Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Burger Time! - Part 2 - Where to go

I'm back, talkin' about burgers.

Now, making burgers at home is easy enough (as hopefully demonstrated in Part 1), but who amongst us is likely to cook a burger when the marketplace abounds, fairly teems, with burger purveyors of all levels of taste and quality?

But where to go? Well, there's always "Rotten Ronnie's", but as someone who once worked there (albeit when I was 15), I can safely say that if I never eat another McBurger again, that's just peachy by me! And that's not even considering that the McDonald's model has led to massive animal feedlots that foster e. coli tainted beef and rampant globalization of a product that is pretty much crap. Is it any surprise I'm not a fan?

Yet oddly enough, I don't disparage all large fast food burger chains. I happen to have a craving for Wendy's burgers once in a while. Maybe it's because I could find these regulations: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Where_does_wendy's_beef_come_from (not that this is free-range beef or anything, but at least they display some standards - I saw nothing for McD's). Either way, I just find Wendy's better made and better tasting. Might be because they use tomato, lettuce and mayo on their value menu Junior Burger... So, I stand firmly in the Wendy's camp of the "Big 3" burger chains. Being a Canadian, I have the added option of Harvey's and A&W. But to be honest, I find Harvey's burgers a bit oversalted and kinda rubbery, while A&W is something of a lesser version of Wendy's. So, I'm a Wendy's guy. But even then, I eat at fast food burger chains maybe twice a year.

Let's be honest here: Would you rather eat at some giant conglomerate where the person cooking the burger couldn't give a flying fig about their product, or would you prefer to go where burgers are more of an art form and you can taste the love (or at least the like)?

Ottawa, like any decent city, has its share of kickass burger joints. Today I'll be covering the three top rated, based on a contest in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. According to a poll of Citizen readers, the Top 3 were Chez Lucien at no. 3, The Works at no. 2 and Hintonburger coming in First Place. Luckily, I've eaten at all three of them, so I can give you feedback on whether or not the voters got it right...

Well, to start off, if it was me, I'd switch #3 and #2 around. I've eaten at Chez Lucien in the Byward Market more than a few times, while I've only been to the Works three or four times. They each have a VERY different take on restauranteuring - Chez Lucien is clearly meant to be a "local" pub with a really good, yet specific, menu and food - and a slightly "insider" vibe, while The Works is there to cater to the Everyman (and the tourist) and provide any burger possibility you can imagine (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 75 different burgers).

The Works is almost a bit overwhelming with its multiple burger choices, and in the end, while they're really freaking good, I found there was a twinge of dryness to the meat, and the restaurant's atmosphere has always made me feel a bit... unwelcome? Maybe I've just always gotten lousy servers... Also, Works is growing to become a chain with over a dozen or so locations in Ontario and other provinces. And you know what happens when you become a chain? Quality is the first victim. Maybe I'm too late and the Works' glory days are behind them... But they're worth checking out if only to have the experience of picking from all those different kinds of burgers.

Chez Lucien provides a choice (amongst their beef burgers) of the Frieda and Diego Burger (jalapeno peppers, fried onions and Monterey Jack cheese), the Chez Lucien burger (cream cheese, bacon and mushrooms) and the Bourgeois burger (Brie cheese and pear slices). I haven't picked a favourite, they're all delicious. Another bonus is that the standard presentation comes with a fries/salad combo, and the fries come with mayo instead of ketchup. The whole thing has a nice upscale but unpretentious vibe to it. It's also great value for the plate, each one coming out at 11-12 dollars. They also provide a salmon burger and tofu burger, but who wants that?!?!?

Next, we get to the champ: Hintonburger. Hintonburger is a bit of a case of striking while the iron is hot. Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood is knee-deep in gentrification-y goodness, which means a lot of new restaurants have opened up, as well as a couple of "food shacks" (for lack of a better term). One of the leaders of this charge is Hintonburger, who originally opened up in a tiny little shack of a spot in 2010, before making enough dough to take over a former KFC location up the street. The little shack has since been taken over by SuzyQ Doughnuts, whom we'll discuss in a future post (a hint though: Maple Bacon Doughnuts). But the nostalgic aesthetic and service set-up of the original location must have had the hipsterrati popping coolness boners on their classic 3-speed bikes... Lord knows it created a lot of buzz and crowds.

Me? I just like a good 'burg! It also helped that one of my friends works there and would occasionally put a bit of extra bacon on my burger... SHHHH!!!

The sign says it all

As for Hintonburger, they're still bustling with activity and probably making a good chunk of money to boot. And why not? Their burgers are KICKASS! Named after streets in the area, you can get the 4 oz. Armstrong burger or the 6 oz. Wellington burger, both of which come with the standard toppings one would expect. But really, the way to go is the Hintonburger, a 6oz. patty with bacon, cheese and BBQ sauce (and it's really good BBQ sauce!). At 8 bucks (prices have gone up despite what the Web site says), it might seem a bit steep for a place that's trying to evoke a stationary chip wagon, but it's 100% worth it, especially with a mess of Onion Rings on the side...

The only real downside with the way Hintonburger present themselves, yet also part of their charm, is the wait. While you expect the service will be like a fast food joint or diner, it's a pretty lengthy process. On a busy evening, give yourself 20 minutes between ordering and actually having the grease-stained paper bag in hand. But it's totally worth it and you get to chat with your neighbours. Unless they've trucked in from outside the neighbourhood... which most probably have.

And now, we wait... At least the company's pretty cool!

Now, what I find sets the Hintonburger burger apart from most isn't the toppings, because they're pretty basic, and it isn't the bun which tends to disintegrate long before you're done eating. What really makes the difference is the MEAT! Hintonburger prides itself on using locally farmed beef, meaning it's a lot fresher than most and you can taste the difference. They also season and grill it perfectly: just salty enough, cooked through, no pink, but still juicy.

Now THAT's dinner!
They also serve hand-battered corn dogs, which is pretty frakking cool...

All in all, I believe Hintonburger has earned their title of Ottawa's Best Burger. That being said, it'd be really cool if someone new steps up to the challenger's plate in the future...

So, there are just a few of MY favourite burger joints here in Ottawa. I'd hardly call myself an expert or a burger "aficionado". Luckily, there's at least one local blogger who is, because, apparently, Mike Likes Burgers...

So, that's it for this segment on burgers. Next time, we get to my favourite yet most frightening aspect of burgerdom: the crazy sh** people do to themselves via burger!

'Til then, happy snarfing!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Hey, I'm back already!

In case you haven't already guessed, I get a pretty puffed chest when I make my own bacon from scratch, as described in this post.

Now, as time goes on and I keep having fun with this specific form of curing/smoking, I find a need to stretch my creative wings and experiment a little with ingredients and flavours. My first attempt was already going beyond the 'normal' salt and sugar cure by using a smattering of Sriracha salt. Later attempts threw in maple syrup, Steak Spice and Thai Spice Rub.

But last week, I think I may have truly broken through the creative barrier of bacon making. I'm not sure where the idea came from, maybe from the need to look for other sources of sweetness than sugar and maple syrup, maybe because it's one of my favourite new experimental flavours. But it hit me like a bolt: VANILLA BACON!!!!!!!

I had the pork belly sitting in the fridge, ready for some salty-sugary love. So, all I had to do was come up with how to get the cure together. Well, it wasn't really complicated:

Spicy Vanilla Bacon Cure (for about 1 lb of pork belly)
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- (at least!) 1 tsp berbere spice (or some other source of spiciness)
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp high quality vanilla extract

- Stir all ingredients together with a fork and coat meat well with cure.

Getting the cure going
I left it in the fridge for about a week, tossing in a bit more salt and sugar on the last day.

When ready for smoking, I washed off the remaining cure, dried the bacon with paper towel, and smoked it for 3 hours with mesquite charcoal and pecan wood chips for smoke.

Freshly smoked! Mmmm, vanilla...
Now, like any good cook, I had to sample the wares, so I sliced off four small pieces (nice and thick!) and fried them up, put 'em on toast, spread some mayo, took a picture, added some tomato, and lunch was served!

Tasty lunch!

The verdict? The boozy, fragrant quality of the vanilla was definitely apparent and totally delicious, if a little understated. I'd have liked it to be more pronounced. Maybe I'll try a combo of curing with salt and sugar, and injecting vanilla right into the meat (still need to get into that whole 'injecting' style of prepping meat for smoking). The spicy element of the berbere really didn't come through very well, I'll use more next time. But, it's still tasty, tasty, TASTY bacon!

How much more fun will I engage in as part of my explorations into unique forms of bacon? I will definitely keep you posted!


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Burger Time! - Part 1 - The Basics

Hi there!

So, I was thinking about burgers, as one is wont to do when they're not a weirdo,  and I thought I'd write a little post about them. And then the ideas started coming about all the different facets about this ubiquitous food item and I realized there was way more than just one post worth of writing on the subject. So, I'll write three! This first post will deal with the basics of making burgers, the second will deal with where one can find a good burger in Ottawa (and elsewhere), and the third will deal with how the hamburger can become the canvas upon which one creates the ridiculous and the insane.

So let's get to it!

Ah, the noble hamburger... Next to booze, it's the second most important cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems. Scourge of vegetarians, foundation of the modern food economy and inspiration for an 80s video game (hence the title), hamburgers are pretty much the most common prepared food item in North America. And this has had some serious consequences on how we see food.

The rise of fast food has changed farming, butchery and even the global environment, and all to ensure we have a hamburger joint on every street corner. It's disconcerting to say the least that swathes of the Amazon rain forest are being razed daily just to provide pastures for cows that'll become the centrepiece of a few hundred "Happy Meals". And let's not even get started on the whole feedlot system...

But that doesn't mean I don't love me a good burger!

Seriously, there's nothing that conjures up the "sensual profile" of Summer more than a burger hot off the grill at a family BBQ, dripping juice and condiments down your arm. The main difference between this kind of burger and the McHockeyPuck burger is, of course, love. Well, that and making the burger as it should be: thick and with very little filler.

Now, making a burger that thrills and isn't just a vehicle for bacon, cheese, BBQ sauce and mayo is not an easy feat. First of all, ground beef can be a little bland and can get really dry if overcooked or too lean. I try to stick with using either medium or lean ground beef when making burgers, extra-lean just makes for a dry crumbly patty. So keep the right kind of ground beef in mind, low-fat diet be damned!

You also need to season your burger. I know purists out there will say that all you need to make a good burger patty is some salt and pepper. I respectfully disagree. A burger worth remembering for itself will have something unique about it. I usually throw in salt and pepper, a little minced fresh garlic (about a teaspoon per pound of meat) and some Montreal Steak Spice. Some people add eggs, some people swear by dry onion soup mix. It's really a matter of taste.

So, what's the basic process for making a burger patty? Throw your meat in a large bowl, add your seasoning, mix everything well with your hands (wear gloves if you're squeamish about touching raw meat, because there's really no way to make a patty without using your hands), roll into a ball, and flatten into the desired shape and thickness. Now, it should be noted that the burger recipe book I'll be discussing shortly recommends pressing your thumb lightly (1 centimetre deep) into the middle of the patty to ensure even cooking. Depending on how ready you are to cook the burgers, put the patties in the fridge until ready to cook or throw them on the fire right away!

Now, I'm not sure if there's anyone out there who believes that a fried burger is better than a grilled one, but if there is... SMACK! What the hell, dude???? 'fried is better than grilled'... Jeeeeeeeeez... But, in situations where grilling isn't possible (which should be rare; if you don't have access to an outside grill, you can always use one of those electric "George Foreman"-style grills), I recommend frying the burger in a cast iron pan.

So, what's the best way to cook a burger? Well first, you want high heat on your grill, somewhere around 400 degrees. Essentially, you want to grill the burger for about 7-8 minutes per side, making sure it's not pink in the middle (unless you like medium rare burgers, which need about 5 minutes, but to me that's asking for a tummy ache). Try to flip or otherwise manipulate the burger as little as possible. The more you play with your meat, the more juice you'll lose... aaaaand now I have the sense of humour of a 12-year old... Usually once the burgers are cooked, I set them aside on a cooler part of the grill to keep warm, then heat and slightly toast the buns over the grill. That's about it. What comes next is whatever you feel like topping them with. I'm usually happy with BBQ sauce and mayo, maybe a pickle and some tomato, but there's no end to the toppings you can choose.

When you're getting a bit bored of the "tried and true" burger seasoning you've always used, it helps to look elsewhere for inspiration when your culinary muscles aren't flexing as well as they should. With this in mind, we turn to a little gem of a cookbook I was able to procure last year for 5 dollars. Sally Sampson's Recipe of the Week: Burgers is pretty much what the title says: 52 different burger recipes. I've made a few of them and they all turned out pretty well, mostly because I stuck with the simpler ones, I'll wager.

Damn useful resource for 5 bucks!

Here are a couple of the recipes from the book, simplified for the sake of bloggish simplicity.

First there's a basic burger with just a few alterations, namely the inclusion of chipotle peppers. I pretty much followed this recipe to the letter.

Chipotle and Scallion Burgers    

Makes 4 burgers, about 1/3 pound each. For smaller burgers (1/4 pound), use less meat!


- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (medium or lean)

- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp scallions (green onion), both white and green parts, minced
- 1 tbsp canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 4 lime wedges


- Place beef, garlic, scallions and chipotle in a large bowl and mix well with hands, and form into 3/4 inch thick patties, making an indentation as described earlier.

- Season patties with salt and pepper and grill or fry as indicate earlier.
- Serve on warmed buns with lime wedges.

One of the first recipes we tried and it worked great!

Next, there's the recipe pictured above, which omits the use of buns altogether, instead using lettuce as the delivery mechanism for meaty goodness. I'm presenting the version I actually made, but the basic inspiration is still from Ms. Sampson's book.

Asian Beef Burgers with Ginger and Cilantro

Makes 4 burgers, about 1/3 pound each. For smaller burgers (1/4 pound), use less meat!


- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (medium or lean)
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp chopped ginger (fresh)
- 1/2 tbsp sesame oil
- 1/2 chili oil or Sriracha sauce (the original recipe calls for 1 tbsp of hot sesame oil, which I've never encountered, so I used a mix of "regular" sesame oil and Sriracha)
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 large leaves of butter (Boston) lettuce


- Mix all ingredients except salt in a large bowl with hands and form into 3/4 inch thick patties, making an indentation as described earlier.
- Season patties with salt and grill or fry as indicated earlier.
- Serve each patty on a leaf of lettuce.

Alright, so that's part one of our exploration of the noble hamburger. Next, we take to the streets in search of the best burgers made by other people, from the lowly "value menu" to some more high-end fare.

'Til then, NOM THAT BURG!


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Authenticity and Approximation


People all have their personal favourites when it comes to flavour profiles. For some, it's the sour tang of a dill pickle, or the salty richness of cheese curds, or the clean sweetness of a really good vanilla ice cream.

For Kari, one of them is the always popular Thai-style Satay chicken with peanut sauce. Satay basically means meat on a skewer, rather than the peanut sauce itself (which is something wikipedia JUST taught me). But due to the popularity of the sauce that goes with the meat-on-a-stick, it's generally just called Satay.

Anyhoo, it was my night to cook and Kari wanted the Satay Chicken w. Peanut Sauce goodness. Easy enough, right? Well, as it turns out, there is almost never an exact universal version of some recipes or standards in the food biz. Maybe basic poutine (fries, curds, gravy), but not much else. And God help you if you try to find THE authentic recipe for something, because every household, from Vietnam to Vermont, has "THEIR" version of the local standard and while they all have similarities, none are usually the same. So, finding the "authentic" version of anything can be a snipe hunt.

And this is why I personally scoff at the notion of "authentic" cuisine. Frak authentic, give me TASTY!!! Perfect example: I was talking to a buddy about BBQ in Ottawa and how it compares to his buddy's in Georgia. And, as it turns out, the "authentic" Georgian way is little seasoning on the meat, all flavour comes from an array of BBQ sauces (which is completely different from the other BBQ styles that I tend to emulate, but you get my point). If I personally think I can make something better than the "authentic" version, I'm gonna give tradition the two-fingered salute and forge ahead. In the case of BBQ, make both rub and sauce as flavourful and complimentary as possible and you can't go wrong.

Another example: a colleague of Mexican descent once lamented to me about the use of tomatoes in guacamole being "blasphemous", which I think is ridiculous. Tomatoes are delicious and compliment avocado perfectly!

So, all this to say, when I started looking at different recipes for the "traditional" peanut sauce, I figured the only way to go was make it my own and *approximate* the flavour profile as best I could. This, to me, is pretty much the essence of good cooking and the greatest challenge. It isn't a recipe that's going to make something taste the way it "should", it's your palette as a cook. If it's supposed to taste bland or safe or who-knows-what, then change it!

So, that's what I did. Most recipes I saw called for the use of peanut butter, chillies and a variety of spices. I had a vision of coconut milk, peanut butter, curry paste, Sriracha and lime juice. Luckily, someone else in Internet land was able to confirm that I was able to confirm that I was on the right track:  http://shesimmers.com/2009/03/how-to-make-thai-peanut-sauce-my-moms.html

Now, since it's me, I did not adhere to the above recipe exactly. I never do, it's just not my style (with some exceptions, like Doomsday Bars). Also, instead of making it a dipping sauce, I thought it might be fun to make it a marinade for the chicken. So I did! Here's how:

"Satay" Chicken

Serves 2-4, depending on appetite

- 1 lb. (1/2 kg) skinless, boneless chicken. I go with chicken thighs usually, mainly because they have more flavour and are much cheaper than breast.


- 1 400 ml (14 oz.) can coconut milk (just under 2 cups)
- 2 tbsp chunky peanut butter
- 1 tbsp red curry paste (I used store-bought stuff, but it's always better to make your own if you can)
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp Sriracha sauce
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp minced ginger or galangal

Piecing together the marinade
- Whisk all ingredients together. Place chicken in a zipper bag with marinade and toss to ensure marinade covers all the chicken. Let sit in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

Marinate, my pretties, marinate!

- Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.
- Grill chicken for about 6-8 minutes per side, turning once, until cooked through. Cooking time depends on the thickness of the meat. If you're cooking a large breast, it'll take longer.

Now, all good protein needs a side. In this case I whipped up an Asian-style slaw using cabbage and mango:

Asian Mango Slaw

Serves 4, at least


- 4 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tsp rice wine vinegar
- juice of 1/2 lime (and some zest if you like)
- 3-4 drops of fish sauce
- 1/2 tsp Sriracha sauce
- pinch smoked paprika

- Whisk ingredients together in non-reactive bowl and let sit in fridge while you make the Slaw.


- 1/2 white or Napa cabbage, shredded
- 1/2 red cabbage, shredded
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 1 mango, diced
- 2 green onions, trimmed and finely sliced
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

- Mix ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in Dressing and serve.

Tasty vegetative goodness!

And there's one man's approximation of a Thai feast!


And you'll notice nowhere is there a dipping sauce! Crazy!