County Fair Onion Burgers

It's that time of year. The time in late summer when fairs are in full-swing all across America. Sure, it's fun to go see the animals, hit the cheesy rides, and people watch, but let's face it, most folks go to spend too much money on incredibly unhealthy yet delicious food.

Each year I'm amazed at what the fair food purveyors are slinging. I think that if your wares can be fried, dipped, frozen, roasted, served in a cup, on a stick or in some form of bread, you're approved to vend. Even better, go for any two or more of the above and you're in seriously tall cotton. If you ask me it's gotten seriously out of control. Deep-fried butter on a stick? Really?!

One of my all-time favorite fair staples, at least at the fairs that I've been to, is the onion burger. It's very simple and decadent without going too far over the top. Just take an ordinary quarter-pound burger, cook it on a flattop, then top it with cheese and a ridiculous amount of sauteed onions and serve it on a bun that is just a little too small. Done.

Here's my backyard version of this run-down-your-arm masterpiece.

2 lbs Ground beef (80/20, please)
4 large Yellow sweet onions, chopped to 1/2"
1/4 cup Canola oil
16 slices American process cheese
8 Hamburger buns
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp Kosher salt
2 Tbsp Black pepper, ground fresh

Form the meat into eight equal-sized balls (1/4 lb each).

Flatten each ball of meat between wax paper to about 1/4" thick and about 5" in diameter.

Stack the wrapped burgers in a gallon zip-top bag and freeze until you're ready to grill.

Heat a large heavy pan over medium-high heat, then add the oil.

Add the onions, and half of the salt and pepper, then saute until the onions are translucent and just starting to brown, about 15 minutes.

While the onions are cooking, start your grill and prepare for direct grilling at medium-high heat (350-375º).

Add the Worcestershire to the pan, stir well, and cook another minute.

Cover the pan, remove from the heat and set aside.

Season one side of the burgers with the remaining salt and pepper.

Grill each burger for about two minutes per side then top each with a slice of cheese, 1/4 cup of onions, another slice of cheese, and another 1/4 cup of onions.

Move the burgers to one side of the grill and quickly toast the buns on the other side.

Gently slide each burger onto a bun and serve with your side of choice. I served mine with slabs of grilled zucchini.


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Thai Chili Coconut Shrimp Skewers

I made these skewers as part of a surf-n-turf meal for our daughter's recent sleepover. They combine sweet and a bit of heat with classic Thai flavors. The final touch is a dusting of coconut to add an interesting textural component.

I basically hate shellfish. I think I may have mentioned my saying about it in a previous post.
If it comes in a shell, and it ain't an egg, homey don't eat it.
-1 Carnivores 1:1
Given that, I didn't taste the final product. However, the ladies Hoovered them in minutes, and they offered great comments. I did taste the marinade and glaze and I can assure you that it would be great with chicken and fish.

1 1/2 lbs Medium shrimp (26-30 count), deveined and peeled
3/4 cup Sweetened coconut flakes

1/2 cup Sweet chili sauce (I used Mai Ploy brand)
1/3 cup Soy sauce (I used Aloha brand because it's mellow and less salty)
1/4 cup Water
1/4 cup Thai basil, chopped fine
2 Tbsp Brown sugar
1 Tbsp Chile oil (or 1/2 tsp red chile flakes and 1 tsp oil)
1 tsp Ginger, grated or minced fresh
1 tsp Garlic, grated or minced fresh
1 tsp Sesame oil
Juice of two limes

Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a small bowl, whisk very well, and let sit for at least an hour to allow the flavors to marry.

Note: If you're using wooden skewers, soak them in water for at least an hour. I like to use two skewers side-by-side to keep the shrimp from rotating when you flip them on the grill.

Put the shrimp in a gallon zip-top bag, add the marinade, shake to distribute well, then seal and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Start your grill and prepare for direct grilling at medium-high heat (350-375º)

Drain the marinade into a small sauce pan, bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, reduce by half to make a glaze and set aside.

Skewer the shrimp so that they barely touch each other. You don't want them crammed together.

Grill each skewer for about two minutes per side, basting periodically with the glaze.

Thai Chili Coconut Shrimp Skewers

Remove the skewers from the grill, brush with the glaze, and sprinkle both sides of each with the coconut flakes.

Serve with the remaining sauce for dipping.


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Grilled Watermelon & Fennel Salad with Charred Lemon Vinaigrette

This unique grilled summer salad is the result of a category three brainstorm and a little flavor research.

I've long wanted to try grilling watermelon, and I finally decided to actually go for it last weekend. Once I made that decision the next question was what I'd do with it. I needed some sort of dish, and I came up with this with the help of one of my favorite go-to resources, The Flavor Bible. This reference is indispensable for situations like this where you have a flavor and need to find other flavors and ingredients to accompany it.

In my research I found that fennel pairs well with watermelon, and red onion, lemon and feta work well with fennel. Since the watermelon would be grilled I thought I'd grill all of the main ingredients, and that's exactly what you see here.

This didn't last long, and the ladies of the house told me to put it on the "Make That Again!" list.

1 slice Watermelon (about 1" thick and 12" in diameter)
1 bulb Fennel, quartered
1 medium Red onion
1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup Olive oil, extra virgin
3 Tbsp Parsley, chopped fine
1 Lemon, halved
1 Tbsp Honey
1 Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Kosher salt
1 tsp Sugar
1/2 tsp Black pepper, ground fresh
Canola oil spray

Quarter the watermelon slice, arrange the wedges in a single layer in a gallon zip-top bag, and freeze for about two hours.

Once the watermelon is frozen, and about 30 minutes before you're ready to serve, start your grill and prepare for direct cooking over medium-high heat (about 350-400º)

Cut out as much of the core of each fennel quarter as you can while leaving enough to hold the layers together.

Quarter the onion, leaving enough of the ends to keep the layers intact.

Sprinkle the cut end of each lemon half with half of the sugar.

Spray all sides of the onion and fennel lightly with the canola oil.

Grill both sides of the watermelon just long enough to get light grill marks, then remove to a platter and refrigerate.

Grilled Watermelon & Fennel Salad with Charred Lemon Vinaigrette

Grill all sides of the fennel, onion and just the cut end of the lemon until they are brown and begin to soften, then remove to a platter and refrigerate all but the lemon.

Grilled Watermelon & Fennel Salad with Charred Lemon Vinaigrette

Grilled Watermelon & Fennel Salad with Charred Lemon Vinaigrette

Juice the lemon into a medium mixing bowl, then add the olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Whisk well to combine, then set aside.

Trim any charred portions from the fennel and onion, then slice each thin (about 1/8") and add to a large mixing bowl.

Add about two tablespoons of the dressing to the bowl and toss gently to coat the fennel and onion mixture.

Cut the watermelon from the rind and into cubes (about 1") and add to the bowl and toss gently.

Pile the salad on a platter, drizzle with the dressing (you'll likely have some left), and top with the feta and parsley.

Serve and enjoy!

(makes about six servings)

Note: I made a larger batch, thus the additional ingredients in the pictures.

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Review: Hak's Chipotle-Bourbon BBQ Sauce
I was recently given the opportunity to review a new unique barbecue sauce from Sharone Hakman, a competitor in season one of Fox's reality cooking show, MasterChef.
"The most delicious BBQ sauce EVER made..."
- Chef Gordon Ramsay
Wow! That's quite an endorsement from an exceptional chef. Comments like that, and the following made me anxious to try it.
"This burger is electric chair food, do you understand? If I was going to the electric chair I would want that burger."
- Anonymous trucker, in reference to a burger smothered in Hak's sauce
The first thing that struck me about this sauce is the packaging. It's bottled in a 12-ounce whiskey flask-style bottle with a distinctive modern flat black and orange label. Beyond looking sharp, it's fitting, given that the sauce is dubbed as masculine and refined, and it's made in small batches like fine whiskey.

As always, I next turned my attention to the ingredient list. I was very pleased at what I saw, and what I didn't see.
Apple cider vinegar, tomato paste, molasses, brown sugar, onion, garlic, less than 2% of each of the following: salt, spices, ground dried chili peppers, mustard flour, black pepper, natural flavors, soybean oil
When I cracked the bottle open for a small sample the color and consistency make it very apparent that this sauce is special. It has a dark, deep, and rich mahogany color. The consistency is very thick, with plentiful flecks of onion and garlic running through it.

I found that it smelled and tasted exactly how it's described in the PR release that came with the sauce, with the possible exception of the comparison to scotch. I've never thought of scotch as being sweet or tangy. Other than that, the description is spot-on.
"... embodying the layers of sweet and tangy akin to a perfectly aged scotch. Punctuated by caramelized onions, a deep smack of bourbon and smoky roasted chilies ..."
For the true taste test I seasoned some thick pork chops that I brined and seasoned with some simple season salt and black pepper. I grilled the chops and applied a thick layer of the sauce just a minute or two before they came off of the grill.

The flavor was bold and sophisticated with a great balance of sweet smokiness and a bourbon undertone that really works. The heat starts gently and builds to a nice intensity that is short of too much. This is not for those with tender palettes. The "masculine" description is apropos.

Overall I was very pleased with this sauce. I'd call it a "boutique sauce". It isn't likely to be your go-to sauce for most applications, but it's a great choice for hearty cuts of meat where you want something truly special.

The price reflects the fact that this is a small-batch sauce. A 12-ounce bottle will run you $8.00, plus $2.99 for shipping. It's available exclusively at the Hak's BBQ site.

Hak's future plans include Thai Chile Tamarind and Habanero Pineapple releases later this year, and eventually a line of BBQ rubs and marinades.

Obligatory Disclaimer: The sauce was provided to me free of charge for the purpose of this review. I was not compensated for the review, and I have no affiliation with Hak's BBQ.

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Pork Ain't Pork!

If you've been hanging out in barbecue and grilling circles for long, especially competition barbecue, you've probably heard the sage advice to "become friends with your local butcher". Well, I'd like to expand that axiom to "become friends with the butcher at a local meat market".

The picture above shows the vast difference between grocery store pork and that from a local meat market that features meat from locally-raised animals. The chop on the left is from a local national chain store. The one on the right is from a local old-fashioned meat market. Let's examine the differences.

The first thing I notice is the difference in color. The loin portion of the store chop is a very pale pink, while the other is darker. This reminded me of some great advice that I received at Kingsford University by Stephen Gerike, Director of Food Service Marketing at the National Pork Board. He told me (paraphrasing), "Darker pork is your friend." I don't remember all the myriad details that he laid on me. It had something to do with the hogs being calm at slaughter, the myoglobin levels, and a bunch of other stuff. In my mind I boiled it down to, "Pale pig bad. Dark pig good."

The next noticeable difference is the amount of marbling in the loin portion of the chops. The standard store chop screams, "Dry as Melba Toast!", while the old-school chop has nice flecks of fat dispersed all throughout the meat. You don't need me to tell you that fat is flavor, and moisture.

The last visible difference is hard to describe. The store chop just doesn't look as good. It's trimmed too close around the edges, and it simply looks, well, boring. The chop on the right has much more of a, dare I say, "come hither" look. What I'm probably trying to say is that the right one looks like good pork should.

Hogs these days are literally bred to be The Other White Meat®. When Americans became much more health conscience they demanded much leaner pork. The industry responded by giving the public exactly what they wanted. We now have pork cuts that are as lean as chicken. Ironically, they've bred all of the natural fat (flavor and moisture) out, and they're now replacing it with "up to a 12% solution of (insert chemicals here)". If you see a label with that kind of verbiage, warning Will Robinson!

As for price, the good stuff isn't that much more. I paid $3.49 per pound for the store chops, and $4.13 for the other. That's just over 15% more, but your mileage will vary.

If you've been searching for juicy flavorful pork the way it used to be, find a local market, support local farmers, and vote with your wallet.


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