When I was about 13, my Dad got stationed in the Northeast, teaching ROTC at MIT and Harvard. Instead of living in Boston, he settled in Portsmouth, an idyllic little New England town on New Hampshire’s tiny stretch of coast. My parents had just separated, and so for the next few years my brother and I spent at least part of each summer with Dad, living on our 38-foot Mariner, the Celebration, which was moored in the harbor of the naval station just across the bridge in Kittery, Maine.
A teen movie couldn’t script better summers than those. We’d wake up in the morning to the sound of the water lapping against the hull and the cling of the mainsail slapping inside the mast. Each day dawned with blue skies and endless possibilities of lazy summer pursuits–reading on the deck, boating with friends or just daydreaming in the sun. We’d often pull the anchor and sail east to the Isle of Shoals or up the coast of Maine towards Kennebunkport.
One summer, we did an overnight sail from Portsmouth to Boston, arriving in Boston Harbor just as the sky turned from gray to pink and the sun began to peek over the horizon. I stayed up all night with Dad on that sail, drinking coffee and hot chocolate, talking, and just listening to the black night and watching the phosphorescence spark as the Celebration cut through the water. It’s one of my favorite memories.
Aside from sailing, my recollection of those summers are of the tastes and smells of the food that filled our days and nights. My Dad taught me from a young age to appreciate good food–from low-brow hot dogs to high-brow caviar. He didn’t believe that children should have special menus, so from the time I could eat solid food, I was eating everything from artichokes to frog legs to oysters.
I don’t remember cooking much during those summers, because we were too busy exploring New England’s specialties–fried clams and chocolate frappes at The Ice House, lobster rolls off the boat at the Isle of Shoals, seafood baskets eating on picnic tables at Chauncey Creek, and Saturday morning pancakes at The Golden Egg. But one of our favorite weeknight haunts was The Rusty Hammer, where we went for a Blue Wimpy, otherwise known as a blue cheese burger, at least before I became vegetarian and Dad thought I had lost my mind. We’d all eat burgers and Dad would enjoy a beer, and then we’d walk towards the water for an ice cream cone from Annabelle’s before wandering back to the boat. They were great nights.
Dad, this Blue Wimpy is for you, in memory of all our long talks shared over good food. Thank you for that time spent together, and for all you have taught me in my life, including not being afraid to dream big and take risks, and more recently, to balance ambition with contentment and love. I love you, Dad. I wish I was sitting with you on this Father’s Day, eating this burger, drinking a beer and telling stories of those summers. Next year, let’s do that.
Now, for a few notes on what makes this the perfect blue cheese burger. Surprisingly, I have a lot of opinions about burgers. (While I was vegetarian for years, it was burgers that brought me back.)
First, let’s start with the meat. Grass-fed beef has rich beefy flavor. Just get your meat from a butcher who can make sure it has at least 20% fat in the grind. Or, you can grind it yourself, which is ever better. Generously salt your beef before shaping it into patties, and don’t work the meat too much, which will create a dense burger. I don’t like any other herbs, spices or binders in there–it’s a hamburger, not meatloaf. And when it comes to cooking, searing in a cast iron skillet is the only way to go, keeping the meat juicy and giving it those perfect crispy bits.
Second, the bun. I’m partial to pretzel buns, but a brioche bun is also a good choice. It should be not so soft that it falls apart beneath the burger, but not so crusty that it’s hard to bite. And it should always, always be buttered and toasted.
For the condiments, I love caramelized onions on a blue cheese burger. They add a savory sweetness that eliminates any need for ketchup. If you don’t have time to make caramelized onions, you could spread on an onion jam. You could just melt blue cheese on top of the burger, but making the blue cheese sauce is worth the small amount of extra effort. The tangy yogurt with the richness of the blue cheese and the bite from the hot sauce is a perfect way to cut the fat of the burger. And lastly, burgers need something crunchy–crisp lettuce leaves, arugula or even ice berg lettuce. It should taste fresh. A tomato slice is nice, but not essential. Gild the lily with crispy bacon if you like. My Dad probably will.
- 1/4 cup full-fat Greek yogurt
- 4 ounces blue cheese
- 1/4 teaspoon of hot sauce (to taste)
- 24 ounces of freshly ground grass-fed beef (at least 20% fat)
- sea salt
- caramelized onions (recipe follows)
- sliced ripe tomatoes
- crisp lettuce leaves
- 4 good-quality buns, toasted
- Make the blue cheese sauce by smashing together the yogurt, blue cheese and hot sauce in a bowl. Refrigerate for at least and hour.
- Generously season the ground beef with sea salt. Divide the meat into four equal-sized portions and gently form into patties, being careful not to overwork the meat.
- Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat and place the burgers on the hot skillet. Cook for 3 - 4 minutes per side, or to desired level of doneness.
- To build the burger, place a heaping tablespoon of caramelized onions on the bottom of the bun. Top with the burger. Place 1/4 of the blue cheese sauce on the burger and top with tomato, lettuce and the top of the bun. Eat immediately. You'll need several napkins.
- To make caramelized onions, thinly slice two onions. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-low heat and add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or butter. Add the onions, a generous pinch of salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft and a rich caramel color. If they start to stick to the bottom of the pan, just add a little more fat. You don't need to add any sugar--they will develop plenty of sweetness on their own. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.