Sunday, 21 September 2014

Operation Scratch Burger

This idea was born in the cold of last winter, when we could only dream of backyard barbecues. My burger fan son and I grabbed some great burgers many evenings in Barrie. While seated near the window in places like the Kenzington, The Works or Midway Diner, where excellent hamburgers are served, we watched the snow come down. We wondered aloud - could we make a really great homemade burger? Exactly how homemade should our burger be? This is the story of Operation Scratch Burger.

The very first phase began in late May when we purchased some vegetable seedlings at a local garden centre. What a joy to be buying green things to plant outdoors! We got leaf lettuce, pickling cucumbers, yellow onions and bonny best tomatoes. The garlic was already in, having been planted the previous fall much like a tulip bulb. We got some peppers, cantaloupe and an eggplant just for fun too.

By mid summer, there were some cute little cucumbers ready for the pickle jar. I sliced them lengthwise and packed them into a large mason jar with pickling spices, fresh dill, and some sliced garlic. The garlic was the first to be harvested from our garden. Wow, so fragrant! Much more flavourful than the handy but blander chopped garlic in oil that I usually buy. Over all of that went a simple brine of water, vinegar and coarse salt. One month later, these pickles were burger ready. (Links to all recipes located at the bottom of the page.)

Our tomato plants grew like crazy! While everybody's plants failed to thrive, or died completely, our plants outgrew their tomato cages by twice at least and developed thick healthy stalks. Soon they had tons of tomatoes, all growing bigger by the day and weighing heavily on the branches which reached over 5 feet in height when stretched up. All they needed to ripen was the dry heat and sun typical of late August, but it never came. Rain and cool prevailed. My lawn stayed nice and green ... and so did my tomatoes. They developed late blight disease from the dampness and all rotted away, which was a huge disappointment after such a super start. So in the end, I bought three 3 litre baskets of ripe tomatoes from Bob and Judi Clarke at the Barrie Farmers' Market.

The garlic grew fine, but the onions were pretty tiny. We picked lettuce for sandwiches etc. off and on most of the summer, but by late summer it was finished. I sound like a terrible vegetable gardener! It's a learning process, that's for sure. It's also a good thing I don't live in the 1800s or I might not have survived the winter.

With my local tomatoes standing in for my failed crop, I researched how to make homemade ketchup. Gotta love Google! I found a process that appealed to me and I set to work - messy, messy work. I thought to myself - if Mad Michael (in Wyebridge) can do it, so can the Foodie Girl. So 2 large pots of water were set to boil on the stove and tomatoes were plunged in, scored with an X on both ends, to remove the skin. If that wasn't messy enough, I then had to remove all the seeds from each tomato by hand. I now have new respect for Mr. Henry J. Heinz. The tomatoes were simmered in a pot with onions, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper with apple cider vinegar added in later. All of this went through a food processor and then a sieve, then boiled down to thicken. My kitchen looked like a murder scene in the end.

Some of the ketchup got an addition of molasses and liquid smoke to create a barbecue sauce. Everything got ladled into canning jars and processed in a hot water bath. It is very satisfying, after all that work and mess, to see a neat row of house made products lining the countertop and hearing the occasional pop sound as the lids seal themselves.

Once the first shambles was cleaned up, out came the bread maker. It's a handy item that takes up a lot of space and doesn't get near enough use, but I do appreciate it for times like this. I placed the ingredients for hamburger buns into it and turned it on to a regular pre-set bread program and just let it run until the mixing and kneading process was finished, then unplugged it. I turned out the dough onto my cleaned and floured countertop and rolled it out about a half inch thick. A simple drinking glass cut circular shapes from the dough. In fact, a simple can of pasta sauce became my rolling pin as it is still missing! Where do these things get to anyway? The dough circles went onto greased baking pans, brushed them with melted butter and sat them on top of the stove for 2 hours to double in size. I turned the oven on low to create a little warmth to help with the rising. Once risen, I baked the buns in a 350 F oven for about 15 minutes, when the buns were golden. They actually turned out pretty well.

About this time, I started thinking - I took my weekend off (from my cooking job) to do more cooking? My husband was hovering around saying things like "What else can you preserve? I like peaches."

But I was on the home stretch now. Trying to keep it as local as possible, I bought Orillia based Ledbetter frozen lean ground beef. It occurred to me that the pre packaged raw meats in the butcher section of a typical grocery store never give the place of origin. Why is that?

I picked up some Schomberg Cheese slices while I was at the store. My husband and sons had taken a trip down to the 400 Flea Market in search of some artisan cheese for my project, but sadly found none. I had thought one of the deli operations there would have some, but no such luck. Silani's cheddar from Schomberg looked very nice though.

Finally the grill went on! I had mixed up a dozen 4 oz. hamburger patties and placed them in the freezer to chill, and now the big moment - the barbecuing of the burgers. With no fillers, just onion, garlic, egg and seasonings, they did shrink a bit. Near the end of the cooking time, some of my newly prepared barbecue sauce was brushed on. Aha, it's all coming together now!

And there it is - the culmination of Operation Scratch Burger, some 8 months in the making. A hand made 100% beef burger on a home baked bun, on Holland Marsh onion, lettuce of undetermined origin (ooops!), Epicure Selections burger sauce, topped with tomato from Clarke's Fruit & Veggie Patch (of Minesing) and home pickled dills made from my garden cucumbers. You can't see my slaved over ketchup, but it's on there!

Oh and yes, the hamburger aficionados, one certain son in particular, enjoyed their hamburger very much. He wasn't just being polite either - he ate 3 that I know of!

If you want to try any or all of the steps I took to create this ultimate homemade and local burger, here are the links to the instructions that I used.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Eating Pie

As the 5:53 GO Train arrived at the Allandale Waterfront Station, I wondered if my college student son was hungry because I certainly was. In fact, twenty year old six footers are always hungry, so the only real question was where to eat. Heading towards the downtown core, I was considering various burger places, most of which we had been to previously, when I suddenly remembered the lake shore location of Pie, the wood fired pizza restaurant made famous by being featured on the Food Network's show "You Gotta Eat Here".

The location is in the centre of ongoing summer road construction right now, but the parking lot is well signed with Enter and Exit despite a tangle of fencing and piles of gravel, so we found our way in with no problem. We giggled at the 'Caution: Icy Sidewalks' sign near the front door - this must be their northern location!

We passed a huge front patio area. It was completely empty of customers despite the beautiful evening and lovely lake view. Has everyone given up on summer? It was a Tuesday and there were bulldozers and loaders parked nearby, so I'm not surprised. I can imagine this outdoor seating area was jam packed on hot holiday weekends.

I saw a few diners inside as we we were shown to our table by a south facing window. Pink and red and lots of wood - that is how I would describe the interior. Neon signs. Very clean. A pile of fire wood, hinting at the heat source for their ovens, stacked outside on the patio. No menus to pass out - they are printed directly onto the table tops. What a neat idea,

Being newbies here, we didn't know how to order. College boy is a seriously carnivorous , quasi caveman meat lover. I am a vegetarian. Do you think we can share a pizza? Um ... no. At first, I was a little taken aback when our server informed us that we had to order a whole pizza each for ourselves and very seriously added "We don't do halves."  For a split second, I almost considered going somewhere else to eat instead, but decided against. I suppose taking home a half pizza isn't the worst thing in the world?

My son unhesitatingly pointed to his choice - the porky pie. Drawn to the description, tomato, basil, mozzarella, wood fired bacon, spicy sausage and prosciutto, he was hooked. I was leaning in another direction entirely, of course - the olive me thrice. My least favourite part of any pizza is the tomato sauce. I often find it overwhelming, so to find a non tomato based pizza, like this one promised to be, was pretty intriguing.

Our pizzas came out very fast. That must be one hot oven! Both of our pizza crusts were thin and crispy, round but rustic. The pizzas were served simply on a round metal pan with a pizza wheel tucked underneath. Cut your pizza into 2 slices or 20 - it's up to you to decide.

My dining partner hadn't been too concerned about tackling an entire pizza by himself from the beginning and I can see why. He inhaled the whole thing with ease. He did come up for air once and mumbled "This is really good." He also managed to make one observation about my pizza. You have weird stuff on your pizza."

Well, I like weird stuff on my pizza, thank you very much! The crust was brushed with olive oil and topped with a selection of large and tasty olives - not the canned or jarred tiny things that I buy, but gorgeous ones like you see in a food store olive bar (ones that I never buy but would like to!) Thinly sliced red onions, bits of roasted red pepper and artichoke hearts topped with a zig zag of aioli (like a garlic mayo) on top - weird but wonderful. I ordered pineapple as an extra topping. I got big pieces of sweet, seemingly hand cut pineapple that had obviously never seen the inside a factory or can.

I surprised myself. I cut my pizza into about 8 pieces and could manage all but one. College boy suggested I just fold it in half and just finish it off, his theory being something about my stomach will think it's less food? Hmmmm maybe he should enter himself in the next 'Let Em Eat' pizza eating contest held here, with strategies like that. I went with my better judgement and got a to-go box for my slice.

I want to come back again next summer and this time sit out on that open air patio. The construction should be wrapped up by then. I will have a cold Somersby cider and watch the sailboats in the bay. I'm fairly certain I will be ordering the same pizza again. I know it's fairly early on in the game to be stuck in a rut already, but I really liked that pizza!

My pizza slice was only in the fridge at home for a couple of minutes before another family member grabbed it and popped open the box. "Awww this must be Mom's pizza!" was followed by the sound of the box being returned to the fridge. Sometimes it pays to like weird stuff on your pizza.

Photos courtesy of Thanks Tija!