It’s time, once again, to break out the grill and get cooking for summer.
As any great chef will tell you, the real test of skills is how well you master the basics. At the Cordon Bleu, that may mean whipping up the perfect omelet or cheese souffle, but when it comes to summer and outdoor dining, when we talk about the basics we are talking about hamburgers.
It’s not difficult to serve a healthy and flavorful burger that will make friends and family sit up and notice. It only takes a little imagination and an understanding of how to turn ordinary ingredients into an extraordinary meal.
Make it About the Meat
We all know that lean beef is healthier than that old standby, ground chuck, and we all want to serve our families healthy meals. As any chef will be quick to point out, though, ground chuck tastes better than top round because most of the flavor and nearly all of the juiciness of ground beef comes from the fat. The easy solution? Add your own juicy texture and exciting flavor to lean beef by replacing the unhealthy fat with healthy fats and by adding a few intensely flavored ingredients.
Simply adding a bit of finely diced onion to your lean ground will, by itself, add both flavor and juiciness. So will the addition of a tablespoon of good quality olive oil for each pound of meat. To add even more flavor using this method, saute a coarsely chopped clove of garlic in the oil. Remove the garlic pieces before incorporating the flavored oil into the meat. If there’s no fresh garlic on hand, garlic salt works too.
If you like a little heat, try adding some red pepper flakes or a tasty hot sauce to the meat mixture. Frank’s Red Hot is an excellent choice.
Another great way instantly to transform your lean ground beef into something more is to chop and mix in some sun-dried tomatoes that have been packed in oil. Finely chopped anchovies packed in oil add excellent flavor as well without imparting any fishy taste whatsoever. Worried that the kids don’t really like anchovies or sun dried tomatoes? Don’t. They’ll never know what’s in there, nor would you if you hadn’t put it there yourself. In fact, the use of anchovies for added flavor is one of the most closely guarded secrets of restaurant cooking.
Tuck in Some Surprises
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, life is like a stuffed hamburger. You never know what you’re going to get. Putting a bit of a filling inside your burgers not only increases the flavor and makes for a nice surprise when you bite in, but putting the extras inside instead of on top allows you to use a little less beef without making your patties look wimpy. Also, by putting the extras inside you can achieve all of the taste you like while using less of some of the classic and more extravagant add-ons such as bacon and cheese.
While it is easy enough to stuff hamburger patties without getting too fancy in the preparation, some people prefer to work with uniform layers.
To do this, put the beef mixture between two sheets of waxed paper and press until extra thin under the bottom of a heavy can, a little larger than the size you want your cooked burger to be. Standard canned tomatoes work well for this.. To make a stuffed burger, just top one perfect patty with a bit of filling, cover with a second patty, and press the edges to seal.
Use this technique to make your own healthier version of a bacon cheeseburger by filling the burger with just one strip of cooked bacon that has been coarsely chopped and about an ounce of cheddar or Monterey jack cut into small cubes for ease of melting.
In fact, all sorts of cheeses make good fillings for stuffed hamburgers with the biggest flavor boost coming from Gorgonzola, goat cheese, or feta. If you do happen to love sun-dried tomatoes, an extra few chopped and mixed in with crumbled feta is fantastic and oh so Mediterranean.
Can You Top This?
Hamburger toppings can be about more than lettuce, tomato, bacon and cheese. A little spot on the North shore of Oahu, called Kua Aina, prepares such a favorite that it draws mention in almost every guidebook written about the island and is a favorite of Hawaiian native, Barack Obama. The topping? A complete avocado half, fresh lettuce and a thick slice of grilled white onion. While that much avocado may be more than you want, a few generous slices and a bit of fresh cracked black pepper will transform any burger into something more special.
Sauce is important too. Nobody’s saying that ketchup isn’t special enough-even the French acknowledge the greatness of our national sauce. Still, there’s nothing like a little variety to keep everyone interested in dinner. The next time you are at your grocery store or specialty food store, check the shelves for condiments that you might not have tried. Yellow pepper sauce, jerk sauce, and herb sauces are all good choices for changing up the flavors of a juicy burger.
When summer produce is at it’s best, everyone should keep the fridge stocked with a container of fresh pico de gallo, which is nothing more than a simple mixture of finely chopped seasonal tomatoes, red or green peppers, cucumbers, parsley or cilantro, and whatever other fresh crunchy vegetables you associate with the season. You won’t be able to keep it on the shelf when hamburgers are on the menu and it makes a great topping for fresh fish as well.
There’s No Excuse for Boring Buns
There is absolutely nothing wrong with classic store-bought hamburger buns. We all love them and always will. If that’s the way you want to go, just be sure you pop them, cut side down on the coolest part of the grill when the burgers are almost ready. The toasted surface adds crunch and the grill marks should be your personal sign of Zorro.
There are other choices out there as well. Who doesn’t like garlic bread? Find a baguette about the same width as a hamburger patty, split it lengthwise and rub the cut surfaces with a peeled clove of garlic and then brush with oil before grilling. When it is toasted nicely, cut it into perfect squares. Voila.
Hamburgers can also be tucked into warmed pita rounds and stuffed with shredded lettuce and any other topping you like, or served on toasted English muffins.
Take a Bow
The summer season is never long enough to please us, but it is long enough to try out lots of ideas for changing up the familiar basic burger and doing so with healthy ingredients you’ll be proud to serve. Once your family sees what you’re up to and has had a real taste of the love you put into even the simplest meal, you’ll never have to hear, “What, hamburgers again?”