A ZOMBIE BURGER MANIFESTO

Well, the ballots are in and the readers of Cityview voted Zombie Burger “Best Restaurant Period!” I know what you’re thinking: “WTF is up with these readers?”

Thanks for the love, Des Moines!

Now, I will go on record saying that Tasty Tacos and the Old La Pizza House would easily be in my top five here in Des Moines, and nationally I’d include Katz’s Deli and Shake Shack in Gotham and Pizzeria Uno in Chicago.

But Zombie Burger’s recognition here in Des Moines is really special to me, because it means that although outsiders just see it as a “burger joint,” the community is embracing the hard work and all those little things we do to make it a place any foodie would love. For example:

Creativity and experimentation. Chef Tom McKern (who also received a Cityview “Best Chef” nod) leads our talented team of chefs who use Zombie Burger as a place to let their culinary creativity shine, resulting in unique food you won’t find anywhere else. Just look at our approach to bacon – we braise it, fry it, chicken fry it, slice it and, on occasion candy it. We even roast and pull it for a flavor packed spin on classic pulled pork.

Menu diversity. Zombie Burger’s menu features more non-beef options than beef options – how’s that for a “burger joint?” We have two unique veggie burger options, seasoned portabella mushroom cap option and chicken breast option – all of which can be used in place of beef on ANY sandwich. Plus, we’ve got a huge selection of vegetarian and vegan-friendly items so non-meat eaters can join in the fun.

A scene from last summer’s Peace Tree Tap Takeover – a partnership with one of Iowa’s best breweries!

Serious bar selection. We have over 130 beers available, and bar manager John George is always rotating the taps to bring Des Moines the latest and greatest micro brews anywhere. Couple that with our specialty cocktails and our huge selection of famous spiked milkshakes, and you’ve got a beverage Mecca in the East Village.

Focus on service. We’ve got a solid front of house team who put a primary focus on customer service and satisfaction. They have great time at work, and they want you to have great time at the restaurant. They make Zombie Burger the best place to hang out in the city, any night of the week. Their attitude is infectious – people come for the food and stay for the service!

Commitment to quality. Every ingredient we use has been specifically selected for the unique characteristics it brings to a specific dish and that every item on our menu has been tested and retested until the preparation and presentation is perfect. I’ve been working on the Zombie Burger bun off and on my whole adult life – it wasn’t until the winter before we opened that I feel I nailed it.

Like any of my restaurants, Zombie Burger makes their own fries, just a hell of a lot more. As a result, we were forced to take a crash course on gelatinization of starches in order to make high volume fry preparation successful.

The Zombie Burger grill is a custom made beast, designed to replicate the sear of cast iron griddle. To work in tandem with the grill, we ground more than 30 different cuts of meat in different combinations before we settled on the current three-cut blend that resulted in a perfectly juicy burger. We also have an intense process of making our own seasoned salt designed to bring more umami (savory flavor) out in the burgers.

Of any burger on the menu, you can fully experience all this planning when you order a basic, straightforward Double Zombie Burger. The meat, cheese, sauce and bun ratio is spot on, and all the flavors reach a perfect harmony.

So, a big “thanks” to all the folks who voted for us this year – we promise to keep bringing it in 2013! And a shout out to GM Karen and the whole Zombie Burger team – your hard work, creativity and dedication to excellence is what makes this “burger joint” a seriously excellent spot!

MAC AND CHEESE: FULL-FRONTAL FOOD PORN

Let’s skip the lovey-dovey food stuff this Valentine’s Day.

Yeah, I’m sure the cast of characters on your favorite food shows will be handing out great ideas for delicate, romantic meals and decadent chocolate desserts.

But, today, let’s get down with some “bow-chicka bow wow” full-frontal food porn – totally decadent mac and cheese. Note: I’ve included the PG, Disney Channel version at the end of the recipe in case Paula Deen and the boys are coming to your house, or you’re like me and just trying watch your girlish figure.

Macaroni and cheese has been around for a long time. Most early versions were far less sophisticated than some of today’s kicked up, over-the-top versions. As a matter of fact, The Manual For Army Cooks 1896 contains a simple recipe consisting of noodles, butter or minced pork fat, grated cheese, mustard, salt, pepper and bread crumbs for the top layer. Soon, cooks began creating recipes that resemble today’s versions; others developed regional styles that differed quite a bit. Some even included tomato, a rarity in today’s mac.

Upscale macaroni and cheese is not a new thing. It has been around for quite some time, but with the addition of some great cheeses to the wider American market you can make a better one at home than you can purchase in any restaurant! On this note, let your personal tastes guide you. Stop by Gateway and talk to Caleb, our resident “cheese head” about the best fit for you. Or stop by and see CJ at the Cheese Shop who is equally suited to give you the cheesy hook-up. Both these guys have some intense cheese knowledge and will steer you the right direction!

I’ve included my choices for cheese, but if you don’t have the attention span, you can substitute good old-fashioned cheddar or a mixture of cheddar and American for a classic mac and cheese flavor.

Few places will use pasta like Rustichella D’abruzzo, just about the highest quality pasta you can find. That’s not to say that you can’t make good mac and cheese with cheaper pasta; but my goal on the blog is to make the best, and to make the best you gotta use the best!

TIP ON GOOD FOOD: It’s not about secret recipes; it’s about quality of ingredients and technique!

Ingredients will make the difference if you want to make the best of the best.

I will guide you through my recipe, and if you’re nostalgic for that good old penitentiary-style mac and cheese and want to recreate your bonding moments with all those sweaty fellows on the chain gang, I might direct you to the Army cooks rendition of 1896. I’m sure that would do it for ya!

Four cups of freshly hand-grated imported cheeses getting ready to bathe some macaroni.

Full-Frontal Mac and Cheese

  • 1 quart plus 1 cup cream
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoon salt (or to taste )
  • Pinch black pepper
  • 4 tablespoon corn starch (you might need a little more or a little less) mixed together with 4 -5 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (Reggiano Parmesan )
  • 1 cup Brunn Gruner Veltliner wine (optional)
  • 1 package Maccheroni al torchio
  • 4 cups grated cheese (see my suggestions below)
  • 1 lb Smithfield country bacon
  • 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs (toasted with 3 tablespoons butter)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a 4 quart sauce pan, heat cream and wine and cook on low heat. Add chopped garlic, salt and black pepper. (A note about wine here: I am not one of those cooks that has to add wine to everything. And often times just find myself drinking the stuff. But this recipe really benefits from the addition of the wine and it lifts a bit of the richness. Also, I use a taller pan than might seem necessary because the cream and wine mixture inevitably wants to rush up the sides as soon as it’s hot and my back is turned.)

The cheese mixture is added and stirred in off the heat.

When the cream mixture comes to a boil, slowly add corn starch and water mixture. Let mixture come to a very low boil.  Add the grated Parmesan cheese and stir.

Off the heat, stir in the four cups of grated cheese. For this recipe I used a combination of:

  • Gruyere A.O.C (Swiss Raw cow’s milk)
  • Fontina Val D’Aosta (Italian raw cow’s milk)
  • Ementhaler (Swiss cow’s milk)
  • Comte Marcel Petite (French Raw Cow’s milk aged 12 months)
  • Fol Epi (French Cow’s milk baby Swiss )
  • Talegio Gusto Antico (Italian raw cow’s milk washed rind)

I liked the combination of the above cheeses and also use the same mixture for a blow-your-mind grilled cheese sandwich with sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onion and truffle; you can use truffle oil if you’re not over it (I’m not yet)!

Return back to stove and continue melting over low heat until all the cheese is melted into the sauce. If sauce is too thin you can thicken it with grated Parmesan cheese. If it’s too thick, you can add a splash of cream.

Adding cheddar? Here are some notes to keep in mind:

For the sharp cheese I would use Widmer 6 year cheddar. Aged 6 years at Widmer Cellars in Wisconsin, it’s old enough to be quite sharp, but still creamy enough to melt well. There’s a bit of sweetness there, too, which works really well.

For the extra sharp I would use Hook’s 10-year cheddar. Also from Wisconsin, this stuff is so sharp it almost stings the palate! It has a dry, crumbly texture with a crystalline crunch.

Cook the pasta to al dente.

Cut the bacon into French style lardons (or dice it up) and cook it until crispy.

Divide into separate cast iron skillets and top with additional cheese blend, toasted panko breadcrumbs and the cooked Smithfield Country Olde world black pepper bacon and bake until bubbly and lightly browned.

Lardons of black pepper bacon sit on top of oven-ready mac and cheese

The PG, Disney Channel version: Replace the cream with 2% milk, use whole grain pasta, throw in a little fat free cheese and a splash of fat free sour cream and this recipe will still come out pretty damn good and save you about a billion calories!

This recipe is a great base pasta dish, but if you really want to go all out, you can add things like diced ham, lobster, mushrooms, peas, grilled chicken, pulled pork (my favorite), sautéed onions, scallions, broccoli, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, spinach, fresh shaved truffles, corn, seasoned boiled shrimp, Andouille sausage, polish sausage, sliced white sausages… you get the drill. At the time of service, your guests might enjoy a little sriracha sauce on the side.

BRINGING HOME THE BACON: GEORGE’S NON-TRADITIONAL BLT

Here in Des Moines, it’s Baconfest time! If you weren’t fast on the draw, chances are you missed out on tickets this year, but no worries! You can still get your bacon fix and tweet back at your homies with some great DIY bacon dishes from your own kitchen.

It’s bacon time.

Gateway Market is a good place to start – the place is like a crack house for bacon addicts. I am proud to say that we sell great bacon, including Webster City, Niman Ranch, Des Moines Bacon Company and Nueske’s. You can’t go wrong with any of these – they’re all a cut above that bland, limp bacon you find in most stores.

My favorite bacon. It doesn’t come pre-sliced, so be prepared!

However, my absolute FAVORITE is the Smithfield Olde World Cure Country Pepper Bacon we sell at Gateway. If you like pepper bacon and haven’t tried this, you need to. It is that good!

When it comes to food, I am a traditionalist (mostly). But I also love a good BLT. And since we are in the winter months, which put us about as far away from a good BLT as you can get, I thought I’d take an unconventional approach for your newest bacon fix!

For four sandwiches, you will need:

  • 1 pound bacon
  • 8 slices Pullman’s white bread or Gateway’s Country Italian
  • 12 to 16 ounces pimento cheese spread (recipe below)
  • 1 cup loosely packed baby lettuce
  • 4 sliced boiled eggs (or 1 egg per sandwich)
  • 4 tablespoons of mayo
  • 2 to 3 tomatoes (it’s winter; you’ll want to fry them)

Here are some special notes:

Bacon: You’ll want about four to six slices per sandwich. If you buy the Smithfield bacon (which you have to slice on your own), use about half the slab. Each slice should be about 1/8th of an inch. Cook these slices until they become brown and crisp.

Bread: Old school breads work best here. I like the South Union Bakery Pullman loaf or Country Italian at Gateway. I tend to stay clear of breads that have too much going on for this sandwich. But if you have a whole grain option that you like, by all means use it. You can toast it or butter and grill it. Your preference.

Smithfield bacon on Gateway Market’s Pullman bread. It’s a beautiful thing.

Pimento cheese:You’re going to use 3 to 4 tablespoons per sandwich. Yes, there’s a recipe below, but you can also purchase Chef Bill’s Southern inspired version at Gateway. It is so good that I tend to add a little extra to my sandwich!

Lettuces: About ¼ cup of lettuce works perfect on this BLT. If you can’t find baby lettuce, arugula will do.

Mayo: You saw right, you’ll use one tablespoon of mayo per sandwich. Now that Paula Deen is your doctor, let me be your cook!

Tomatoes: January tomatoes are perfect for frying the way you do with green ones in season. Here’s how to do that: Slice the tomatoes and dredge them in seasoned white flour. Dip into buttermilk, followed by seasoned corn flour or corn meal. Slip the slices slowly into a pan of hot oil that is at least 350 degrees until crispy and lightly brown. You will need to flip them and cook on both sides.

To assemble your sandwich:

Place 4 of the slices of toasted bread on a cutting board. Spread each slice of toast with 1 and 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of pimento cheese. Add the fried tomatoes, followed by the slices of cooked bacon.

Pimento cheese – add some jalapeños for an extra punch.

Add the baby lettuces, mayo and the sliced eggs. Spread the 1 and 1/2 to 2 tablespoons pimento cheese on the remaining slices of toast and place cheese side down to finish the sandwich. Cut in half and enjoy.

Make these sandwiches. Today, if you have to.

Pimiento Cheese Recipe

This recipe is from Chef Bill Overdyk at Gateway. It calls for a pound of cheddar cheese – using the best cheddars will be spendy. So, keep that in mind. Also keep in mind that it could be the best pimento cheese spread you’ve ever tasted!

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise  (Use the good stuff and don’t get cheap on me!)
  • 4 ounces diced pimiento, drained
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • Pinch of garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. grated onion
  • 1/8 tsp. ground red pepper for heat. (If you’re using a more reasonably priced cheese and want a little “umph,” Or try diced jalapeño or chipotle powder!)
  • 8-oz. block sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded*
  • 8-oz block extra sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • ½ cup cream cheese, optional (Chef Bill likes the cream cheese for flavor.)

*For the sharp cheddar, I would use Widmer 6 year cheddar. Creamy and smooth, both sweet and sharp, and aged 6 years at Widmer Cellars in Wisconsin, this cheese is old enough to be quite sharp, but still creamy enough to melt well if making notes for mac and cheese. Their one-year cheddar works well also!

Just stir together the first five ingredients in a large bowl. Then stir in the cheeses and store in a refrigerator for up to one week.

Try this on a burger – you’ll love it! You can add diced bacon right to this spread for a tasty dip for crackers and veggies.