Monday, May 16, 2011

Perfect Veggie Burgers

I love veggie burgers. I love real hamburgers too--especially nice beefy ones with mushrooms and onions all over the barbecue sauce that's all over the blue cheese that's melting all over them--but I have a special place in my heart for a good veggie burger, which I approach not as a wan and debased substitute, but as its own special, wonderful self. In fact, when I worked at the famous Saturn Restaurant in Santa Cruz, that's what I picked for my staff meal every day: a veggie burger with pickles, mustard, and a side of potato chips which I would then cram into the bun. Every day, and it was always good. Granted, I was a vegetarian then. And it was a vegetarian restaurant. Not that that always sank in with the customers. "What about the Saturn Burger?" some would ask. "Is that meat?" "Nope, sorry," I'd say. "It's all vegetarian. There's no meat on the menu." "I'll have the chili then. That's got to be meat, right?" This is the same restaurant where people used to ask me tricky questions like how the peanut butter tofu pie was. "How does it sound to you?" I used to ask, coyly. "That's probably about how it's going to be." This is also the same restaurant where you could drink the house beer during your shift, as long as you didn't feel like it was impairing your performance. We tended not to feel like it was impairing our performance.

This particular veggie burger recipe is special to me because this was the first meal I made Anni when she moved in (back before we converted her to our carnivorous ways, bwa ha ha ha) and then it was the last meal I made her when she was moving out. "Oh no!" she said, when she came into the kitchen that last evening and saw me frying them. And then we burst into tears. You would not typically cry over them, but they are really delicious: rich and almost greasy, in a good way, from the walnuts, but then tender from the beans, nicely grainy from the bulgur, and really well seasoned with an extra umami kick from the soy. The green herb feels totally crucial to me, but if there's a cilantro-hater in your midst, I don't see why you couldn't use parsley. And the sauce--the sauce is key. Creamy, limey, just a little spicy, and making completely redundant the need for cheese. We made these for a large crowd of folks who were not of the meat-eating persuasion, and the burgers were devoured by grown-ups and kids alike, which was utterly satisfying.

Perfect Veggie Burgers
Serves 6
Active time: 45 minutes; total time: 1 hour

This is a recipe from the late Gourmet magazine, with a few tweaks, the most significant of which is that I make the burgers a good deal smaller. Too thick, and you'll eat half of it and feel like you've had enough; these are thin enough to maximize the nice, crispy outside. Just right. I still think you might want to try making the buns yourself--but you don't have to.

1/2 cup chopped onion, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil plus more for frying
Kosher salt
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 cup bulgur
1 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup canned pinto beans, rinsed and drained
3/4 cup walnuts
1/2 cup packed cilantro leaves and stems, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Juice and zest of half of a large, juice lime
1/2 teaspoon chipotle puree (I write about this here, but you should know that Smoked Tabasco is a perfectly acceptable and readily available substitute--and yes, you could use smoked paprika in a pinch.)
Accompaniments: toast or buns, lettuce, sliced tomato, red onion, jalapenos, pickles

Cook the onion with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt) in the oil in a smallish pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, around 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for a minute, then add the spices and stir for a few seconds, just until fragrant. Add the bulgur and water and cook, covered, over low heat until water is absorbed, 15 to 18 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce.

Pulse the bulgur mixture, pintos, walnuts, cilantro, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much etc.), and a few grindings of black pepper in a food processor until finely chopped. I have done this more or less fine, and my favorite is for it to be a mix of puree and larger pieces, which I then stir together in a bowl; my ancient Cuisinart does this automatically, by mistake, but you could probably get the same effect by pulsing on and off, then scooping out half the mixture into a bowl, pureeing the rest, and then combining the two. Then you've got the puree to hold it altogether, plus some nice texture from the less ground-up nuts and beans. It sounds complicated but isn't, I swear.

Form the mixture mixture into 6 patties, using, if you like, a 1/3-cup measure. Chill them for at least 10 minutes and up to a couple of hours. While patties chill, whisk together together the mayonnaise, lime juice and zest, chipotle, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. (We made extra sauce and served it as a dip for asparagus, and it was heavenly.)

Now cook the burgers. You can, apparently, do this on a grill, by spraying or brushing them all over with vegetable oil and then grilling them on a grill sheet (?) for 8 minutes. I have never done that, though. I heat up a nonstick frying pan over medium heat, add a big glug of oil, and fry them until very brown and crisp on the outside, turning them over carefully when the first side is done. I takes maybe ten minutes altogether, and they brown up beautifully. Serve them on buns with the sauce and lots of accompaniments.
Yes, there are many ingredients, but I tend to have most of them already. Plus, they are very inexpensive to make, even considering the issue of the nuts.

Thanks to ChopChop magazine, Ben has totally upped his game in the kitchen. Now he can chopchop an onion.

And fryfry it.

Bulgur. When you first add it, it looks like this.

But then it fluffs up all nice.

Ready to whirl. The beans are so weird and foamy after you rinse them, like they're already daydreaming about the gas they're going to make you pass.

I leave a little texture. I can see, objectively, that this looks gross, but I love these so much that even this picture looks good to me.

You will need to wash and dry your hands in the middle of making these. I should mention that I'm making a double batch in these photographs, hence the vast quantities. 

Let them get nice and brown.

We kind of assembly-lined them, on account of there being a lot.

Meanwhile, The Ben made The Sauce. All by his ownself. I know. Can you see the cool necktie shirt I made him? I copied it from one we saw at a craft fair.

Good kids, eating their veggie burgers. My friend Corn took this picture. Thanks, Corn!

And a proud Ben. Not to hammer the point home too concussively, about kids in the kitchen, but he said, as he was eating, "I like these all the more because of the millions of fried onions I put into them." Exactly: that's cooking for you, right? You unlock all the secrets of deliciousness.


  1. Thanks for the Saturn Cafe stories - I can count on you for a laugh on Mondays.  Thanks also for the recipe, which is great because I can get all the ingredients here (except chipolte puree, but maybe that smoked paprika I had a friend ship me could somehow be used?!).

  2. Mmmmm . . . these look yummy. And I totally agree with the idea that you have to approach a veggie burger as its own delicious entity, and not as an attempt to replace meat.

  3. I love Ben's shirt!! Before I read the caption, I was like, "there's Ben in his pink shirt... and wait... is that a tie? How cool is that? I bet Ryan (who is my son. I didn't actually think this part, I just put it in for your clarification) would love to wear a tie with his polo shirt." Then I read the caption and saw that you made it for him, and that it was indeed a tie. I'll have you know that I was overly proud of myself for my observation. And, good work on the shirt. I will try these burgers just as soon as I find some chipotle paste, they sound heavenly.

  4. Thanks, guys! And Judy and J--I just added a note about the chipotle and possible substitutions. J, I bet Ryan, who is your son *would* love to wear a tie with his polo shirt! xo

  5. Could you freeze these? Because I'm the lone vegetarian in the house and six would be just too much for me to down at one sitting. But if I could make them and freeze them...have you tried that?

  6. Saturn Cafe ... mmmm, chocolate madness!! And love the Ben shirt. On my to-do is making a tie on a t-shirt for Jack, who is my son. ;) He's a purely t-shirt kind of guy.

  7. I look forward to trying this recipe out on my newest little vegetarian. Of course, her conversion happened the day after she BEGGED me to buy her Trader Joe's frozen chicken tiki masala, so I'm not *entirely* sure it is going to stick...

  8. So, Ryan, who is my son, loves the shirt idea!! Is it weird that that I cant stop laughing?

  9. Teafortwo8:38 PM

    @Nicole, my guess is that they freeze very well. They look a lot like the Edamame Falafel that I make, bake and keep in the freezer. I'm having the Cub Scout Den over tomorrow for real hamburgers, but I'll be adding this recipe to my repertoire.

  10. So anyway, I haven't been over to your blog in a while . . . but I was thinking about you the other day (were your ears burning) and wondering why in the world you didn't amp up your own blog and make millions off it, like some "Mommy Bloggers". You've got all the right ingredients! (ha) I've followed you since days at parentcenter (more than 7 yrs now) and LOVE your writing, insights, recipes. You name it.

  11. Ohh, I am just laughing at the thought of those foamy little beans daydreaming of all the gas they will cause!! THIS is why we love you so very much!! The veggie burgers sound wonderful... Thank you!!

  12. Yay! A recipe to make with my brand new food processor! The one I got 8 years ago at a yard sale for $5 has been replaced and I need to use it so I won't feel guilty about buying it! I'll freeze these for my lunches if the kids won't eat them (silly kids). Thanks!

  13. Angela3:43 AM

    Catherine, is the tie _sewn on_ to the shirt?? It looks great either way, like the burgers! J, I bet Ryan, who is your son, would look great in a shirt-with-tie too! :)

  14. Oh, hooray!!!!!! A divine veggie burger! I'm always so happy when I find a delicious veggie burger at a restaurant, and then I'm quizzing the server about the ingredients. I can't wait to make these. (though the chances of getting my own son to try them are slim. sigh.)

  15. Deirdre10:21 AM

    Please let me know where you got that GREAT bookcase in the "kids devouring their delightful burgers" picture? Thanks and big hug.

  16. Nicole, I bet these would freeze really well--there's nothing in them that wouldn't. But please let me know. Angela, yes, the tie is tied loosely around the collar, and then sewn down in this kind of deliberately, jauntily haphazard way. And Deirdre: it's an IKEA Expedit, 5 X 5. . . I love, love, love it. We actually just bought another one off of craigslist. xo

  17. I too want to know more about the tie shirt! I sewed tie appliques on t-shirts for my toddler nephews last year, and they came out pretty cute. But Ben's shirt looks like it has an actual tie. Please elaborate!

    The veggie burgers look divine. I will try freezing them because this is the type of recipe I love to just grab out of the freezer in the morning and know that dinner is already mostly done.

  18. Mmm... So these will hold their own when you bite into them? The ingredients sound wonderful and a nice change from the "standard" veggie burger (rice, black bean, etc.) Thanks for sharing! :)

  19. Yay! I was just thinking about how I wished I had a good veggie burger recipe. Really! I *was* just thinking that. And what could be better than a recipe of yours!?! Seriously, nothing. I'm all excited to make these now.

  20. Those look delish! And I agree--a veggie burger shouldn't try to be a meat substitute--just yummy in it's own right!

  21. You know, I have never really even wanted to TRY a veggie burger, but now I have this incredible desire to make them... this evening... that's what you to do your readers, Miss Catherine, you make us want to do better, eat better, live better! I will let you know what the family consensus is!
    I just love word verification... need to start our own "NEWMAN" dictionary here, my word is noftesk... a think perhaps a small reading area or corner would be my definition. :)

  22. Allyson6:52 PM

    Oh my God, these look so good! And just the thing to keep in the freezer for my daughter, the occasional vegetarian. I am an unapologetic carnivore, but I do love a good veggie burger. And I totally agree that a veggie burger should be its own yummy self and not try to imitate meat. (I loathe fake meat.) Can't wait to try this. Also, your Saturn stories? Totally remind me of Monty Python's Spam sketch. Just one more reason to love you and your writing.

  23. Those were the best veggie burgers I've had in quite some time. Despite your pre-emptively deprecating the buns, they were absolutely perfect with the burgers. Just like the evening.

  24. plazamom8:49 AM

    Oh my goodness -- "like they're already daydreaming about the gas they're going to make you pass." I will never look at a newly rinsed bean the same way again! Hilarious. And perfectly apt!

  25. Anonymous9:33 AM

    Okay, I don't know which I love MORE, the length of his loooong hair!!, or that he still looooves wearing pink! He feels so familiar to me, having read your posts, and seen him in photos, for a gazillion, I mean 8 years now. Wow. Big huge young man, using that big huge knife?! Oh, Catherine, I'm like you, I love it, and hate it, the growing and changing and leaving and crying about all the growing and changing and leaving.... The beer comment cracked me up. Hugs. (from 2kidslife)

  26. I was so eager to try this that I made them last night. My 9-yr-old daughter proclaimed them a little too spicy so I'll back off the cayenne a bit next time, but other than that they were a huge hit! (And I used parsley, but only because the cilantro didn't look good -- it was a fantastic substitution.)

  27. Anonymous6:47 PM

    Another delicious recipe! I made them tonight and they were fantastic - particularly the sauce. Mine got all crumbly in the pan and fell apart, though - what did I do wrong?

  28. This has nothing to do with veggie burgers, but I just had to tell you that I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon last weekend feeding Frankie smushed up beans off my finger. I can feel that you are green with envy. Anni is my new best bud.
    xoxo Joanna

  29. hmmm. . . crumbly in the pan you say? I don't know. It sounds like they may have been too dry, but I'm not sure why! not very helpful. I'm sorry. And joanna, you are a bad woman to make me so jealous! : )

  30. Sara DM11:40 PM

    Oh, the Saturn Cafe! I lived in the South Bay in my early/mid-twenties, and I would go to the Saturn and order a slice of mud pie and the Fine Burger (spinach, feta, red onions, and mayo on a veggie patty, on ciabatta), in that order. Ahh...

    Thanks for the recipe. Can't wait to try it!

  31. OMC!! (That's "Oh My Catherine!!" a frequent outburst in my kitchen...) Sooo delicious! Yes, crumbly edges in the pan and they where hard to transfer to the buns without breaking in two or three pieces but so good!! I ate them raw, I ate them hot, I ate them cold, I ate them plain and on a bun (on a train and in a box...). I think they'd be great in a pita with the lime sauce a la falafel with tahini. Unfortunately my husband and brother-in-law also loved them so they are gone, gone, gone. Next time, double batch.

  32. Catherine, I LOVE your writing so much- and have forever- that a few years ago I developed this weird habit- I pretend that you haven't written anything for about a month, and then I look at your blog and-AHA!- there are so many entries for me to read! Because just one essay is like just one chip- not enough. I have wanted to post a comment before, but the kids need me, I have to go to I am posting and even though it is to gush, really it is because the photo of Ben cutting makes me scared- I taught culinary arts for so long, worked in kitchens forever, and saw too many fingertips cut- PLEASE make that precious boy tuck his lovely and talentled fingers under, so it almost looks like he is holding the onion with his knuckles. Safer, and really much easier, too!

  33. i know this is forever since you posted this recipe, but i've been hunting the chipotle and finally YES! i found it. and i love these veggie burgers so so much! thank you thank you. perfect with the chipotle sauce...!

  34. Whether you're vegetarian or not, the experience of eating it will be a pretty unique one. And the kids won't notice the difference when it's prepared right. Also, as an alternative to pinto beans, you could try using minced mushroom, since it soaks up flavor.

  35. I know this is an old post but we just tried this recipe - Jan 2014 - and loved it. My children loved this - my son said "Can we have this for lunch tomorrow?". My husband and I loved it with more of the spicy mayo and some hot salsa. We had wholemeal wraps. This will become a regular meal at our house. Thank you for the recipe.