Hamburger Soup a la Ronald Reagan

Last week, I had the super-cool privilege of meeting John Hanny, long time chef at the White House. Along with promoting his new book, Secrets from the White House Kitchens, he was doing a little cooking demonstration and telling stories of his time serving in the White House kitchens in his 30+ year stint from the Kennedys through the Clintons. (We sampled a vegan, Chinese vegetable medley; beef bourguignon, and pecan sandies).

Unfortunately, having left my camera at home that morning, and my cell phone battery dying during the day, I was unable to capture any photographic mementos of the evening, so a photo of the autographed copy of my book will have to do.

Here are a few fun facts that Jack left us with:

– When asked which presidencies had the best taste in food, Jack identified the Kennedys, Nixons, and Reagans.

– President Nixon insisted on exactly 9 apricot-coconut no-bake cookies per serving. 8 or 10 would not do.

– The Kennedy boys frequently had cravings for donuts. They were made in-house.

– Chef Hanny offered his culinary services to the President’s disposal at any time of day. So when the President of the United States works late and needs a snack, guess who got a call? (Back before the days of secure phone lines).

– President Johnson was a fan of Texas BBQ and hosted many a shindig at his Texas ranch. At Chef Hanny’s first, he boldly refused to cook the heads of the cows, which was Johnson’s request (and is apparently not unexpected in traditional Texas barbecue technique). Chef Hanny was probably the shortest, if not the only man to refuse the towering President Johnson’s orders, but as time will attest, he didn’t lose his job over it.

 This week’s soup is Hamburger Soup from the Reagan years.

Hamburger Soup (adapted from Secrets from the White House Kitchens by John Hanny)
Yum Factor: Alex – 7.6, Jessalyn – 7 

Base – 1/2 large onion, 2 celery stalks, 2 medium carrots, 1 smallish green bell pepper, all diced
Aromatics – 1 bay leaf, 2 minced cloves garlic
Liquid – 1 quart beef broth plus a bit of water
Garnishes/Good Stuff – one 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes, 1 pound good quality ground beef, 1 cup corn grits or polenta*, small handful of chopped parsley

*The original recipe called for one 15-oz can of hominy. I had no idea what hominy was and had no idea where to look for it in the store. I may live in Virginia, but I guess I’m not as Southern as you might think. It turns out, hominy is grits before they get ground up into grits. More on my hominy vs. grits freak-out later.

1. Heat the beef broth in a small sauce pot on the stove.

2. Melt 1 stick unsalted butter in large soup pot. Brown the beef in the butter over high heat. (I know, it sounds like a lot of butter. It’ll look like a lot, too. But just close your eyes and hang in there.). Add the base veggies and the garlic, season with salt and pepper, reduce heat to medium, cover, and simmer about 10 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, then fill the tomato can with water and add to the pot. Also add the hot beef broth, bay leaf, and a good sprinkle of pepper. Cover and simmer rapidly about 35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

I used these 35 minutes to do some research on grits and hominy, and whether I might substitute one for the other in something like soup. A quick Google search provided sites which indicated that hominy refers to the whole corn kernel, while grits is what is produced when said hominy kernel is ground. Corn grits, are also commonly known as polenta, often used in Italian cooking, but flavored using similar techniques as the grits so characteristic of the cuisine of the South. Don’t get me wrong–the recipe still called for hominy. And having never cooked with it, I’m not sure what texture or flavor the soup would have ended up with even if I had used it.

Long story short, after opening the soup pot after 35 minutes, I was mildly horrified at the oily puddles floating on the surface of my soup, thanks to the Paula Deen-esque STICK of butter I used to begin the recipe. I was still skeptical of the bag of corn grits I had purchased – seriously, it looks very similar to cornmeal – but nevertheless dumped some into the pot, praying that they would expand and soak up all that extra butter. I started feeling more confident when I remembered a few TV episodes in which Giada De Laurentiis cooks polenta and uses a pretty significant amount of butter to flavor it. 


4. Add the corn grits and turn the heat down to medium low. The pot will still want to bubble at you, especially as the grits start expanding. Stir frequently, for about five minutes. It will get thicker and thicker, and may even try to stick to the bottom of the pot. Keep stirring. 

5. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle in the parsley and serve immediately. (Chef notes that this soup freezes well).

Conclusion? I guess you could say it was more like “hamburger porridge” than hamburger soup, but trust me, it’s much tastier than it sounds. After all, there are dozens of recipes out there which flavor polenta with various ingredients – just think of this as an overly garnished polenta. The cooked grits in the soup reminded me a lot of cous-cous. In fact, I’m quite sure you could substitute cous-cous (or any rice or pasta that you wanted to) and achieve a similar result. I suppose it’s meant to stand in for the bun…you know…as in the hamburger bun. But in a good way.

It’s definitely a rib-sticking, kid-friendly comfort food, so parents of picky eaters, take note. When I questioned Alex about his slightly-lower-than-usual Yum Factor rating, I asked under what circumstances he might find himself craving this hamburger soup. His answer? 

I would crave hamburger soup if I suddenly couldn’t chew and wanted a hamburger.

MmMm. Masticated hamburger… Not to mention a very creative answer. Har har…

Seriously though. Alex’s response made me realize that you really could customize this soup just as you might customize your mouth-watering burger. Do you like a bacon-cheddar burger? Cook up some bacon when you cook the ground beef in the beginning, and melt in some cheddar cheese at the end. Maybe you prefer a mushroom burger? Add in some mushrooms with your veggies. Want something a smidge lighter? Substitute ground turkey for the beef and garnish with some avocado slices when serving. You see? The possibilities are endless. Maybe that’s why Chef Hanny suggested this was one of his favorite recipes in the entire book.

As for the rest of the book, I have enjoyed following the food trends through the decades and reflecting on the food culture and preferences that correspond with the time periods. Chef Hanny gives an intro for each President, and he includes recipes from FDR through Obama, even though he was only in the White House, as I said, from Kennedy through Clinton. He specifically said that the book contains simple recipes that are quick and easy to make “because that’s the way it should be.” He picked these 300-some recipes from the thousands that he knows as best representative of each President’s era. And indeed, there are no elaborate instructions in the recipes, similar to what a head chef might give to his cooks when instructing a new dish, and there are only a few pictures throughout the book. The index is also sorted by President, not by meal or ingredient, so if that bothers you, well, too bad.

Beyond that, and regardless of politics, it’d be pretty neat to entertain your guests with a dish that was served in the White House, don’t you think? 

So what do you think? If you lived through the Reagan era, does hamburger soup accurately represent the time period? Are you inspired to try hamburger soup (or any other Presidential meal)? Or will you be sticking to burgers, in the traditional sense? Do you know more about grits and hominy than I do? Do tell.

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