers, meet Mike Nizza, your most devoted disciple.
Her first directive: burgers cannot be made in a few minutes like Big Macs, which shall quake at the sight of hers, or even in a few hours. This would force even the most earnest of home chefs to stretch their ambitions.
No, her recipe begins an entire day beforehand. Luckily, my planning commenced on Thursday night, just in time to rush out, buy a large chunk of beef chuck, chop it up, and, most important, season it with sea salt. Is this extra step really that important? Judy, of course, has put some thought into this:
I started salting about 20 years ago and found it always made the meat taste better and have superior texture. The salt breaks into the cells and enhances internal juiciness. Surface salting can dry things out, but when you allow enough time for the salt to penetrate, it makes a real difference.
Then I revved up the meat grinder, a gift and a strong indicator both that my friends and family are generous and that my trips to Williams-Sonoma are many. After reacquainting myself with the oft-ignored gadget, I armed it with blades chilled in the refrigerator before pushing through the meat not once but twice, as instructed. I formed patties and moved on to the finishing touches, which I would find outside Zuni's pages.
Photo by Mike Nizza
Indeed, none other than Tyler Florence provided two more important elements to this dish: slow-sautéed onions with thyme and bacon spiked with cracked pepper, and maple syrup. As Florence fans will attest, this man has a way with bacon and onions.