As I was reading an online food magazine the other day (yes, I spend time immersed in food one way or the other), I saw a picture of a sandwich classic: the Patty Melt.
Few dishes scream traditional dinner food more than a good-ol’ greasy, gooey, drizzle-down-your-arms, sloppy patty melt. So I decided to do a little research and maybe find out more about this retro treat. I, of course, employed my two favorite research assistants for this time-consuming, in-depth, exhaustive search; both of their names begin with “I” as in Intelligent, Introspective, Ingenious, Inventive … well, I think you get the idea. My research assistants’ names are iPhone and I-10 IPA. We do make a fetching team.
Just as I suspected, the Patty Melt made its first appearance sometime in the 1940s. That must be why I always have visions of some Depression-era dinner when I think of this quintessential lunch staple. I picture a man in his early 30s bellying up to the lunch counter, asking the grizzled ex-Marine short-order cook, cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, in a greased-stained white T-shirt, “Hey, buddy, how much for one of them patty melt sandwiches?” “Sixty cent,” grumbles the cook, “but I can see you’re a little down on your luck so, let’s say, whatever you can spare.”
Are you following? Are you in the right frame of mind? I also would like y’all to erase any memories of the shoemaker examples you may have experienced in your college cafeterias, because eating a well-executed patty melt can be a beautiful life experience.
The original version consists of a ground beef patty, caramelized onions and Swiss cheese, between two slices of rye bread. Sounds simple, so the quality of the result relies more on the skill and finesse of the cook than the complexity of ingredients.
Let’s say, just for fun, you are interested in making a few of these vintage-style sammies at your domicile … you’re reading the right column. The first step? Seek high-quality ground beef … BUT don’t go crazy with all kinds of wagyu/brisket mixes. Think good but low-brow. I like an 80/20 ground angus, good flavor and still inexpensive. Make this into very thin patties, about six ounces each (thick patties do not work with sliced bread). Then season them generously with salt and pepper. Next, a well-caramelized onion is essential—just as important as the beef.
Slice the onions very thin and begin cooking in canola oil on medium-high heat. Continue to stir the onions until they begin to brown. Now deglaze with white wine, add a knob of butter, a couple of thyme sprigs and season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let the onions slowly melt. Add a splash or two of water when they become dry.
Next, cook the patties on a skillet, top with Swiss cheese and your fantastic caramelized onions. All that’s left is to put the delicacies on toasted rye bread, slather on a copious amount of Thousand-Island dressing and slap the sandwhich back on the griddle, press down, flip and serve. Easy-peasy.
Chef Bill’s Super-Easy 1,000 Island Dressing
• 1/2 cup mayonnaise
• 2 tablespoons ketchup
• 1 tablespoon white vinegar
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• 2 tablespoons sweet pickles, chopped
• 2 teaspoon finely minced red onion
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• Dash of black pepper
1. Put all ingredients in a small bowl. Stir well.
2. Put dressing in covered container, refrigerate for several hours, stirring occasionally, so the sugar dissolves and flavors blend. Add 3 tablespoons diced hard-boiled egg if desired.
3. Pick up the Patty Melt and get your goo on.
Email Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Fernandina’s Amelia Island Culinary Academy, at firstname.lastname@example.org, for inspiration and to get Cheffed-Up!