A golden sun waned over the house tops, casting long shadows across the green grass, whilst I banked a chimney full of coals to the side of the old kettle grill. A delightfully cool breeze mingled through the pit-side Spruce and Cottonwood, and the heat from the fire, oddly enough, felt good for once. Tho you wouldn’t think from looking around, one sort of might get the sense that summer might be fading slightly. The sun, that precious, glowing orb aloft, sure was a lot lower at supper time now, much lower than it was a couple of months ago. And darkness swallows the land earlier these days, when once we were still strutting up the 7th fairway, lovely beverage in hand, and basking in the warm, bright light there. And what about this breeze that felt so cool. And the frequent fly overs of the Canadian geese, honking proudly on the wing. Something shifts amid us. Something elemental. Diurnal rhythms and little children afoot with colorful school packs. In Minnesota, we call this Autumn, or, the end of summer. And it is a glorious time to be alive. And even a better time in which to grill something edible.
Come with us, won’t you…To the pit, and let us show you what’s for supper.
We Patrons of the Pit, least wise we two blokes who offer forth this stuff, well, were from Minnesota. A place, don’t you know, of significant contribution to the betterment of man kind. For example, masking tape was invented in Minnesota. So was the roller blade. And if you’ve ever spent a winter up here, you’d also appreciate that we invented the one-piece long underwear get-up better known as the union suit. Later modified for that all-important “flap in the back“. Glory be, the game of Twister and the Breathe Right nasal strip, also, material spawn of Minnesota. All good things, I think. But our personal favorite invention, and monument to food technology, has to be the venerable, Juicy Lucy.
The Juicy Lucy. Man. If you’ve never had occasion, lets just say that a closer marriage between meat and cheese, you will not soon divine. It’s rather simple, if not brilliant. Done proper, these hamburgers have residing inside them a copious pocket of molten cheese. Yes, cheese swaddled in meat. Every man’s caloric ideal. So pop your cholesterol pills as we continue on in our burger series, and take yourself a closer look at this Minnesota original.
Prep is easy. Easy as wrapping ground beef around a hunk of cheese. You can use any cheese you’d like too. We used Velveeta, which we admit, ain’t cheese. But it was all we had on hand, and besides, it melts like an iceberg in the Gobi desert. So wrap your ground beef, or baring that, if you’re the wife of a deer slayer, ground venison, around a commendable wad of your favorite cheese, and form it into a patty suitable to thee. Season it lightly, and make way for the grill. We seasoned ours today, with Lipton Onion Soup Mix, because it’s not just for soup you know. Proceed to ply your grill craft with great effect, and do hence what you were born to do.
We tossed on an onion for good measure. We like onions at the pit, and they are elementary to do. One small onion was ample for this cook. Peeled and set over direct heat. Rolled about like an unsinkable pool ball. Whence the outer layers become tender, they will peel off with great ease, at the pinch of a tong, into gastronomic, smokey-tinted petals that which shall adorn your monolith of meat. Graced with cheese. And patron to the pit. Man!
And of course, we toasted the buns.
The Juicy Lucy. A taste of Minnesota. And sure to win over your belly, where the wood smoke rises, and the seasons gently ebb. Amen.
*Note to our fellow patrons, who look forward to our weekly smattering of meat and prose. We will be on vacation next week, and unless the meat gods intervene, there shall be no post to speak of. We thank you for your on-going patronage, and may your grills and lives be active and full.
Way up yonder, in the northern reaches of Minnesota, a series of Weber Smokey Joe grills quietly puffed in turn beneath the whispering pines. Men plying through their coolers, and spice stashes. Other men circling about, taking pictures. Patties of ground beef delicately formed, and laying at the ready. And a light humidity hung in the air. This was the scene of the 2013 Burger Throw-Down. A gastronomic snippet of a men’s retreat. A humble tho seriously esteemed competition held in the hinter lands of Northern Minnesota, along the White Fish chain of lakes. It was there in these competitive pools, that my fellow blog host sought to ply his burger craft. Each contestant was provided 2 pounds of ground beef, 4 hamburger buns, a Weber Smokey Joe, and what ever spice and accompaniments they wish to steal from their home pantries . There would be 8 judges, each sporting a most scrupulous eye, and two hours, give or take, in which to greatly impress them.
As the Canadian Jays and Black Capped Chickadees cavorted in the white pines, and the air smelled of damp earth from recent showers, the contestants hovered over their prep areas, one and all, prodding over patties of beef, and a litany of spice and cheese. The game was on, and our fellow blog host recalls, in his own words, getting things underway, in this, the great burger throw down of 2013.
“The burger throw down was as fun as I thought it would be. I was the first one to show up knowing I would have much prep for my burgers. I had my premixed jerk rub tightly vacuumed sealed for freshness and a large can of pineapple rings. I also brought a zip lock bag of hickory chips that has been soaking since Thursday night, so almost 2 days. So, I started my coals first, as one should always do, and as they began to burn I started moving them around the bowl of the Smokey Joe. Placing them on one side of the bowl so I can do a little in-direct smoking once the burgers were fully cooked. When people saw what I was doing with the coal placement, I could hear comments like “wow, he’s got it down to a science, or this guy is serious”. I was just doing what I’m used too.”
The men henceforth got down, as men do in competitive burger making. Got down to the heady business of procuring something memorable, and pleasing to the palate. Something apt to move a judge’s tummy for the better, and put a mile on his face. The contestants were up for the challenge Everything from pesto and jalapeno to feta and Munster cheese. Our fellow patron admits to being slightly intimidated, standing alongside some of these Meat Maestros. But he sticks with his game plan, and his secret weapon – 48 hour soaked hickory chips.
“I then quickly began to prep my burgers. Now, I brought a lot of spice rub with me and I wasn’t sure how much I should use so I decided I would start mixing the rub into the meat until I could smell it. I used about half of what I brought, folding and pounding the meat until the smell joined the wet pine of the camp. I quickly shaped my patties and filled the middle with blue cheese. I sprinkled a little more rub on the cheese and laid the other patty on top of it. I finished by pinching the patties together and rubbing spice on both sides of it. I think soaking the chips as long as I did helped put steam into the meat because I know my burgers were juicy. After they were fully cooked I moved them to indirect heat and placed the pineapple over the coals. I charred them up a little and then toasted the buns. I threw everything together and mine were the first for the judges to eat. I realized at that point I forgot two of my main ingredients, bacon, which would have gone on top of the pineapple, and then some smokey bbq sauce to go on top of the bacon. I’m glad my burgers were juicy, because sometimes without sauce you get a dry burger.”
Were talking a burger here folks. One that would make even a heathen man pause to say grace. One-half pound of hickory smoked ground beef, filled with a pocket of gooey blue cheese, seasoned with the patron kick of good jerk rub, topped with a charred pine-apple ring and of course, a toasted bun. Dang! You certainly are not going to eat a whole lot better under the whispering pines nor burger shack alike. And apparently the judges thought so too, as they gave our fellow patron 1st Place honors for his Smoked Blue Cheese Jerk Burger. Well done old chap. Well done indeed.
Besides getting to sport the title of Defending Champion for a year, he also won himself a chef’s hat and an apron. If we’re nice to him, and flatter him a little, maybe we can even get him to model it for us. I doubt it, but maybe.
What a pleasant thing it is to walk past your patio door, and see your old grill out there, puffing away in a cloud of hickory. To smell the wood smoke in the air, and know something tasty is developing, cooking, and residing just out yonder, under that beat up lid. It soothes a man, I must say. It is well with his soul. For there is just something about putting meat to flame and cooking it there, whilst the fresh air encircles you, that for a while at least, we are content and in need of very little else. And maybe that’s why, come to think of it, we like to cook slowly around here, if for any other reason than to extend the moments – these the fellowship of the coals. It is our twinkle, every time we light the pit, and watch the smoke curl there.
Now every man I ever knew, and a lot of women too, if there was one thing they were good at on the grill, it was big cheese burger. And rightly so, for that’s what most folk start off with, in their formative, teeth-cutting years at the grill front. My eldest brother has long-held to the tactic, when visiting a restaurant for the first time, that the safest, and most efficient stroke you can play there is to try their cheeseburger. For they are not likely first off to screw it up, but more over, in a gastronomic gumshoe sort of way, you can tell a great deal about the rest of their fare, their cook, and their establishment as a whole, but from the mere details revealed in their humble hamburger. How much pride have they taken in preparing it? What is the grade of beef? Do they bother to toast the bun? How much did it cost? Likewise on the grill. It is a pit junkie’s thumb print, the hamburger. And everybody who has flipped a patty has one. Every finger print is a little different it seems, and like a thumb into an ink pad, it is our most basic impression onto the BBQ arena. Want to get an idea of a pit keeper’s prowess, consider first his cheeseburger. Thus, and with a good bed of coals, let us make it a favorable one at least.
You can do a lot of things with hamburgers. Stuff them full of various odds and ends, from bell peppers and corn to blue cheese or hot sauce. Some cast iron constitutions do all of the above at once, and wager it a good day. But if you have supper guests coming over, as we did this evening, and their palates you are not yet acquainted with, it is a wise move for the pit master to keep the meat simple. Provide a cornucopia of toppings and condiments on the side, and let the unknown taste buds hence arriving paint their own masterpiece. And that’s just what we did. Started with 80/20 ground beef, which if you haven’t heard, is the optimal ratio for hamburgers. Leaner blends tend to fall apart on the grill, and lack a little less flavor. Anyways, before the patties were even formed, I worked in to the beef, an envelope of Lipton Onion Soup Mix to give it some flavor. Formed some rather massive patties, half-pound colon busters if you will. Hard to tell in the pictures, but easily appreciated in person. Placed them on the grate opposite the hot coals, and pressed a golf ball-sized depression into the center of each one to thwart the often occurring “curl”, an unsightly malady that burgers sometimes do. The depression punch is purely a cosmetic move for the end game. Next, and to add a nice touch you don’t often get with a hamburger, I added a couple chunks of hickory to the coals, for a pleasant smokey tint to the beef. Nothing like a smoke ring on your cheeseburger to set a man right!
You can leave the burgers over indirect heat the whole way, tho some prefer to do it all right over the coals, hot and fast like. It’s up to your pit master instincts. But one thing you should always take the time to do is to toast your buns. And get the best buns the bakery has, or better yet, make your own. And one of the best ways to toast them is to butter each half, and plunk them on the hot side of the grill. Tend to them like a needy relationship. Like a puppy keen to poop on your new carpet. Check them every few seconds with your tongs. For they can burn easily, and all your hard labors might soon go up in flame. But nothing quite so brings your burger to the next level than a perfectly toasted bun. Man. And never has a dinner guest not appreciate this simple, yet effective effort.
In the end, each person had a 1/2 pound Colby Jack cheese burger with the works, larger than their face, and towering off the plate like a meat monolith. Mercy! Basic grilling 101. Filling. Tasty. And an American favorite for sure. It is the cheeseburger. Your pit keeper’s thumb print.