Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hamburgers for the in-laws

Last Sunday, my boyfriend proposed to me during a lovely outing to The Cloisters and since then life has been a flurry of activity as we get prepared to throw the biggest party of our lives. Of course we are very focused on making sure that the food and drink is amazing (and, you know, that we're well prepared for marriage!), but in the meantime we needed to have an "in-law convention" and figure out our budget, game plan, and guest lists.

My parents volunteered to host the convention at their lovely house in Princeton, NJ and Andrew suggested that he and I cook dinner for our prospective future in-laws. This was a very nerve-wracking idea but at the same time, I felt like it would show our sincerity and it would be a nice gesture. At first we had some grandiose ideas of steak and homemade gnocchi and then I contemplated a Chinese-style beef noodle stew but all of these things would wind up being too stressful for something already kind of stressful so we decided to go a bit more low-key and Labor Day appropriate and went with hamburgers, potato salad, and clams casino.

It was a lovely and perfectly temperate day and when we got to the house, my mom was already bustling in the kitchen preparing a beautiful fruit salad. She had champagne grapes, red grapes, strawberries, green grapes, and slices of mango artfully placed in a glass bowl and she quipped that while she doesn't really like to cook, she certainly loves to arrange. There was also boiled peanuts (very Chinese) and steamed edamame to entice our appetites. AND of course their fridge was stocked with beer and we had our choices of Yeungling, Red Stripe, and Corona.

Cooking in their kitchen was a welcome change from my itty-bitty kitchen in Harlem and there was plenty of room to move around and loads of counter space to prepare on. It was a fun environment as we all had our individual cooking projects but we talked and bantered and it was one of those quintessential bonding-in-the-kitchen moments.

To begin with, my dad provided a couple of bottles of wine (including a stellar riesling) from his increasingly stellar wine collection as well as amazingly delicious hamachi kama (Japanese cuisine: the grilled jaw/cheek of yellowtail tuna) served with ponzu and scallions for an appetizer. This is one of our family's all time favorite foods and apparently we even get these cuts of tuna from a special dealer -- you can't just get them in the store. My dad lived in Japan for a while when he was a young boy so he is well versed in Japanese cuisine and it is always such a special treat when we have hamachi kama. It is a meal in and of itself!

Following the hamachi kama were Andrew's clams casino and I wish I had paid more attention (but I couldn't because I was preparing food too) to what he was doing because it was a symphony of tastes and I couldn't get enough. I don't know much about seafood, especially products with shells and this was thoroughly impressive. What was even more impressive was that he managed to portion it all perfectly; a common problem that I face is that I always make too much or too little but he managed to have the exact amount of everything. I am so grateful that I will be marrying a man who can cook.

My contribution was the hamburgers and potato salad -- once again, two dishes that I know are a sure thing because I've done them on numerous occasions. One thing that I've learned over the years is that when you need to 100% impress, go with something you know you can do. Friends are always a good guinea pig group, but future in laws seems like an audience that you should feed with confidence.

My hamburgers are a hit at home but this was the first time I was making so many patties so, in true Angelica fashion, I once again over estimated and wound up buying nearly 4 pounds of ground Angus beef. This resulted in 12 patties! As always, I never really know how much of everything I put into my food, I do it by feel, taste, and knowing my ingredients. So first I took the ground beef and dumped it into a large mixing bowl. Then I took a bag of Cape Cod reduced fat kettle chips (reduced fat is better because there is less salt) and smashed them up into fine crumbs. I use these as a kind of breadcrumb and also in this way, I don't actually ever have to add salt to the mix (which I feel like sucks out the moisture in the meat). Following this, I minced up about half a bulb of garlic and 2/3 of a large yellow Spanish onion (or a small one, I guess). The last main component is chopped portobello mushrooms (I prefer mature portobellos, not baby bellas). I don't really skimp on any of these ingredients as they really provide taste and texture to the burgers. Of course the main star is the beef, but I would say that for 2 parts beef there is 1 part onion and 1 part mushroom.

Into this mix I added soy sauce paste (I like Wan Ja Shan), Worcestershire sauce, red pepper flakes, ground black pepper, minced fresh parsley, and a generous dose of finely grated parmesan cheese. Three eggs were beat and then added for cohesion and then I mixed this all up by hand, trying to avoid handling it too much because I've heard that the more you handle it, the less likely it will stick well in patty form. I usually then take a small sauce pan and heat it up and taste test -- I very rarely get the right taste down on the first try so I'll cook up a small amount and then add more of the sauces and spices until it tastes just right. After everything was mixed up, I let it refrigerate for at least an hour. Dad grilled these babies up and we topped them with Swiss cheese, onions, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes.

The side dish was potato salad -- simple, but certainly not the healthiest! First I set a pot of salted water to boil and then I take russet potatoes (5 -- again, overdoing it) and chop them up into small cubes. When the water boils I dump them in and let them get soft but not so soft that when I later stir them they become mashed potatoes. You still want some form of the cube so keep an eye on them and don't let it over boil. In the meantime, I hardboiled 5 eggs (set salted water to boil, then add the eggs and let boil for 10 minutes, drain afterwards). When they were cool, I peeled them and cut them up into cubes. I then boiled (briefly) carrots and frozen peas. (When short on time, frozen peas and carrots are fine, but for some reason I prefer to boil my own carrots, but peas are great either fresh or frozen.) I also chopped up some Yellow Spanish onion and a bunch of mini pickled gherkins (aka cornichon). I also usually cube some ham but this time around we had dashed around the grocery store and it was the one ingredient I forgot. When the potatoes were ready, I drained them and added in all the just mentioned ingredients, along with a generous heaping of mayonnaise and dijon mustard. I added ground pepper and minced parsley for taste and mixed it all to the desired consistency. Something to remember is that the more you stir, the creamier it gets. After everything was all mixed up, I threw this into the fridge until sufficiently cold.

So we feasted like kings and followed it all up with tiramisu and tea for dessert. It's a surprise that after all of this we were able to stay awake to discuss the logistics of the impending wedding. If one thing is for sure with my future in-laws and my parents, it's that neither Andrew nor I will let the other starve! It was a perfect Labor Day meal that reflected both our American and Chinese/Asian tastes. Moreover, since I live in the city now, it was the rare chance to have something grilled. I love the smell of a charcoal grill and it certainly felt like the last hurrah of Summer, as some trees are already changing color. Soon it will be pies and stews and hot pot and turkey. How time flies, and the craziest part -- by next Labor Day, I will be married!


  1. Congratulations! It sounds like the perfect get together. I love gherkins in my potato salad, too! Started trying it not too long ago, and now I can't imagine eating potato salad without them. =] Very excited for you!