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Flash in the Pan

Home-burger helper



Now seems like a good time to point out how easy it is to grind your own burger in the food processor. Grill season is starting, pink slime is everywhere and, for once, wouldn't it be nice to have a burger that isn't basically mystery meat? And while most households don't have meat grinders, your old La Machine or Cuisinart can get it done like a champ.

The process is about as simple as making a smoothie. Cut a burger's worth of meatbeef, venison, lamb, turkey, emu or any other dark meatinto one-inch cubes. Put the cubes in the food processor, along with spices and fat, as necessary. Push the "on" button. Run the blades until the ground meat gathers into a ball and bounces around the chamber like a Mexican jumping bean on Red Bull. It will take between ten seconds and a couple of minutes, depending on the meat, for this to happen.

Food processors aren't as good at cutting through sinew and connective tissue as a real meat grinder is, so be wary of tougher cuts like stew chunks, shoulder and flank, and forget about the likes of neck and shank.

Do yourself a favor and include chopped garlic, salt and pepper in your home-burger. If you're using lean meat, consider adding some kind of fat, like olive oil or bacon. Chopped onion is good, too. And there are many spice powders to be mixed and matched. But be careful: not all combinations are going to taste good.

I've applied several sausage recipes to my home-burgers, with mixed results. My interpretation of bratwurst burger, alas, sounds more epic than I found it to bethough in fairness, I didn't bathe my burger brats in Old Milwaukee.

My favorite burger seasonings are a clove of chopped garlic and a pinch each of salt, black pepper, fennel seed, celery seed and nutmeg per patty. I like adding this modified Italian sausage mix to deer meat and chopped pieces of top-shelf bacon or side pork. Bacon integrates better with other meat if you chop and add it while still frozen.

Speaking of cold meat, if you're in the market for grass-fed beef or buffalo this time of year, frozen is a much better option, provided it's been packaged correctly. Frozen is typically cheaper than fresh, and this time of year you don't want to eat fresh grass-fed beef anyway. The animals are skinny in winter, thanks to a diet of dried hay and whatever they can paw at through the snow. This is OK in the natural order of thingsthat's just life on the high plains. But economically, cattle just aren't worth slaughtering this time of year unless they're fat on grain. On the other hand, no beef is better than that from a cow that was finished on green grass and dandelions. That's what you can get, even in winter, with frozen grass-fed. And it's a myth that fresh meat is intrinsically superior to properly frozen meat.

Cheap cuts of steak, like flat iron or round, are good choices for home-burgers. Sirloin burgers are popular in many restaurants. T-bone burger is either a waste of a great steak or the greatest burger you ever ate, depending on who's cooking.

I make my patties on the thick side. Cooking meat over wood coals is ideal. But it's almost as good to simply broil the burgers at 500 in a cast-iron skillet, which holds heat and cooks the patty on both sides, so no flipping is necessary. After 5 to 10 minutes, a thick patty will begin contracting into a more rounded shape. Soon after, it's ready.

One could use a meat thermometer to check if it's done, but I just break the burger in half and look. If it's raw in the middle, I put the two pieces back to cook more. It's going to be further deconstructed anyway, because when I eat home-burger, I tear it apart as I go, adorning the bite-sized pieces with any number of condiments. These include homemade catsup, fake mayo (Vegenaise), chopped onions, chopped roasted green chile, avocado, tomato slices, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, roasted garlic, pickled peppers and pickled cucumbers, to name a few.

I like to lather my broken chunks of burger with catsup and mayo, sprinkle them with chopped onions and attach (or balance) whatever else I can to them. I then follow these burger bites with nibbles of other condiments and sips of wine, beer or coffee, depending on the time of day.

While I respect the hamburger sandwich, and have enjoyed my share, it's important to remember that it's not the only game in town. And personally, I have bun-related issues.

For one, the hamburger sandwich gets progressively uglier and messier as you eat it. This isn't a deal killer, but it's not exactly a bonus, either.

And I don't want to alarm anyone, but a big, bun-bound burgeror any other big thing you might attempt to put in your mouthcan literally break your face. A group of Taiwanese dentists is campaigning against super-sized fast-food meals, citing an increase in jaw dislocations attributed to burger lovers fighting their own anatomy and opening too wide for their own good. More than eight centimetersabout three inchesin a food's height, and you're biting into the mandibular danger zone, says professor Hsu Ming-Iung of National Yang-Ming University in Taipei.

Another reason I skip the bun is that I'm becoming more and more convinced that wheat is bad for you. Or at least, bad for meand I'm not even gluten intolerant. But that's a story for a different day.

If you must use bread, and I know you probably will, consider open-faced burger bites. A toasted slice of bread can hold a lot of condiments, I'll admit, and I have to respect that. But the piece on top is overkill.

And even if we differ on the pros and cons of wheat, I think we can all agree that the less bread you eat, the more room you'll have in your belly for the good stuff.

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