March 12, 2012
What makes a burger a burger? To me—and I admit, I’m probably in the minority here—I define a burger more by the experience of eating one rather than the elements that comprise it. First, and most importantly, a burger must be accompanied by fries of some sort. I will have none of that side salad nonsense. Second, a burger is meant to be eaten with one’s hands. I do not consider a burger to be a burger if I have to eat it with a knife and fork, which is why I loathe bunless burgers.
Of all the horrible concepts that low-carb diet fads have introduced to American cuisine, the bunless burger is the most offensive. How can anyone think that eating a mound of greasy beef, the origin and processing of which is at best suspect, could possibly be a nutritious or dietetic option? You’re better off eating the burger minus the beef patty. But a burger minus the patty would be a sandwich, not a burger (and not a very good sandwich).
In fact, the etymology of the word “hamburger” has nothing to do with meat. The hamburger is named after the city in which the patty originated—Hamburg, Germany. “Burg” means fort or castle in German and no one really knows where the “Ham” part comes from, at least according to Wikipedia. The German word “hamburger” can refer to a person from Hamburg, or it can be used as an adjective to describe something else from Hamburg—in this case, a patty of cheap, ground meat with spices. Oddly enough, the hamburger patty is no longer called “hamburger” in Germany—it is referred to by words adopted from Italian and French. And in Egypt, where ham, being a pork product, is forbidden from the Muslim diet, menus always say burger (same word in Arabic, just transliterated) instead of hamburger. It’s like a global, inter-centennial game of translation telephone!
The hamburger seems to be a symbol of globalization in more ways than one. Of course, the “one” I’m referring to is McDonald’s hamburger. McDonald’s is such a powerful symbol of globalization (or American imperialism, depending on your point of view) that The Economist developed the Big Mac Index, an entertaining, yet gimmicky and completely inaccurate way of measuring purchasing power parity.
Now that I’ve established what makes a burger a burger—in my own little universe, at least—I’d like to examine what makes a burger a good burger. Let’s start with the original burger: The beef patty should be charred on the outside and juicy on the inside; the bun should be soft and not soggy; the toppings should include something crunchy and something tangy, like ketchup. With a vegetarian or vegan patty, juiciness is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Most veggie burgers are mushy and fall apart. Vegan burgers are even more difficult to make because you can’t use eggs to bind the ingredients. Luckily, I discovered a solution for this problem.
In her fantastic new cookbook Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume, British chef Silvena Rowe includes two recipes for falafel made with chickpea flour instead of soaked, ground beans. She makes a dough out of the chickpea flour and milk, and then mixes in the rest of the ingredients (one falafel has beets and the other has Swiss chard). The technique of cooking chickpea flour in liquid is also used to make one of my favorite snacks—French chickpea flour fries, or panisses. After making Rowe’s incredibly delicious and beautiful beet falafel, I realized I could use this technique (beets included) to make vegan burgers. The result is a patty that holds together and is neither too mushy nor too dry. Its bright red color playfully invokes the original burger—the hamburger.
Apparently, for a product to compete for market domination it has to have “mac” somewhere in the title (Big Mac, iMac), so I’m calling my vegan burger the Veggie Mac. Or maybe I’ve just been spending too much time reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Either way, these veggie burgers are deserving of the comparison if I do say so myself! Try them with Avocado-Tahini Cream (recipe below) instead of ketchup or mayo. For your fries—since all burgers need fries—I recommend making these amazing eggplant fries. Bon appétit!
Heat 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes until they release their liquid. Turn the heat up and sauté until the liquid has evaporated and the onions are lightly browned. Stir in the cumin and remove from the heat.
Line a baking sheet with wax paper and set aside. In a heavy saucepan, combine the onion mixture, grated beets, and 1 cup of water. Set the saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a simmer, and stir in the bulgur, soy sauce, lemon juice, and salt. Turn down the heat to medium-low and stir in the chickpea flour. Cook the mixture stirring from the sides constantly, like you would for polenta. In about 5 minutes, it should be thick and pulling away from the sides to form one mass.
Working as quickly as possible, scoop out a tennis-ball sized portion of the mixture and transfer to the baking sheet. Shape into a circular mound (I find this is easiest with two spoons). Continue to make mounds of the veggie mixture until you have used all of the dough. Cover the mounds with another sheet of wax paper and press down on them with another baking sheet or pan. Press in the sides of each patty.
The patties will be set in a few minutes. Let them cool to room temperature before frying so they don’t fall apart. At this point, you can keep them in the fridge until ready to fry or wrap them individually with plastic wrap and put them in the freezer.
When ready to eat, pour enough oil into a heavy frying pan (cast iron is ideal) so that it coats the bottom of the pan. Set the pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, fry the patties on both sides until brown, about 5 minutes per side.
Serve immediately on hamburger buns with toppings of your choice.
Combine the avocado, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic in a blender. With the machine running, add enough water to create smooth, fluffy puree. Add agave and salt to taste.