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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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Return to lately 2012.

"have you heard?"
september 1, 2012

Mary and I never bought a zoo. But we did buy a meat grinder.

We had a meat grinder, years ago, when we lived in Maine (moving there from California.)

That one was a heavy, all metal machine. Thick metal, like a monkey wrench. If you threw it at someone's head, you'd kill them. They would just drop. There'd be none of this staggering around nonsense. Looked like something from an Eastern European surrealist movie, where most of the animation is set inside shoeboxes. You had to position it on the edge of a kitchen counter, then screw the wide clamp, hanging under the counter, up into contact with the underside of the counter, continuing to screw until you got a tight fit. To where the flat plane of the counter seemed to tilt forward.

You pushed the cut-up chunks of red meat into the metal hole at the top, tamping them down to the bottom of the hole, where the chunks got snagged by the metal horizontal auger, as you hand-turned the crank off the back of the grinder, spiraling the meat forward.

The meat extruded from the front, red and pearl, dropping down into a bowl someone had to hold in mid-air below the edge of the counter.

We ground a lot of beef back then.

I'm not sure why we got rid of the meat grinder when we left Maine, spending the next eighty days traveling across America and Canada, looking for a new home. It was a beautiful machine. Heavy as a cast iron skillet, but still. Probably, we just couldn't fit it in the trunk of our Honda CRV. Or we were afraid, crossing the border into Canada, from Washington State into British Columbia, the border guards might mistake it for a weapon (We had a hell of a time crossing into Canada. Every other car was waved through, but we were directed to pull up to the inspection station. Asked if we had any guns. We didn't, but apparently looked like the type that would. They gave our car the most thorough inspection I've ever seen. Did everything except wheel over a crane and lift out the engine. It reminded me of my short story "Big Inches". What made matters worse was that we had two different license plates. One displayed on our car, all legal-like, the other, with a different number, tucked under the carpet that lined the trunk of the car. I still remember the cop telling us we were good to go, then turning around, Columbo-like, ready to catch us off-guard, asking, "Say, by the way, why do you have a second license plate, with different numbers, hidden in the trunk of your car?" Giving me that cop look he must practice every morning in front of the mirror. Fortunately, I was able to talk us out of it, and an hour later Mary and I were laughing over steak and eggs at a crowded White Spot.)

The new meat grinder we just bought is a combination of stainless steel and hard white plastic. And it's electric. No more hand-turning a crank. Electricity does all that, like it does so much more for us.

Can you imagine what people five hundred years ago would have thought about electricity? You want light? I'm not going to gather wood and build a fire. I'm just going to press this switch. And look how much brighter it is!

We bought a meat grinder because we were dissatisfied with the quality of ground beef we had been buying in supermarkets.

In America, meat is sold as either 90/10, 85/15, or 80/20. Meaning, for example, 90 percent meat to ten percent fat.

That's really not a good mix.

Beef needs fat. To be tender, to be tasty. Over here in America, we're still in the midst of the 'fat is evil' campaign, a craze Julia Child and others used to complain about. A 90/10 mix tends to produce rather dry cheeseburgers, the strands of ground beef separating, because there really isn't anything to hold them together. An 80/20 mix, which is the best you can buy in a supermarket, is a bit better, but it's never going to produce a memorable cheeseburger, or meatball, or meatloaf.

After some experimentation, Mary and I decided on a 65/35 mix. Sixty-five percent ground beef to thirty-five percent ground fat.

Our first thought was, Where are we going to get that much fat? I don't know of any supermarket that sells beef fat.

We wanted to use chuck steaks for the beef, because chuck has a nice beefy flavor, but even though they are nicely marbled, they don't have enough fat to get us to the thirty-five percent ideal.

(We experimented earlier with a blend of chuck, sirloin, short ribs and brisket, but that was just too complicated, and really, we didn't notice that much difference in flavor from just using chuck. Plus chuck is a lot cheaper. )

So we were in a local Tom Thumb, and on the spur of the moment I asked one of the meat department guys behind the long glass display cases of chops and roasts and steaks, Can you sell us some beef fat?

He found and wrapped up three and a half pounds for us, and didn't charge us a penny. Most supermarkets, their butchers in their white smocks, trimming fat off the meat that's come in overnight, just toss the trimmings in a common bin, then dispose of it.

So even though beef fat isn't officially sold in supermarkets, if that supermarket has a butcher on the premises, you can often get a big package of it for free. Provided, of course, you ask on a day when they have beef they have to trim.

Using a 65/35 blend, you get an incredible hamburger. Like the hamburgers of yore. The fabled backyard burger, but done fifties style, where the steak you'd slap on an outdoor grill above red hot coals was thickly marbled with fat, just like the bare hand laying that steak down was often still speckled with toxic rose bush spray.

Fat adds a tremendous "beefy" flavor to a burger, a wonderful tenderness, because all that fat mixed with beef is melting as the burger cooks, basting the patty from within; and an incredible mouth feel.

So that brings us to one of the most important questions Man must solve when it comes to a cheeseburger: When you're constructing a cheeseburger, do you put the lettuce and tomato above the patty, or below it? Top or bottom?

I posed that question on a popular foodie forum, and got some interesting answers. But since the responders were about evenly split between top and bottom, it didn't help towards solving my dilemma.

When I built a cheeseburger, I always put the lettuce and tomato on the bottom bun, then laid the steaming burger on the overlapping tomato slices, liking setting a jewel in place.

But Mary always did the opposite. First the patty, then lettuce and tomato on top.

As I mentioned in my previous Lately, we ate at an In-N-Out Burger for the first time last month, and they arranged the ingredients Mary's way.

Whenever there's been a discrepancy between us regarding food, I've always found that Mary was right, and I was wrong. For example, for years and years, when we'd go to a market to get steaks, I'd always buy a porterhouse, while Mary would get a rib eye. She kept telling me the rib eye had more flavor, but I was convinced she was wrong. Until I actually tried a rib eye and realized, No, I'm wrong. Mary's right. The best cut of steak is, in fact, the rib eye. Foolish me.

So I decided to try building my burger Mary's way.

Here's the line-up:

First, cut a Kaiser roll in half, width-wise. It can be a Kaiser topped with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, whichever you prefer. I go with poppy seeds. You need a Kaiser roll to hold all the moist goodness you're going to put between the two halves. A traditional hamburger roll won't do-it'll get too soggy, dissolve in your hands.

Heat up a couple of tablespoons of butter in a skillet. Once the butter is hot, place both halves of the Kaiser, cut sides down, in the butter. Swirl them around to get the cut halves coated with the hot, golden butter. Remove them from the pan. Add another tablespoon of butter, watch it slide across the pan, melting. Both halves of the Kaiser go back in, cut side down. Check them after a minute or so, lifting each up with a spatula to check underneath. Once the cut sides are brown and toasty, remove them to your serving plate, cut sides up.

Using your palms, mold a third of a pound of your 65/35 burger into a heavy disc. Keep it fairly wide and thin.

Season both sides with seasoning salt and lemon pepper (heavy on the lemon pepper.)

Melt more butter in the skillet. Let it get sizzling.

Drape your burger down in the sizzle.

The most important rule: Do not touch your raw burger once it is in the skillet. Do not move it around, do not shake the skillet. Leave it where you laid it. Step back. You want it to form a crust. If you move it, the crust you're starting to form will rupture, and you'll have to start all over again. So don't fucking move it. Don't touch it.

As the burger cooks, the skillet will start to show a layer of bubbling grease, because of the heavy fat content of the meat. That's good. Grease is your friend. All that grease is tenderizing your burger, adding layers of flavor.

As the burger cooks on its bottom side, prepare the ingredients for the rest of your cheeseburger.

Spread a generous layer of Grey Poupon mustard on the cut side of the bottom half of the Kaiser roll; swirl some mayonnaise across the cut side of the top half (Mary prefers mayonnaise on both halves.)

Select a leaf of green leaf lettuce. Rinse it under the cold water tap. Gently blot it dry with a paper towel. Snap off the stem end to the extent necessary to be left with a leaf a bit wider than the burger patty. Tear the leaf in half lengthwise so that (later on) criss-crossing both halves in the sandwich will produce an aesthetically pleasing ruffle of rippled green lettuce edges around the edges of the completed sandwich.

Cut three thin slices from the middle of a ripe red tomato. Place a salt shaker and black pepper grinder next to the slices, as you would sentries.

Cut a thin slice of red onion.

Pull five circular slices of dill pickle chips from a jar.

Get your cheese from the refrigerator. Although all sorts of cheese work well with hamburgers, including Swiss, blue cheese and Fontina, really the best cheese for beef is cheddar. I often use a slice of American cheese, which is a member of the cheddar family, but the best choice is cheddar with port wine added. It adds a greater depth of flavor, and creamy mouth feel, to the burger. You can buy it in most shops. Cut off enough slices (two or three) to cover the top of the burger.

By now, of course, your burger is ready to be flipped. Bending your knees, seeing at a slant into the skillet that the profile of your burger is brown at the bottom, gray upwards into the meat, and still red on top, it's time to turn it over. To make sure your burger is ready, grasp the handle of the skillet and jerk it back and forth a few times. The burger should slide freely around the bottom of the pan, meaning a lovely crust has formed on the bottom of the burger, causing the patty to separate from the bottom of the pan. If the patty doesn't slide, wait a minute, agitate the handle again.

Flip it over.

There'll be sizzle and excitement.

Now you must wait. Again, do not move the burger. Most magic requires nothing more than observation.

After a while (the "while" depending on your patty size, the temperature of the skillet, the caprice of the Gods, but usually more or less five minutes), you'll see little ruby beads of juice forming on the top brown crust of the burger. That means the burger is at that point cooked rare. To use as a reference with future burgers, I would certainly recommend touching the tip of your finger to the hot top of the patty, to see how much "give" the burger has at this point. The more give, the rarer the meat. Touching any piece of meat (steak, chop, chicken breast, fillet of fish) is the most reliable way of determining the degree to which the meat is cooked. It just takes a while to train your fingertip to the different touches.

Once the patty is almost cooked as much as you want, place the cheddar cheese (slice of American cheese or slices of cheddar with port wine) on top of the burger. Cover the skillet. Wait about thirty seconds. Lift the lid to peek. And continue to do so until the cheese is melted to your satisfaction.

Once the cheese is the way you want it, take a spatula and lift the burger out of the skillet. Place it on top of the mustard-coated bottom half of the Kaiser roll.

Space across the melted cheese the dill pickle chips.

Layer on top of the pickle chips the thin slice of red onion, the green leaf lettuce (creating the ruffle effect mentioned above.) Top with the overlapping slices of tomato, like an abbreviated Olympics logo. Give the tomato slices a heavy shake of salt. Grind a good dusting of black pepper across the salt. Grind, grind, grind, because it's nice to have each bite finish with a mild fireworks of black pepper, both for the enjoyment of heat, and as a palate cleanser for the next bite.

Clap down the top half of the Kaiser roll.

My God, look what you've built!

And now you get to eat it, whether you're alone in your bedroom with your longtime friend television, or with the lover/best friend with whom you've shared decades, or at a noisy backyard picnic with kids running around, adults getting drunk, and you already forgetting the names of some of the seated people to whom you were introduced hours ago.

But wherever you are, even if the dead are rising out of their graves three towns over, in those moments of bite, and bite, and bite, and bite, it's you and your cheeseburger, and the mouth-filling promise and swallow of a better world.

Mary and I were in the parking lot of a supermarket the other week, it was hot, hot, hot under the Dallas sun, we had loaded all our food in the trunk, about to fold ourselves into the car to go home, when in the parking space opposite the front of our car a young black guy, shaved head, standing outside his opened driver's door, caught my eye. He grinned at me, eyes filled with joy, like a herald. "Did you hear? The angels won last night."

It took me a long moment, standing beside my car, ignition key in my hand, sweat on my scalp, to realize he was talking about sports.