16 May 2020: Quarantine Cooking for Two—Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks
One of the most revealing things about this pandemic lockdown is the power that the comfortably familiar has had over us, especially in the kitchen and at the table.
Many of us who cook as much for pleasure as necessity have a list of things we're always saying we'd master if only we had the time. Well, now we have it. But instead of leaping to explore those uncharted culinary avenues, what did we do? Most of us turned inward, fell back on the kinds of safe comfort foods we've made hundreds of times.
It's only natural, in such unsettling, uncertain times as these, that we'd not just crave but need the safety of familiar comforts. There's nothing wrong with it.
Maybe it would be good for us to buck up and push ourselves into expanding, if not our culinary horizons, at least our kitchen skills. And some of us did—at least, a little bit. But there's also something to be said for honing the skills we already have, and for resting our minds and hearts by embracing that need to be comforted, even indulging it, if only for a season.
Though many are choosing to extend our time of physical distancing, others, out of necessity not choice, are already beginning to try to return to work, to a life that, no matter what we do, can never be quite the same again.
While we can, then, we should wrap ourselves up in those comfort foods, master their techniques, hone their flavors, indulge ourselves with the sense of security that they bring to the insecure world that has been thrust on us.
Because, the truth is, the world has never been all that secure. Life is fragile: It always was, and always will be. So, embrace this season of rest, take comfort where it can be found, and get yourself ready to explore the uncharted.
Because, beloved, that's what life is: an uncharted adventure. And to conquer it, we need these times of rest and reflection.
I know it's hard for those who have lost loved ones and whose livelihoods have been knocked out from under them to see it that way. But for my part, I'd rather see this as a pit stop than a dead end. So, I'll be in the kitchen, flipping a panful of comfort.
Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks
Since I live with someone who would eat ground beef at every meal if he could get away with it, (so long as there's fried chicken every now again to break up the monotony), one of the comfort foods I've been making a lot is pan-broiled hamburger steak.
I prefer them cooked to medium; he prefers them well-done. To keep the peace and satisfy us both without having to act like a short-order cook, and also to keep the ground beef from being dry and tough, I crumble in a slice of milk-soaked bread, as I would for meatloaf or meatballs. It keeps the burgers moist and juicy even when they're completely cooked through. If everyone in your household prefers them cooked to medium, the soaked bread is unnecessary and wouldn't be terribly pleasant, so leave it out.
If you prefer them rare to medium-rare, then you need to know your source with the beef and be completely confident of its quality, because it won't be heated to a temperature high enough to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present.
Another way that I keep us both happy is by finishing them with a red wine déglacé. If you're in a burger mood, serve them on a buttered and toasted bun and skip the déglacé, or use it as a sauce with the other usual burger garnishes. If you're serving them as a steak, have the plates warm and plate the side dishes while the hamburger steaks cook so that they can be served the moment they're plated and sauced with the déglacé.
1 slice firm, homestyle bread, optional, if cooking to well-done (see step 1)
Whole milk, optional, if cooking to well-done (see step 1)
¾ pound best quality ground chuck
2 small shallots, peeled and minced
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
3-4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
¼ cup red wine
¼ cup beef broth
1. If you're cooking the hamburgers to medium, skip to step 2. This helps keep well-done burgers from being dry and tough. If you're cooking them to that stage, put the bread in a mixing bowl and add enough milk to saturate it. Let it absorb the milk, then squeeze out the excess. Discard the milk and crumble the soaked bread back into the bowl.
2. Crumble the ground meat into the mixing bowl (with the soaked bread if using) and add one of the minced shallots. Season well with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire, then lightly mix until the seasonings are distributed, and the meat and soaked bread, if using, are evenly mixed. Divide into 2 equal portions and lightly shape into oval patties a little less than ½-inch thick at at edges and a bit thinner at the center.
3. Preheat a 10-11-inch seasoned iron pan over medium heat for 3-4 minutes. Add about 2 teaspoons of the butter, let it sizzle until melted, and swirl to coat the pan. Put in the hamburger steaks and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook until the bottom side is seared and well-browned, about 2 minutes, turn, and sear the second side, about 1½-to-2 minutes longer.
4. Lower the heat to medium low and cook, turning once more, until done to taste, about 1 minute more per side for medium, 1½-to-2 minutes per side for well done. Remove them from the pan to a warm plate.
5. Raise the heat under the pan to medium and add the remaining shallot. Sauté until golden, about 2 minutes, and deglaze the pan with the red wine. Let it boil, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooking residue, and cook until it's reduced by half. Add the broth, bring it to a boil, and cook until the liquid is reduced and almost syrupy. Whisk in any juices that have accumulated on the plate with the hamburger steaks and remove the pan from the heat.
6. Gradually whisk in 2-3 tablespoons of butter or add them all at once and shake the pan until they're melted and emulsified into the sauce. Transfer the hamburger steaks to serving plates, spoon the déglacé over them, and serve immediately.