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 bread crumbs 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.
This is a vegetarian 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.
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.
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.
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.
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