So - this is the second installment of the blog, so if you missed the first one, you might not know my "story." Why would I want to cook every recipe in of TOP CHEF: The Cookbook? There are a lot of recipes and some of them seem a bit complicated. So here's the deal: I can be a little compulsive, and I love to cook, I love a challenge, and, if I may say so myself, I'm a pretty darn good cook. And I love to watch Top Chef. Love it! I simply don't understand why when one season ends, they cannot start a new season in just a few weeks! So, here I am - follow me along this adventure to see if I can keep up with Harold, Tiffani, Dave, Ilan, Marcel, Sam, Hung, Dale L., Casey, and the rest of the best of Top Chef - and maybe even "top" them myself.
And I figured, if I'm going to make all these recipes, I might as well document it! So, I'm blogging all about it! And I'm looking forward to hearing your comments, too!
Having had a very positive experience with my first recipe from the Top Chef Cookbook, Michael's Trout and Salmon dish (well, I made it with catfish and salmon) from Season 2, I was excited for my next adventure in the kitchen.
The next recipe I chose to make was Howie Kleinberg's Black Truffle Burger with Taleggio Cheese, Tomato, and Radicchio (from Season 3 - this was from Episode 8 - it was a Quickfire Challenge where the contestants were asked to create a new concept of a burger for the Red Robin restaurants' line of "Adventuresome Burgers"). This was a super-fun challenge to watch. Daniel Boulud was the guest judge of the Quickfire, and I will admit that it didn't surprise me too much that the winner of the Quickfire was the contestant who incorporated truffles into his burger. (See "Bonus Materials" below for more on Daniel Boulud and the history of the "Decadent" Burger.) (Note that I made the recipe for 5 people, so I increased all quantities by 25%.)
The Truffle Butter: The recipe calls for 3 oz of black truffle butter (when making the recipe for 4 people).
I was confident that I had truffle butter in my freezer so I didn't buy any. (I get it from D'Artagnan, a purveyor of foie gras, patés, sausages, truffle products, organic game and poultry, that sells to restaurants, retail and direct to individuals.) I like to keep truffle butter around, because it is amazing to put on baked potatoes, or even just a pat on a simply grilled steak.) As it turns out I had white truffle butter in my freezer, not black truffle butter. White truffles, are more expensive, rarer, and have a more pronounced flavor than black truffles. Therefore, in the end, the burgers I made were probably a little pricier than they had to be (according to the D'Artagnan website, 3 oz of black truffle butter is $4.99 and 3 oz of white truffle butter is $6.99), and perhaps had a more "truffley" flavor, than if I had used black truffle butter.
So I took the truffle butter and started chopping it up in little bits so that I could incorporate it into the ground beef. This process took much longer than I thought it would. I don't think there is any way I could have done it faster by using a food processor - I think that just would have made butter mulch - even if I had used solid frozen butter in the processor. No, I think the only way to do this is by hand, and it's not the easiest process because the butter had to be cold enough so that it slices into small bits and doesn't turn into mush, but "warm" enough so that you can actually get a knife through it.
The Ground Beef:
The recipe calls for ground sirloin. The reason (I assume) the recipe calls for sirloin, is because it is not only a prime cut of meat, but also is very lean - and the fat content to these burgers is mainly supplied by the truffle butter. I was at the supermarket (the Food Emporium) wanted to see if I could get some of the ingredients for this recipe at a normal supermarket, and not a specialty supermarket (I get most of my
ingredients for these recipes at Eli's in Manhattan - I'm assured of high quality when I do that.) The Food Emporium didn't have ground sirloin, but it did have 95% lean ground beef, and I got some of that in case I couldn't get enough ground sirloin at Eli's and to make the recipe a little more affordable to make (although in the end any savings due to not using all ground sirloin was de minimus because all the other ingredients are pretty pricey too). Anyway, in the end, the ground meat I used was about 2/3 the 95% lean ground beef and 1/3 ground sirloin. I incorporated the chopped truffle butter and salt into the ground beef, making sure that most of the butter was actually inside the beef patties and not much of it was visible from the outside. I did this in recognition that the butter would melt quickly, and I wanted it kept inside the burger, not lost to my fry pan!
Once the patties were formed, I put them in the fridge to bring their temperature down, again, to try to prevent as much truffle butter as possible from being lost to the pan when the patties were fried.
The Cheese: The recipe calls for sliced taleggio cheese.
Taleggio is a washed-rind soft ripened Italian cheese made from cow's milk. It has a crust (the rind) that needs to be removed, and its flesh is the color of butter. When it's whole, it somewhat resembles an orange colored, square shaped brie. However, the flavor is much earthier and tangier than brie, and it has stronger and more pungent aroma than brie. Because of the soft and somewhat creamy texture of the cheese, I was a little at a loss as to how I would be able to slice it in a manner suitable to neatly cover a hamburger patty. I instead opted to make mini-slices. I first had to take the rind off the cheese, and then I sliced the cheese up into several rectangular slices to be arranged over the burgers later when they were close to fully done.
I was supposed to use heirloom tomatoes. I made this recipe during
the big "salmonella - tomato scare" and just finding good tomatoes was a feat in and of itself. Thank God for Eli's on this. I got beautiful vine-ripened Holland tomatoes to use for the burgers. But there was no way I was going to be able to find heirloom tomatoes during that time period. Again, I wonder if this substitution really made a difference. Obviously, Howie's point was to use the highest-end ingredients he could in his burgers. I get it. But in the end, the burgers were great, and I think, with respect to the tomatoes, is that you use ones that are big, ripe and flavorful.
You need two slices of radicchio per burger. Radicchio is not really a "lettuce," but technically is a "leaf chicory" that has white veined red leaves. People often grill or roast it to mellow out it's slightly bitter and spicy taste, or eat it raw in salads to provide a "kick." Here, I can see how the raw radicchio complements the slightly tangy taleggio well. One head of radicchio provides more than enough lettuce leaves for 4 or 5 burgers, so I made sure to pick the most unblemished and untorn leaves for the burgers
Frying the Burger Patties
So, I'll tell you what I was supposed to do, and what I actually did. I was supposed put the pancetta on the burger patties, and then put the patties - pancetta side down - in the fry pan. I didn't do that. I forgot all about the pancetta and ended up cooking that separately. I have no idea if the burgers would have come out "better" if I had followed the recipe exactly in this respect, but since these burgers ended up being probably some the best I and my guests (at least so they said) have ever had in our lives, I suspect it wouldn't have made that much of a difference. I put the burgers in at different times depending on how cooked each guest wanted his/her burger to be, and kept track of which burger was which by envisioning the pan as a clock-face. Personally, I'm a fan of medium-rare, but we had a couple of mediums and a medium-well in the group, and I like to accommodate everyone's preferences.
After I flipped the burgers and they were all done to their requested "doneness," I took the burgers out of the pan and drained off most of the fat into a glass jar that I'd throw in the trash later. As much as I tried to keep as much fat as possible in the burgers, as you can see, there was a lot of grease. I made sure to keep at least some grease in the pan (so the pancetta would take on some of that truffley taste) and then put the sliced pancetta in the pan for frying. (When I purchased the pancetta, I got it sliced very thin, which worked out fine, but if I made the burgers again, I think I'd get the pancetta sliced to about ¼ inch thick.) By the way, pancetta is just Italian bacon. The difference between Italian bacon and American bacon is that American bacon is smoked. Italian bacon is not. And there is a slightly more "refined" taste to pancetta. I can't quite describe it, but it tastes delicious, but doesn't scream "BACON" in your face.
Assembling the Burgers
While the burgers had been frying, I took 5 brioche rolls, sliced them, and placed them in the hot oven to heat up - at the end I put the broiler on for about a minute to toast them. Since I had not actually cooked the burgers with the pancetta, I removed the pancetta from the pan when it was crispy, drained the pan of some more of the grease, and then returned cooked burger patties to the pan. Then I put the pancetta on top and arranged the rectangular slices on top of that to get as much coverage of the patties as possible. I then put the pan in the hot oven (this MUST be an oven-proof pan - do not attempt this with pans with a plastic handle - my pans are All Clad, and I truly love them - the heat distribution cannot be beat). Note that the oven was now back on "bake" not "broil" - you just want to melt the cheese, you don't want to toast it.
When the cheese was all melted - in fact some of it had dribbled down the sides of the burgers and into the pan - I took the pan out and started assembling the burgers. First I took all the burgers out of the pan and put them on a plate to rest. I also took any melted cheese that dripped into the pan and spooned it evenly back on top of the burgers. Then I did something the recipe did not call for, but is one of my own little tricks, and took the bottom half of the buns and gave them each a very quick swipe, cut side down, into the grease left in the pan. This step is so good - not the healthiest - but so delicious. It adds flavor and incredible moisture to the burger. Just be careful. Too much of a swipe, and you'll have a "grease-burger!" Then I just put the bottom halves of the buns on the plates, placed the burgers (with pancetta and taleggio) on top, and then, the tomatoes and the radicchio on top. Next to the burger, I put the top half of the toasted bun and a simple side salad that I threw together. (See below for more about the salad.)
Suggestions to Make This Already Great Dish Even Better
I don't really have any suggestions to make this recipe "better." It was simply amazing just as it was. I did have one idea that I would like to try out if I were to make these burgers again. I have many friends who don't eat beef. I wonder how this dish would have done with ground turkey. Given the intensity of flavor that truffles have, I might consider either decreasing the amount of truffle butter if I used ground turkey or adding some sautéed sliced Portobello mushrooms on top of the burger and pancetta (but before putting on the cheese) to add a "meaty" flavor to the burger.
Final Word On this Dish
Terrific, fabulous, and without comparison. The earthy truffle flavor was distinct but not overpowering, and came through in each bite. Although clearly a lot of the butter had drained off through cooking (which I guess is good from a health standpoint), enough certainly remained so that the burger was very moist. The bacon added that little bit of salt and crunch you need to make the burger texturally interesting. I loved the use of the Brioche buns (as opposed to Kaiser rolls, or "normal" hamburger rolls), because they were sturdy enough to hold up (completely put together, this burger is definitely a mouthful!), but not so hard that you have to really work at just getting through the bread. Finally, the subtle tanginess of the taleggio, slight bitterness of the radicchio and sweetness and acidity of the tomato all provided perfect balance of flavors and textures to the burger, and also contributed to its having perfect moisture, without needing any condiments.
I served these burgers to my friends, who literally could not speak once they started eating. There was complete silence, except for "mmmmmms" and "wows" occasional breaking that silence, until everyone was at least half-way through their burgers. Then came the adulations. Each and every person told me that this was the best burger they had ever had. One friend raved that earlier that day she had gone to a business lunch and ordered a kobe burger, and that that burger was just "nothing" compared to Howie's burger. They all asked if they could come over for dinner again. There were no leftovers. People were trying to steal scraps from each other's plates. After dinner, we all went out, and while out, I met friends of my friends who asked me, "Oh, are you the person who made the best burger in the whole world?" This was the greatest compliment of all. Apparently the "fame" of this meal - this great burger - had preceded me.
However, there is one thing that should be noted. This recipe takes longer than the 20 minutes listed to complete. Just the cooking of the burgers on the cook-top and then in the oven takes 15 to 20 minutes. Prep time takes at least 20 minutes.
This is my "this never fails" salad. It's easy and always is a stand-out. For about six years, I dated a French guy. And during those years, I was lucky enough to have many trips to France, travel to various cities in France, stay with his parents in France, got to local markets with his mother, and cook with her. Perhaps the greatest thing that his mother taught me was how to make this simple, tasty and very satisfying salad - we usually had the salad at the end of meals, along with a giant platter of farmhouse cheeses and fresh baguettes and country bread.
The salad is simply a mix of crisp Bibb or Boston lettuce and sliced endive (I sometimes throw in some frisée or mache too) - no wilted leaves please! Traditionally, French salads contain nothing but lettuce - no carrots, no onions, no tomatoes, no cucumbers, no bell peppers - just lettuce.The magic is in the dressing. The dressing is a simple basil vinaigrette.
Recipe for Vinaigrette Basilic: (makes a little over a cup of dressing - which is MORE than enough for a salad serving 4 or 5 people)
1/3 cup champagne vinegar
1 rounded teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 Tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon
1 teaspoon Herbs de Provence I or 2 garlic cloves put through a garlic press
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons minced fresh basil
1 or 2 minced shallots (optional)
2/3 cups very high quality extra virgin olive oil
Put all the ingredients except the oil in a jar that has a well-fitting lid (I save old jars from mayonnaise, salsa, etc., for this purpose). Whisk with a fork until the mixture is completely combined, with all the ingredients evenly incorporated. Then add the olive oil, put the cover on the jar and shake vigorously.This method works just as well as the traditional method of slowly whisking in the oil into the vinegar mixture to create the vinaigrette emulsion, is must easier, and actually is a lot of fun.
Taste the dressing. Add more vinegar or lemon juice or oil or any of the seasoning ingredients to taste. This vinaigrette can be made a day or two in advance and extra dressing can last up to a week. Dress the salad right before serving in a very large salad bowl so that all the leaves are lightly but evenly coated with the vinaigrette.
The Origin of the Decadent Burger
French chef, but now American restaurateur, Daniel Boulud created what was once the most expensive and decadent burger in New York City - the "DB Burger Royale" - which he serves at the DB Bistro. It's a burger consisting of foie gras encased in wine-braised short ribs encased in ground sirloin. Then black truffle is shaved on top of the burger. It's then served on a toasted parmesan and poppy seed bun with a touch of fresh horseradish, oven-roasted tomato confit, fresh tomato, red onions and frisée lettuce. The honor of "most expensive and decadent burger" was eventually replaced by others, using kobe beef, or even sprinkling 24 karat gold leaf on top.... Sometimes, people go too far....
A Chocolate Truffle Burger???
One of my friends brought his roommate over for the dinner. Talk about a "good sport" - this poor guy actually thought I was serving burgers stuffed with chocolate and was still willing to come! This all was revealed while we were eating. It was nothing to be ashamed of, though. Not everyone is familiar with truffles that are used in cooking - likely due mostly to their rarity and expense, and perhaps in part due to their distinct flavor and aroma. So, my friend's roommate was merely confusing the rare and savory truffle that is technically a "tuber" (and can be found growing underground in regions of Southern France and Northern Italy near the roots of trees), with chocolate truffles, a confectionary delight that are usually made with a chocolate ganache filling and rolled in cocoa powder. Chocolate truffles are shaped to resemble the tuber truffle and, as a result, have playfully been named "truffles."