Shiitake Happens

Ultimate Veggie Burgers

My Rouses Everyday, July/August 2017

Back in the days when I ate meat, I was, for several years, what one might call an extreme carnivore.

Here’s what I mean by “extreme”: adventurous, voracious, eyes open, fearless, unfastidious — without reservation, in the manner that chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain has popularized. (During the time I was eating this way, Bourdain was 12-ish. Just saying.) I not only acquired meat in the go-to-market manner of most Americans, I often helped slaughter the animals that provided that meat: I remember one calf, several lambs and a goat. I also ate, and learned to “dress out” and then cook, wild game: groundhog (fatty and delicious, pork-like — hence the name); deer, rabbit, squirrel and, on one occasion, a very scary snapping turtle (from which I made turtle soup).

I also ate organ meats: not just the socially acceptable liver, tongue and sweetbreads (thymus gland), but kidneys, lungs (called, euphemistically, “lights”), heart. And not just organs, but other parts that some consider less polite. I made broth from chicken feet (which look exactly like what they are). And pig “trotters” (also feet) went into many a pot of beans I once cooked. I did as I’ve heard both Brazilians and American Southerners say: I ate (in those days) every part of the pig but the squeal. And ain’t that, to quote the Fabulous Thunderbirds, “Tuff Enuff”?

Now, the discerning reader will have gathered by my use of the past tense that I no longer do this. In fact, I don’t eat meat at all anymore; I have been a vegetarian for decades now. I do not wish to bore you with the why and how come of this choice, nor do I wish to convert you; I often say I am a laissez-“fare” vegetarian. (I happen to believe that what we choose to put in our mouths is about as personal as who we sleep with; it is so our own business and no one else’s.) No. I wish only to offer you a recipe for what I consider the best homemade veggie burger out there.

Why, then, did I feel the need to tell you about my adventurous meat-eating days in an article about veggie burgers? Why, to establish cred, of course. No person who eschews meat can fail to realize that to many people, to be “vegetarian” is to be wussy and self-denying, living as one must (in this way of thinking) on food that is all about health and never pleasure. I know this isn’t true, and maybe you do too … but some do not. And it is those I would like to address: those who, on seeing this recipe here, think, What the heck are veggie burgers doing in a burger issue? What is this world coming to when a perfectly good all-American hamburger — thick, juicy, straight up, still sizzling audibly from grill or pan, charred on the outside, a little rare in the middle — doesn’t even have exclusive bragging rights but has to share the stage with some kind of a cobbled-together, wussy, hodgepodge patty of vegetables and who knows what?

Because, while I don’t eat meat anymore, I still eat and cook with enthusiasm and sensuality; I’m as adventurous and voracious as ever, as fearless as the day I faced down a snapping turtle.

In that spirit, then, I present my veggie burgers. I have made many variations over the years; these are the best. Relatively easy, savory-smoky, hearty and enjoyable, these are no imitation pseudo-hamburgers. No good veggie burger should be. It’s its own thing, existing in its own parallel universe. Here’s why.

A burger made of ground beef (or turkey, if you are watching fat content, or lamb, if you are going Mediterranean or Middle Eastern) is essentially made of ground meat and seasonings. You don’t add anything to hold it together; it does that on its own very nicely (especially when it hits the hot pan or grill, for heat toughens and shrinks protein — think of the way an egg moves from liquid to solid when cooked). And assuming the meat is good, you don’t want a lot of additional flavorings; the whole idea is that it should taste like itself (condiments notwithstanding). Most burger lovers don’t add much beyond salt, pepper and maybe a splash of Worcestershire to the ground beef.

A vegetarian burger is not and can never be quite this simple, for three reasons. First of all, there’s the structural problem. A non-meat burger does not inherently self-adhere. It needs something that will keep it from falling apart.

Secondly, it simply can’t be composed of one ingredient plus salt and pepper, but many in combination, artfully seasoned. Veggie burgers are not and cannot be one-trick ponies the way hamburgers are. No single vegetable is going to captivate the eater all by its lonesome. The closest thing to one-trickiness in vegetable land might be a whole marinated and grilled portabella mushroom and, indeed, some restaurants try to foist this off as a burger, but it is not; it’s a mushroom. And, while tasty, the flavor of a single mushroom — albeit a juicy and delicious one — is not going to satisfy the eater; it is not hearty enough, and lacks both protein and dimension. No, the art of the excellent veggie burger is that of amalgamation.

With varying degrees of success, then, recipes for veggie burgers always combine ingredients, for flavor, texture, protein and what I like to call “robustitude.” Vegetables, obviously. Often nuts of various kinds, and/or beans, or foods made from beans or fermented beans (tofu, tempeh, miso). For structure, a binder: grains, bread or cracker crumbs, flour or potatoes; in non-vegan versions, perhaps eggs and cheese. And then, of course, seasonings and aromatics.

Which brings us, thirdly, to flavor: What makes a veggie burger so definitively good is that, while there is no question of it being beef, there is also no question that it is so intriguingly, satisfyingly savory that you might well swoon, and close your eyes and … well, maybe you’ll just have to have a second one.

To arrive at this veggie burger perfection, I’ve found I like a smoky, grill-y element (even if I bake the burger), as well as a bit of spicy kick and just the teeniest smidgen of sweetness — not so much that you’d even register it. I also like amping up the savory umami notes, too.

But there’s a problem in the search for the platonic ideal of veggie burgers, and that is that, given all this, many recipes for same wind up with an intimidatingly long ingredient list, and an overwhelming number of steps. Bon Appétit’s recipe for “ultimate” v-burgers has 18 ingredients, while the New York Times’ offering has 17. Each asks that you roast two separate baking sheets of various ingredients, before combining and pulse-chopping them, before their final baking or grilling as burgers. I’m sorry, that just seems ridiculous to me. Does one’s commitment to a good veggie burger have to mean every freaking dish in your house is used and half the items in your pantry are pulled out?

As it turns out, no. Choose vegetarian refried beans, rather than plain old canned or cooked-from-scratch beans as a base, and from a single ingredient you have a nice, smooth, thick, hefty texture and some seasoning and aromatics. Ditto, when you use a little chipotle in adobo: a single ingredient that gives you smoky, spicy and sweet all at once. Using smoked tempeh “bacon” also adds smoky, sweet and umami for a similar complexity.

So I do feel a journeyman’s satisfaction in my recipe’s mere seven ingredients, which uses only a skillet and a food processor. But my real pride is in how good the burgers are. They are … Just. So. Good. Wicked good.

Now, if you plan to serve conventional burgers and vegetarians are coming to dinner too, of course it’s a kindness to offer these as an instead-of (vegetarians and vegans too often are left to pick around the vacancy created by the absence of a main course). But these would satisfy any eater on their own merits, whether as their own meal or side by side with “real” burgers.

See, I like to think the table is big enough for all of us. I like to think we’re big enough to live lots of lives and eat lots of things, including some that might at first glance seem to be contradictory. Take it from a vegetarian who knows how to remove the scent glands from a squirrel.