Party Animals

I mentioned celebrating my grandson’s (I am not old enough to have a grandson. Seriously) 5th birthday this week. He’s starting school next week, so his circle of friends is pretty limited at the moment. Nonetheless, I wanted to throw him a party/dinner that was fun and kid friendly without it being at one of those fast food or chain restaurants. The food is better for him, and for us, and surprisingly enough, by sticking to keeping it simple, turned out to be popular with the kids and adults alike. We ended up having 15 guests for his birthday dinner, ranging in age from 71 to 2. Luckily, a good time was had by all.

Jake’s Menu:
Grilled hot dogs and hamburgers
Raw baby carrots, cucumber rounds, and celery sticks
Assorted dips: tzatziki, roasted garlic and eggplant, roasted red pepper and eggplant
Refrigerator pickles
Heirloom cherry tomatoes and mozzerella cubes
Potato and tortilla chips with salsa, guac, and onion dip
Sliced canteloupe and watermelon

Of course we had ice cream and cake too. Unfortunately for me, not gluten-free cake, but the ice cream was delicious.

The common denominator in this menu is the plethora (how’s that for an SAT word, kids?) of raw or no-cook ingredients. Veggies and melons that only needed cutting and arranging on a platter are easy, beautiful, and delicious. Pairing them with different dips makes them interactive and fun for the kids. All I needed was a sharp knife and enough platters to arrange them on. Chips aren’t exactly HEALTHY, but it’s a birthday, and I did use organic Greek yogurt and locally grown ingredients for the tzatziki, guac, salsa, and eggplant dips. I grilled hot dogs from Applegate Farms and beefed up (ha! I kill me…) my grass fed burger with vegetables to make delicious and savory patties.

Mushrooms and onions always find a way into my kitchen. I add them to all sorts of things. Since raw mushrooms aren’t a huge favorite amongst the family, I usually cook them very soon after purchase. The notable exception to this rule is those delicious portabello caps, which belong on a hot grill. I had previously purchased some criminis, and had sliced and sauteed them in olive oil and garlic. Those garlic mushrooms and a red onion made the perfect addition to those burgers, adding moisture, flavor, and best of all, enabling me to stretch out the beef to make more patties.

Birthday Burgers:
3 pounds ground beef, straight out of the refrigerator (grass-fed! Trust me it makes a difference)
3 eggs, cold (again, get the good eggs)
1 large red onion
16 ounces (raw) packaged “Baby Bella” mushrooms, sliced, sauteed in olive oil and garlic. After cooking, the mushrooms will shrink down quite a bit, so don’t let the thought of a pound of mushrooms stress you out. Also, you want these cold or room temperature. Warm mushrooms will cook the meat and make it difficult on your hands when it comes to mixing!
Salt and pepper

Break up the beef into chunks, emptying into a LARGE mixing bowl. Finely chop (I used my Food Chopper from Pampered Chef) the onion and then the mushrooms and add to the beef. Season simply but liberally with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Add the eggs. If you are using very large eggs, you may only need 2. The egg is there for moisture and to help bind everything together.

Mix with wet hands ONLY until things are combined. Seriously, this is the key to a good burger – the LESS you play with it, the better your burgers will be. You want to mix as little as possible, and use your hands so that the ingredients are combined but not packed together. This is the difference between tough and tender when it comes to hamburgers. Keep that thought in mind when forming your patties as well. Don’t grab and MASH the burgers into a patty, form them in your hands by rotating the ball of meat, using your thumbs to dimple the center, and using your fingers to form the rest of the patty. That dimple in the middle will keep your burger from puffing up in the center and give you a nice flat surface for all your burger dressings.

Usually a pound of beef gives me 4 patties, but the addition of the onion and mushrooms allowed me to stretch that a bit. I ended up with 16 truly adult sized burgers from this batch. Once my burgers were formed and loaded in layers onto a parchment lined sheet tray, I put them back in the fridge while I turned on the grill. Unlike other meats, ground beef cooks best when it is cold. I use a hot, clean grill, and I flip my burgers only once. Here is a handy list of tricks to making the perfect burger. I topped these burgers with local cheddar cheese, however they are so danged good you can top them with anything – or leave ’em naked – and they’ll be just as good.

So that was the party menu. Everyone had a great time, the food was a hit and my little buddy turned another year older. Happy Birthday Jake – your Gigi loves you very much.

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