The (would-be) Bluestem Burger

Back in 1998, Aaron and I were living in the house he built in Two Inlets–the same one we live in today, but without electricity, running water, or a real fridge–just growing our garden and living on the hippie-cheap, telling ourselves that we could keep on doing it forever. (Look, Ma, no power–and no bills!) In time we discovered that the sustainable life isn’t all that financially sustainable, and you can read all about that in my memoir, but that’s not the point of this story. This story is about a burger. And my stubbornness. And about how giving in to either one of them would have have completely altered the course of my life.

Just before I moved to New York City, I came very, very close to starting a restaurant in Park Rapids with a couple of biodynamic farmers. To protect their innocence, I’ll call them Cee and Dee. I met Cee at a backwoods hippie pig roast over the hog, both of us picking blindly at sweet greasy bits after-hours, in the dark. Many years before, they’d moved here from a failed commune experiment out west and had started a thriving biodynamic CSA south of town. A few weeks later, I invited them to dinner. At my dim oil-lamp-lit table over a meal I cooked from the garden–zucchini risotto, if I remember right, and marinated peppers with goat cheese, and Sylvetta arugula with roasted garlic–I listened to them talk about organic food for the masses, of asparagus fields they sprayed with manure-tea aged in buried cow horns, of how making out on the fields at planting time under the full moon boosted the soil fertility, and I fell under their spell. Cee hatched a plan: They’d build the restaurant on their farm, I would do the cooking; their daughter-in-law would run the front of the house. Dee would raise the beef and the vegetables; Cee would run the books. I came up with a name, inspired by the wild grasses that fed Dee’s cows: Bluestem Cafe.

In the weeks following, as Aaron laid the cement blocks for the restaurant’s foundation, I stood at my propane-fired old stove and tested the menu. Keep in mind that I had no idea how to run a kitchen, or how to cook for a group larger than ten, or how to price a menu—according to my hack projections the braised beef entree, made from Dee’s grass-fed cows, would have to sell for $24.95, just no way around it. My grave inexperience was not what killed the restaurant, though. What sunk the project was the moment that Dee, a leggy, charismatic, somewhat-intimidating guy who rarely took off his aviator glasses or left the seat of his trusty huffing Farmall, insisted that we put a burger on the menu.

Hells no, I said. This is going to be a nice restaurant. This is no dinerman.

Dee pushed back, leaning into the tractor clutch, and insisted: People around here want to eat burgers.

Back then I wanted to get as far away as I could from the simple Midwestern restaurant food I’d always known. There’d be no wild rice soup on my menu. No hotdish. No frozen tator tots. No burgers. I was going to cook with swiss chard and purple carrots and chervil. There would be walleye cakes to start. And wild plum clafouti–cooked with the pits in–to finish. 

Not long after our restaurant idea collapsed I moved to New York City to become a fine dining line cook. There I learned how to make veal demi-glace and braised endive and how to confit everything from shallots to apples . . . but all the time I was running away, I never stopped looking back. My Midwest was tenacious. My nostalgia came with flavors. Soon after, I came to embrace the food icons of my Midwestern youth, and to understand that everything–everything–can be made beautifully. And the roots of haute cuisine began in the country, anyway. It takes fine dirt to grow fine ingredients. All the rest is just recipes. 

amy old kitchenjpg

But look at this girl. Those hauled-in jugs of water, that sooty-bottomed kettle, that willful, wise-acre look . . . this photo absolutely slays me! The things I didn’t know then–they could fill a book. And did, actually. (I still use that Chemex, though, because when it comes to coffee, nonelectric is really best.)

I’m glad I waited to make my signature burger. I was a pretty curmudgeonly old-timer back in my youth, and since then I’ve seen the error of my burger-bashing ways. These days I grind my own beef from chuck roast and short ribs and cook my burgers over wood on my backyard iron Behemoth grill, and I have to admit, they’re pretty awesome, and worth the wait. 

All of which is to say: Dee, I’m sorry, but I finally made you a burger. Can we put it on the menu?

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The Bluestem Burger

makes 8 generous burgers

3 pounds beef (a combination of chuck, brisket, tri-tip, boneless short ribs, and bottom round; I like to use brisket and boneless short ribs–sometimes called “chuck flap”–but just pick up whatever looks fresh and isn’t too exorbitant)

1/2 pound bacon, cut into 2-inch pieces, for grinding; plus 8 slices, cooked, for topping burgers

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon sweet paprika or ancho powder

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika or ground chipotle

English Muffins for buns, toasted and buttered

Cheese (anything you like; I used pub cheese here.)

Slabs of fresh tomato

A few hours before dinner, preferably, cut the beef into 2-inch cubes. Trim off any soft pink fat, but leave all the hard, white fat. Toss the meat with 1/2 teaspoon salt and chill thoroughly, in a wide metal bowl.

Feed the meat through a grinder, using the coarse plate, alternating chunks of beef with pieces of bacon. (I use the attachment on my KitchenAid Mixer.) If the meat is cold enough and the blade sharp enough, the ground meat should shoot out in a mottled red-and-white confetti.

Preheat your grill to medium-high force. Form the meat into 8 patties, smoothing the edges but not over-handling them. Mix the remaining teaspoon salt, the black pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and smoked paprika in a small bowl. Sprinkle the spice mix evenly on the patties, on both sides.

Toast the buns, slice the toppings, and cook the bacon. Grill the burgers: sear the first side to a dark brown, flip them, top with cheese, and then lower the heat slightly, until the inside is cooked to a shade more than medium rare–pink and juicy inside, but not raw. (Here’s a way to tell if the meat has been cooked. Don’t go by color, go by the finish, like you do when you’re picking out paint: cooked meat will look crumbly and have an eggshell finish. Raw meat is high-gloss.)

Transfer the burgers to their buns, top them with tomato and bacon, and serve immediately.

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