Spicy Burgers on the Grill

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by Gwyneth Doland

For over 100 years now, Americans have been obsessed with hamburgers. When the hamburger hit the scene in the beginning of the 20th century, the country was ready for a great-tasting portable sandwich. The emergence of the automobile and the progress of the nation’s highways allowed fast-food chains to spread across the country. A mere 30 years after the hamburger’s introduction, there were 100 White Castle restaurants in America. In 1964, there were nearly 700 McDonald’s serving burgers. Today, we eat about 15 billion hamburgers per year.

Of course, most of those 15 billion are fried on a fast food restaurant griddle and eaten in the car on the way to somewhere. But these hustle and bustle burgers simply can’t compare with the flavor and pleasure of a burger grilled in your own back yard. There is something magical that happens when meat meets fire, something we try but almost always fail to match when we order burgers at a drive-through window. Hopefully, these sizzling grilled burgers will help you get back in touch with your primal burger urge.

Burger Grilling Tips

Grease the grill! Before you put any patties down on that grill rack, make sure you’ve scraped all of the crusty bits off with a wire brush. Then, wipe the grate down with a cloth dabbed with oil, first to clean it and then to prepare it for cooking.

Make it hot. Burgers are best cooked over high heat, so whether you’re using gas or charcoal, put the patties on when the fire is nice and hot.
How hot is hot? Use the hand test. You should be able to hold your hand a few inches over the grate. If the fire is hot enough you’ll only be able to hold your hand there for one second, maybe two. On a charcoal grill, the flames will have subsided, but the coals will be glowing brightly with a minimum of ash built up.

Give yourself some room. Leave one area of the grill with just a few coals so that you can move food there if it starts to burn. On a gas grill, you can use an upper rack as an emergency landing pad.

Rotate. Lay all the burgers out and let them cook for a couple of minutes on one side, then turn. Give them a couple minutes on the other side, then turn again and cook for about five more minutes. If they start to get a little too well-done on the outside, move them to a cooler part of the grill.

Think Outside the Bun

There is no law that says you have to use those squishy-soft hamburger buns from the grocery store. These recipes call for taco shells, soft tortillas and Mexican bolillos, but you can also put burgers on English muffins, big dinner rolls, buttermilk biscuits or slices of multigrain bread.

Lettuce, tomato and onion are standard burger toppings because they do a great job of setting off a hot burger with cool, crisp toppings. But also try some fiery hot pickles, thinly sliced apple or jicama for extra crunch.

Do not fear mayonnaise. Although some people think it sounds strange, mayonnaise works miracles for burgers, transforming a slightly-too dry burger and an over-toasted bun into pure heaven.

All of these tips apply equally to veggie burgers, grilled chicken breasts, portobello mushrooms and anything else you intend to grill like a burger.

Buffalo Burgers with Pepita Pesto

This recipe is from my new cookbook, Cilantro Secrets, published in June, 2006 by Rio Nuevo. For this version, I’ve added some jalapeno for an extra kick. Buffalo meat is very lean, and it benefits from the rich flavor of this pumpkin seed (pepita) pesto. You can use any leftover pesto on black beans or nachos, or tossed with pasta. And yes, you can use store-bought pesto if you must.

1 1/2 pounds ground buffalo meat
1/4 cup Pepita Pesto (recipe follows)
4 hearty rolls, split
3 tablespoons olive oil
Lettuce leaves
Tomato slices
Avocado slices
Thinly-sliced onion
Preheat a charcoal or gas grill.

In a large bowl, combine the meat and pesto and gently form the mixture into 4 patties.

Grill the burgers over high heat until they reach the desired level of doneness.

Brush the rolls with the olive oil and toast them on the grill until golden.

Serve the burgers garnished with lettuce, tomato, avocado and onion.

Yield: 4 burgers

Heat Scale: Medium

Pepita Pesto

Feel free to add more jalapenos or use a different type of chile if you like.

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (without shells)
2 cups coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
2 jalapeno chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, toast the pumpkin seeds until most of them are puffed. Remove them from the heat and allow them to cool.

In a blender or food processor, process the cilantro, jalapenos, garlic, toasted pumpkin seeds, and Parmesan. Add the olive oil in a thin stream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Yield: About 2 cups

Heat Scale: Medium

Taco Burgers with Chile con Queso

In Albuquerque, N.M. there is a small chain of locally-owned fast-food restaurants called Bob’s Burgers. Although Bob’s is best known for the Ranchero Burger, which comes on a soft bun, smothered in super hot chile, the taco burger’s queso topping is absolutely irresistible. This version will get you close, but not quite all the way to the real thing – and also probably halfway to a heart attack.

1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 pre-made taco shells
1 cup chile con queso (recipe follows)
1 cup shredded lettuce
1 tomato, diced

Preheat a charcoal or gas grill.

In a large bowl, combine the ground beef with salt and pepper and gently form the mixture into 4 wide, flat patties. Do not squash the patties!

Grill the burgers over high heat until they reach the desired level of doneness. On a cooler part of the grill, heat the taco shells in a small flame-proof baking pan.

As soon as the burgers are cooked, slice them in half and put them in the taco shells. Top with warm chile con queso, followed by diced tomato and shredded lettuce. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 burgers

Heat Scale: Mild

Chile con Queso

This recipe will make more queso than you need for the burgers. Oh no! Leftover queso! What could you possibly do with it?

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, finely diced
3 New Mexican green chiles, roasted, stemmed, seeded and chopped
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 pound Velveeta, cubed.

In a medium sauce pan, fry the garlic, onion, chiles and tomatoes together over medium heat until the onion is softened.

Add the Velveeta and continue cooking, stirring often, until it is completely melted. Hold the chile con queso warm over low heat until you’re ready to serve.

Yield: About 4 cups

Heat Scale: Medium

Turkey Mole Burgers

Store-bought mole delivers a quick dose of flavor to turkey, which can be dry and bland. Look for jars of mole in the Mexican foods section of your supermarket. Popular brands include Dona Maria, Rogelio Bueno and El Mexicano. I like to wrap these burgers up in warm, fluffy freshly made flour tortillas, but you can certainly use buns if that’s what you have on hand.

2 tablespoons store-bought mole paste
1/3 cup warm water
1 1/2 pounds ground turkey
Red chile powder (optional)
4 flour tortillas
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Iceberg lettuce leaves
Tomato slices

Preheat a charcoal or gas grill.

In a small bowl, whisk together the mole paste and warm water until it is the consistency of a thick sauce.

In a large bowl, combine the turkey and mole sauce. If you like your mole hot, add some of your favorite kind of red chile powder. Gently form into 4 patties.

Grill the burgers over high heat until they reach the desired level of doneness. Remove the burgers and warm the tortillas briefly on the grill.

Spread about 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise on the center of each tortilla. Top with iceberg lettuce, tomato slices and a hot burger. Fold the tortilla up around the burger and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 burgers

Heat Scale: Mild

Chipotle Elk Burgers

Now you’ll know what to do when one of your outdoorsy friends drops off a package of ground elk or venison. Make burgers! Of course you can also substitute ground beef for this recipe.

1 1/2 pounds ground elk
1/4 cup ketchup
2 chipotles plus 2 tablespoons sauce from a can of chipotles in adobo
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 Mexican bolillos or (1 large baguette divided into 4 pieces), split open
1/4 cup melted butter
Shredded lettuce
Tomato slices
Thinly sliced rings of onion
Thinly sliced jalapeno

Preheat a charcoal or gas grill.

In a large bowl, combine ground elk, ketchup, chipotles and salt, forming 4 large patties.

Grill the burgers over high heat until they reach the desired level of doneness. Remove the burgers from the grill.

Brush the insides of the bolillos or sections of baguette and toast them briefly on the grill.

Fill the bolillos with lettuce, tomato, onion and jalapeno and nestle one elk patty in each. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 burgers

Heat Scale: Medium

Guacamole Salmon Burgers with Cilantro Mayo

Instead of topping salmon filets with guacamole (which would also be good, albeit messier) here I’ve put all the ingredients for a great guacamole right in with the salmon.

1 (16-ounce) can salmon
1 egg, beaten
1 large, ripe avocado, pitted, peeled, and roughly chopped
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and finely chopped
Juice of 1/2 lime, or to taste
Salt to taste
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
4 Kaiser rolls

Preheat the grill to high and make sure the grill grate is very clean. Before cooking, brush the grate with a little vegetable oil.

In a large bowl, flake the salmon apart with a fork. Add the beaten egg and toss with the fork to combine. Add avocado, onion, garlic, jalapeno and lime and toss to combine. Add lime juice and salt to taste. Form into 4 patties.

In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise and cilantro leaves.

Cook the patties about five minutes on each side, or until the desired level of doneness. Remove the burgers from the grill and toast the Kaiser rolls until pale golden.

Spread the cilantro mayo over the rolls, insert the salmon burgers and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 burgers

Heat Scale: Medium

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