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Stir It Up

‘Insanity Burger’ is crazy good

One great thing about burgers is that they don’t require a recipe. Form some ground meat into a patty, plop it on a grill or in a pan, and you’re done. Unless, of course, you are aiming for what British chef Jamie Oliver calls “burger perfection,” in which case you need not just a recipe, but a kind of choreographed — or, in Oliver’s word, “ritualistic” — cooking technique that results in what he dubs an “Insanity Burger.”

“Burger perfection” starts with the right meat, and in his new book, “Comfort Food,” Oliver argues for ground chuck, which he says offers the desirable balance of fat and meatiness. Oliver’s recipe calls for Red Leicester cheese, but if you can’t find it, a mild cheddar will do.

As for the “sesame-topped brioche burger buns,” you can use any bun you like; but if you go for a traditional squishy, white-bread burger roll, be advised that this is a sloppy burger and the roll will more or less disintegrate. Try to pick something with some oomph — ciabatta or semmel rolls, for example.

I wouldn’t presume to try to improve upon anything Jamie Oliver does, but I’ve tweaked his method a bit for those of us not used to the pressures of short-order cooking. Also, he calls for cooking the burgers a total of 3 1/2 minutes, which results in a burger way too rare, at least for me, and one that certainly does not meet the USDA guideline of an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

Read the recipe through before you start and get all of the ingredients lined up and ready. That way, the “insane” part is the flavor, not the cooking.


Yield: 4 servings

For the burger “sauce”:

1/4 head of iceberg lettuce, chopped

2 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise

1 heaping tablespoon ketchup

1 teaspoon Tabasco Chipotle sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon brandy or bourbon (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

For the burgers:

1 3/4 pounds ground chuck steak

Olive oil

1 large red onion, sliced

Splash of white wine vinegar

Sea salt

2 large gherkins, sliced

4 teaspoons yellow mustard

4 teaspoons ketchup

4 or 8 slices of smoked bacon

Ground black pepper

Tabasco Chipotle sauce

4 sesame-topped brioche burger buns or other buns

4 thin slices of Red Leicester cheese or mild cheddar

Few teaspoons water

Make the sauce: Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a bowl, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Divide meat into four equal portions and, with wet hands, roll each piece into a ball, then press into flat patties roughly 3/4 inch wider than the buns (to allow for shrinkage). Rub a platter with some olive oil and place the burgers on the platter and refrigerate.

Prepare remaining ingredients: Place the sliced onion in a bowl, dress with vinegar and a pinch of salt. Slice the gherkins. Spoon the mustard into one small bowl, spoon the ketchup in another. Also have handy a cover for your nonstick skillet. (Oliver recommends inverting a heatproof bowl over the burgers; you can also use a cookie sheet as a lid.)

Line a plate with paper towels and set in the oven. Set another unlined plate in the oven as well. Preheat oven to lowest setting. In a skillet, cook the bacon until crisp. Transfer from pan to the lined plate and return to oven. Keep the skillet with bacon fat handy.

Heat a large, non-stick frying pan. Brush each burger on both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Put two burgers into skillet, pressing down with a slotted spatula. After 1 minute, flip the burgers and brush each cooked side with 1/2 teaspoon mustard and a dash of Tabasco. After another minute, flip onto the mustard side and brush again with another 1/2 teaspoon mustard and a second dash of Tabasco. Cook until done to your liking.

Place one or two slices of bacon on each burger and top with a slice of cheese. Add a tiny splash of water to the pan, cover and cook until cheese is melted, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer the cooked burgers to the warm plate in the oven and cover loosely with foil. Repeat with the remaining two burgers.

Just as last two burgers are done, crank up the heat under the skillet with the bacon fat and, working in batches, toast the split buns in the fat.

To assemble: Add a quarter of the burger sauce to the bun base, then top with a cheesy bacon burger, a quarter of the onions and gherkins. Rub the bun top with a teaspoon of ketchup, then gently press together and serve.

From “Jamie Oliver’s Comfort Food” by Jamie Oliver. Copyright 2014 Jamie Oliver. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Finding comfort in global cuisine

Most of us think of “comfort food” as food that brings us back to childhood and our family’s home cooking. It is a term first coined in 1977 and attributed to Phyllis Richman, then a restaurant critic for The Washington Post. She used it to describe a plate of the Southern classic, shrimp and grits. For a Southerner, that might feel just right. For other Americans, it might mean mac ‘n’ cheese, or chicken soup, or Mom’s meatloaf. It can be store-bought, like a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s or a White Castle burger.

Our ideas of comfort foods often relate to our cultural heritage; Polish-Americans might yearn for pierogi, while those of Irish descent might hanker for colcannon.

But for Carla Hall, the term has no geographical or cultural boundaries. To the former CPA-turned-model-turned caterer-turned-food-show co-host, “comfort food” can be a Brazilian fish soup, a Liberian pepper and goat stew, or a Haitian breakfast porridge.

Hall, who was raised in Tennessee and is currently a co-host of ABC’s “The Chew,” believes that food is the great connector. In her new cookbook, “Carla’s Comfort Foods,” she says, “I’m gonna take you from Nashville to Naples to Nigeria so you can taste and see how we’re all united by great meals shared with family and friends.”

That, in itself, is a comforting thought. “Sure, I grew up with grits, but it’s served as polenta in Italy,” writes Hall. “I love seeing — and tasting — how home-cooked food works in uniting people.”

I confess that I had never heard of Hall nor of the splash she made on “Top Chef,” where she won fans with her yoga stretches, her dance moves and singing, and by revealing that she and her husband do a call-and-response (“Hootie!” “Hoo!”) when trying to locate each other in a crowd. But her approach to cooking seems on target: She believes that if you cook with love, it will show in your food. As her website declares, “If you’re not in a good mood, the only thing you should make is a reservation.”

As an Italian American who inexplicably finds comfort in Chinese Hot and Sour Soup, I found that Hall’s recipe for Hot and Sour Eggplant hit home. The blistered skin and tender flesh of the eggplant make for an irresistible texture, while the spice is just right: enough to engage your taste buds, but not enough to numb them. This dish is among the many in Hall’s home-cook-friendly book that will help us all start finding comfort in foods from around the world.


Yield: 4 servings

5 small, striped eggplants or Chinese or Japanese eggplants, trimmed, cut in eighths lengthwise, then cut in halves crosswise

Kosher salt

3 quarts warm water

2 Serrano chilies, stemmed and minced, with seeds

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 tablespoons sliced fresh basil leaves

Sprinkle the eggplant pieces with 1 tablespoon salt, then immerse in the warm water in a large bowl. Let stand while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a small bowl, stir the chilies, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar and cornstarch until the sugar dissolves.

Drain the eggplant well and press dry between paper towels.

Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, and wait until it looks wavy, then add half the eggplant. Cook, tossing and stirring, until browned and just tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with remaining oil and eggplant, and then return the first batch of eggplant to the wok.

Add the scallions and the chili mixture. Cook, tossing and stirring, for 2 minutes. Toss in the basil and serve immediately over Perfect Baked Rice (below).


Yield: 4 servings

1 cup white rice

Water for rinsing

1 1/2 cups water, homemade chicken or vegetable stock, or salt-free or low-sodium store-bought broth

1 tablespoon butter or oil (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place rice in a bowl and cover with water. Swish around and drain. Repeat, draining well.

In an oven-proof Dutch oven or deep skillet with a lid, bring the water and butter or oil (if using) to a boil over high heat. Stir in the rice, remove from heat, cover and pop into the oven. Bake until the water is absorbed and the rice is perfectly tender, 17 1/2 minutes. (After years of experience, Hall calls this the “magic number” but advises that “of course ovens are different, so your may take a little more or less time.”)

Recipes from “Carla’s Comfort Foods,” Atria Books, 2014. Copyright (c) 2014 by Carla Hall.

‘Kiss’ Thanksgiving stress goodbye

When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, the old Navy principle applies: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Thanksgiving, after all, should be a no-brainer. Think about it: You knew on, say, the second Monday of last March what you would be cooking on the fourth Thursday this November. So make life easy for yourself and simplify.

First: Farm it out! When a guest asks, “What can I bring?” be specific. Don’t just say “an appetizer”; say, “It would be wonderful if you could bring that fabulous garlic dip you make — and by the way, there will be 16 of us.” Non-cooks can be deputized to bring beverages, right down to tea and coffee. (Specify the right grind for your coffee maker.)

Second: Take stock of your cooking surfaces. It’s fine and dandy to plan for the classic green bean casserole or sweet potatoes with marshmallows, but unless you have a second oven, yours will be occupied by a large bird. Figure out things you can make ahead of time, or cook on the stovetop, in the microwave or in a slow cooker.

Third: Be realistic. No matter what you make, the turkey, stuffing and pie will eclipse all offerings. No one is going to remember the amazing Brussels sprouts or the special salad, so keep the sides really simple. With all the rich food — unctuous gravy, buttery mashed potatoes, hefty stuffing — simple vegetables will be a treat.

What better book in which to find Thanksgiving food than “The New England Kitchen” by Boston chef Jeremy Sewall and food writer Erin Byers Murray? New England, after all, was the site of the first communal harvest feast in 1621 and the forerunner of today’s holiday. Try the authors’ Rosemary Carrots or Make-Ahead Roasted Onions. Or try Spinach and Chickpeas, an old recipe from Italian food maven Marcella Hazan. Keeping it simple doesn’t mean it can’t also be delicious!


Yield: 8 servings

40 small carrots (4 to 5 inches long), green tops on

Kosher salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Freshly ground black pepper

 Peel the carrots and trim the tops so there is about an inch of the greens left. Place in a saucepan with enough salted water to cover. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook until tender but not quite cooked through. Remove the carrots from the pot with a slotted spoon and allow to cool.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and add the rosemary. Cook, stirring for about 20 seconds, making sure the butter does not brown. Add the carrots and toss to coat; cook, stirring occasionally, until they are heated through. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Recipe from “The New England Kitchen” by Jeremy Sewall and Erin Byers Murray; Rizzoli, 2014.


Yield: 6 to 8 servings

4 large red onions, peeled

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

 Up to two days ahead of time, line a baking sheet with foil and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the onions in half lengthwise and remove the root. Cut the halves into thick wedges and toss with just enough oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper.

Put the onions on the prepared baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, or until the edges have become brown. Cool and refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to serve. Reheat in a warm oven (while you are carving the turkey).

Recipe from “The New England Kitchen” by Jeremy Sewall and Erin Byers Murray; Rizzoli, 2014.


Yield: 8 servings

3 pounds fresh spinach, with stems

1 1/2 tablespoons salt (preferably coarsely ground salt such as kosher salt or sea salt) or more as needed

2 (19-ounce) cans chickpeas

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Up to a day ahead of time, drain the chickpeas, rinse under cold running water and squeeze off the peels, one by one. (Do not skip this step.) Place peeled chickpeas in a bowl and cover and refrigerate until needed.

Rinse the spinach (several times if gritty) and allow to drain briefly in a colander. The leaves should still be slightly wet. Heat a large pot over medium heat, dump the spinach in and sprinkle with 1 1/2 tablespoons salt. Do not add any water. Cover and cook over medium heat a few minutes, until spinach stems are slightly softened but not too limp. Drain.

Put spinach, chickpeas, olive oil and lemon juice in saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste, adding more salt if needed. Serve while still hot or at room temperature.

Recipe slightly adapted from “Marcella’s Italian Kitchen” by Marcella Hazan; Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Trust British chef Jamie Oliver to get crazy with a luscious, sloppy, multi-tiered

Trust British chef Jamie Oliver to get crazy with a luscious, sloppy, multi-tiered “Insanity Burger.”

Hot and Sour Eggplant might not be the first thing you think of when you think of

Hot and Sour Eggplant might not be the first thing you think of when you think of “comfort food,” but it’s got a feel-good quality all its own.

A simple dish of carrots sauteed with rosemary brings fresh flavors and easy cooking to the holiday table.

A simple dish of carrots sauteed with rosemary brings fresh flavors and easy cooking to the holiday table.

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