Bites and Pieces: Build a Better Burger

Gourmet burgers have become all the rage in the DC area. The Five Guys burger chain has its origins at the intersection of Glebe Road and Columbia Pike in Arlington, not too far from where I live. Rays Hell Burger was locally famous before it became a favorite place for President Obama to take visiting dignitaries. Their burgers really are THAT good. BGR is another favorite of mine. The worst burger I ever ate was at a greasy spoon off campus of the University of Missouri. I was interviewing for a faculty position in the Physics Department. I ordered a burger for lunch, took one bite, and realized that the center was raw. My guess is that it hadn’t completely defrosted when they put it on the grill. My choices were to send it back, potentially causing an awkward moment, or to choke it down. I choked it down and probably was fortunate to not get sick. I didn’t get the job; they gave it to a former grad student of the chair of the search committee. On the plus side, we went to a wine dinner that night at a local shop that was worth the trip.

A good burger is a thing of beauty and a great base for whatever you want to do. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, it’s going to be topped by green chili. Treat it like a steak and top with bernaise sauce. When you come down to it, basic is best. Few things are finer than a simple cheese burger on a good bun. Perhaps some fried onions or ketchup. Keep the mustard and relish away from my burger, please. Waiter, if me and the boys wanted to eat a hot dog, we would have ordered a hot dog. [Credit to Humphrey Bogart]

So, why on earth am I going to waste a valued slot of Bits and Bites on burgers. We all know how to make a burger. Take some ground beef, make some patties and grill them. Simple, no? Well, it’s time for me to go all Alton Brown on you. I want to focus on the critical ingredient: ground beef. If you’re buying it from a supermarket, you are either paying too much or don’t know what you’re using. I’m not talk about pink slime, simply that the stuff sold as “ground beef” in supermarkets might as well be mystery meat. It’s all the trimmings ground together, adjusted for fat content, and thrown out there for $4/pound. Good for the bottom line, but not the making of a great burger.

I ground my own beef for the first time a few years ago. We were one of a half-dozen families who were getting together for a picnic and I was assigned burgers. One of our copies of Cooks Illustrated had an easy way of making ground beef using a food processor, so I decided to give it a go. The burgers were great, even if the picnic wasn’t. One of my sons had an extended crying jag and I had to leave around the time that enough people finally arrived for the grilling to commence.

Thereafter, there has been a repeated refrain when it comes to E Coli contamination: ground beef. Does anyone remember when E Coli hit Jack in the Box. I remember a suggested slogan for them after the scare. “Jack in the Box: We cook the shit out of our burgers.” The best way to have a burger is medium rare and the only way you can be sure of it is to know where the beef comes from or trust the source. As long as you’re going to make your own burger, why not take a bit of extra time on the most important ingredient?

What meat to use? I have two ways to make ground beef. Chuck roast is perfect for making ground beef, which is why you often see it listed as ground chuck. One gets about 20% fat, perfect for burgers. We have a Costco membership, so I pick up some chuck roast every so often. I can get it for about the same price as ground meat in the grocery store. Oh, but the quality is so much better. I sometimes use flank steak, which is flavorful, but quite lean. I pair the flank steak with boneless short ribs to get the right fat level. Other folks like sirloin. Hey, do what you want to do! I’ve read about using a cheap cut of relatively lean beef and adding in lard to kick up the fat level. You could go full gourmet and add duck fat.

How to make the ground beef? We bought a stand mixer a few years ago via Craigslist and the owner threw in a pasta making attachment (useless) and a grinding attachment (wonderful). So, I use that for making ground beef. A food processor works just fine. Cut the meat into 1” – 2” chunks, put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes to firm it up, and pulse it until you get the right consistency. It’s easy! Process it in batches and freeze the excess. I wrap the ground beef in plastic wrap, followed by a barrier layer of aluminum foil. It’ll keep and there’s no freezer burn.

How do you make a better burger? A great burger needs three things: ground beef, salt, and pepper. If you’re adding bread or onions or whatever else, you’re making meat loaf, not a burger. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good meat loaf. This, however, is about burgers. I do think that the salt and pepper should be mixed it. The entire burger should be seasoned. Otherwise, there’s a hit of seasoning on the crust, and nothing inside. So, mix in the salt and pepper. I like ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of black pepper for a pound of ground beef. Once it’s mixed, divide the beef into about 5 oz. for each patty. Cook how you like. It’s hard, ok, impossible, to beat the grill. On the stove, I use a cast iron skillet. Avoid non-stick at all cost.

Now, sauce time. I can hardly fault the combination of grilled onions and cheese. I mentioned the New Mexico penchant for green chile sauce on burgers, so I thought I’d share my favorite salsa verde. It comes from Rick Bayless, the chef with a number of Mexican restaurants in the Chicago area, including Topolobampo and Frontera Grill.

1 pound of tomatillos
1 head of garlic, separated into cloves with skin on
8 Serrano peppers
1 lg. white onion
1 bunch cilantro
2 – 4 limes (depending upon how juice they are)
salt and pepper to taste

Remove outer wrap from tomatillos and wash. Rub with vegetable oil and put into oven (a toaster oven is great for this) on broil until skins blacken. Set aside to cool and remove skins. Don’t worry about getting it all. When skins are removed, toss into the bowl of a food processor.
Meanwhile, thoroughly coat Serrano peppers and garlic cloves with vegetable oil and put in medium sized pan. Cook over med-high heat, shaking occasionally, until skins of peppers blister and the garlic slightly blackens. Remove from heat, cover and let cool. Remove the skins from the garlic cloves and Serrano peppers. The steaming action while cooling makes removing the skins easy. Depending upon how spicy you like your salsa, you can remove some, all, or none of the seeds from the peppers. Toss the peppers into the bowl of the food processor.

Chop white onion and briefly blanch in hot water (I boil a bit, but very hot tap water works too). Drain and put in food processor. Rinse cilantro and coarsely chop. Keep the stems in as they’ve plenty of flavor. Blend everything and pour into a bowl. Add salt, pepper, and lime juice to taste.

I’m also moving Okie Girl’s tomato salsa as it’s a great ketchup alternative. [Hope you don’t mind me moving it up into the main post, Okie!]


This recipe came via one of the old regulars at a neighborhood dive bar I used to frequent to play shuffleboard. His nickname is “Lumpy” as a result of a serious car accident in which his neck was broken. He published the recipe in a cookbook the bar patrons all contributed to many years ago. Another regular patron who owned a local restaurant then began serving it in his restaurant and reported it was a huge success. I made some modifications that I’ll describe after the original recipe and began giving it as holiday gifts. It has been so popular I am now up to giving away 4-6 pint cases every Christmas.


6 lbs plus 3 oz canned chopped tomatoes
¾ C dried onion
½ C sugar
1 ¼ C white vinegar
3-4 jalapeno peppers (to taste)
1/8 C pickling salt
¾ Tbs chili powder
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp alum
1 small can green chilies


Mix all ingredients together in large pan. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. After it cools, pour into jars and keep refrigerated. Makes about 8 pints.


I use fresh chopped onion instead of dried, reduce the sugar a bit, and use a mix of canned and fresh tomatoes. This tends to make a rather thin salsa, so I use half fresh tomatoes and half canned crushed tomatoes to add some body. I also add a couple of cloves of minced garlic, a large chopped bell pepper, and about a half bunch of chopped cilantro. If I’m going to be using the salsa immediately, I reduce the vinegar a bit (to about 1C) but leave vinegar as is if I’m canning it.

Since this makes a more liquid salsa than I typically prefer, I frequently strain off some of the liquid and use it as seasoning in other dishes (such as using it for part of the cooking liquid for rice).

So, what’s your better burger?

BB (for beef burger of course)

On Being Fat

When I was a little boy, I was a normal kid, at a normal weight. I was a rambunctious male child from a divorced household, and, today, I’m sure, I would have been put on Ritalin. My mother, while not maternal, was very health conscious, and kept the food in the house normal, but healthy. There were not a lot of sugary snacks or sugared drinks.

However, I liked to eat, and would find ways to do so. I have the sort of metabolism that packs on the pounds, so after 2nd and 3rd grade, I became kind of chubby. And while I put on some weight through 6th grade, I wasn’t morbidly obese. But I felt fat. When I was skinny—and, after a 4 month stint in boarding school environment where my food consumption was tightly controlled, I was skinny—I still felt fat.

My mother spent a year in France when I was in 7th grade, so I began to live with my father full time. The food there wasn’t as healthy, and I put on more weight. By the time I was in high school, I weighed 300 pounds. After a few years of that, I got tired of it. I started eating less, without a specific goal, with just the idea of eating a little bit less and being a little more healthier, and maybe losing a little weight. I’d still be fat, of course, but I wouldn’t be quite as fat.

At about the same time, my best friend dropped out of school and was rail-roaded into the Coast Guard. Although he was skinny as a rail, a lot of my most egregious over-consumption I did with him. Since he was gone, I just stopped consuming bags of chips and entire tubes of cookie dough in a single sitting.

I smoked like a smoke-stack then–now, I had done that for years, but now it provided me a handy alternative to eating so much. Also, they were menthols, so they were flavorful, as well. But I think the most important thing was that I had resigned myself to being fat, and was only trying to ease up a little bit. I wasn’t going to be skinny–I wasn’t ever going to be skinny. It was an absurd thought. But I could lose a little weight, come down a few sizes. In any case, I could certainly get by on a little less food and eat a little healthier.

By the time I had lost 80 lbs, it occurred to me that I could, in fact, be skinny. And I became so. My freshmen year at college, I went from 215 or so at the beginning of the year to 185 at the end. I had continued to wear baggy clothes, my hair had remained unkempt, and despite having lost 100 pounds over about 16 months, nobody at that point had really noticed*. However, a few changes to my wardrobe, grooming, and a little more exercise over the summer made a big difference. At the beginning my sophomore year, I was now thin and fit, to the point where I got a few audible gasps. I relished getting together with old friends from high school who had not seen me for a year, and seeing their shock (this does eventually get old, when people you don’t even remember come up to tell you how fat you used to be, but at first, I loved it). And even good friends see you in a different way when you’ve lost 100 pounds.

I finally felt skinny. I believe it was over the summer, or at the beginning of my sophomore year. I would have weighed around 175, and was preparing to go out to Rocky Horror. Looking in the mirror, I noticed that I did not have a double chin. No doubt, this had been true for months, but this was the first time I really noticed it. I nodded my head. Still no double chin. I practically had to break my neck to produce anything that resembled a second-chin**. God bless! I was thin!

And I stayed thin for quite a while. I had assumed it would be the case for the rest of my life, and that I had that puppy licked (ah, hubris). But I stayed thin, actually getting down to 150 at one point (of course, I could not actually consume any calories to maintain this weight, so that did not last long). But I hovered between 175 and 185 for years. After working for a year, a crawled up to 195. As my wife-to-be an I moved in together, I put on another 10 lbs, and hovered between 220 and 210 for several years. Then, my wife got pregnant, and I gained 40 lbs. While I managed to get down a little from 250, she got pregnant (again!) and I surpassed it. I been as high as 275 . . . never quite 300 pounds, again, but more than 100 pounds over my idea college weight.

There’s a lot I could note about my first years of svelteness (and I suspect, though cannot confirm, that going from being very fat and fit and trim is a great deal more enjoyable than simply having been thin and fit from the outset), but I’ll just note one. The issue of weight, and how I had managed to end up as overweight as much as I did in high school, continued to occupy my mind. A lot of my writing at the time dealt with both direct and indirect psychological introspection. Specifically, songs like Big Fat Geek (I weighed 170 lbs when I wrote it), Fat, Fat (probably around 180, when I wrote it), My Big Fat Friend, with lots of other stuff that touched on similar themes without being quite so direct.I thought I had a great handle on my inner psychology that drove me to over eating and sedentary behavior . . . but, as time would demonstrate, I was a little cocky. Because, while I’m around 260 now (and, slowly, descending, but there’s no rush), I’ve spent a lot of time in the past 5 years around 270 and sometimes has high as 275. If you have told me my junior year of college that, at 40, I’d weigh over 270 and be routinely hoarding snacks in my desk like a chipmunk putting away nuts for winter, I would have told you to go fuck yourself and punched you in the face. Yet, you would have been right, and I would have been a tad hubristic and over optimistic in my projections.

There’s been a lot of dieting since leaving college that I haven’t chronicled. And a lot of eating. Sufficed to say, I have always gained that weight back. And usually in short order, and usually a little more besides. On more than one occasion, I’ve attempted to recapture the state of mind I was in when I lost so much weight from Christmas of 1986 to mid-1988. And it’s been very difficult. But, I’m trying again.

In this case, I’ve gone this way before, but I’m having a little better luck (so far), in that I’m not dieting. I’m just trying to change my eating habits. While I want to lose weight, the goal is to change my eating habits, and do so in increments. So far, this has worked all right. I remind myself that it’s a process of conditioning.

I greatly enjoyed Joel Spitzer’s Never Take Another Puff method of quitting smoking. An important point he makes is that it’s important not to confuse your withdrawal a day, a week, or a month into the process of quitting with how things will be in a year. It’s different for everybody; I’ve quit smoking enough to know it takes me about six weeks to get past the general addiction and, even then, I sometimes still really want a cigarette (if this weren’t true, I wouldn’t have had to quit smoking more than once).† When I remember I’m not trying to diet, specifically (if I don’t lose weight this week, that’s fine) but attempting to recondition myself in regards to how I eat, I have to remember: a lot of what I’m feeling is because my body is used to being fed a lot of calories, and that my body will eventually adjust. I felt fine for a long time eating a very modest diet; I know I can get by with much less.

I am trying not to confuse how I feel when trying to manage day to day life while feeling out-of-sorts, punchy, or light-headed with a state of permanence, and trying to focus on the things I enjoy about eating less (my sense of smell improves, bizarrely, and scents become much more sensual–that is, if they’re pleasant).

So, we’ll see how this approach works. I’ve fallen off the wagon, in regards to overeating, more times than I can count. Because I have an appetite, and I enjoy eating, and tend to over do it. But I’m focusing more than usual on changing eating habits first. No more second breakfast for me!

So, anybody else here overweight? Struggled with dieting? Fit and svelte, but formerly fat? I often debate politics and movies and economics and whatnot but, the fact is, nothing has much more impact on the day-to-day quality of my life than both what I eat, and how much I weigh (despite my undying love of cheese burgers, I miss the lightness and mobility of weighing 185, and try to keep that foremost in my mind when the leftovers in the refrigerator start calling my name).

There is more to be said: I suspect some, though not all, the migraines that I get would be gone with the wind, if I maintained a low calorie, low-consumption diet. I can tell you from experience, people who struggle with their weight really do struggle with it, even if to some they only seem fat and lazy (but I can understand why some people might think that). I wonder how much of the perceived negatives (for me) of low food consumption, and low blood sugar, are psychological. Am I oversharing? But . . . I’ll dip into that in the comments, if anybody is interested in discussing eating habits and weight history on an ostensibly political blog.

But, then again, it is called all things in moderation.

* In fact, we usually make a huge deal about our weight, when wardrobe and grooming actually make as much, if not more, and impact on how we are perceived by others. If I found myself waking up in my 300 pound high school body back in 1984, the first thing I’d do is upgrade my wardrobe and grooming habits).

** Ah, the wonders of youthful skin elasticity. While there was nothing to be done about my flabby stomach–300 lbs is too much stretching, and you’re never going to have six-pack abs after that without cosmetic surgery–I was able to rebound from being 300 lbs in high school to having a nice, tight firm skinny little neck by the beginning of my sophomore year in college. This would not be the case now, alas.

† At some point, I may do a post on smoking. I don’t know how many former smokers we have here, but I’ve got a few things to say about smoking, about enjoying smoking, about quitting smoking, and not being great about “never taking another puff” even though, of course, once you’ve gone through the trouble to quit, you know you’ll just have to go through it all over again the minute you pick up a cigarette.

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