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Chuck It All

. . . and other secrets of the perfect burger

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Any professional chef will tell you that the simplest things are the hardest to get right, and nothing could be simpler than your basic backyard burger. According to Todd English, whose burger panini at Olives New York is a thing of medium-rare beauty, less is more. His advice? Buy good meat, but not too lean -- preferably twice-ground chuck -- and handle it with care (which means as little as possible, both on and off the grill). A perfect burger on a toasted brioche bun can stand alone, but it doesn't have to -- not with zesty relishes like avocado salsa and mustard pickle. Have the digicam ready -- you'll want to record all those grinning faces for posterity.

Photographed by Dana Gallagher

The Recipes
Serves 6.

The Perfect Hamburger
Todd English
olives

3 pounds twice-ground chuck (20 percent fat content)
1 and 1/2 sticks butter, melted
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 hamburger buns, preferably brioche, halved (see note below)
Toppings (see recipes below)

Divide the meat into six half-pound portions. With cold hands, form into patties about 1 inch thick and about 3 and 1/2 to 4 inches across. Do not overhandle the meat, as this will make the burgers dry and tough. Wrap the patties in plastic wrap or waxed paper, and refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes. (This lets them set, so they don't break up on the grill.) If you are leaving them for more than 1/2 hour, cover tightly with plastic wrap (not foil).

Light a charcoal or gas grill. (Or use a very hot flat cast-iron pan, following the grilling directions below.) When the coals are hot, remove the burgers from the refrigerator and allow to sit, covered, at room temperature for a few minutes before cooking. Paint the patties with melted butter, and generously season both sides with salt and pepper.

Oil the rack of the heated grill, and, when the coals are glowing and covered with gray ash, cook the burgers for 3 to 4 minutes. Do not touch them during this cooking time. Turn the burgers and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes for medium-rare to medium, or until the internal temperature comes to 125 to 130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. The cooking time will vary depending on the temperature of the fire, the type of coals used, and the thickness of the burger. Once the burgers are cooked, allow them to rest, off the heat, for 1 to 2 minutes. (Don't stack them, or they will steam.)

While the burgers are resting, brush the cut side of each bun with melted butter. Place on the grill and toast on both sides, taking care not to burn them.

Spread relish on the cut sides of the bun, and place the burger on one half, followed by a slice of tomato, caramelized onions, and shredded lettuce. Top with the remaining half of the bun. The burger may be wrapped in paper for easy handling.

Suggestions for hamburger buns: Brioche hamburger buns (preferably Eli's); kaiser rolls; onion-flavored focaccia buns; Portuguese rolls; large English muffins.

Toppings
Purists will want to stick with lettuce, onion, and tomato, but for variety, consider these. Barbecued onions: Cut large onions into 1/2-inch-thick wedges or slices. Season with salt and pepper, coat with olive oil, and grill until slightly charred. Separate into layers or rings, and toss with barbecue sauce.

Mustard pickle: Combine 6 tablespoons diced pickles, 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard, 1 and 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, and 1 teaspoon finely diced shallot. (Note: Enough sugar should be added to the mix so that the mustard is no longer spicy; English also adds 1/2 cup ketchup and 1/2 cup mayonnaise.)

Avocado salsa: Peel 2 avocados and cut them into 1/4-inch dice. Toss with 1 tablespoon of lime juice to keep the flesh from turning brown, and add 1/2 a medium chopped red onion, 1 minced clove of garlic, 1/2 bunch finely chopped cilantro, 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil, and 1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced very fine. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Other suggestions:

  • Boston and Romaine lettuce leaves in equal amounts, julienned

  • Sliced tomatoes, seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • Thinly sliced wedges of Bermuda or Vidalia onion

  • Crisp bacon cut into 1/2-inch-wide pieces

  • Onions, caramelized by sautéing very slowly over low heat in olive oil

  • Slices of white Cheddar cheese

  • Mixture of equal parts mayonnaise and ketchup

  • And, of course, ketchup and mustard.

Great Catch!

Like marriage, grilled fish requires heat and patience

Is there a trick to grilling fish? There are plenty; that's why we enlisted Rebecca Charles of Pearl Oyster Bar to guide us every step of the way, from market to kitchen to grill (which should, by the way, be well cleaned, well oiled, and as hot as possible). Charles insists we forget everything we've heard about fancy marinades and sauces, and stick to herb-infused olive oil, so that fine piece of just-caught halibut won't stick to the grill. A squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of oil, and that's it -- a foolproof summer formula (so long as you keep your darned hands off till we tell you it's time). Go fish.

The Recipes
All recipes serve 4.

Perfect Grilled Fish Steaks
Rebecca Charles
Pearl Oyster Bar

4 1- to 1 and 1/4-inch-thick halibut steaks, skin on (or any fish steaks; see note below)
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for drizzling over the cooked fish
2 bunches fresh marjoram plus extra for garnishing
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil for the grill
Lemon wedges
Note: The above instructions can be used for other fish-and-herb combinations: swordfish with dill, salmon with rosemary, and tuna with basil.

Put the fish in a bowl or shallow dish and cover with olive oil. Press 2 to 3 sprigs of fresh marjoram into each steak, cover with plastic wrap, and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Light a charcoal or gas grill. Remove the herbs from the fish, and season each steak with salt and pepper. Set a well-cleaned grill rack about 4 inches above the fire. When the coals are very hot (to test, hold your hand directly over the rack; it's hot enough when you can't keep it there for more than 2 seconds), rub the grill with paper towels that have been dipped in canola oil, and place the fish on the grill. Do not move the steaks until it's time to flip them, or they may stick. Cook the fish 3 to 4 minutes, turn just once, and cook another 3 to 4 minutes. The fish should feel firm to the touch but not hard.

Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over the fish, and serve with plenty of lemon wedges and a little fresh marjoram.

Sugar Snap Peas With Lemon and Toasted Almonds
3/4 pound sugar snap peas
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Zest of 1/2 lemon, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring 3/4 cup salted water to a boil in a saucepan, drop in sugar snaps, and cook for about 1 minute. Pour off all but 1 teaspoon of water. Add butter and zest, swirling to mix. Remove from heat as soon as the butter has melted and is bubbling. Toss in the almonds, and season with salt and pepper.

Summer Caponata

6 Japanese eggplants
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion, diced
4 medium cloves of garlic, minced
6 large plum tomatoes, halved, seeded, and diced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
4 ounces black oil-cured olives (Nyon or Moroccan), pitted and chopped
4 ounces Picholine or other good green olives, pitted and chopped
5 medium-size basil leaves, chopped

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Rub 3 of the eggplants with a little oil, and roast in the oven until soft, about 45 minutes. Let cool, and chop roughly.

Quarter the three remaining eggplants lengthwise, and slice 1/2-inch thick. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large sauté pan, add the onions, and sauté over medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add the raw eggplant and tomatoes and salt lightly. Cook for 2 minutes. Pour in wine, vinegar, and sugar. Cook down for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add roasted eggplant, and cook for another 5 minutes. Fold in olives, chopped basil, and remaining oil. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside to cool.

Roasted-Red-Pepper Relish
3 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, quartered
1/2 pint yellow cherry or pear tomatoes
1 cup of fresh basil leaves, chopped
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toss the roasted peppers with the sun-dried tomatoes. Slice the fresh tomatoes, some in half and some in quarters, and add to bowl. Add the basil, vinegar, and oil, and mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Allow the relish to macerate for about an hour before serving.

Fish Grilling tips
1. Never buy prewrapped fish. Buy from a reliable fishmonger and ask to smell the fish, which should have no odor except of the sea. The flesh should be firm and should not leave a dent when touched.

2. Buy fish the day you are planning to cook it.

3. Ask the fishmonger to keep the fish in one chunk, then slice it into steaks when you get home.

4. If buying from the loin, ask for the center cut. The tail end will be sinewy, and the head end is too wide to make neat portions.

5. The center loin cut is easy to grill as the flesh is cut against the grain and cannot flake. Steaks are easy as well, because the bone holds them together and adds flavor. Fillets are the hardest to grill because they tend to flake, unless they're from a fish with a high fat content, such as salmon.

6. Fish should not be marinated in anything acidic, such as citrus juice or wine, or it will cook, becoming like seviche. Sweet sauces, like barbecue, teriyaki, or fruit-based glazes, should be applied when the fish is almost cooked; otherwise, they can burn and stick.

7. Use regular kitchen utensils, not those two-foot-long barbecue tongs and spatulas, which are unwieldy.

Captions

Food styling by Alison Attenborough; prop styling by Philippa Brathwaite. PREVIOUS PAGES: top right, white bowls from Crate & Barrel; elongated dish from mxyplyzyk. bottom right, plates from the Terence Conran Shop; tray from Bark; table from r 20th century.

Keep it simple: The perfect burger, garnished with lettuce, tomato, and grilled onions on a brioche roll.

Inside and out: Above, some of Todd English's favorite garnishes; below, choose anything but supermarket white-bread rolls for this hamburger.

Fish tale: Opposite, top to bottom, swordfish, salmon, and halibut steaks, fresh off the grill; above, clockwise from top, sugar-snap peas with lemon and toasted almonds, summer caponata, and roasted-red-pepper relish.


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