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How to recreate the fast food menu at home

Oh, yuck. If you're a foodie, how can you have any other initial reaction to Fast Food Nation?

Sure, you might be outraged, or appalled, or you might become an instant activist. You're probably not stunned, though.

By now you've learned to heed all the warnings about cooking your food till it is truly, totally, and stultifyingly dead. You bleach your countertops and cutting boards, or at least you mean to the next time, really. You may even scrub your bananas now.

So the book simply confirms, and shoves in your face, details of the horrors you already suspected. But while you know it's gross, really it just has you thinking about what you're going to cook for dinner.

And it's hard, right then, to ignore the lure of the speed of that disgusting fast food you just read about. After all, you could take the high road and order a $120 organic, free-range, heritage turkey from Slow Food--but then you still have to chop out its neck and cook the beast. What to do?

Well, there's no way I can match the speed of Mickey D's. And I can't stand the proliferation of recipes for desperate 20-minute suppers that rely on convenience foods.

Instead, what I can offer is a burger-and-fries dinner that tastes infinitely better than a drive-thru sandwich. And it satisfies those hunger pangs in a way that fast-food burgers--even the all-your-calories-for-two-days whoppers --never do.

Better yet, it takes away some of the food-safety fears you have--or should have--about ground beef. I get so ticked when I read comments about avoiding E.coli or salmonella that blame the cook for not overcooking the food. Why aren't we blaming the source of the contamination? But until that happens (don't hold your breath), grind your own beef and skip the blame game.

After years of reading about doing this to avoid the nastiness of a supermarket grinder, Fast Food Nation finally got me to get my processor pulsing. With a basic food processor, grinding (or, more accurately, chopping) my own beef turned out to be surprisingly easy and quick.

Ignore directions you might have read about chilling your processor bowl for 30 minutes in the freezer, or buying a processor blade just for grinding, or needing a heavy-duty stand mixer with $100 grinder attachment. Instead, go buy some beef, toss it into the freezer for a few minutes if you have time, cut it into 1-inch cubes, and pulse them in the processor (don't overfill it) until chopped. It's that simple. I like using chuck best; round or sirloin also taste good, especially in combination with chuck.

From those 20 seconds of work, you get a burger that tastes "steakier," holds together better on the grill, and allows you to control the fat content.

Use that beef for a basic burger, or try this recipe, adapted from Bon Appetit magazine, which gives the beef a great flavor boost from the sausage. Grill the burgers if possible; if not, broil them when the fries are finished, or pan fry them. Either way, you'll have a meal in just a little more than 20 minutes; take a few more to make fruit pies that beat a boxed burger-joint pie any day.

Beef and Andouille Burgers
Makes 4 burgers

5 oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
2 large shallots, peeled
4 ounces andouille sausages, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 3/4 pound boneless chuck or sirloin, or half of each (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt (see note)
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
4 1/3-inch-thick slices red onion (optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil (for onion)
4 hamburger buns
1 cup coarsely grated Asiago cheese (or 4 slices)
4 jarred roasted red peppers, drained

In food processor, finely chop sundried tomatoes. Pulse in mayonnaise and mustard until blended. Transfer to small bowl.

In same processor bowl, chop shallots. Add andouille and finely chop them, pulsing the processor. Transfer to large bowl. Cut beef, with fat, into 1-inch cubes. Pulse beef in 2 batches in processor until chopped; add to large bowl. Add salt and pepper; stir with fork just until blended. Form into 4 1-inch-thick patties.

Prepare grill (medium-high heat). Brush onion slices with oil. Grill onion until golden and tender on both sides. Grill buns until golden, if desired. Grill burgers to desired doneness, about 5 minutes per side for medium-rare. Sprinkle cheese over top of burgers.

To serve, spread bottom slice of buns with mayonnaise mixture. Top with burgers, then 1 pepper (sliced in half) and onion per burger. Cover with top halves of buns.

Note: I like a mix of chuck roast and sirloin for my burger, but you can use all chuck, or use some round instead. I always use coarse (kosher) salt in my cooking and encourage it for the cleaner taste and ease in cooking (the bigger grains make it easier for your fingers to learn how to automatically pick up the right amount). If you use table salt, use about 1/3 less.

Roasted Fries
Makes 4 servings

3 large russet (baking) potatoes (1 1/2 pounds), rinsed and patted dry
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Cut potatoes lengthwise into 1/3-inch-thick slices, then cut into 1/3-inch-wide sticks. Immediately toss with oil, salt, pepper and paprika in a large bowl, then spread sticks in 1 layer in a large, shallow baking pan.

Bake in lower third of oven 15 minutes. Loosen potatoes from bottom of pan with a metal spatula, then turn over and spread out again. Bake until crisp and golden brown on edges, about 10 minutes more.

Fruit Pies
Makes 8 individual pies

To make these feel more like true fast-food pies, fold them into rectangles instead. To reheat them, place in a 350-degree oven until warm and crisp.

1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons instant tapioca
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 cups tart cherries (canned are fine), or berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries,
or a mixture of them (if frozen, thaw them well)
2 sheets frozen puff pastry (one 17 1/4-ounce package), thawed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Stir together sugar and tapioca. Stir in lemon juice and gently fold in cherries or berries.

On a lightly floured surface, gently roll out 1 puff pastry sheet to a 12-inch square. Cut into 4 squares. Put about 1/3 cup of the cherries or berry mixture in the center of each square and dot each with a little butter. Brush egg along the bottom and right edges of the pastry squares; fold the dry edges over to form triangles and crimp the edges very well to seal them. Place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet (or line a baking sheet with a piece of well-greased foil). Repeat with second pastry sheet.

Bake pies for 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Serve warm.

Sharon Kebschull Barrett is a cookbook author and baking teacher in Chapel Hill. Look for her food columns every other week in The Independent.

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