A friend asked me what I was planning for my July column. “Black bean burgers,” said I.
“Really, why?” was the clearly unenthusiastic response.
Well, for one thing, I like beans. I love beans, in fact. And lately I have had vegetarian burgers on the brain.
Perhaps it has something to do with sitting outdoors on a recent warm summer evening, as lighter fluid perfumed the neighborhood, followed by the acrid smoky aroma of beef fat dripping on glowing charcoal briquettes. It didn’t make me crave red meat.
Though I do appreciate the occasional burger with all the trimmings, a big pile of fries and an ice-cold beer, my dinners at home have been largely vegetarian of late.
But I wasn’t after the handcrafted veggie burger you’ve seen in food magazines, photographed to look not just like a burger, but the best-looking burger you’ve ever seen. Big, beautiful, bodacious and juicy — the classic here’s-a-gorgeous-burger-that-even-carnivores-would-like.
That kind of patty has heft and color and nuts and grains, grated carrots and beets, designed to have a meatlike “mouthfeel.” You could get anyone to eat it without much coaxing.
I envisioned a homely black bean burger that wasn’t like that at all. I wanted it to taste like really good Mexican refried beans.
I planned to emphasize, not disguise, the black beans in the mixture, and I definitely did not want to add breadcrumbs or filler to make it firm. I wanted it to be highly seasoned, with cumin, cilantro, scallions, green chile and pimentón. I didn’t care if it could be grilled. Of course I didn’t want it mushy, either, but cooked beans by their very nature are not meant to be chewy.
For body, I added cooked brown rice, which seemed a compatible choice. I hand-mashed the mixture for maximum texture. To bind, I used cornstarch and egg. Then I dusted the patties on both sides with fine cornmeal and pan-fried them.
To me, this was an extremely delicious burger — tender, with a pleasantly crisp exterior.
Suddenly it occurred to me that a fried egg on top would be a nice addition. In France, when a beef burger is topped with an egg, it’s called à cheval (on horseback), so the idea isn’t without precedent.
Well, when those two got together in a toasted bun, they made a heavenly combination. It was like a great fried egg sandwich and the best black-bean patty, both on the same bill. So I wrote the recipe that way. There would be Mexican-style jalapeño pickles on the side. A big chopped salad, too. And for dessert, strawberry-coconut ice cream made into a cake. Here was a fine vegetarian picnic for staying at home, inside or out.
Recipe: Black Bean Burger With an Egg on Top
This is a meatless burger that does not mimic the texture or look of ground meat, but it isn’t meant to. It’s more like deluxe refried beans. Though you can serve this well-seasoned patty like a traditional burger, on a bun with the usual condiments, it is at its best topped with a fried egg. Dusted with fine cornmeal, the burgers are pan-fried as the mixture is too soft to grill. They may be seared in advance and reheated in the oven until crisp.
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 1 hour
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, or 4 cups cooked black beans, on the firm side
1 cup cooked brown rice, cooled
1 cup chopped cilantro, leaves and tender stems, plus sprigs for garnish
1 serrano chile, finely chopped
1 cup chopped scallions, both white and green parts
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder or pimentón picante
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground, or 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Pinch of ground cayenne
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water
Neutral oil, such as grapeseed or safflower, for frying
Fine cornmeal, for coating patties
1 sunny-side up egg per person (optional, but recommended)
Toasted buns, lettuce leaves and condiments (optional)
1. Put beans in a colander set over a bowl and drain well. (Reserve juices for another purpose or discard.) Pat the beans dry with paper towels, then mash them a bit with a wooden spoon or potato masher, but leave them chunky.
2. Transfer beans to a large bowl with the rice and toss together. Add chopped cilantro, serrano chile, scallions, chipotle powder, cumin and pinch of cayenne, to taste. Season generously with salt and mix well to incorporate.
3. Add the egg to the cornstarch solution and beat together, then drizzle it all over the bean mixture and mix well to distribute.
4. Form mixture into six thick patties of equal size. Each patty should weigh about 4 1/2 ounces. Place patties on a baking sheet and place in freezer for 10 minutes to firm. (For a firmer mixture, prepare a day in advance of cooking and refrigerate.)
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Add 1/2-inch oil to a heavy skillet over medium heat. Dust patties lightly on both sides with fine cornmeal. (It’s OK if they are slightly frozen.) When oil is shimmering, slip the patties into the pan; work in batches to avoid crowding, or use two pans. Fry the burgers gently, about 3 minutes per side until nicely browned, adjusting heat as necessary. Transfer burgers to a baking sheet and let them crisp further for about 20 minutes in the oven (or let them cool and reheat later).
6. Meanwhile, fry the eggs, if using. Put a sunny-side-up egg on top of each warm burger, and serve on buns or warm plates with lettuce and condiments, if using. Garnish with cilantro sprigs.
Recipe: Jalapeño Pickles
These medium-spicy pickles, versions of which can be found throughout Mexico and Central America, make a perfect garnish for burgers, tacos or sandwiches, or they may be served with drinks. They are often made only with jalapeños, plus a little onion and carrot. Jalapeños vary in heat: Some are very spicy, some not. If you wish to make the pickles spicier, add a few serrano chiles, split lengthwise.
Yield: About 2 quarts
Total time: 30 minutes
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
3 teaspoons kosher salt
2 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 allspice berries
1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
3 medium carrots, sliced at an angle, about 1/2-inch thick (about 2 cups)
6 large jalapeños, sliced crosswise, about 3/8-inch thick (about 3 cups)
1 small head garlic, broken into unpeeled pieces
1 large onion, cut in wedges or rings
1/2 medium cauliflower, cut into small florets (about 3 cups)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1. Put vinegar, 3 cups water and salt in a large nonreactive pot over medium-high heat. Add bay leaves, cloves, coriander, allspice and red-pepper flakes, and bring to a simmer.
2. Add carrots, jalapeño, garlic, onion and cauliflower, and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, leaving vegetables slightly firm. Turn off heat and add oregano. Let vegetables cool in cooking liquid to room temperature. They are ready to serve immediately, but gain flavor as they age. It’s better if you can wait at least a day or two. Store with juices in sanitized jars or plastic containers, and refrigerate for up to 1 month.
Recipe: Chopped Cucumber and Tomato Salad
Here’s an easy summer salad that’s always a winner. There are many similar chopped salads served throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, but this version with halved sweet cherry tomatoes is especially attractive. Your own take can be a variation on this one: Feel free to use large tomatoes, chop the vegetables as small or large as you like (roughly chopped has its charms), add other herbs like basil, mint or dill, or swap the feta for mozzarella.
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
1 cup diced red onion
2 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste with a little salt
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 roasted peppers, preferably orange or yellow, chopped
3 cups halved cherry tomatoes
3 cups chopped thin-skinned cucumber, such as Persian, skin on, in 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup chopped celery hearts, plus leaves
Kosher salt and black pepper
3 tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 ounces feta or queso fresco, crumbled (about 1 cup)
1. Put onion, garlic, vinegar and olive oil in a large mixing bowl. Let macerate for 10 minutes.
2. Add roasted peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and celery. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and toss well. Let macerate for at least 20 minutes, tossing several times with the dressing. You can also prepare the ingredients in advance, and assemble the salad up to 1 hour before serving.
3. To serve, toss once more and transfer to a deep platter or wide bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and feta.
Recipe: Strawberry-Coconut Ice Cream Cake
This is an impressive dessert to serve, showered with toasted coconut and adorned with berries. Use sweet, ripe summer berries from a farm stand for the best flavor — they should really smell like strawberries. Whipped cream, coconut milk and a touch of vodka help keep the mixture from forming ice crystals. It should ideally be served within 24 hours for the best texture.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Total time: 30 minutes, plus freezing
2 quarts/about 1 kilogram strawberries, preferably small, pretty ones
3/4 cup/150 grams sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for sauce
1 cup/240 milliliters coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon vodka
1 cup/240 milliliters heavy cream
1 cup/85 grams toasted coconut flakes, for garnish (see note)
Basil or mint leaves, for garnish
1. Briefly rinse berries with cold water, then lay them out on a clean tea towel. Hull berries, except for a dozen or so pretty ones. Set those aside for garnish.
2. Put 1 pound hulled berries in a blender or food processor. Reserve the rest for sauce and garnish. Add 3/4 cup sugar, coconut milk, salt and vodka. Blend until smooth. You should have about 4 cups.
3. In a chilled bowl, whip heavy cream until stiff. With a rubber spatula, gradually fold strawberry purée into whipped cream, 1/2 cup at a time, until well incorporated. It’s OK if a few swirls remain.
4. Pour into an 8-inch springform pan about 3 inches deep or into a similar-size Pyrex pie pan or ceramic dish. Freeze for 4 to 6 hours, until quite firm. (Test with a skewer or paring knife, going all the way to the bottom of the pan. It should come out clean.)
5. Make the strawberry sauce: Put remaining berries in a blender with 3 tablespoons sugar. Purée and transfer to a pitcher or serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
6. If using springform pan, unmold frozen cake and transfer to a cake plate. (Serve directly from glass or ceramic pan.) Sprinkle with toasted coconut flakes, and garnish with reserved berries dipped in a little of the sauce, and basil or mint leaves. Keep at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. To serve, cut into wedges and drizzle with strawberry sauce.
TIP: To make toasted coconut flakes, simmer 1/4 cup water with 4 teaspoons sugar to dissolve. Add 1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes and mix to coat. Spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake at 325 degrees until golden, about 10 to 15 minutes. Check frequently, and stir once or twice for even browning. Cool before using.
And to Drink ...
Vegetable-based burgers like this one tend to replace the tang of beef with a heavy dose of umami. For the combination of black beans and brown rice that gives this burger its heft, we can go in two directions. First would be a fresh, lively red, with plenty of acidity and few tannins, the kind of red that benefits from a slight chill. A lot of wines fit this description, beginning with the original vins de soif, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages. I would also be happy with the many thirst-quenching reds, made all over the world from myriad grapes, some of which are called natural wines. The other option would be a so-called orange wine, whites produced using the technique for making reds. These are generally amber in color, with a mild rasp of tannin and often go well with umami-rich dishes. — ERIC ASIMOV