I hope you read that title with an appropriately thick French accent, as I’d intended. Lay am-behr-gehr. It makes a difference. Because this isn’t about the all-American hamburger we all know and love, instead a Gallic take on our Yankee icon.
It really had never crossed my radar in all the time I’ve spent in France that the French were big on hamburgers. At least I never saw evidence that replicated the way we love them in the U S of A.
Here’s the limit of my hamburger-related memories from France: I was on a study-abroad program in Dijon my junior year of college. There were just 6 of us, a small program, we were each housed in a family home. And one day each week we convened at our coordinator/den mother’s apartment for lunch, with random host family members joining us. One day a friend’s “French mom” arrived with a packet from the butcher. Some lovely ground beef, all richly red and mottled with the little flecks of white fat. She just plopped that mound onto her plate and dug right in. No pretense about “steak tartar” with its seasonings and accoutrements. It was a culinary learning moment.
So I’ll clarify here that indeed this story is about cooked hamburgers. Les hamburgers à la française.
What inspired this musing is having run into a friend back in July at the preview screening of Julie & Julia. Chatting before the movie started, she told me that the first Julia Child recipe she ever cooked was the hamburger recipe in Mastering The Art of French Cooking. The assignment in her home-ec class was to cook a recipe from a cookbook and that’s what she picked. I kindly asked if perhaps it was another book she was thinking about, secretly sure she was muddling her memory.
No, she assured me, it was Mastering. Volume One.
Didn’t quite compute. Pommes de terre dauphinois, sauce chasseur, veau Prince Orloff, bavarois au chocolat, sure. But hamburgers? In fact, there it is, bottom of page 300, the heading “Ground Beef–Hamburgers; Bifteck Haché.”
Julia explains, “Shock is the reaction of some Americans we have encountered who learn that real French people living in France eat hamburgers. They do eat them, and when sauced with any of the suggestions in the following recipes, the French hamburger is an excellent and relatively economical main course for an informal party.”
So I owed Karen an apology. And I got out the grinder attachment for my KitchenAid. Not because of that recent discomforting New York Times article about ground beef; this was a few weeks prior. Instead because Julia said so: “Be fussy about your meat; have all the fat and sinews removed, and have it ground before your very eyes or better, grind it yourself.”
You’ve got a copy of the book, right? [I'll wait while you go check your shelves] No? Well you should, pick one up next time you’re out. Even if it’s just for the reading quality and the depth of knowledge that the inimitable Madame Child shares with us. You don’t have to cook the stuffed leg of lamb or an elaborate cassoulet. Plenty of great go-to recipes for a casual meal, like endive and ham gratin or sole poached in white wine.
I picked up some chuck at the store, dutifully trimmed and ground it. Then following her steps for Bifteck Haché à la Lyonnaise (with onions and herbs), added the sautéed onion, thyme, egg and softened butter she calls for (being fresh out of bone marrow or beef suet). While I did spend a lot more time on those 4 or 5 burgers than I would have buying a pound and a half of ground beef, the flavor really was a few steps above the norm. Not just the flavor, but the texture too, so toothsome, resistent, juicy. My only quibble with Julia’s method was the final coating of the patties in flour before cooking; I found it just encouraged sticking and burn potential, I preferred the unfloured version.
The real French-ness of this recipe shines next: making a little pan sauce to serve over the burgers, dispensing with the frivolous bun/lettuce/tomato finish we come to expect. I chose red wine to dissolve those tasty bits stuck to the pan, reducing quickly to a nice sauce. Simple in presentation, powerful in flavor.
I’m sold. There is a lot to be gained in fresh-grinding meat for burgers, and surely meatballs, sauces, other favorite uses for ground beef, whether your motives are gastronomic or health-related.