- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Although the calendar declares that summer officially arrives in June, I view Memorial Day as the real beginning of the season. In New England, warm weather gets to us late, but by Memorial Day weekend, the grass in our back yards is finally green, the temperature climbs into the 70s or higher most days, and the skeletal trees of winter fill with leaves that provide a canopy of shade from the sun.

These changes, which coincide with the arrival of Memorial Day, are the reason I can’t wait to move my kitchen outdoors and start entertaining alfresco. My husband and I pull the grill out of the garage — and argue over who is going to clean it. We spruce up the porch furniture, get the herb garden weeded and then invite friends to celebrate.

Backyard meals are by nature casual, so for this year’s fete, hamburgers are going to be the centerpiece of our holiday menu. Made with ground beef that is 80 percent lean, so they will be moist, and seasoned with dried thyme, salt and pepper, the patties are grilled, then topped with slices of creamy blue cheese and a delectable, easy-to-make red onion marmalade.

I’ll serve the burgers on toasted buns or rolls, adding a few sprigs of peppery watercress for extra flavor and color. The onion marmalade is simple to assemble and can be prepared 5 days ahead. Sliced red onion is caramelized, then simmered in red wine and balsamic vinegar until the liquids evaporate and the onions are tender and shiny.

To go with the burgers, there will be potato chips and pickles, plus a salad of green beans, cherry tomatoes and bacon. A blueberry crumble served with scoops of vanilla ice cream will end our first backyard celebration of the season.

Hamburgers with blue cheese and red onion marmalade

1½ pounds 80-percent-lean ground beef

1 tablespoon crushed dried thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil for oiling grill rack

1 8-ounce piece creamy blue cheese, sliced

1 small bunch watercress, optional

6 good quality hamburger buns or large rolls, lightly toasted

Red onion marmalade (recipe follows)

Combine ground beef, thyme, salt and pepper in a medium bowl and mix well to combine. Shape into six ½-inch thick patties. Patties can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

When ready to cook burgers, oil a grill rack and arrange 4 to 5 inches from heat source. Prepare a grill for a hot fire (high temperature). Grill burgers about 3 to 4 minutes per side, using a metal spatula to turn them. The internal temperature of burgers should be 160 degrees.

When burgers are almost done, cover each with some sliced cheese and continue to cook until cheese melts.

To serve, arrange some watercress sprigs, if desired, on bottom buns. Top with burgers, then with some red onion marmalade. Cover with tops of buns and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

RED ONION MARMALADE:

1½ pounds (3 medium) red onions

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, plus 2 to 3 teaspoons extra, if needed

1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Halve onions lengthwise and cut into thin slices. Heat butter in a large heavy skillet set over medium heat. When melted and hot, add onion and sugar, and stir occasionally until onion is soft and starts to caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add wine and 1/4 cup vinegar and stir until the mixture almost comes to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until liquids have evaporated and onion is shiny, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove from heat and sprinkle in salt, adding more if needed. For a tarter taste, stir in another 2 to 3 teaspoons vinegar. The marmalade can be prepared 5 days ahead; cover and refrigerate. Reheat, stirring, just to warm before using. Makes about 1½ cups.

Note: Red onion marmalade is also good served with grilled chicken, lamb or pork.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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