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Svizzere: Yes, That’s Italian for Hamburgers

Burgers (in a variety of flavors) in an Italian Market

Burgers (in a variety of flavors) in an Italian Market

Grilled meat — generally ground beef — patties are rarely called grilled meat patties, perhaps because it’s a long mouthful for a quick dish. There are several explanations for the English language term, hamburger, my favorite being that it derives from the grilled meat patties served to immigrants crossing the Atlantic on the Hamburg line in the 1800s.

Many of the immigrants had never seen anything like them before, continues this explanation, and therefore called them Hamburgers, a name they continued to use in the Americas. And since hamburgers are tasty if made with good quality meat, and easy to cook, soon everyone was making them.

In Italy hamburgers are instead called Svizzere, which is the feminine plural of Swiss (sing. Svizzera); according to Antonio Piccinardi it’s a “Milanese term indicating a pan-fried ground meat patty, similar to a Hamburger.” Why the Milanese should have called a ground beef patty a Svizzera is beyond me, but they did, and Svizzere were already quite common in Italy before companies like McD’s began to introduce American-style fast food.

And now in every Italian supermarket and butcher’s shop you will find a considerable variety of ready-to-cook Svizzere, including moderately fatty beef, lean beef, beef with pork, beef with turkey, beef with chicken, and many Svizzere with different kinds of herbs and flavorings mixed through the meat.

And, of course, you will find ground beef, both leaner and less lean, in addition to ground veal and ground pork.

To be quite honest, unless you are pressed for time, you will likely be better off buying ground meat and making the patties at home. Why? Because you can tailor the meat to your taste, combining leaner and fattier grinds to get it just the way you like it, or using a mixture of meats, say beef and pork sausage. And you can also add other ingredients to the ground meat, from cooked onions through soy sauce, and also herbs and spices such as parsley or garlic, or paprika.

In terms of grind you will want meat that’s not too finely ground, and unless you are on a rigidly lowfat diet, you should select meat that’s not too lean: fat helps to keep the meat moist as it cooks, and as a result a Svizzera made from overly lean meat will be dry and rather chewy.

Mix the ingredients you choose to include well, and shape the mixture into patties, figuring that 500 g of ground meat (1 1/8 pounds) will yield 4 burgers about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across and a little more than a half-inch (1.2 cm) thick. Don’t make them too thick, because they will contract as they cook, becoming thicker in the process.

Come time to cook Svizzere, if you are pan-frying them with a Teflon-coated pan and have used meat that’s not too lean, you can simply heat the pan and cook them with no additional fat. If you are instead using leaner meat that might dry out, you should drizzle a drop or two of olive oil over the patties before you cook them.

If you are using cast iron, which (I find) nicely sears the surfaces of the patties, forming a zesty crust, you will need to grease it lest the patties stick. The other indoor option, if you have a hearth, is to cook them over the coals.

Outdoors? The grill, and here the flame source is up to you; I prefer hardwood or lump charcoal, but gas will also give good results. I wouldn’t use charcoal briquettes, because they can contain all sorts of things, including sawdust.

Last thing: Cooking Burgers.

Commercially prepared ground meats can be contaminated with e. coli bacteria: if they are present on the surface of a piece of meat the grinding process will spread them throughout the ground meat, at which point the ground meat, if eaten raw, could cause food poisoning whose effects range from the uncomfortable to the fatal (especially in children). Since e. coli bacteria are neutralized by cooking, always cook burgers made from purchased ground meat thoroughly. They should be well done, no pink in the middle, and certainly no blood.

If you want to enjoy the luxury of a rare burger, buy a piece of beef, sear the outsides to eliminate bacteria, and grind it yourself (go in pulses if you are using a food processor), adding fat to taste (figure 10 – 15% by weight) and washing the grinder well when you have finished.

Do not serve rare burgers made with commercially ground meat. It’s simply not worth the risk.

Having said all this, some Italian Svizzera Recipes:

Italian Burgers With Creamy Sauce, Svizzere Gustose
These burgers are served with a creamy sauce that gains zing from some mustard, and will be quite nice in the spring.

Italian Burgers with Spinach,  Svizzere e Spinaci
Blended spinach and ham are a nice addition to ground beef in these burgers, and provide a welcome variation to the more standard theme.

Breaded Hamburgers, Svizzere in Cotoletta
The cotoletta alla Milanese, a breaded fried cutlet, is one of the quickest and easiest (and most popular) meat dishes in Italy. It’s just a step further to fry up a burger, but here we have an added twist: it’s stuffed with ham and cheese, and the latter melts delightfully.

Pizzaiola Style Hamburgers, Hamburger alla Pizzaiola
Carne alla pizzaiola, cutlets cooked in a tomato sauce of the sort that goes over pizza, is one of Naples’s signature dishes. It is only natural to do the same to a hamburger.

Chained Italian Hamburgers, or Double Bacon Burgers: Hamburger Incatenati
American-style fast food has become quite popular in Italy, and it’s only natural that Italians should begin making hamburgers at home too. This clearly derives from some of the things one gets from the takeout window, but builds nicely upon the concept.

Creamy Anchovy Italian Burgers, Hamburger All’Acciuga
Anchovies have the delightful freshness of the sea, and are very tasty in these burgers.

Summer Burgers, Svizzere Estive
Here we have burgers with tomatoes and eggplant, and while the recipe will work well if you use a griddle over the stove, it will be even nicer if you do it outside, over the coals.

Kyle’s Burgers
These aren’t exactly Italian, but all my Italian in-laws, even those who normally recoil from Svizzere, ask for more.


Grilled Fish, Pesce alla Griglia

Fish on the Grill!

Fish on the Grill!

A grill and a fine fish are a marriage made in heaven. To serve four to six as a second course, or two to four as a main course, you’ll need:

  • 1 or more fish weighing a total between 2 and three pounds, cleaned, scaled, and lightly scored, or slices of a large fish, for example swordfish.
  • 1/2 cup of marinade made with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and a few leaves of minced rosemary, bay leaf, or the herb you prefer (optional).
  • A folding grate to put the fish in, if you have it.

Briefly marinate the fish, slipping some of the herbs and lemon slices into the cavity as well.

Preheat the grill or start the fire long enough ahead to let the coals burn down.

Set the fish over the coals, basting it with the marinade as it cooks; the use of a folding grate with a hinge opposite the handle makes the fish easier to flip, and allows you to prepare several small fish at once.

Continue cooking till the flesh parts easily and the skin is crispy; in terms of a cooking time, figure 10 minutes per inch (2.5 cm) of thickness of the fish, measured at its thickest point.

“Grilled” fish can also be done in the oven. Marinate it as above, and set it in a pan with just a drop of oil. Roast in a very hot (450 F, 220 C) oven, flipping carefully when it is half-cooked.

How to Make Cheese Baskets

Risotto in a Cheese Basket

Risotto in a Cheese Basket

A cheese basket is a small bowl or dish made out of cheese that you can fill with pasta (with a not-too-liquid sauce), risotto, gnocchi, or even stew. Cheese baskets are easy to make, present beautifully, and are perfectly suited to romantic occasions.

Here we have a cheese basket filled with risotto, made by Mirko Margheri, Chef of Florence’s Ristoroante Oliveiero (in Via delle Terme, behind Santa Trinita).

Making a Cheese Basket: What You'll Need

Making a Cheese Basket: What You’ll Need

To make a cheese basket you need a burner, cheese, a pristine non-stick frying pan about 9 inches (22 cm) in diameter, a pair of Teflon tongs that won’t scratch the frying pan, and a cup or bowl to lay the sheet of cooked cheese over.

If the pan is pristine, you won’t need either butter or oil to keep the cheese from sticking.

Making a Cheese Basket: Measure the Cheese

Making a Cheese Basket: Measure the Cheese

Mirko uses moderately aged (18 months) Parmigiano or Grana Padano, but any firm grating cheese will work, including Montasio, aged pecorino Sardo or Toscano, or pecorino Romano (what’s known as Romano in the US).

What’s important is that the cheese not be overly moist, or be filante — i.e. a cheese that strings out when heated, along the lines of Mozzarella, Jack, or Fontina.

Mirko says that grateable goat’s milk cheeses work especially well because of their fat content.

You’ll need about 65 grams of grated cheese, which translates into about 1 1/4 cups, or a couple of handfuls; after you’ve made a few cheese baskets you’ll simply go by eye.

Mirko notes that you can add flavorings to the cheese, provided they not be too moist: Poppy seeds, for example, or red pepper flakes, or even finely minced parsley.

Making a Cheese Basket: Sprinkle the Cheese into the Pan

Making a Cheese Basket: Sprinkle the Cheese into the Pan

Heat the skillet over a medium flame for 2-3 minutes. You want it to be hot but not searing. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the pan.

Making a Cheese Basket: Heat...

Making a Cheese Basket: Heat…

By the time you have finished sprinkling the cheese it will have begun to melt, especially around the edges.

Making a Cheese Basket: The Cheese is Browning

Making a Cheese Basket: The Cheese is Browning

The cheese will begin to bubble, and when the edges brown, use the tongs to separate the cheese a little from the sides of the pan. Another few seconds, and the cheese in the middle of the pan will begin to tan. You don’t want it to brown, but simply color some.

Making a Cheese Basket: Drape the Cheese Over a Mold

Making a Cheese Basket: Drape the Cheese Over a Mold

At this point, tip the skillet so the cheese flows out — it will come as a sheet — and drape it, browned side up, over a bowl or cup.

Mirko used a round straight-sided cup 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter and about the same high, but you can use any shape you want. The sheet will set in about 15 seconds, at which point you can lift it off the cup.

Making a Cheese Basket: It's Ready!

Making a Cheese Basket: It’s Ready!

The first basket’s done, and now you can make the next.

In terms of time required, you’ll need 3-4 minutes per basket.

How to Chop Up a Chicken

To Chop a Chicken: Begin

To Chop a Chicken: Begin

One of the easiest ways to save in a supermarket is to do the preparation yourself. Take chicken, for example: If you buy it cut up into serving-sized pieces it’s going to cost significantly more than a whole chicken because the supermarket will pass on the cost of paying someone to cut up the bird.

The obvious solution is to do it yourself. You’ll need a cutting board, a chicken, and a sharp thick-bladed kitchen knife that’s stiff enough to cut through the bones without twisting, and a smaller blade for more delicate cuts.

To Chop a Chicken: Trim the Wing Tips

To Chop a Chicken: Trim the Wing Tips

Begin by removing the wing tips (just the final joint).

To Chop a Chicken: Trim the Tailbone

To Chop a Chicken: Trim the Tailbone

And then the chicken’s tail, which contains an oil filled gland that will simply add to the oiliness of stewed or fried chicken, or cause flare-ups if you are grilling the bird.

To Chop a Chicken: Split it Up the Back

To Chop a Chicken: Split it Up the Back

Next, put the chicken breast side down, and slice cleanly up the spine, pressing down so the blade scores along the ribs. Turn the chicken upright, with the neck pressed into the cutting board, and cut straight down along the spine to open the chicken; my father-in-law (a retired butcher) taps the back of the blade repeatedly with his other hand to drive it through the ribs.

To Chop a Chicken: And Then Up the Front

To Chop a Chicken: And Then Up the Front

Open the chicken as if it were a book and press it flat against the cutting board; the sternum will begin to split and you’ll be able to remove its bony central core by pulling it up. Cut through the center of the breast, lengthwise, and you’ll have two chicken halves. One will have the neck attached; remove it by cutting through it with the knife, pressing down on the back of the blade with your other hand.

Note:If you want to make Pollo al Mattone, grilled chicken squashed flat by a brick (a tasty Etruscan recipe), simply open the chicken up the back and pull out the sternum if it will come, but don’t finish splitting it.

To Chop a Chicken: Quarter It...

To Chop a Chicken: Quarter It…

To quarter the chicken, cut each half on a slight diagonal, to separate the breast from the thigh.

If you’re cutting up a small bird at this point you may be done.

To Chop a Chicken: Separate Wings from Breasts

To Chop a Chicken: Separate Wings from Breasts

If it’s larger, separate the breasts from the wings.

To Chop a Chicken: Separate Hips from Thighs

To Chop a Chicken: Separate Hips from Thighs

Separate the drumsticks from the upper thighs by flexing the legs and cutting through the knee joints. At this point you have a perfect chicken for grilling or stewing. If you want more pieces, say for frying, cut the breasts in half again, on a diagonal.

To Chop a Chicken: Done!

To Chop a Chicken: Done!

Chopping the chicken: Done!

How To Select A Fish and Estimate How Long To Cook It

Fresh Fish Look Bright

Fresh Fish Look Bright

There’s nothing worse than overripe fish.

Here’s how to avoid it, and how to estimate how long you should cook what you buy.

Appearance is important, but the first sense to trust is smell: A fresh fish won’t smell fishy.

Look at the scales. They should be bright, and colorful. If the fish’s skin looks dull it’s old.

Touch the fish. It should feel firm, not soft, and your fingertip shouldn’t leave an impression.

The brightly colored fish here are dentici, dentex in English, whereas the skinned fish are anglerfish, which are often sold this way because of their appearance when whole.

Fresh Fish Have bright Eyes, and Look Back As You

Fresh Fish Have bright Eyes, and Look Back As You

Selecting a Fish: Look it in the Eye

Look the fish in the eyes. They should be clear and dark, as if it’s looking back at you, and ready to dart off. No white at all.

These sardoni, slightly larger cousins of sardines, were caught in the Adriatic Sea off Rimini and reached Rimini’s fish market within hours.

A Sunken Eye

A Slightly Cloudy Sunken Eye

An older fish’s eye will begin to cloud and sink.

Unfortunately, you’ll only find perfectly bright eyes when the fish is unloaded from the boat and taken directly to market.

If the eyes are slightly cloudy (like these), but the fish doesn’t smell, the fish was transported after it was caught (or came from further away) but is still good.

This grouper, for example, was caught off Sicily and sold in Rimini, several hundred miles away. It therefore spent at least a day in transit.

If the eyes are cloudy white, or, even worse, sunken and cloudy white, select a different fish or plan to serve something else.

A Fresh Fish will Have Red Gills

A Fresh Fish will Have Red Gills

Check the gills. They should be bright red, like these.

Does your fish pass inspection?

Have the fishmonger clean it for you immediately, because the guts of a dead fish will taint the flesh around them.

When you get it home, refrigerate it. Remember that fish is highly perishable, and that you should thus cook it as soon as possible, at the most within 24 hours.

Fresh Fish: Orata, Red Mullet & Scampi

Fresh Fish: Orata, Red Mullet & Scampi

To Determine The Cooking Time Of a Fish:

Measure the fish at its thickest point; calculate 10 minutes for every inch (2.5 cm) of thickness.

For example, roast a 4-inch thick fish 40 minutes, or grill a 2 1/2-inch thick fish 25 minutes, about 12 per side.

Calculations are fine, but you should also keep in mind this empirical method for determining doneness:

Stick a toothpick into the thickest part of the fish, near the backbone. If the flesh is no longer translucent and flakes easily, it is done.

A Couple Of Tips:

1. Remember, the fishmonger’s job is to sell fish. Trust is fine, but keep your eyes open.

2. Don’t overcook the fish, lest it become dry and its texture suffer.