Gwyneth Paltrow’s Thai Chicken Burgers, Improved by Blork

I found Gwyneth Paltrow’s Thai-style chicken burgers recipe in Chatelaine magazine (May 2013) and it became something of a summer favourite for us this year.

The recipe comes from her It’s All Good cookbook, but it’s been reprinted all over the web, from Paltrow’s own Goop.com web site to various other magazine’s sites and 1001 blogs. It’s always reproduced exactly the same way (although there is at least one variation in the ingredients), which is a problem for me because I don’t like the way the method is described. This is normal for me as I virtually never like the way recipes are written. I alway re-write them when I’m transcribing them for my personal recipe book, and this one is no different.

The “improved” recipe below includes a few small ingredient changes (based on personal preference) and a greatly improved description of how to put it all together, including important information about how to deal with the very goopy nature of the meat before cooking. (I don’t know if I have the right to present the recipe here, especially if it is modified, but given that it’s already everywhere, and I’m giving attribution, and Gwyneth Paltrow seems to be a nice person, I’m going on the assumption it’s OK.)

I serve these burgers with lettuce and lime-pepper mayonnaise, which you can whip up in about 45 seconds using jarred mayo. The patties themselves pack so much flavour that it doesn’t seem right to pile on a bunch of extra things. These are best served as simply as possible.

A Note on the Goopy Texture

I confess I use supermarket ground chicken because I don’t have a meat grinder. Perhaps if you do grind your own this note won’t apply. (Hardly anyone on the web has mentioned this issue, and those who do usually add breadcrumbs as a binding agent.) But in my experience it has the texture and stickiness of fairly wet cookie dough after you’ve mixed in the aromatics and spices. This makes it hard to shape into patties, and even if you do, the patty loses its shape when you try to move it from a plate into the pan. There is also a high risk the burger will collapse and fall between the grates if you try to grill the burgers without firming them up in a pan first. The tips below will help you work around this problem:

  • Don’t bother trying to shape the meat into a burger patty before cooking; Instead, just divide it into blobs and use the “smash burger” technique when you drop it into the pan (drop in the blob of meat then quickly smooth it into a patty shape using the back of a greased spoon).
  • I do not recommend direct grilling (people say they do it, and I have done it, but it’s not fun and the burger can easily fall apart). I suggest frying them in a pan, or a combination of starting it in a pan (such as one of those grill-top cast iron pans) and finishing it on the grill. Both options are described in the recipe below.
  • Cooking spray is your friend. Spray the plate on which you place the blobs of portioned meat, and use a spoon that you’ve sprayed for transferring to the pan and smashing (flattening) the patties.

Here are the modifications I made to the original recipe:

  • From 3/4 cup of chopped cilantro to 1/2 cup (loosely packed) because it takes a TON of cilantro to even make 1/2 cup, and it seems like too much to me. (Note that some iterations of this recipe on the web specify 1/2 cup.)
  • One teaspoon of sambal oelek instead of a teaspoon of minced red chile pepper. I always have samal oelek on hand, and I never have a single red chile pepper handy. This is an easy and sensible substitution.
  • One teaspoon of fish sauce instead of two. Fish sauce is extremely salty and we should all be eating less salt.
  • 1/4 teaspoon of coarse sea salt instead of 1/2 teaspoon. See note about salt, above.
  • 1 teaspoon of mirin or agave syrup. This is not in the original recipe, but the magic of Thai food comes with the interplay of spicy, salty, sour, and sweet. This recipe has nothing sweet (except the shallots, and that’s a special kind of sweet). I find that a touch of sweetness helps here, especially since I use sambal oelek, which is a bit vinegary. You can add this or not. Just don’t add too much; a teaspoon, or two maximum.

Blork’s Improved Gwyneth Paltrow Thai Chicken Burgers

Ingredients

  • 450 g (1 lb) ground chicken
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1 tsp sambal oelek
  • 1 tsp fish sauce
  • 1/4 tsp coarse sea salt (optional; the fish sauce 
is already very salty)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp mirin or agave syrup (optional)
  • 2 tbsp grapeseed (or equivalent neutral) oil

Method

  • Mix the garlic, cilantro, shallots, sambal oelek, fish sauce, and salt & pepper in a large bowl. Stir it around until it’s mixed into a slurry.
  • Add the ground chicken and mix. Try not to over-mix it; just stir and turn until it’s reasonably well mixed together.
  • Divide into four (or six if you like them small) blobs on a greased plate.
  • Cook in one of these two ways:

PAN:

– Heat a heavy pan until hot.
– Add the oil then drop the goopy blobs of meat onto the pan, quickly flattening them into a burger patty shape about 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick. Do this one at a time; drop, flatten, drop, flatten, etc.
– Cook for about 5-6 minutes per side (being careful not to over-brown) or until the internal temperature reaches 75C (165F).

GRILL:

– Heat the grill fairly high, and put a cast-iron grilling pan on it to heat up to hot.
– Put the oil in the grill pan, then drop the goopy blobs of meat onto the pan, quickly flattening them into a burger patty shape about 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick. Do this one at a time; drop, flatten, drop, flatten, etc.
– Cook for about 1 to 1-1/2 minutes per side, flipping when the underside is fairly browned.
– After both sides have browned, transfer to the grill and finish about 2-3 minutes per side or until the internal temperature reaches 75C (165F).

Serve on lightly toasted sesame buns with lime-pepper mayonnaise and lettuce.

Lime-pepper mayonnaise:
Mix about 1/3 cup of mayo with the juice of 1/2 a lime and a lot of coarsely ground black pepper.

Download an easy-to-print (one page) version of this recipe.

Three Strikes, You’re Out!

It’s not the Blork Blog style to use this venue to issue screeds against local businesses, but in the case of Green Café I will make an exception, and the exception is based on the fact that Green Café has failed in three dimensions: food quality, web site, and customer service.

Food Quality

I went to Green Café (the branch on rue Drummond) for the first and only time on May 24, 2013, where I ordered a Niçoise salad to go. Green Café’s Niçoise salad doesn’t much resemble a classic Niçoise salad, but that’s an issue of interpretation, not quality. (Theirs is full of chick peas, has no green beans, and they give you a choice of tuna or grilled chicken.)

I returned to my desk and began to eat. The salad was tasty enough at first, but as I got deeper into the bowl the abundance of vinaigrette began to overwhelm. By the time I got to the bottom it was more like vinaigrette soup than a salad. Way too much!

So I thought I’d do the right thing and let them know that they need to reel in the vinaigrette a bit. After all, good restaurants encourage constructive feedback from customers.

Web Site

I went to their web site. As is sadly typical for restaurants, it’s a Flash-based site. Flash is bad for restaurant web sites for many reasons, including the fact that it fails on most mobile devices – and it’s while you’re mobile that you’re most likely to want to get the coordinates for a restaurant, or see the menu. It’s also a bad idea because it’s very likely no one in the restaurant’s staff or administration can update or change the site. This is the dirty secret of Flash-based web developers; once your hire them you’re usually more or less stuck with them for changes and updates. Regular HTML based sites – or sites that run on WordPress or similar systems – can be updated by virtually anyone with the correct login name and password.

In the case of Green Café, their site was not only Flash-based, but it contained an egregious error that no one seems aware of or is willing to fix. When you click the email link on the “Contact Us” page, where the email address is written in (Flash) text as “info@greencafe.ca,” a new, blank email message opens up with the “To” field automatically populated with their address. This is conventional, but in the case of Green Café, it populates the “To” field with the wrong address!

info@green.ca instead of info@greencafe.ca

I didn’t notice the error. So I wrote the following constructive email message and promptly pressed “Send.”

Hello. Today I had my first Café Green experience; I got a salade nicoise (chicken) from the store on rue Drummond. There was WAY too much vinaigrette on it; about triple as much as what I would expect. This isn’t just me being fussy, the thing was literally drowning in vinaigrette. I couldn’t finish it because it was so soggy.

There’s no need to reply, but please do a quality check at that store and give the preparers a reminder of how much vinaigrette is a normal amount. I’d love to try another Café Green salad one day soon, but if it’s as soggy as this one I won’t go back.

Thanks!

An hour later I got the following email from the Green Party of Canada (emphasis mine):

Don’t worry, Ed, your email went to the Green Party of Canada. We don’t serve Salade Nicoise.

Go to the Green Cafe contact page, and scroll down to where it shows info@greencafe.ca. Click on that link and look at the address on the email.

The domain “green.ca” is the property of the Green Party of Canada and is being used, to our continual petty annoyance, by the “Green Traiteur & Café” in Montreal. We have written to them repeatedly and have never received even an acknowledgement.

As you can see, this is not a new problem. Note that the address error occurs on both the French and English side of Green Café’s web site.

Customer Service

I promptly copied my original message and sent it to the (presumably) correct email address (info@greencafe.ca), with the following paragraph added:

One other thing: the email link on your website is broken. Although it says “info@greencafe.ca,” when you click on it it populates your email “To” field with “info@green.ca,” which goes to the Green Party of Canada. (They were kind enough to write back to me an tell me they had received the above comment. This is a re-send.) The same error occurs on both your French and English “Contact” page.

And then I waited.

Almost two weeks have passed. The error on the web site is still there, and even though I said “there’s no need to reply,” I would expect any decent company to reply as a matter of courtesy. I have not received a reply. I join the Green Party of Canada and doubtless many others in this club of people who receive no reply from Green Café when they try to contact them by email.

Any one of these infractions would be enough to warrant a frown along with the willingness to give another chance. Two of these infractions would prompt a personal boycott. But all three together add up to a frown, a personal boycott, and this public message to anyone who is reading – including, I hope, the management at Green Café.

Strike three, you’re out.

Update (June 2014)

A keen reader has informed me that Green Café has updated their web site. It’s no longer Flash-based, and the email address has been corrected. No word on whether or not they’re still over-dressing their salads.

The Great San Marzano Tomato Fraud

The San Marzano is the king of the Italian sauce tomatoes. It’s a long, thin, meaty fruit with very little water and seeds. The flavour is sweet, tangy, and less acidic than Roma tomatoes. Anyone who watches food television or who follows celebrity chefs on social media will be familiar with the by-now-unequivocal refrain that “real” cooks only use San Marzano tomatoes in their sauces.

I say bullshit.

There are many varieties of Italian tomatoes, including the aforementioned Roma, and they all have a role to play in la cucina. The qualities that make San Marzanos so special are fairly subtle, and those subtleties diminish as the dish you prepare becomes more complex and diffused with other ingredients.

Given that a can of San Marzano tomatoes is typically two to three times more expensive than a can of similar quality Roma tomatoes, you’re throwing your money away if you’re using them in complicated dishes with many ingredients. Do you think they’re using real barolo at Babbo when they make their famous Brasato al Barolo? No, it’s a $4 domestic merlot (according to Bill Buford, in “Heat”). Does it make any difference? No!

The same applies when you’re making a huge pot of ragù Bolognese or your grandma’s 50-ingredient lasagna. Use the Romas because you’ll never be able to tell the difference.

On the other hand, if you’re making pizza, use a sauce of nothing more than drained and lightly blended (use a hand blender) canned San Marzanos with a bit of salt and olive oil. Don’t pre-cook it; spread it on raw. Compare a simple pizza Margherita made with San Marzanos versus one made with Romas and you will most definitely see the difference. (The Roma one will be good, but the San Marzano one will be sublime and transcendant.)

Or make a fast and simple pasta dish by cooking down a can of San Marzanos with a bit of minced shallot or a touch of garlic. Cook it for less than ten minutes, and during the second half add a bunch of whole basil leaves. Then turn off the heat, remove the cooked basil, and tip in some just-cooked penne or other short pasta. Dress with a bit of olive oil, a fresh basil chiffonnade, and a bit of freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese. Again, it would be good with Romas, but it is mind-blowing with San Marzanos.

So the first level of San Marzano fraud is the idea that San Marzanos are necessarily and always better. No. San Marzanos are better when the dish is simple, emphasizes the tomato, and the tomato is as unmolested as possible. Otherwise, it makes little difference if you use San Marzanos or some other good Italian tomato.

Now that that’s settled, there’s another level of fraud you should know about, and it has to do with the definition of “San Marzano.” Put your thinking hat on, because this gets a bit three-dimensional.

San Marzano” refers to two things; primarily it is a variety of tomato. But it also refers to a specific protected denomination of origin (or in Italian, Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta, or D.O.P.). That means it refers to the San Marzano variety of tomatoes that are harvested in August and September in a specific area of Campania, Italy (called, to no one’s surprise, “San Marzano sul Sarno“).

In order to receive the D.O.P. stamp, the tomatoes must be:

  1. Of the San Marzano variety;
  2. grown in the San Marzano region;
  3. harvested by hand without mechanization.

Harvesting by hand is intended to ensure that the fruit is only picked when at its peak ripeness, with the not-quite-ripe ones left on the vine for later.

All this D.O.P. fussiness results in:

  • A very high and consistent standard of quality.
  • A significantly higher price.
  • Something for annoying foodies to cling to and use to pass judgement over those who are less familiar with the San Marzano story.
  • A great way for tomato retailers to rip off the marginally informed (those for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing).

Here’s where it gets tricky. Because the foodie world is flush with all sorts of judgement about San Marzanos and those who do or do not use them, the demand for San Marzano tomatoes has skyrocketed. This includes the demand for domestically grown, non-D.O.P. ones, which are San Marzano in variety only, without the benefit of having been grown in that special volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius, and without a guarantee of the quality controls used in harvesting. Because of this high demand for the name and low understanding of what it means, a lot of domestic producers charge a premium price for their non-D.O.P. – and thus non-premium –products.

Here in Montreal, most of the San Marzano tomatoes one finds in the stores are, indeed D.O.P., and they typically cost between $3.50 and $5.00 for a 28 ounce/800 gram can (versus anywhere from $1.00 to $1.89 for regular Italian tomatoes, and a few premium non-San Marzanos tipping the till at $2.49). I can understand domestic San Marzanos being a bit more expensive than regular Italian tomatoes, but there’s no way they should be premium priced along with the D.O.P. ones.

These available-in-Quebec “San Marzanos” are not D.O.P. San Marzanos! They generally run about $2 a can, which is a fair price.

In the United States, the most commonly seen brand of “San Marzano” tomatoes are these ones:

The most commonly seen brand of “San Marzanos” in the U.S. They are not D.O.P. so they shouldn’t be priced like D.O.P!

Watch any U.S.-produced TV show or online video where they mention San Marzanos, and that’s the label you’ll likely see. Do a Google image search on “san marzano tomatoes” and that’s the label that appears most frequently.

They are not D.O.P. San Marzanos. They are U.S.-grown, non-D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. No doubt they are good tomatoes, possibly better than most. But they are not D.O.P., so they should not be sold at D.O.P. prices. I picked up the can seen here at a Whole Foods store in Pasadena, California recently. The price? $4.39!

In my opinion, this is a rip-off. I won’t go so far as to say “fraud,” because there is no fake D.O.P. stamp on the can, and the label does say “Grown Domestically in the USA.” However, the label more prominently says “POMIDORI PELATI” (or “POMIDORI CUBETTI” for the diced ones), which implies these are Italian tomatoes from Italy. And they are priced as if they were D.O.P. San Marzanos from Italy. Furthermore, the Whole Foods store did not carry any D.O.P San Marzanos, so these non-D.O.P. ones are your only choice if you have “San Marzano” buzzing in your head.

This is a rip-off. I don’t know if they are similarly overpriced in other stores, but it seems that Whole Foods – or perhaps the distributor of the tomatoes – are inflating the price because they know that many people will robotically buy San Marzano tomatoes simply because the foodies tell them to, and they will pay any price for them. It’s sort of a bait-and-switch, except it’s the foodie blogs and foodie television that set the bait, and Whole Foods does the switch (by not even offering true D.O.P. brands).

Compare that to Epicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal, where I can choose from at least seven brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos:

A selection of seven different brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos at Épicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal. Most are under $4.00.

In conclusion:

  • D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes really are better in simply-prepared dishes where the barely-cooked tomato is the main attraction.
  • For long-cooked dishes that contain a lot of ingredients (or strongly flavoured ingredients such as salty and fatty meats), you will likely not see the difference between San Marzano tomatoes and any good quality regular Italian tomatoes.
  • The best quality San Marzanos are from Italy, bearing the D.O.P. stamp. They are more expensive, but worth it for simple dishes (see the first point, above).
  • Non-D.O.P. San Marzanos can be very good, but you shouldn’t pay D.O.P. prices for them. If you’re going to pay D.O.P. prices, then buy D.O.P. tomatoes.

I encourage you to eat more tomatoes, both San Marzano and other varieties, and even non-D.O.P. San Marzanos. But be informed! Bon appetit!

Further reading:

The Great Caramelized Onions Debate

There’s been a kerfuffle over the past week around the issue of caramelized onions and whether or not they can be made in a short period of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes. (What you missed it?)

It started with this article on Slate.com, in which Tom Scocca complains that “recipe writers” lie about how long it takes to brown/caramelize onions (he uses the terms interchangeably). That caused a bit of a roar here and there, with some people agreeing with him that it takes at least 40 minutes to caramelize onions, and some disagreeing.

I can’t say I followed the issue very closely, as I’ve always been in the “low and slow” camp; my caramelized onions take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and I have many better things to do with my time than argue something like this. Then Jacob Burton of StellaCulinary.com weighed in, creating a somewhat annoying but quite informative video in which he proves that onions can be “caramelized” in ten minutes.

He raises some very good points about the kind of pan that is used and whatnot. However, I am not convinced. I absolutely do believe that Jacob Burton browned those onions in ten minutes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is one of terminology:

“Browning” and “caramelizing” are not exactly the same thing.

What Burton created was a really nice pan full of browned, fried onions. This is in contrast with what many people (myself included) refer to as “caramelized” onions, which are slow cooked for a long time. The result is something quite different. Fried onions have both a sharp and a mellow flavour, and a strong aroma. (Everyone loves the smell of fried onions!) Caramelized onions–and perhaps I should be specific and say slow caramelized onions–have a much mellower and sweeter flavour and a more low key, almost buttery aroma. The flavour of slow caramelized onions is hardly oniony at all; in some ways it’s more like baked apples in butter. (If you’re really patient, you can go for deep caramelized onions, like these.)

I suspect that back in Julia Childs’ day, few people confused the two. It was clear that fried onions were fried onions and caramelized onions were caramelized onions, the same way we distinguish between roasted meat and braised meat. But few people make the distinction now. I speculate it’s because “caramelized” sounds fancier and “fried” is like a swear word in some circles. With the rise of the “foodies,” and all the half-informed and competitive bombast that came with it, the result is that “caramelized” is now used whenever you apply heat to onions and make them turn colour.

Let’s drill down a bit more: Wikipedia makes a distinction between caramelization and the Maillard reaction. In brief, the Maillard reaction is:

…a form of nonenzymatic browning. It results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.

And caramelization is:

… the browning of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting nutty flavor and brown color. As the process occurs, volatile chemicals are released, producing the characteristic caramel flavor.

Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? The caramelization article goes on:

Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning. However, unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is pyrolysis, as opposed to reaction with amino acids.

Aha! I’m no chemist, but based on the Wikipedia description of pyrolysis:

Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen.

And there, perhaps, lies the difference. Most recipes for slow caramelized onions call for low heat in a covered pan. That’s nowhere near an oxygen free environment, but it’s a lot less oxygen rich than something sizzling in an open pan over high heat with a lot of stirring. (You need to read the whole article to get the full picture, but suffice to say that my recipe for slow caramelized onions uses a very moist environment, exactly what is needed for pyrolysis.)

I won’t go on with the technical stuff because there are plenty of people on Reddit who will gladly dedicated their dying breath to the splitting of such hairs. I’ll leave it to them.

My point is that when you fry onions fast and hot, you get a different plate of food than when you cook them slowly under low heat. Both are good, but they are different. And because they are different, they should have different names.

I propose “fried onions” and “caramelized onions.”