Burger Quest Part 1: Good Stuff

29 05 2010

Quest for the best burger part I – Washington, DC – Good Stuff Eatery

I’ve decided it’s time to start talking restaurants on here. If i’m opinionated and critical, forgive me for insulting your favorite restaurant along the way… but it probably sucks anyway.

I’m on a quest to determine what makes the ultimate burger. I know – everyone has their own (strong) opinions about what makes a good burger – but these are just mine. I suspect this search is going to go on for a while but so far I have some findings…

I got into an argument with my friend Nick the last time I was in Washington visiting Stef. We were sitting around talking and I hadn’t seen him in months, maybe years, and we got into an argument about what has become my favorite restaurant in Washington – Good Stuff Eatery. It’s in Capitol Hill and is owned/run by one of the former Top Chef competitors – Spike Mendelsohn.

I was fully prepared for Good Stuff to suck the first time I went to check it out. Walking in it looked more like a Chipotle serving burgers than a gourmet burger joint. Little did I know, this was just your typical nod to Washingtonian corporatized restaurant identity that apparently sells much more product than individual, quirky style like you’ll find more of in New York or San Francisco.

The good news about Good Stuff for me (and for Spike) is that the product they’re slangin’ is top notch. It far exceeded the expectations I had based on the corporate identity they’re repping. At the rate those bugers are rolling out of that place, I’d wager they have good reason to keep that corporate identity around too because I think it’s likely they could go running with that brand, the gourmet burger and the shake assembly line they’ve got set up.

As far as the food – the menu is simple enough… actually the perfect size for me. Just enough variety but not so much that it’s overwhelming. And, while the prices may seem steep for the size of the burgers, in my opinion the quality of the product that goes into them and the flavor that comes out is definitely worth it.

I have to put this out there – I’m a total sucker when it comes to burgers with eggs on them. That said, I liked these burgers before I even tasted the egg burger… that one just took it to the next level. My three favorites in order are Spike’s Sunny Side (which I think they used to call the 5 Napkin), the Prez Obama and the Blazin Barn. The Obama totes Roquefort (I think?) cheese and caramelized onions, the Sunny Side is one of my all-time favorite combos (bacon, egg and cheese) done the best I’ve ever had on on a ridiculously good sweet roll and the Barn is pretty obviously Spike’s nod to his time in Vietnam – basically a banh mi burger. I was worried about the Barn not coming with cheese because I have to have cheese on a burger but he proved me wrong there too. The pickled carrots and daikon combined with the sriracha mayo bring plenty of flavor and creaminess to keep me satisfied. The burgers themselves – perfectly cooked, perfect texture, nice and fat and super juicy. Quality. And they’re cooked on a flattop griddle, which I’m beginning to realize is one of the keys to the perfect burger. Another key to the perfect burger is the bun – and they have the perfect buns at Good Stuff as well – sweet and soft.

And the fries… the fries are cooked until they’re nice and crispy but they’re still just thick enough to be a little soft in the middle, which I like – but my favorite part is that you can get them tossed with a pretty healthy pinch of fresh thyme, rosemary and pepper.

Oh and the price – the first time I thought the burgers were a little bit small but every time I go I’m totally satisfied with a burger and half a small order of fries so i’m beginning to think it may be just right. They’re around $7 a piece… pretty standard for a burger like that. The quality of ingredients and the taste make that thing well worth the 7 bucks to me.

I was in Washington a couple weeks ago and we had plans to check out Ray’s Hellburger in Virginia but somehow we found ourselves in Capitol Hill and just couldn’t resist Good Stuff. The famous Hellburger will have to wait for another visit. As expected, Good Stuff delivered again and every time it leaves me wanting more. I’m still having dreams about that egg burger. Either way I’ll have more burger news soon as the search continues.

Good Stuff Eatery
303 Pennsylvania Ave S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003

Hours: M-Sat. 11:30am-11:00pm, Closed Sundays


Making Cheese – Neufchatel

27 05 2010

I’ve been wanting to make cheese for a while now. I finally decided to give it a shot last weekend. Since I’ve been working a lot lately with temperamental, sensitive stuff like beer and cured meats and other fermentations, I decided to forego the beginner projects like making yogurt and lebnah first and went straight for the cheese. If you’re not familiar with any of the concepts involved, I’d recommend starting from the beginning to get a grasp on handling the ingredients, what certain temperatures feel like, etc.

I found an awesome resource online by a guy who actually happens to be from Ohio and teaches at the University of Cincinnati. He has loads of great information and photos on his site – here.

I decided to go with a mixture of half goat’s milk and half raw cow’s milk. I got some liquid rennet from a cheese shop in my area but apparently you can get the tablets at a pharmacy or grocery store. Rennet is what helps the curds separate from the whey. It comes from the stomachs of mammals and contains enymes that help the milk solids coagulate.

I also varied slightly from his syllabus… I decided to scald the milk just to be sure it was free of any extra bacteria although probably not necessary because it was all pretty fresh. After the temperature fell back down to around 70F I pitched the cultured buttermilk and the rennet that I had dissolved in a little bit of cool water.

Mixed that up and let it set up overnight, or for about 12 hours. By the time I checked on it in the morning it had set up nicely and although I didn’t get a proper clean break, I think it was close enough. A clean break is when the curds have set up solid enough that a finger inserted and removed at an angle will produce a clean cut with no remnants sticking to the finger. This cheese seems to be pretty forgiving though and despite not having a totally clean break it seems to have been good enough. I didn’t have time to let it set more but I’d recommend going for the full clean break. If you don’t get it after 12 or so hours, let your curds set for another 12 hours or so. If you still don’t achieve one at that point then you probably won’t at all and need to start over. It probably means there was an issue with your rennet.

So, after the curds have set properly, it’s time to cut them and separate them from the whey. They whey is the leftover liquid that the curds have separated from. Remember Little Miss Muffet? That’s the stuff she was eating right there… she couldn’t even wait for the cheese to be finished!

I’m honestly not really sure why you cut the curds for this cheese other than just making it easier to remove them from the whey. I know in other cases it’s important to have them all be similar sizes but I doubt that it matters much here because it’s all getting mashed back together anyway.

So, after slicing the curds with a knife or spatula or something (about 1/2″ to 3/4″ slices in both directions) the curds get ladled out into the cheesecloth. This lets them drain off as much of the whey as possible to create a nice, dense, creamy cheese. The curds then get wrapped up in the cheesecloth, tied and hung to drip for another whole day in the fridge.

After that, it’s finished! You should mix in some salt at very least and if you get crazy you can try mixing in some chopped garlic, fresh herbs, dried herbs, spices – whatever you want! It’s your cheese, don’t let me tell you what to do with it.

Neufchatel Cheese
Adapted from David Fankhauser

1 quart Goat’s Milk
1 quart Whole Cow’s Milk (you can use skim but the less fat, the less rich your cheese will be…. alternatively, you could use heavy cream!)
2 drops liquid rennet dissolved in a few tablespoons of cool water (or the equivalent from a rennet tablet)
1/4 cup cultured buttermilk (check to make sure it contains active cultures, otherwise it’s useless)
salt to taste

Go forth and make cheese.

Angry Mussels

20 05 2010

Lately one of my favorite things to eat has been mussels. For so long I never even gave them a second thought as something I would make at home. Turns out, they are suuuuper stupidly simple and cheap and really really tough to f up. Don’t believe me? Try it. Now, they’re great as they are, steamed in a little bit of white wine. But what would make them better? Do I really have to answer that?.. yeah, you guessed it – bacon. If there’s one food equation you can almost always count on it’s that shellfish + bacon = amazing.

I was watching the Food Network one night and at some point someone mentioned JCT Kitchen in Atlanta and their Angry Mussels. I was only half paying attention but as soon as I heard that the mussels were cooked with a heap of bacon I tuned in solid. After a bit of searching on the web I learned that this joint cooks their mussels with a load of bacon and fresh chilis. Bacon = no problem – always on hand. I was without fresh chilis so I kinda just riffed on the idea of spicy, bacony mussels.

I decided that the best way to go about it would be to render down a bunch of bacon, remove it and sautee some aromatics (garlic, red onions and the whites of some scallions) in the smokey rendered fat. Along with that I added some crushed red pepper flakes and a little bit of cayenne to spice it up.

I rendered the bacon and sauteed the aromatics in the fat. Got the pan hot, tossed in the mussels and a good glug of dry white wine. Threw on a lid and simmered for about 5 minutes. Removed to a bowl, tossed in the bacon, topped with green onion tops and got out the bread to sop up the juice. The liquid that cooks out of the mussels mixed with the wine, bacon, chilis and all that other good stuff makes for some seriously awesome flavor.

Angry Mussels
Adapted from JCT Kitchen

1lb mussels
1 cup dry white wine
1″ thick slab of bacon, diced (or equivalent in sliced bacon)
1/2 red onion
3 green onions
1 seranno chili or a good pinch of crushed red pepper
some good bread

See above for *detailed* steps. Or just sautee, steam and eat. Way too easy.

And satisfaction.

Smooth Operator

18 05 2010

For a long time I refused to even attempt to make smoothies at home because after a few terribly watered down and flavorless attempts I decided it was best left to the masters at Jamba Juice. But, recently I decided that it was actually something I could conquer. I realized that there are really only a couple of key elements to making an awesome smoothie at home:

1. One of the fruits must be frozen
2. One of the fruits must not be frozen
3. A decent blender (you don’t have to spend a ton, it just needs a powerful motor)

At the heart of it that’s the real key because it allows you skip the ice so you don’t have to thin the flavor just to get it cold. No one likes a warm smoothie so just blending warm fruit is no good either. Having the fresh fruit is also essential because you need something that liquefies easily so the blender can do its work. The fresh fruit is the catalyst to get the whole thing churning. A lot of the time you won’t even need juice to thin it out but if you do, add it a bit at a time and only as much as you need so you don’t end up with a thin liquid smoothie.

Now come the other steps that aren’t as key but in my opinion are pretty essential. For starters, I almost always have a banana in the mix. Banana just adds a perfect creamyness and really binds everything together in the perfect texture. When I buy bananas I almost never make it through the entire bunch before they go bad. So when it gets to the point where they’re almost starting to turn brown (because the longer they ripen, the sweeter they get) I slice them up and freeze them in a tupperware tub. Then when I’m ready to make my smoothie I just grab that, a little bit of fresh fruit, some yogurt and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice and I’m ready to go. Honestly I usually don’t even use more than two fruits, one of which is almost always a banana.

The other option I’ve been using lately that allows me to use the fresh bananas too is using frozen chunks of fruit from Trader Joe’s. Some of my favorite combos are below.

Frozen banana + frozen blueberry + fresh strawberry + plain yogurt + lemon juice

Frozen mango chunks + fresh banana + plain yogurt

Frozen banana + peanut butter + chocolate syrup + milk or vanilla yogurt (trust me, it’s awesome)

Useful ingredients are…

Fruit (fresh and frozen)
Yogurt (plain or flavored)
Lemon juice
Juice – orange, pineapple, carrot… whatever
Peanut butter

The trick is when fruit is in season and it’s cheap, buy a bunch and freeze what you can’t eat when it’s at the peak of its ripeness or even a bit past.

A word on blenders – I’ve tried making smoothies with shitty blenders in the past and it just discouraged me from wanting to make them at home. I’ve found two options that are affordable (compared to restaurant grade blenders) and work great. One is the super simple old-school clover shaped blender. The shape of that thing was apparently designed perfectly to encourage mixing and it does an amazing job of getting stuff mixed without needing to stir or beat the hell out of the side. The second is what I use now, an Oster Beehive. It’s relatively cheap and has an amazingly powerful motor for its price.

Cobb Salad

17 05 2010

Here come the posts. They’ve been piling up for weeks now and I’m just getting around to sorting things out so bear with me. I made this cobb salad a couple weeks ago and it was pretty awesome. The whole operation takes a fair amount of prep but once you have everything ready it’s easy to throw together another one the next day or every day following until you run out of ingredients.

Key ingredients – some mixture of salad greens, bacon, chicken, avocado, blue cheese, tomato and hard-boiled egg.

I used these nice mixed cherry tomatoes just sliced in half.

A nice ripe avocado.

Some homemade bacon.

Some Maytag blue cheese – one of my favorites.

Some of my standard vinaigrette that was a little heavier on the mustard and had a little bit of honey in there to sweeten it up.

And some hard-boiled eggs.

And there you have the healthiest salad of all time. Ok, so maybe not quite… but it’s damn tasty.

Arugula Pesto

16 05 2010

Ok so, sorry but I’ve been on a little bit of hiatus. Believe it or not it’s because I’ve actually been cooking more than usual. Because of that, most of what I’ve been cooking is pretty boring so I haven’t really been motivated to post any of it… but I was thinking that some of it may actually be more useful than any of the other stuff I post because most of it is easy, cheap and functional. Starting out with something super simple, adaptable and good for some nice lite fresh summer dishes. Pesto.

The best thing about pesto is that it’s so versatile and adabltable. You can make it out of so many different combinations of ingredients and there really are very few limits. The easiest way to success but by no means the only is some combination of 1) green leafy herb, 2) some kind of nut or legume, 3) garlic, 4) hard cheese, 5) olive oil and 6) salt+pepper. The classic combination is basil + pine nuts +raw garlic + parmesan + olive oil + salt and pepper. Swap out any or all of those for variations.

It’s so simple. The only thing you need really is a food processor but depending on your blender you could even do it in there… just might require a little bit of shaking around and you may have to thin it out a bit more to get things moving.

For this batch I had a bunch of extra arugula around that I knew I wasn’t going to get to before it went bad so I decided to prolong its life as pesto. I didn’t have any pine nuts but cashews are just as good and sometimes even better. The rich buttery nuttiness cuts nicely through the peppery arugula.

A nice fistful of grated pecorino romano, a few glugs of olive oil, some salt, some pepper and a few whacks from the food processor and it’s ready to go.

And the first application – chef Stef making a pesto pizza!

I’m back baby!