Friday, August 30, 2013

Pizza-in-a-Burger - AND How to season a cast iron grill pan

Stuffing something inside of something else seems awfully trendy these days. Pie inside a cake, or a cookie inside another cookie, or a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey.

People are mashing up foods right and left, like the croissant donut or the brownie tart. It's great if it works.

But the pizza burger isn't a new thing. Not at all.

When I was a teen, I'd go to a local mall with a girlfriend to do back-to-school shopping. Or any shopping, really. And in the corner of the mall - and let's be clear here - it was so long ago that it wasn't really a mall. It was a shopping plaza.

But I digress.

In the corner of the mall, there was a restaurant. And whenever we went to the mall, we treated ourselves by going to the restaurant. And for all the times over all the years that we went to that restaurant, I don't think I ever ordered anything except the pizza burger.

Basically, it was a burger topped with a pizza-like sauce with melted white cheese on top. It really wasn't a stellar sandwich. Barely even good. But it was the first fusion food I'd ever eaten. A burger that's like a pizza! Woah.

So, when Carla from Good Cook put out a challenge to make the best stuffed burger possible, my mind went immediately to a pizza burger. And that's where it stuck. Pizza ingredients inside a burger.

But then I went one step further ... the burger itself is a common pizza ingredient - Italian sausage. Yup, it's a sausage burger filled with ingredients you'd find on a pizza - cheese, of course, and I chose provolone - and then mushrooms, onions, and green pepper. To give it a good punch of tomato flavor without being super-wet and sloppy, I used tomato paste.

It's a little messy, but it's really good.

Let's Talk Tools

Burger stuffer.
For ease in preparing this recipe, Good Cook sent a burger stuffer and a cast iron grill pan, along with a cutting board, knife, grater, and turner spatula. As opposed to a stirring-mixing sort of spatula.

The grill pan is cast iron, and it came pre-seasoned, but a cast iron pan is really never great until it's been seasoned a few times. Yes, you can can cook right on your pre-seasoned pan, but it's just one layer of seasoning and it's never as good as it will be after you've spent some quality time with it.

That pre-seasoning is good enough to keep the pan from rusting on the store shelf, but a really well-seasoned cast iron pan will be pretty much a non-stick surface.

With a regular cast iron frying pan, cooking fatty foods helps season the pan, but a grill pan is a little different. You want those ridges to get seasoned and you don't want a layer of goopy oil in the wells, which makes it a little more difficult to get those first base layers of seasoning on the pan.

After the first or second seasoning, cooking in the pan and rubbing it with oil and heating it afterwards should keep it seasoned and build up a little more insurance, but for the first seasonings, I went with the upside-down-pan-in-the-oven method.

Seasoning a Cast Iron Grill Pan

Photo courtesy of Good Cook
I melted some Crisco in the pan and brushed it all over the inside and let it heat until it was smoky, then I chucked it into the oven at 450 degrees for an hour. I lightly brushed the outside of the pan with a little oil as well. A super-light coating.

OH! And make sure you have something under the pan to catch any drippy oil, or you're going to hate me. A sheet of aluminum foil on the rack below the rack the pan is on will be just fine. I have an oven liner, so I just put the pan in the oven and let it rip.

Yes, it got smoky. After an hour or so - it's not an exact thing, a little longer isn't going to hurt anything - I turned off the oven and let it be until the next day. I did all the seasoning in the evening because it's been hot here, and it's cooler at night. So it made sense to wait until late to turn the oven on. I didn't need the oven after than, so I just let the pan cool off in the oven.

If you're doing this during the day, keep in mind that cast iron retains heat. An hour after you turn the oven off, you'll still need mitts to handle it. You can also remove the pan from the oven, like, say, if you need to cook something in there, and let it cool on the stovetop or something.

DON'T be tempted to speed the cooling by dousing the hot pan in cold water. A cast iron pan is nearly indestructible, but because it is a cast product there can be imperfections in the metal because of the way the molten metal is poured - like you see veins and layers in rock. Thermal shock can cause a cast iron pan to crack along one of those lines. And it will make a loud noise that will scare the the heck out of you. Don't ask how I know this, mkay?

The next morning, I scrubbed the pan with hot water and kosher salt to remove any oil residue.

The pan, when I first got it, was a silvery-black color and if you ran your finger across the ridges, you could feel sandpaper-y sharp(ish) bumps. This is completely normal. It's what happens when a pan is cast rather than spun, molded, pressed, or stamped. Can you tell I used to work in a metal-related industry?

The great thing about cast iron pans is that they're relatively inexpensive, but they're also nearly indestructible. I have another grill pan that's got an enamel coating, but I don't love it. It's not nearly as non-stick as this one is, and I've only seasoned this one a few times - it will get even better with age and use. And I'll bet this one will last longer, since there's no enamel that could potentially chip off.

Note: If the seasoning on your cast iron pan ever gets damaged (although I'm not sure how you'd do that) you can remove the coating by putting the pan into your oven while it's self cleaning. Or in your grill, maybe. I've heard that, but haven't tried it. This will burn off all the seasoning, and you'll need to start from scratch again, working quickly because once the coating is completely gone, the pan will want to rust. So at least get a coat of oil on it.

The only reason I can think of where I'd remove good-looking seasoning from a pan is if I bought one from a flea market or garage sale and I was concerned about what might have been cooked in the pan or what it was seasoned with. Burning off the seasoning in the pan would remove all traces of the old owner, which could be a good thing. If you inherit a nicely seasoned cast iron pan from grandma, and she's not prone to cooking with motor oil, then there's probably no reason to ruin decades of hard-earned seasoning.

Okay, back to our regularly-scheduled seasoning lesson.

After the first seasoning, the pan was a brownish black rather than silver-black. If you looked at it by itself, you might say it was black. But next to a well-seasoned pan, it was definitely a little brown. The surface was a little slicker and smoother than before.

I seasoned it one more time, brushing on a thin coating of vegetable oil. It really doesn't matter what oil you use. I don't suggest canola or olive oil, but pretty much anything else that's edible is fine.

Again, it went into the oven upside-down for an hour at 450 degrees. I let it sit in the oven until it cooled, and scrubbed it with a little kosher salt again - I find this is the best way to clean any kind of cast iron pan.

The pan was slightly darker and if you brushed your finger on the ridges, it was smoother. At this point, the pan felt like it had an enamel coating on it. There were still bumps, but the sharp-feeling sandpapery points were gone. The pan didn't feel greasy or sticky - just smooth. And drops of water beaded up on the surface. That's what we're looking for.

At this point, I deemed it ready for cooking, so I went ahead with the burgers. Nothing stuck to the pan, even when one of the burgers had a slight cheese-oozing problem. Mission accomplished.

But just for the heck of it, I gave it one more oil-and-bake in a 450 degree oven. And NOW the pan is just about as black as my other cast iron pans.

So, what's a burger stuffer, anyway?

Photo courtesy of Good Cook
The burger stuffer is an interesting item. I owned a burger press years ago. I have no idea where it disappeared to. I don't think I used it more than once, because it was just annoying.

This one is different because it's designed for making stuffed burgers.

Okay, you can make not-stuffed burgers with it, too, but the point of this one is to make stuffed ones. It's three pieces, a base, a sleeve, and a pusher.

Oh - and since we all love multi-taskers, I'd like to point out that the ring would make a decent substitute for a 4-inch biscuit or cookie cutter. It's not as thin and sharp as a biscuit cutter, but it's not rounded like a drinking glass. But then again, who has a 4-inch-wide drinking glass? So if you need large biscuits for, oh, let's say making biscuit buns for your stuffed burger, you've got a biscuit cutter right here.

Back on topic again ...

The sleeve (the clear piece) fits on the red base and it shows measurements for the estimated weight of the burger. The pusher has a large flat side for - wait for it - flattening the burger. Then you use the smaller side to form a well in the burger that can be filled with interesting things.

I've made stuffed burgers before, by hand. Which works just fine for solid fillings like cheese. It's doable but a little more difficult with goopy toppings like the vegetable mix I used for this recipe. Having a neat, even well also helps you make a more even layer of stuffing inside the burger. Then you add the top piece, seal the edges, and you have a stuffed burger.

Is it an essential kitchen tool? Probably not. I mean, not everyone makes stuffed burgers, right? But it was fun to play with, and if you're trying to make consistently filled burgers, and you want to make stuffed burgers more often, this would help a lot.

The sensible thing to do is make the top part of the stuffed burger first and set it aside so it's the right size and it's flat. Then make the stuffed part, fill it, and put the top on.

A little hand-sealing around the edges of the burger for insurance is a really good idea.

More about other tools ...

As far as the rest of the tools I got, I don't think I need to explain 'em to you. BUT, I have to say that I like the cutting board they sent.

Yes, I have fifty bazillion cutting boards. I only use a few of them to cut, though. Most of them are used for photos. However, the one I got from Good Cook might find its way into the kitchen for some actual use. It's a plastic cutting board, and somewhat flexible. But it's not so flexible that it's going to go all curly like some of them do. And it's thin enough that I can tuck it away and it's not going to suck up a whole lot of storage space. The bottom side had bumps for traction, so it shouldn't be slip-slidey around the countertop like some of the thin flexible sheets are.

So, it's thicker than the super-thin flexible boards, and it's thinner than the rigid plastic boards. Juuuuust right.

On the other hand, it's red, and a red surface can be nice for photos, so, hmmmm... maybe I'll save it for blog photos. Or just order a freaking lot more of them. I hear that they come in different colors, but other than red and blue, I'm not sure what else they have - they're not up on the Good Cook site yet.

The cutting board and the turner I received are new items - but the people who win the giveaway will be getting them. Just keep an eye out. I'm sure they'll be for sale soon.

And now, on to the FOOD.


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large green pepper, cored, seeded, medium dice
1 large onion, medium dice
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced or roughly chopped
1 tablespoon Penzey's Pizza Seasoning*
1 12-ounce can tomato paste
Salt, to taste
2 pounds bulk Italian sausage**
Provolone cheese

To make the filling:
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion, green pepper, mushrooms, and pizza seasoning. Cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables soften and lose their moisture, then continue cooking until the moisture is mostly gone and you have an almost-dry pan.

Add the tomato paste and stir to combine. Cook for another minute or two, then taste. Add more seasoning or salt, as desired.

Set aside until you need it. You can make this ahead of time, if you like, and refrigerate it until you need it. But if you fill your burger with a cold filling, it's going to take longer for the burger to cook all the way through and for that cheese to melt. Not a big problem, but keep in in mind, Or, heat the filling just a little before you stuff.

With the vegetables I used, this made about a quart of filling - your amount could be different, depending on how big your vegetables are.

This was waaaaaaaay more filling than I needed for the burgers I made, but it's a perfect topping for personal pizzas and English Muffin pizzas. You could also use it as a topping for regular burgers. Or just make a LOT more Italian sausage burgers.

To make the burgers:
Divide the two pounds of sausage meat into four half-pound(ish) portions. you don't need to be exact, but try to get them to look about the same size. We'll be making half-pound burgers. Yes, they're big.

Take about 1/3 of one of those portions and form it into a flat patty using the burger press. Set that aside. That will be the top of the burger. Take the other 2/3rds of the portion and put that in the burger press. You want a little more meat here, because you're making the bottom of the burger, and the sides of the burger.

Flatten it like you did with the first piece, then use the other side of the pusher to create a well in the meat.
We're gonna fill that well with pizza-y goodness....
Fill with the well with the tomato-vegetable mixture. Hey, there should be a photo here of the filling on the middle of the meat. But I forgot to take a picture. Or maybe the camera ate it.

Imagine this filling right in the center of that meat inside the burger stuffer tool, filling it to just about the top of the well. You don't want to overfill, but you can be generous.

Here's the filling. But see how DARK my grill pan is?
Then top with slices of provolone cheese. I considered grating the cheese or making little cubes of it and mixing it into the filling, but I finally decided to make slices.

Try to keep the fillings away from the sides of the meat - you want to get a decent seal all the way around.

Put the top patty on top of the filling, then press the edges down around the outside to start to seal that edge. Remove the patty from the press and make sure the edge is completely sealed. You still might end up with a blowout or maybe a few little dribbles of cheese, but you don't want this separating into two patties. The goal is to have the filling enclosed completely. Mostly.

Heat your grill pan on medium heat and brush it with a little bit of oil. When it's hot, add the burger. If you're not using a cast iron grill pan, you might need to turn up the heat a bit higher. You'll get a great sear on medium with a cast iron pan, whereas you might need to crank up to high for a stainless pan.

Burger in a grill pan. How much better can it be?
Cook on medium to sear both sides of the burger, then turn to low and continue cooking, flipping the burger as needed, until the burger is cooked all the way through. Since Italian sausage is made from pork, you want it cooked well, and you want the filling hot and the cheese melted. It's a little hard to tell by looking or touching. Even if you cut it open, it's a little difficult, because that red tomato sauce can fool you into thinking the meat is still red-raw.

Your best bet is to measure the temperature with a thermometer to make sure you're not serving undercooked pork sausage.

Look at it sizzling in that hot pan!
You might get a little seepage of cheese or tomato sauce through the burger - don't worry about that. When the burger is done, put it on a bun. Let it rest a minute or two before serving - that cheese and filling will be screaming hot.

Or, slice it to serve so no one accidentally bites into molten cheese.

*I don't usually use a lot of spice blends, but I got the Penzey's Pizza Seasoning as a free sample and I have to say that I really like the "tastes like pizza" flavor it imparts. If you don't have it, you can use any Italian blend you have.

The major flavor components in the seasoning are fennel, oregano, basil, garlic and a few types of pepper. And salt. So, if you want something similar, use 1 teaspoon dry oregano, 1 teaspoon dry basil, 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, a few grinds of black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes. You'll need a little more salt than if you didn't use a seasoning mix.

** If you can't find bulk (unstuffed) Italian sausage, you can buy regular sausage and remove it from its casing.

Disclaimer: I received products from Good Cook as part of their Kitchen Experts program, for the purpose of entering this contest.
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