One of my favorite big city comfort foods is a staple of the diner scene – the patty melt.
According to lore, the patty melt originated in California as a burger topped with fried onions and melted cheese served on grilled rye bread. Of course today, the patty melt comes in all manner of variations, including many grilled cheese-style versions done indoors on a griddle. But now that the weather is warming up, it's the perfect time to try my version of the original — the grilled patty melt.
The first step in making a perfect patty melt is to shape your patty to fit the size of your bread. This results in an oval-shaped patty, but ensures that every bite has all the good stuff — grilled beef, caramelized onions, melted cheese and toasty rye bread. I like to use lightly seasoned ground sirloin for a lean but rich, beefy flavor.
The classic patty melt calls for Swiss cheese, but I have noticed that many diners are opting for American cheese to get that ooey-gooey melted texture. I prefer the flavor of Swiss cheese, but if you really want that wet, melty experience, I suggest a combination of Swiss cheese for flavor and American cheese for texture.
Finally, I up the ante on the onions by accenting them with tangy balsamic vinegar. I find the vinegar adds a depth of flavor and cuts through the richness of all the other layers of the sandwich. It also eliminates the need for a tangy condiment, like the Thousand Island dressing that sometimes is served alongside the sandwich.
Use the best quality rye bread you can find, one with a slightly chewy crust and a dense crumb. The lighter the bread, the more difficult it will be to contain all the layers of the sandwich. And it is all the layers that make the patty melt so delicious. It is the classic example of the whole being so much greater than the sum of its parts.
GRILLED PATTY MELT WITH BALSAMIC CARAMELIZED ONIONS
Start to finish: 45 minutes
For the onions:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
3 large yellow onions, sliced into rings
For the burger:
1 pound ground sirloin
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
8 slices of fresh rye bread, toasted
8 large slices of Swiss cheese, or a combination of Swiss and American
In a large heavy-bottomed saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat, combine the olive oil and butter. When the butter is melted, add the salt, 3 tablespoons of the vinegar, and the onion rings. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove the cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes, or until the onions are all a deep golden color. When the onions are done, transfer them to a bowl and immediately drizzle the remaining vinegar over them. Stir to combine, then set aside. The onions can be prepared to this point up to 2 days ahead, then refrigerated in an airtight container.
When ready to cook the burgers, prepare a grill for direct, medium heat cooking.
Being careful not to overwork the meat, season the sirloin with salt and pepper, and mix until combined. Gently shape the meat into 4 oval patties of equal size and thickness (about 1/3 inch thick).
Use your thumb to make an imprint in the center of each patty. Place each patty directly on the cooking grate and grill for 4 minutes. Turn and continue grilling until the meat is no longer pink, another 4 to 5 minutes. Once the patties are made and grilled, transfer to a clean platter.
Meanwhile, begin to assemble the patty melts by layering each piece of the rye toast with a slice of cheese. Take the bread to the grill and place directly on clean cooking grates for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the cheese begins to melt and the bread is warm and lightly toasted.
Once the cheese has melted, transfer each burger patty to one slice of bread. Divide the onions between the remaining 4 slices of bread, then assemble into 4 sandwiches.
Nutrition information per serving: 720 calories; 370 calories from fat (51 percent of total calories); 44 g fat (17 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 140 mg cholesterol; 41 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 46 g protein; 1,140 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."