The ubiquitous burger: Always there. Always the same.
You can cover it with guacamole and sliced jalapeños, you can slather it with ketchup and mustard, you can stuff it with blue cheese (actually, that’s very good). You can disguise it with bacon and barbecue sauce, you can plop a grilled pineapple slice on top, or you can serve it with a fried egg. But any way you make it, it’s still just a burger.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Burgers are fine. Burgers are good. But burgers are just a little bit ordinary.
Ordinary, that is, unless you do something extraordinary — such as making them out of something that isn’t beef.
A recent excursion to a store had me feeling aimless and adrift. I didn’t know what I wanted to make for dinner, and perusing the aisles did not accomplish the lightning-like strike of inspiration I had been hoping for. And then, in the meat section, I saw ground turkey patties made with feta cheese and spinach. Of course, I could have bought those myself, but right next to them was some ground turkey. I already had feta cheese at home, so I could simply pick up some spinach and make my own.
Spinach and feta, of course, make a classic combination; Greek food just wouldn’t be Greek food without it. It is highly flavored, precisely what you need when working with ground turkey which, in a word, isn’t.
Spinach and feta and turkey turn out to go together spectacularly well. Just remember that feta is already salty, so season the meat with only a little salt, if any, but do not stint on the pepper.
Thus inspired, I decided to try other beef-less burgers — unburgers, I call them.
I had the most success with chicken burgers. Because I like chicken cooked with mustard, onions, and apples, I decided to try that combination in burger form. It worked better than I could have hoped.
First, I added a bread crumbs to the soft ground chicken to make it a little firmer, and then I mixed in Dijon mustard. I knew I was going to top the chicken burgers with caramelized onions, but I couldn’t decide if the apples should be chopped up and sprinkled throughout the meat or if they should be served in a thin slice on top. And because curry goes so well with both chicken and apples (and also caramelized onions), I decided to make some with curry in them and some without.
My favorite turned out to be the chicken unburger with mustard, apples, and curry all mixed into the meat, and caramelized onions on top. But the one without the curry was perhaps equally as good. The ones with the thin slice of apple on top also tasted great and had a finer texture, but they proved to be just a little more complicated to eat.
Though I have long been a fan of ground lamb, I had never used it to fashion a classic burger. But then I saw a reference to a famous restaurant in New Delhi, India. Karim’s is noted, among other things, for its seekh kabab (as the restaurant spells it). Their version is spiced, minced mutton wrapped around a skewer and then cooked on a grill.
That sounded to me like a burger on a skewer. So I removed the skewer, formed the meat into a patty, and cooked it on the stove, though a grill would have been even better.
Along with the spices (garlic, scallions, cilantro, ginger, cumin seeds, turmeric, black and cayenne peppers), the secret to what I have dubbed Karim’s seekh burger is yellow split peas that have been partially cooked and ground into a meal. It is then thoroughly mixed into the meat before cooking, giving the burgers a unique taste that can only be found by grinding partially cooked yellow split peas.
Finally, I tried a tuna burger with a ginger-mustard glaze from a recipe by the restaurant that invented it, Union Square Café. Once created, these unburgers became ubiquitous in restaurants across the country. The trend ran its course, and the dish began to fall off of menus, though in some places it is still a popular item.
Surprisingly, it isn’t difficult to make at home, if you use a shortcut: pre-made teriyaki sauce. First, you have to grind or finely chop the tuna (chopping it is fun), which you then season liberally with garlic, mustard, and cayenne and black peppers. And if you begin with the teriyaki sauce, the glaze is a snap. Just add ginger, garlic, honey, Dijon mustard, and white wine vinegar.
While the glaze simmers for five minutes, it scents the kitchen with a heady, delicious aroma. It smells great, and it definitely does not smell like hamburger.
Contact Daniel Neman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Yellowfin Tuna Burgers with Ginger Mustard Glaze
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2½ teaspoons minced garlic, divided
1 tablespoon honey
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard, divided
½ teaspoon white wine vinegar
1½ pounds yellowfin tuna
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
4 hamburger buns with seeds
¼ cup Japanese pickled ginger, optional
For the glaze: Combine teriyaki sauce, ginger, ½ teaspoon of the garlic, honey, 1 tablespoon of the mustard, and the vinegar in a 1-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the glaze coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Strain through a sieve and reserve in a warm place until tuna burgers are cooked. Can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.
For the tuna: Remove all skin and any gristle. Grind the tuna in a meat grinder or chop with a large, sharp knife to the texture of hamburger meat. Do not use a food processor, which will shred the tuna rather than chop it.
Transfer the ground tuna to a bowl and combine with the remaining 2 teaspoons of garlic, the remaining 3 tablespoons of mustard, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly. Divide the tuna into four equal portions. Using your hands, roll each part into a smooth ball and then flatten into a compact patty.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and sear the tuna burgers until browned and medium rare, 3-4 minutes per side. Serve each burger on a buttered, toasted bun and spread with a tablespoon of warm glaze. Garnish the burgers with equal amounts of pickled ginger slices, if using.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: The Union Square Café Cookbook, by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano, reprinted in American Food Writing, edited by Molly O'Neill.
Chicken, Apples, and Mustard Burger
½ large onion, sliced thin
1 pound ground chicken
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/3 cup apple, diced small
1½ teaspoons curry powder, optional
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Melt butter in a skillet over low heat and add onions. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are very soft and a deep, golden color. This may take as long as an hour or more. Set aside.
Combine chicken, bread crumbs, mustard, apple, and optional curry powder in a large bowl, and add salt and pepper to taste. Form into 3 or 4 patties. Place a skillet over medium-high heat, add olive oil, and cook patties until done, about 3-5 minutes on each side, depending on their thickness. Top with caramelized onions and serve in hamburger buns.
Yield: 3-4 servings; Source: Daniel Neman
Karim’s Seekh Burger
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 pound ground lamb
1 clove garlic, minced
2 scallions (white and green parts), trimmed and minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons grated peeled fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
½ teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
½ teaspoon black pepper, or more to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
2 tablespoons oil
Cook's note: To toast cumin seeds, set a dry skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat. Add seeds and heat until lightly toasted, 3-5 minutes, shaking the skillet occasionally. Do not allow to burn. Spread on a plate to cool.
Place the split peas and turmeric in a medium-sized saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer, uncovered, until the peas are just tender but not mushy, 12-15 minutes. You should be able to crush one between your thumb and forefinger. Drain in a colander and let cool.
Grind the cooled peas into a coarse meal in a food processor. Place the lamb in a large bowl and stir in the cooled peas, garlic, scallions, cilantro, ginger, salt, cumin seeds, black pepper, and cayenne. Knead and squeeze the mixture with your hands until thoroughly blended, 3-4 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
Form meat into 4 patties. Put a large skillet over medium-high heat and add oil. Cook the patties, covered, until done, about 3-4 minutes per side.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: Adapted from The Barbecue! Bible, by Steven Raichlen
Turkey Burgers with Spinach and Feta
½ cup spinach, washed and dried
¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a large bowl, use your hands to mix together the turkey, spinach, feta, and salt and pepper to taste — you'll need to add some salt, but remember that feta is salty. Form into 3-4 patties.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add patties and cook, covered, until done, about 5 minutes per side.
Yield: 3-4 servings; Source: Daniel Neman