Celerity is never more admired than by the negligent.
~Cleopatra

The iconic Egyptian pharaoh, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide in 30 BC. She had had her day in the sun, but then faced those dogged Sartrean existential questions of suicide and those damned ideations. According to legend, she died from a self-inflicted venomous bite from an asp—a snake now known as the Egyptian cobra.

German historian and professor at the University of Trier, Christoph Schäfer, has recently uncovered evidence to dispute the age old tale. Professor Schäfer alleges that the nacissine queen was unlikely to have subjected herself to that long, miserable and disfiguring death from an asp’s venomous fangs.

He travelled to Alexandria, consulting ancient medical texts and conferring with herpetologists, who advised that cobra bites cause a brutal death that covers the body in unsightly welts and takes several days. Eww! she thought. Wanting to remain prim and beautiful to the finish—a pretty stiff—Cleopatra opted for the kinder and gentler effects of drugs, several of which were available in her time. So instead of succumbing to a poisonous serpent, Schäfer posits that she likely took a cocktail of opium, hemlock and aconitum, a common concoction that led to a painless death within just a few hours and thus preserved her vanity.

Despite the Egyptian backdrop there is enough of a teutonic tinge to this to still make a wiener schnitzel recipe à propos. And more fare from your local egg slut.

SCHNITZEL A LA HOLSTEIN

4 veal cutlets, about 1/2″ thick
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 C all purpose flour
4 farm fresh large eggs, beaten
3 C bread crumbs
1 C canola oil

4 farm fresh large eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 high quality anchovies, rinsed and dried

4 T unsalted butter
2 fresh lemons, juiced

Fresh parsley leaves, stemmed and roughly chopped
Capers, rinsed and dried
Peel from 1 fresh lemon, finely grated

Lay the veal slices out on a heavy cutting board and cover with plastic wrap. Using a mallet, pound the meat until thin but not torn. Season with salt and pepper.

Place flour, eggs, and bread crumbs in three separate shallow dishes. Dredge the veal in the flour, shaking off excess. Then, dip into the beaten eggs, allowing excess to drip off. Finally, loosely coat in the bread crumbs. In a heavy, large skillet, heat canola oil to medium high heat. Carefully place the veal pieces into the oil, but do not crowd. There should be enough fat in the saucepan so that the schnitzel float in the saucepan and do not touch the bottom. Cook until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side, turning once. Remove and keep warm tented on a platter, discarding some of the excess oil from the pan yet leaving enough to fry the eggs. You may also consider frying the eggs in a separate skillet with new canola oil.

Crack the eggs into the same skillet, season with salt and pepper and cook until easy and sunny side up, occasionally basting. The yolks should ooze on the plate. Carefully remove and set aside eggs on paper towels. In the same pan, add the butter and squeeze in the lemon juice, while whisking. Cook some until reduced to a glaze.

Place a cooked egg on top of each veal schnitzel on plates. Top the eggs with 2 anchovies each in a criss cross fashion. Drizzle sauce over the veal, then top with eggs, parsley, capers and grated lemon peel.

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Bend and stretch, reach for the stars. There goes Jupiter, there goes Mars…
~Miss Barbara

Are the Romper Room digressions too age revealing? Maybe just some harebrained, even represssed, cheeseburger to childhood flashbacks—no doubt in black and white.

It seems the hamburger legend goes something like this. During the late Middle Ages, Genghis Khan’s feared Mongol calvary would store to-go patties from lamb and mutton scrapings under their saddles. Apparently, the meat was naturally tenderized from the repetitive impact between gear and horse. When his grandson, Khubilai Khan, decided to invade Moscow he brought this ground grub with his marauding hordes. Muscovites assimilated this new found food into their cuisine, redubbing it steak tartare after their name for the invaders.

Onto a tale maybe more reality driven. Raw chopped beef first appeared in France’s fine hotels at the turn of the 20th century, when expanding tourism fueled an epoque of internationalism in restaurants. The dish was originally called beefsteack à l’américain (sp?). The steak tartare vogue really ginned up after WW II. It was raw ground beef topped with a raw egg yolk with capers, chopped onion and chopped parsley. So, steak tartare was originally named not for carnivorous Tartars, but for the tartar sauce that was served with it.

Now, back to the past. In the 17th century, ships from the bustling seaport of Hamburg began calling on Russian harbors ultimately bringing steak tartare back to Germany. Soon it was called “Hamburg steak” or “Steak in the style of Hamburg.” Then, in the late 1800’s, sailors and immigrants from Hamburg brought their beloved ground meat to America, and eating stands along New York harbor began to sprout. After that, the “invention” and dispersion of the hamburger idea in and across America is a matter of controversy and sometimes baseless debate.

Gastronomic proof has again proven elusive yet plausible on each count.

For reasons unknown, this has been a post I have avoided. Maybe it was familiarity breeds contempt or perhaps the subject seemed to lack culinary sexiness. In any event, I thankfully broke down. This is not meant to be some step-by-step on creating the sui generis backyard burger as perfection is not the desired end. Rather, just consider these few random tidbits to help make those primal burger grilling experiences ever more blissful.

Marbled Meat
Ground beef with a meat-to-fat ratio between 75%-25% and 80%-20%. Assuming the leanest meat is the best is a grave error. Lean ground beef, e.g. 7% fat, will likely result in dry burgers. When grilled, much of the meat’s fat will drain off so a lean start leads to a cardboard finish. Then a fatter patty (> 80%-20%) will lead to issues such as shrinkage.

Consider a coarse grind as finely ground meat can become soft and mushy, making the patties hard to work with and more likely to fall apart on the hot grill. In the best of all possible worlds, grind your own using select, choice or prime grade meat, particularly chuck.

Toothsome Buns
Think buns too. So many put their best efforts into the meat without regard for bun quality, texture, flavor and size. Try to achieve a meat-to-bun ratio of 1:1 which usually means buns with about a 4″-4 1/2″ diameter. Super sized, overhanging buns do not allow for an equal taste of every element (meat, bun, cheese, toppings) in every bite. Brioche, challah, conventional, seeded or not, grilled or not—your bun affinities rule.

Chill In Advance
Before you even form the patties, put the meat in the fridge for about an hour. Chilling the meat helps it withstand the body heat exuded by your hands when forming the burgers. Consider washing your hands in cold water before working the patties to reduce their temperature.

After the patties are sculpted, place in the refrigerator once again before cooking.

Do Not Overwork
Avoid working the meat too much. Nimbly form the patties and leave them alone. Less handling, no slamming or spanking and no squeezing are much preferred and lead to a moister, more tender end product. Overwrought ground beef turns into flavorless mush, as the heat from your hands and the friction of mixing breaks down the morsels of fat that create juice and flavor. Et voilà, a grilled beef brick.

Use Both Hands
Pull the meat apart into equal pieces, then pat down into a patty with one hand while forming the rough edge with the other. Some even swear that the lid of a Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar makes the best possible burger mold. Steer clear of magnum patties as they are so often disproportionate to buns and toppings. I tend to prefer a burger with the circular dimensions of the bun and a thickness of about 1″ or so.

A Glowing Grill
Preheat charcoal grill to medium high to high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count how long you can keep it there before the pain demands you retract it in around 2 seconds.

The object is to hard sear the meat rather quickly so it is nicely browned, but not overly charred, while imbued with the flavors and scents of the grill. Should you wish a little variation, add pre-soaked wood chips or rosemary sprigs in the grill to impart.

Many espouse placing the meat on heated heavy, cast iron pans or griddles and never cook patties directly over the grill. This method allows beef fat to render and gather around the patties as they cook. The hamburger grease alone is a condiment.

Season Last
Add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper right before grilling, as after time salt tends to dry out the patties.

Resist the Urge to Touch
Let well enough alone while the burger cooks. When raw meat hits a hot grate it will naturally stick, almost seizing the grill for dear life. If you try to turn the patties too early the burgers will tear and fall apart. The secret is to flip the burger the moment after it has released from the grate.

Of course, cooking time is dependent on patty thickness. The easiest way to determine the degree of final doneness is by firmness. During the cooking process the meat changes color, juices become clear, the meat shrinks and the patty becomes firm. Just lightly feel the degree of firmness with a finger or touch gently with the spatula. For me, the goal is precisely medium rare—cooked well on the outside and rosy pink from edge to edge on the inside.

Do Not Press Down the Meat
Consider this to be a cardinal rule of cooking burgers. Sinfully smashing meat on the grill with a spatula squeezes out the juices, rendering the patty dry and flavorless. Heresy. I have no clue why grillers insist on making these hockey pucks.

Cheese It
Gooey cheese choices are crucial and can truly morph your burgers. Think cheddars, american, emmenthal, manchego, brie, tallegio, asiago, fontina, mozzarella, bleu, morbier, gruyère…To achieve that melted, oozy texture, add cheese shortly after the last flip while the burger is still being grilled. As with all sandwiches, please never overdress.

Allow to Rest
After removing from the grill, let the burger rest for at least 5 minutes in order to redistribute the interior juices. Otherwise, the juices will bleed out profusely on first bite leaving a dried out disc behind.

Beyond The Norm
While I am a basic cheeseburger fiend—beef, cheese, bun (maybe bacon)—there are some game changers beyond exotic cheeses, breads, buns and varied wood chips:

Cheeses (see above)
Lamb or pork shoulders or combos thereof
Pulled pork nest
Pork belly slice(s)
Bacon, pancetta, proscuitto, serrano
Foie gras
Capers
Kosher dills
Grilled chiles, such as poblanos, jalapeños, anaheim, et al.
Grilled or caramelized yellow or red onions, scallions, shallots
Grilled mushrooms
Grated beets
Fried eggs, sunny side up
A slather of roasted garlic
Arugula, red leaf or romaine lettuces or anything green and crispy
Speaking of, fresh herbs
Grilled or fresh heirloom tomatoes (local and in season)
Basil pesto, tomato pesto
Thyme, herbes de provence, rosemary
Coriander, cumin, turmeric, biryani, garam masala, cardomam
Mayonnaise, tarragon mayonnaise, aïoli, chipotle or jalapeno mayonnaise
Dijon mustard, tzatziki sauce
Chutneys
Harissa
Avocado, avocado, avocado

Laissez-faire fare.

Yes, life has many onions.
~Skip Coryell

While tartes aux oignons are considered a specialty of the formerly embattled northeast border region of Alsace, they are found throughout the country — so it is a recipe that bodes well in any département.

Passed back and forth between tribes, royalty, governments and churches over centuries, Alsace-Lorraine (Ger: Elsass-Lothringen) eventually evolved into a region shaped by both French and German cultures. Space does not permit me to adequately recount its strife-ridden, treaty-rent past. Suffice it to say despite its beauty Alsace-Lorraine was partially born of a dolorous recipe with unsavory ingredients: men, liberally seasoned with lands, boundaries, intolerance, suppression and religion. Sound familiar?

Even an aperçu of modern times reflects these geo-political vacillations. Following the Franco-Prussian War, the area was annexed by the German Empire in 1871 via the Treaty of Frankfurt and became a Reichsland. At the conclusion of World War I, the province reverted to France under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. Nazi Germany then again occupied the territory during World War II, beginning in 1940, but the end of the war placed Alsace-Lorraine back in French hands where it has remained since.  With each war, inhabitants of this fair land were made to overhaul their allegiances, citizenship, language, and the like to appease the conquering forces.

In more recent history, efforts have been made to embrace Alsace-Lorraine’s duel Gaullic and Germanic personalities. The cuisine of both cultures have retained their individual identities yet have also remained intertwined — bäeckeofe, foie gras, sauerkraut (choucroute), quiche lorraine, sausages, smoked pork, and so on, all cohabitate peacefully.

ONION TART (TARTE AUX OIGNONS)

1 recipe pâte brisée*

3 slices bacon or pancetta
2 C yellow onions, peeled and very thinly sliced
1/4 C chives, chopped
Pinch of dried thyme

3 large organic, free range eggs
2-3 C heavy cream
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
Grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out the pâte brisée on a floured board, and line a 9” removable-bottom tart shell with it. Flute the edge of the pastry. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator while making the filling.

Cut the bacon into lardons and fry in a heavy skillet until crispy brown. Set aside and drain on paper towels.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onions, stirring regularly, until they are tender and just beginning to caramelize. Stir in the bacon, chives and thyme until well mixed. Remove the skillet from the heat.

In a small bowl, beat the egg and cream together. Add a pinch or two of salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Add this to the onions, stirring to combine.

Pour the onion and egg mixture into the pastry shell. Bake tart for about 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the custard is firm. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Serve warm or room temperature.

*Pâte Brisée

1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
6 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 T lard or shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 T ice water

Place all the ingredients except the water, in a large bowl. Add the water mash and work with your hands and fingers so that is assembled into a solid, smooth ball. If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Makes for rich but delicate fare when paired with a simple green salad, a crusty baguette, and a crisp Alsatian white or Provençal rosé

Scones

May 23, 2009

Scones supposedly originated in Scotland and were closely related to the griddle baked flatbread, known as bannock. The origin of the name scone is rather vague—some say the name comes from the Stone of Scone, where the Kings of Scotland were crowned; others contend that the name is derived from the Dutch word schoonbrot meaning “fine white bread” or from the German word sconbrot meaning “fine or beautiful bread;” another school speculates that scone is rooted in the Gaelic word sgonn, a “shapeless mass or large mouthful.”

As an aside, I prefer buttermilk.

SCONES

2 C all purpose or cake flour
1/4 C sugar
1 T baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
6 T chilled unsalted butter, cut into pads

1 large organic, free range egg
4 T cold buttermilk or whole milk
4 T cold heavy whipping cream
1/2 C dried currants or other dried fruit (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F

Sprinkle baking sheet lightly with flour. Combine 2 cups flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. It is important that the butter be cold so when it is worked into the flour mixture it becomes small, flour coated crumbs, not a smooth dough. Do not overwork the dough—it should be like pie dough. Work the dried fruits into the dough.

Whisk egg, milk and cream in small bowl. Combine egg mixture with dry ingredients, stirring with spoon until moist. If dry, add some more cream. Gather dough into ball. Turn out onto lightly floured surface. Shape dough into a round about 3/4 inch thick. Using a cookie cutter or small wine glass, cut rounds of dough. (Alternatively, you may simply cut the dough into triangles.) Gather the scraps, reshape the dough, and cut out more rounds or triangles. Arrange rounds on baking sheet. If desired, brush with an egg wash.

Bake scones until tops are lightly golden and a toothpic inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with butter, honey or jam.