That’s The Way the Potato Chip Crumbles

A few months ago, I participated in the Lays Do Us a Flavor contest where people submit new flavors for Lays potato chips (if you live in the UK, you probably know them best as Walkers) and was excited that I might come up with that one flavor that could net me $50,000 (runner-up prize) or $1,000,000 (grand prize).

Sadly, this just didn’t happen for me (even though my mother thought I submitted Wasabi Ginger. I didn’t, though that does seem like something I would devise). While I am upset that people will never know such potato chip flavors as General Tso’s Chicken (I really thought this would be a winner. Next time, I’ll go with Chow Mein Fun, since my sister is crazy for that), Bruschetta, Caprese Salad, Avocado and Cream (this one was a joke), Figs ‘n Feta, Gyro, Pepperoni Philly Cheesesteak, and Salted Chocolate Caramel, I do applaud this year’s entries for being likelier candidates to win than last year’s Cheesy Garlic Bread, which I thought was unimaginative. The fact that it won was what drove me to enter this year’s contest. Besides, I was rooting for Chicken and Waffles (or, at the very least, Sriracha, even though the sriracha fad was starting to fade).

This year’s finalist can be found on the main website: https://www.dousaflavor.com/#!/. The cappucino-flavored one seems like it will be this year’s Chicken and Waffles, as it’s a bizarre choice that everyone will predict is the winner, but will only get runner-up. So far, my favorite one is the Mango Salsa (another flavor I should have come up with, as I made mango salsa in Chef Luis’ Garde Manger class and that goes great with chips — mostly tortilla, but potato works just as well), but if I had to predict a winner, it would probably be Bacon Mac and Cheese, as that has a very Middle American appeal to it and caters to the bacon obsession that seems to be everywhere these days (mostly online).

So what can be said about all of this? Nothing much. There’s no recipe to learn, no interesting food history bits. Not today (maybe tomorrow). I just want to congratulate the people who were picked and hope they win the million.

Thanks, and happy eating.

UPDATE: The winner of the Lays Do Us A Flavor contest for this year is the woman (a nurse from New Jersey) who came up with Wasabi Ginger. I am surprised that that was such a hit with people. Bacon Mac and Cheese seemed a sure thing, the cappucino one was too gimmicky and didn’t taste good, and mango salsa was good, but I can see that being a “Limited Time Only” special flavor (which it kind of was). And, in the words of Colin Jost from Saturday Night Live, “[Wasabi Ginger] sounds less like a potato chip flavor, and more like something Joe Biden would accidentally call the Chinese ambassador.”

Advertisements

From Minced Meat to McDonalds — The History of the Hamburger

The Fourth of July is upon us – and even though the day is almost over where I am, the barbecues, fireworks, beach trips, and summer fun is still abuzz because Independence Day is on a Friday this year and people are taking advantage of it by extending it to cover the entire weekend. Not that I mind. Celebrating a holiday or a birthday from Friday to Sunday is a lot more fun than celebrating it during the weekday – especially if you have obligations during the week (work, school, or family).

Last year, my Independence Day blog post was about the history of the barbecue and how America has four types of barbecues: Carolina (North and South), Memphis (Tennessee), Kansas City (Missouri), and Texas. This year, I thought I might touch on hamburgers: their origins, how America popularized them, and whether or not the burger is still relevant in a world where people are watching their waistlines and opting for healthier alternatives.

What can be said about the hamburger that hasn’t been said in other food blogs, food magazines, cookbooks, and fast food advertisement? It’s been touted as the perfect food: ground beef (or turkey, or chicken, or chickpeas and black beans, if you want to go vegetarian), seasoned to your liking, mixed with egg, formed into a patty, fried on a griddle or put on a grill (ideally, a propane one, if you’re like Hank Hill), but will settle for being pan-fried or put on a charcoal grill, and either served as is or topped anything from ketchup, cheese, mustard, pickles, relish, bacon, and/or onions (raw or fried) to grilled fruits (usually pineapple), fried eggs, or any kind of fruit-flavored chutney.

But the hamburger is more than just a sandwich; it’s an American culinary icon, much like fried chicken (yes, fried chicken. The old stereotype of African Americans loving it confuses me as white people love fried chicken just as much) and apple pie. In fact, the hamburger is a lot like American history/society: filled with conflicting stories on its origins, can be very cheesy and disgusting to non-American sensibilities (yet most people do want a taste of it just to see if it’s everything they dreamed it would be), known and praised/disparaged all over the world, and associated with wanting everything done fast rather than done right.

Origins

In the 12th century, the nomadic Mongols, led by Genghis Khan  (1167–1227), carried food made up of several varieties of milk and meat (horse or camel) shaped into patties during their journeys. This was to not only extend their supply of meat, but also as a quick way to eat as they were laying waste to and conquering what is now Central Asia (Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, specifically). In the height of the Mongol Empire, it was common to see Mongol warriors following herds or flocks of horses, sheep, or oxen and killing them for food. The explorer Marco Polo recorded these sightings, even pointing out that a single pony could feed 100 Mongol invaders.

Now there’s an idea for the final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

This recipe for the minced meat patty was passed on the Muscovites when Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, invaded Russia after the Mongol Empire fell in the 1240s. In Moscow, the patty was known as steak tartare (yet the recipe for it was never recorded and, to this day, no one knows when the recipe was first recorded for restaurant use). In the city-states that would later be known as Germany, this ground meat product was refined by adding capers, onions and even caviar to the blend and was sold on the streets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This is the part where the ground meat patty gets called a hamburger because it was created in what would later be the German city of Hamburg.”

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t called the “hamburger” right away. It was called the Hamburgh (that’s how the city name was spelled at the time) Sausage. Besides, the sandwich (and the use of bread slices between a meat filling) wouldn’t be known until the 18th century, thanks to English aristocrat John Montagu (better known as The Earl of Sandwich), who came up with a new way to eat so his fingers wouldn’t get dirty while playing card games. There was an episode of the early 2000s Cartoon Network show, Time Squad, that parodied how The Earl of Sandwich came up with this culinary sensation. I uploaded the episode and the storyboards for it for anyone who wants to see it.

Fast forward to the 19th century, which sees Hamburg, Germany as the largest trans-Atlantic hub for freight and shipping. The Hamburg steak, an early ancestor of the hamburger and known at that time as either “Hamburg-style American fillet” or “beefsteak à Hambourgeoise,” is being served to attract German sailors. It was brought back to New York City and became popular on the menus of many restaurants in this U.S. port. This kind of fillet was beef minced by hand, lightly salted and often smoked, and usually served raw in a dish along with onions and bread crumbs.

Now this isn’t the hamburger as we know it yet. It’s actually Salisbury steak, named after American physician and food faddist, Dr. James Salisbury (1823-1905), served with brown gravy, and is a common sight in many an unappetizing frozen TV dinner or mediocre school cafeteria menu. However, it does go great with buttered noodles and your choice of green bean casserole or vegetable medley.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of conflicting stories about how the hamburger came to be. Did the Hamburg America Line in Germany send it over to America? Was it a spontaneous invention by an American? If so, who invented it/made it popular first? Fletcher Davis? The Menches Brothers? Charlie Nagreen? Oscar Bilby? Or Louis Lassen? No one knows for sure, but these facts are certain:

1) The hamburg steak/Salisbury steak’s popularity in America is what led to the popularity of the hamburger,

2) The hamburger is very much a late 19th century-into-the 20th century invention, so the hamburger (and all the other types of burgers derived from it) is fairly new

3) all claims made by the potential inventors of the hamburger occurred between 1885 and 1904, focusing all attention of its creation onto these two decades.

The Hamburger Restaurant

Contemporary American society at the dawn of the 20th century witnessed the creation of new fast food originating from traditional foods from various ethnic groups, such as China’s chop suey (and other take-out favorites that originally were supposed to be for other Chinese immigrants who moved to America, but became popular among those who weren’t Chinese, but were American), pizza from Italy (though that would not gain popularity until after World War II), and hot dogs (invented by German immigrant Charles Feltman, who sold frankfurters on sliced bread at Coney Island).

The dawn of the 20th century also witnessed the need to provide food for people living in highly productive urban centers with high population densities. Food also had to be economically affordable for the working class so they can maintain their labor and industrial production. The hamburger and its derivatives were born in a time when people didn’t have the time or energy to make anything to eat and would rather eat “fast” and “cheap,” a decision that has stuck with the American way of life to this day.

Though there have been plenty of arguments and claims to the contrary, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut has been credited by The Library of Congress as the very first burger joint. Lassen may have made the hamburger popular in 1895, but it wouldn’t be until 1916 when the hamburger patty (actually, a Salisbury steak patty, thanks to anti-German sentiment during and after World War I) would be served on a bun. For that, you can thank Walter Anderson, who, five years after he invented the burger bun, co-founded one of the earliest hamburger restaurants in America: White Castle. You can also thank White Castle for selling their hamburgers in grocery stores and vending machines, creating the industrial-strength spatula, mass-producing the humiliating paper hat associated with the embarrassing task of working fast-food service, and for birthing the concept of a “greasy spoon restaurant,” in which hygiene suffered in exchange for more inexpensive food (though that’s more the fault of wanting things done fast instead of right).

Like anything remotely successful, White Castle bred a lot of imitators and attempts at capturing the restaurant’s success, with little to no success. One of the most obvious was White Tower Hamburgers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose owners got into many a legal battle with White Castle over copyright infringement.

1937 saw Patrick McDonald and his two sons Richard and Maurice inaugurating a restaurant called “Airdrome” on Route 66 near the airport in Monrovia, California. Three years later in San Bernardino, Papa McDonald and his sons would go on to create the insanely popular restaurant people in America and the world over: McDonalds. The menu initially featured 25 different dishes, the majority of which were barbecued, but 80% of the restaurant’s revenue was made from selling hamburgers. It wouldn’t be until after World War II (due to beef shortages, though that didn’t slow down White Castle) that McDonalds’ popularity would soar, introducing the concept of fast food to the West Coast, working to improve on all of the things White Castle and other restaurants were doing to ensure the fastest service possible, and inventing the concept of “drive thru” ordering. By the 1950s, the concept of drive-in style service had become firmly established and hamburgers and cars had become closely connected in the minds of many Americans, particularly among the teenagers at that time, if pop culture and pointless nostalgia of the era has taught me anything.

As private outdoor social events, often held in backyards and featuring a barbecue, became more widespread during the mid-1950s, the hamburger gained a new culinary and social relevance in America. It became that national symbol that separated the United States from those godless Reds who waited with baited breath to invade the country. It seems silly, but for anyone who still has relatives who lived during that era, it was a reality. You know the hamburger was a popular American symbol during the Cold War when one of the battles in the Vietnam War is named The Battle of Hamburger Hill, because of how the Viet Cong and American soldiers alike were reduced to bloody meat. War is hell, kids.

There was also another war being waged during The Cold War (mostly during the 1960s and 1970s), and that was “The Burger War,” in which McDonalds fought with Burger King and Wendy’s over who had the better hamburger. No lives were lost nor soldiers injured (unless you count the many who have had heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes from all that burger-noshing), but it did cause the prices of their burgers increased, and the days when a hamburger could be bought for just a few cents (a nickel at most) were a thing of the past.

Where Are We Now?

Now, we’re in the era of everyone watching their waistlines and cutting down on the junk so they can live longer to complain about how life isn’t what it used to be. The hamburger, while still being celebrated with haute cuisine makeovers and being positively to neutrally portrayed on such TV shows and movies as Good Burger, SpongeBob SquarePants (with the titular character working at The Krabby Patty), American Eats, Man vs. Food, Bob’s Burgers, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, has also come under fire for lack of nutritional value and being one of a myriad of causes in the obesity epidemic. There are also environmentalists and animal rights activists protesting on how the big-chain restaurants are killing people with mediocre meat and slashing rainforests for more cattle-raising room.

“All this for a meat patty between two pieces of bread?” you ask. “All of this protesting and change and competition. It’s silly.” To that I say, “Yeah, it’s silly, but when you really think about it, it’s American.”

Thanks, and happy eating.

99 Batters of Rings on the Wall (or The Perils of Frying)

While searching for a recipe for mee krob (a deep-fried noodle dish from Thailand) online, I discovered that today is Onion Ring Day. It got me thinking about my past encounters with this staple of the appetizer menu.

beer-battered-onion-rings-9-600

I don’t think I’ve ever had a good experience with onion rings. Most of the onion rings I’ve had were from the freezer section (Ore-Ida) or from greasy spoon restaurants, which puts my experience with them either at the average to “Nothing to write home about” level (and the one time I had “from-scratch” onion rings, it coincided with an adverse reaction to fried shrimp initially thought to be a seafood allergy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t enjoy onion rings while my stomach is trying to reject semi-digested shrimp in response to the rest of my body thinking that it could be poisonous).

I gave onion rings a change years later when I was a Basic Culinary Arts student at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center — and once again, I was disappointed. Not because my stomach objected (far from it. I also found out that fried onion rings are more than just a member of the “Not Ready for the Main Course” players along with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, and jalapeño poppers. Properly-made and seasoned onion rings can go on to substitute for French fries on a delicious hamburger or be enjoyed solo), but because the cooking technique that is frying is very flawed, especially when it comes to frying vegetables (particularly onions and mushrooms).

More often than not, onion rings are a litany of common frying mistakes: they come out soggy, doughy, heavy, and/or  raw, with the “soggy” and “raw” problems a common occurence I’ve experienced in eating amateurly-made onion rings.

How many times have you bitten into an onion ring only for the golden ring and the actual onion split on you like a girlfriend or boyfriend who “needs her/his space” (but is really nailing your sister/brother/best friend/worst enemy behind your back)? It leaves you (the eater) disappointed and, in some cases, burned from the hot oil or gagging from eating a raw or undercooked onion.

“So, how do I turn onion rings around so that I may enjoy them next June 22nd?” you may ask.

Well, it all starts at the core: the onion.
Vidalia onions (sweet onions from Vidalia, Georgia) are your best bet. If you can’t find Vidalias, any sweet onion will do, but make sure they’re sweet. White and yellow onions are actually dry, have a stronger flavor, and are better off for sautéing, roasting, and the occasional use as mirepoix for stock. Why sweet onions? Sweet onions offer a milder flavor, and you want your onion to complement, not upstage, the delicate, fried skin of the onion ring. However, if you can’t find any sweet onions or want a stronger flavor, yellow onions can be used.

Okay, you’ve solved the easy problem (the perfect onion). Now you’re at the hard part of creating the perfect onion ring: the batter.

In the case of onion rings, I do recommend batter, as the old flour + milk or eggwash combo results in the dreaded slippery fried skin that exposes the limp, soggy onion when you go to eat it. For your batter, you’ll need to combine ¾ cup all-purpose flour, ¾ cups cornstarch, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ paprika (not necessary, but if you want a bolder color and some spicy kick, then add it), and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in ¾ cup beer until just combined. If you see some lumps in it, don’t worry; that’s normal. Whisk in remaining beer (the recipe calls for 3 cups of beer, but make it four if you want a quick drink. I won’t tell if you won’t, but make sure you reserve 2 cups of beer) as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, until batter falls from whisk in steady stream and leaves faint trail across surface of batter. If you’re serving kids or don’t like beer, you can substitute beer for buttermilk.

Now you have your onions and your batter. Now what? Just a simple cut onion into rings, dip rings in batter, and fry until golden brown, right? Yes, but if you want perfect onion rings, there are some tips and precautions you need to take:

1) Soak your onion rounds in a bath of 2 cups beer or buttermilk (the two you reserved during the batter-making step), 2 teaspoons of either malt or cider vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in a plastic storage bag that can be zipped shut (you know, a Ziplock bag or any off-brand you can find). Refrigerate the bagged bath for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

2) Don’t go past the 2-hour mark or your onion rounds will be too soft and and won’t crisp properly. The beer (or buttermilk)/vinegar/salt/pepper bath not only gives more flavor to your onion rings (so the fried skin doesn’t get all the attention. The onion and the cooked batter are in this together to satisfy your taste buds), but it breaks down the exterior cell walls of the onion so you won’t have to worry about chomping down on a raw onion, shortens the soaking time of the onion rounds, and gives a subtle echo to the beer or buttermilk batter, so you just won’t taste the fried batter separately from the onion.

3) Vegetable oil is the best oil to use when frying onion rings (or anything you want fried, like chicken or other vegetables). You can use peanut oil, but only if you’re sure the people you’re serving aren’t allergic to peanuts.

4) Heat the frying oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius or 4 on the gas mark), though the average frying range is between 325 degrees Fahrenheit (165 degrees Celsius) to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius) . Use a fat or candy thermometer to measure your oil temperature. If you don’t have a kitchen thermometer, test the oil by sprinkling some flour (or tossing a bread crumb) in the oil. If the flour fizzles (or if the bread crackles and spits), then it’s ready.

5) Be sure your oil temperature is correct. Too cold and you’ll be left with an oily, runny mess. Too hot, and you’re left with near-edible charcoal (of course, if my mom had her way, she would eat onion rings this way. She already does with chicken wings and fish fillets).

6) Shaking the batter off the onions as you dip them in the batter isn’t really a necessary step, but it helps if you want the batter to adhere to the onion properly. Dusting the damp onions with flour before battering them will help the batter stick.

7) If you’re one of those people who has a gadget for everything in the kitchen, then a deep-fryer is your key to perfect onion rings. If you’re a traditional pots and pans type of home cook, then you can either go for the traditional straight-sided sauté pan or do what my mom has done for years and use a Dutch oven or a pasta pot (looks very much like a small sauce pot). You need something with a deep bottom since you will be free floating your battered onion rings as they fry.

8) Fry the onion rings in small batches. Crowding the pan lowers the oil heat and makes cooking last longer than it should. Of all the cooking techniques out there, frying is high and fast (like The Flash on marijuana). Five minutes is all it takes to get the onion rings done. You can leave them in a little longer if you desire a crispier outer shell or if they haven’t turned to golden brown in the five-minute cooking time.

9) One of the problems with frying is that the food comes out too oily. Let the finished rings drain on a paper towel-lined baking rack.

10) To keep onion rings warm (especially if you’re cooking a full meal), transfer drained rings to a baking sheet-lined pan to an oven preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (around 93 degrees Celsius).

Here’s the recipe in full to keep, print out, write down, and pass down to your next of kin if you wish:

Beer-Battered Onion Rings

Serves 4 to 6

2 sweet onions, peeled and sliced into ½-inch-thick rounds
3 cups beer
2 teaspoons malt vinegar (see note)
Salt and pepper
2 quarts peanut or vegetable oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cups cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. SOAK ONIONS: Place onion rounds, 2 cups beer, vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in zipper-lock bag; refrigerate 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

2. MAKE BATTER: Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. While oil is heating, combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in large bowl. Slowly whisk in ¾ cup beer until just combined (some lumps will remain). Whisk in remaining beer as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, until batter falls from whisk in steady stream and leaves faint trail across surface of batter.

3. FRY RINGS: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees. Remove onions from refrigerator and pour off liquid. Pat onion rounds dry with paper towels and separate into rings. Transfer one-third portion of rings to batter. One at a time, carefully transfer battered rings to oil. Fry until rings are golden brown and crisp, about 5 minutes, flipping halfway through frying. Drain rings on paper towel-lined baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to oven. Return oil to 350 degrees and repeat with remaining onion rings and batter.

=========================================

It’s a lot to do just for onion rings, but it only looks hard, and anything worth having is worth fighting for, especially if your enemy is the kitchen. Good night and good eatin’.