Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pantry Burgers

I've been exploring the capabilities of the rice cooker in our sublet this summer. It’s not a fancy model and it’s not supposed to do anything but white rice, but it did brown rice just fine… so I started throwing other grains and legumes in it just to see what happens. The lentils turned out mealy with tough skins [I think it was a bad water ratio], but I had a lot of them so I started going through my cookbooks for ideas. The Natural Foods Cookbook, has oodles of veggie burger recipes that are some combination of lentil, soybean, and bulgur and I happened to have a big bag of whole-wheat bulgur in my pantry tub from the old house.
The tricks to a good veggie burger are hearty flavor and firm texture (what else is there?). For flavor, I hit up my old friend umami, that savory flavor that separates deliciousness from old-timey veggie loaf. It’s mostly found in proteins, but not strictly in meats. Lentils have more than soy beans, but fermented soy (soy sauce) has a lot… as do onions and mushrooms and nuts and they’re all compounded by browning them and caramelizing some of their sugars. Kombu or sea kelp has more than anything else I know – it’s basically a natural form of MSG – and if I’d had some I would have thrown it in with the lentils, too. [If you try that , take it out before pureeing… the solids shouldn’t actually go in the burger.]For texture, I found the basic ratio of legume to grain wasn’t too variable across multiple cookbooks and internet sites. The big problem with most of them is that they’re too tender to hold together and have to be rather carefully pan-fried. [Commercial veggie burgers use various combinations of corn- or algae-based coagulants like dextrose or carrageen to hold it all together.] I noticed that most of the recipes called for the bulgur to be precooked, but I remembered a tabouleh recipe in Cook’s Illustrated that just soaked the grain in a few tablespoons of room temperature lemon juice. Since I was planning on adding soy and balsamic for flavorants, I figured I could just use them plus any cooking water that clung to the lentils to hydrate my bulgur. By adding a little egg to help gum it all together, I managed to come up with a base that was perfectly sturdy and sculptable.

JG and I have made these bad boys multiple times now and I think the recipe is a pretty good one, and it’s based entirely on what I consider pantry and fridge staples. You can throw other things in it.. mushrooms, shredded squash, etc... based on what you have on hand.
These should be sturdy enough to grill, but I’m not actually sure since my grill stayed in Texas, along with my little red picnic table... it was a great picnic table.

Recipe: Pantry Burgers
You can use a 15oz can in lieu of dried lentils and water. How easy is that? You can also add squash or carrots or whatever you have in your crisper drawer, but you may need to add an extra tablespoon or so of bulgur to soak up the extra juices.

3/4 cup dried brown or green lentils
3 cups water
2 slices dried porcini mushroom (optional)
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil (divided use)
1 medium onion , chopped
2 ribs celery (large), chopped
2 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press
3/4 cup whole-wheat bulgur
1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup unsalted pecans (or walnuts/ cashews/almonds)
1 egg (or 2 tablespoons regular or vegan mayo)
Salt and pepper

1. In a medium saucepan, bring lentils and water to the boil over high heat; then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered, stirring once or twice, until lentils are tender, about 25 minutes.

2. While lentils simmer, combine bulgur, soy and vinegar in a medium bowl and set aside. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add onions and celery and sauté, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and nuts and let sit until fragrant ~ 1 minute. Transfer veggie/nut mix and bulgur to a food processor [this will eventually be too thick for a blender] and puree until no large chunks of nut remain. (You can just wipe out the skillet and reuse it for cooking the burgers… no need to wash it twice.)

3. Once lentils are soft, drain them in a strainer or colander and shake out as much water as possible.* Add lentils to the other ingredients in the food processor and pulse until few entire lentils remain. Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper as needed. Add egg or mayo, pulse until combined, then let sit for at least 5 minutes to allow the bulgur to soak up more of the liquid. This is a good time to collect your burger toppings, slice tomatoes, etc.

4. Add remaining oil to the skillet and heat over medium-high. Shape patties and place them in the skillet (or use an ice cream scoop and drop them in, then flatten them with a spatula). Sear each side until golden brown and crusty ~3 minutes per side.

Store unused patties in an airtight container for a few days, or wrap individually in plastic and freeze in a zip-close bag.

* The liquid is pretty flavorful; I used it for baking a savory bread... which I then used for the "bun" in the picture. It could also be used for cooking another legume or grain.

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