I am going to say something utterly un-American right now. But before you start rallying the outraged crowd to go egg my car, just promise that you’ll finish this article first. Here it goes: I don’t like burgers. Whew… got that off my chest.
Seriously, I just don’t get what the attraction is — I get the juicy meat, I get the grilling part and the smoky flavor. What I don’t get is — as soon as you put that juicy smoky grilled patty on your plate, it seems you try to do your best to suppress, if not completely hide its flavor with fixings. I’ve seen people putting so many fixings on their burgers that it made me seriously wonder if they would notice if I pulled the burger out of their stack. Think about it — you do lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, onions, pickles, mushrooms, cheese, avocados, bacon, blue cheese crumbs, onion shoestrings, pimento cheese, kraut, spinach, aioli sauce, relish… the list of strong flavored fixings goes on… and of course there is the bun, that huge yellow spongy sweetened bun that is so tall just by itself, one has to wonder how that thing would even fit in an average mouth.
I think I know what the problem is — the burger itself, unless its done just right and made of absolutely superb meat, is a very boring thing — there is nothing in it except meat and smoke from the grill. Hence the hordes of fixings, hence the giant buns and piles of french fries — all of these are needed to enhance the flavor. Is it any wonder then, that I don’t like the American burgers?
Here is why — to me, a burger is something completely different. Enter the Russian burger — a flavored meat patty that’s typically consumed as a main course (no bread, except maybe a slice or sourdough on the side), with a vegetable or grain side. French may call it a Croquette, Germans a Schnitzel, and Russians call it Côtelette (cutlet), which is technically an incorrect name for a ground meat patty, but the idea is the same — flavor the ground meat, fry and enjoy.
My mom traditionally made burgers with onions, stale white bread soaked in milk, garlic, salt, pepper, eggs and dill. All of this, except eggs, was pushed through an old crank meat grinder, seasoned, and then fried in oil. It makes a world of difference. A cold burger sliced in half is divine on a slice of fresh bread and butter for next day lunch. There are scores of Russian classic literature in which burger is at least mentioned in passing, or better yet have a dedicated paragraph! Even Pushkin mentioned them at least once in his poetry.
Russian burgers can be made from virtually any kind of meat. The best way to achieve awesomeness in flavor is to mix the meat sources — beef or veal+pork (classic), chicken+turkey, various species of fish, and of course lamb burgers are to die for. You don’t have to limit yourself to just black pepper seasoning — in that respect the sky is the limit. For my last night’s version I used Garam Masala (Indian) spices and fresh cilantro in place of dill, just because I can, and they worked like a charm. I imagine Cajun mix, Curry, Raz-el-Hanout, Italian mixes will work wonders.
So, my dear fellow Americans, before you start throwing those tomatoes at me, I urge you to try burgers the Russian way. Maybe you don’t need to start on the 4th of July, to keep the long-standing American tradition going, but pick a rather mellow and ordinary day to give them a try. To augment your Russian experience, you may want to serve the burger with a side of well buttered buckwheat Kasha, which is a very special flavor in itself. Add some half-sour pickles or a side of kraut, and you are in business. No thank you notes required.
Burgers, The Russian Way
- 1 lbs ground beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, fish or a combination (see suggestions above)
- 1 egg
- 2 slices of stale sourdough white bread, soaked in a bit of milk, or 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 medium onion
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- salt, spices to taste – I added 1 tsp Garam Masala
- fresh herbs, such as dill, parsley, or cilantro, finely chopped
- oil for frying, or just throw them on the grill
Soak the stale bread in milk for a few minutes. Squeeze out.
Work the meat, bread (breadcrumbs), onion, garlic and herbs in a processor until smooth. Add a few tablespoons of water or milk if needed to ease the grinding.
Incorporate egg and spices. Mix well. Wet your palms and slap the meat farce a few times to form a ball and let all the air pockets go.
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Using your wet hands, shape the meat farce into small burgers, about 3/4″ thick.
Fry on both sides until golden brown and when pressed with the fork, let out the clear juice. Alternatively, cook the Russian burgers on the grill, just like any other burger.
Enjoy with a side of buckwheat kasha and a half-sour pickle.