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Lamb burgers

An amazing amount of hamburger goes down the hatch: Americans alone chow down on more than 14 billion of them annually, according to industry statistics, and it's reported that fully 60 percent of all the sandwiches eaten from coast to coast are burgers.

But there's not much to admire in the average modern fast-food burger, an undersize patty so thin, dry and flavorless that it pretty much needs "special sauce" to make it palatable.

I say it's time to take back the burger. Grilled on a skillet or over hot coals, a well-fashioned and formed rendition of the Earl of Salisbury's invention need not take second place to a steak or a chop. And if you start with reasonably lean, quality meat, a burger doesn't have to be a heart attack on a bun.

Perhaps influenced by the spicy pleskavica at the local Bosnian restaurants that have been popping up around here, I've been making burgers fairly often lately, often substituting ground lamb for all or part of the traditional beef, a variation that I find adds real flavor interest to the result ... and makes the burgers even better companions with a good red wine. I never seem to do it exactly the same way twice, but here's a summary that you're welcome to use as a base for your own improvisation:

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 pound lean ground lamb, ground beef or a combination
White, yellow or red onion, enough to make 1/4 cup when finely chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dry red wine
Sea salt
Black pepper
Hot sauce (optional)
Olive oil


Taking burgers seriously, I decline to use cheap grocery-store ground beef ... one look at the bizarre orange fat that comes off when you heat it is enough to persuade me that this stuff shouldn't go on my table or in my mouth. Go for quality, relatively lean meat from a trustworthy butcher, or if you're obsessive, chop your own in the food processor, bearing in mind only that you'll need to include some fat to make it juicy, and that it's probably a waste of money to use T-bone or tenderloin to make a burger.

1. Chop the onion and two of the garlic cloves together until it's very fine. I like to use a mini-food processor to process them into a puree.

2. Mix together the lamb and beef if you're using both, and gently stir in the processed onions and garlic, the Worstershire sauce, salt and pepper and optional hot sauce. Mix, using two forks. Handle the meat as gently as possible to keep the burgers tender and light. Divide into four portions and, continuing with the light, gentle touch, form them into balls, then press them into patties. Pressing a dent in the center with your thumb may help keep them from swelling back into a ball shape when you cook them.

3. Heat a little olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, cooking the remaining garlic clove in it to add flavor. (I use a nonstick skillet to reduce the amount of oil needed and to make handling easy). Slide in the four patties and cook without moving them until seared on one side, about 3 minutes. Then gently flip them and sear for 3 minutes on the other side. Resist the impulse to press them ... that soft sizzle you hear when you do so is the tasty juices leaking out and going to waste. They should be medium-rare after 5 minutes, but if you insist on your burgers being more well-done, reduce heat to medium and continue cooking until they're to your liking. If it makes you feel better, it's OK to cut into one to check the color at the center. (Alternatively, of course, you can throw your burgers on the grill, cooking over direct heat for 5 or 6 minutes or until done to your taste.)

Serving options vary widely depending on your mood. You can plate your burgers with side dishes and serve them like steaks ... set them up on buns with your choice of standard dressings, lettuce and tomato, a slice of cheddar cheese ... or if you like the idea of emulating a Yugoslavian pleskavica, tuck them into pitas and serve with a dollop of sour cream.

MATCHING WINE: As noted, a juicy, thick homemade burger makes a fine companion with just about any dry red wine. Rhone-style reds or Zinfandel go particularly well with char-grilled burgers; or treat them like steaks and break out your Cabernets, Merlots or Pinot Noirs. I recently enjoyed a Bosnian-style burger with a fruity Southern Italian red, Botromagno 1999 Puglia Primitivo.

Discuss this recipe in our online forum:
If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about burgers, grilling or food in general, you're welcome to drop by our interactive Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Lamb burgers." Click to:
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Thursday, July 24, 2003
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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