Just about every American I know loves biting into a big, juicy burger. I never thought twice about hamburgers being as American as apple pie, but since I started cooking meals from around the world I’ve found amazing variations of this fine summertime treat on every continent. In Australia, folks love to top their burgers with pickled beets and fried eggs. As strange as that may sound, the effect of a pickled beet is as refreshing as a crunchy pickle – and the taste isn’t too far off, either. As for the fried egg? Delicious, especially when cooked over easy.
If you fly over to Eastern Europe, you’ll find pljeskavica, the grilled meat patty found all over the Balkans. Pljeskavica refers to the sound of two hands clapping, which is what you hear when the patties are formed by experienced cooks. Every country in the region has its own special way to make pljeskavica, but one thing is for certain: Each Balkan burger is made from at least three cuts of meat from three different animals, but easily can contain up to six cuts. Most Balkan burgers contain beef, lamb and pork, although veal is typically substituted for pork in Muslim families. The result is an astounding depth of flavor that tastes straight from the mountains. This is hearty, feed-your-soul food.
Balkan burgers are the original “super-sized” burger. Not only are the patties large enough to cover a small plate, they are best managed with a knife and fork. There’s been a trend in recent years, however, to load pita bread with a Balkan burger, raw onion, tomato and a roasted red pepper spread called ajvar (which is also made on the grill). The resulting burger is at once indulgent and healthy.
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The key to a wonderful Balkan burger is using an assortment of meats. Go to the best local meat market around and they’ll likely grind up some meat especially for you. I find the best flavor comes from using pork sausage instead of plain ground pork, although both work well.
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork sausage
1 lb. ground lamb
1/2 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 1/2 tsp. paprika
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1/4 c. carbonated water
Sliced tomatoes, onion, pita bread and roasted red pepper spread, for serving.
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour, preferably overnight. Form into patties and grill over medium high 3-4 minutes per side, or to taste. Eat with a knife and fork, or enjoy inside pita bread. Either way, be sure to serve it with ajvar for garden fresh flavor.
The fresh, roasted flavor of peppers and eggplant makes ajvar a tantalizing alternative to ketchup on Balkan burgers. At once grown up and festive, the wonderful sauce is also grand as a dip and on pasta.
6 red bell peppers
1 small eggplant
2-4 cloves garlic, to taste
1/4 c. olive oil
Preheat the grill to medium. Poke holes in the eggplant to get it ready for grilling. Grill the peppers and eggplant, rotating every 10 minutes or so, until the skin is blistering and blackened. The peppers should take about 20 minutes; the eggplant, about 30.
Set the cooked peppers aside in a covered bowl until cool enough to handle. They will steam themselves, which helps separate the skin from the flesh. Meanwhile, when the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise and use a spoon to scrape eggplant flesh into a food processor (leave out the skin and most of the seeds). Puree with garlic in food processor until smooth, about 30 seconds to a minute. Next, peel the peppers and remove seeds and any liquids. Combine with the pureed eggplant in the food processor. Stir in olive oil, salt and pepper.
Pulse the peppers until it forms a coarse mixture, somewhere between ketchup and chunky tomato sauce. Serve warm, room temperature or chilled. Makes eight standard burgers.