Bang-up baby burgers

Slider Philadelphia-style, with provolone, onions, bell peppers. The baby burgers make the perfect palette for sampling toppings just as colorful as fireworks. Now thats a Fourth of July cookout.
Slider Philadelphia-style, with provolone, onions, bell peppers. The baby burgers make the perfect palette for sampling toppings just as colorful as fireworks. Now thats a Fourth of July cookout. (Tony Fitts)

Bombs bursting in air! And little sliders bursting with meaty flavor and ooo-aah toppings!

Posted: July 02, 2009

If watching fireworks from a spot so close the boom reverberates in your chest is the ultimate Independence Day moment, a backyard cookout is the holiday's penultimate experience.

You're on your own in the fireworks department, but for a cookout menu that's both affordable and abundant, we suggest a burger-and-toppings bar.

Start with the patties, then steer guests toward a buffet table where they can create their own combos from an array of choices.

Think pesto, bruschetta, fruit salsa, jalapeno mayo, corn relish, olive tapenade, pickled cucumbers, spicy horseradish, coleslaw, grilled eggplant slices, along with some of the more familiar toppings: raw, grilled or caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, Boston Bibb or romaine lettuce, fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, dark, light or Dijon mustards.

No, you don't want all that on one burger. Nor do you want to eat four or five burgers. Let guests taste a wide array of toppings without busting their belts by serving sliders - those 3-ounce burgers restaurant chefs love to plate in groups of three.

They're cute, convenient, and perfect at a toppings bar. And you can go beyond beef and offer slider variations made of lamb, pork, turkey, crab - even veggies.

For more inspiration on toppings, we looked at two new burger-specific books from celebrity chefs: Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries & Shakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009) and Burger Bar by Hubert Keller (John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2009).

Keller, a French-born chef, says he'd eaten perhaps three burgers in his life before 2004 when he and two other French chefs opened Burger Bar, a build-your-own eatery in Las Vegas.

Flay, the chef, restaurateur, and Food Network star with nine books to his credit, says he personally prefers classic burgers topped with American cheese.

But both books suggest imaginative combinations on the cookout classic.

Our favorites from Flay include a turkey Cobb burger with avocado, bacon, blue cheese, lettuce, and tomato; a Philadelphia burger, with roasted bell peppers and grilled onions; and a Greek burger with yogurt, cucumber, kalamata olives, oregano, feta cheese, and tomatoes.

From Keller, we liked his crab cake sliders with fennel, and his "vegan burgers," a stack of veggies topped with pesto, with portobello mushrooms for buns.

Fast-food purists insist the term slider originated with White Castle, the chain of turreted hamburger stands that made tiny, flat, square burgers, each with five holes so they could be steamed on a grill without flipping.

Legend has it the "slider" moniker stems from the likelihood that the greasy burger would slide off the equally greasy bun.

So much for fast food.

Tiny burgers grew more sophisticated, and by 2007 sliders were on the menus of even fine restaurants. This time around, they were presented as a plate of three 3-ounce mini burgers, each with a different gourmet topping. They were absolutely adorable, more affordable, and delicious.

On the home front, foodies discovered that sliders fit perfectly in dinner rolls. Martin's party-size potato rolls quickly became the front-runner.

And now there's new evidence of the slider's growing popularity: Pepperidge Farm offers 12-packs of mini-rolls clearly labeled as "slider-size."

As for preparation, both burger chefs agree that leaner is not better for burgers.

Fat carries flavor and moisture, so start with chuck that's 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat. If you're not using beef, choose ground turkey that is 15 percent fat, or dark meat from poultry, shoulder cuts of lamb, and butt portions of pork.

Season the meat with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Shape patties that are 3/4-inch thick, using 3 ounces for sliders and 6 to 9 ounces for classic burgers.

In the interest of food safety, keep your hands clean, handle the meat as little as possible, and keep the patties refrigerated until it's time to cook. The commonly advised practice of letting meat sit at room temperature for 15 or more minutes before cooking does not apply to ground meat.

Also, don't serve or carry cooked meat on the same plate that held it when it was raw.

Flay's final precooking tip: Make a deep depression in the center of each burger with your thumb. This prevents the burger from puffing up and bulging in the center. A burger that's bulging on the grill tempts cooks toward the worst possible burger infraction: patty smashing.

Never do this - never press down on the burger with a spatula while it is cooking. That just diminishes the juiciness you're working so hard to attain.

You won't see the thumb depression on the finished burger because it disappears as the meat cooks and expands.

If you can't cook outside, remember that good burgers also come from stove-top griddles and cast-iron pans.

For medium-rare stove-top burgers, Keller heats a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large cast iron pan over medium heat until very hot. For sliders, cook about three minutes total, turning once or twice. (For full-size burgers, cook until brown on the first side, about one minute. Turn and brown on the second side, about three minutes. Turn the patties again and baste several times with the pan juices while cooking for another three minutes.)

On the grill: Build a medium-hot fire in the grill, brush the grate to clean it well and, once it's hot, oil it well. Place the burgers over direct heat. Cover the grill and cook for about 11/2 minutes on each side for sliders. (For full-size burgers, brown on the first side for about 11/2 minutes; give the burgers a quarter turn, re-cover the grill, and cook for another 1 1/2 minutes. Then turn the burgers over and repeat the process on the second side. About 7 minutes of cooking time should yield a medium-rare burger.)

Let burgers rest for a couple of minutes before cutting or biting into them. This allows the meat to continue to cook very gently while the juices seep throughout the meat.

Flay favors cheeseburgers above all others and says the cheese must melt properly and ooze down the side of the bun to create the proper juicy mess that defines a classic.

To attain that perfection, Flay uses a basting cover, an inexpensive aluminum dome that resembles the lid of a saute pan, except that it is domed to fit over the burger. A basting cover allows just enough clearance so the cheese doesn't touch and stick to it.

If you don't own such a dome (they're favorites with short-order cooks) improvise with a sturdy metal bowl, or close the grill cover, or tent each burger with a square of aluminum foil.


Philadelphia Slider Burgers

Makes 4 servings or 8 sliders

3 1/2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1 large Spanish onion, sliced into thin rings

1 1/2 pounds ground chuck (80 percent lean) or ground turkey (90 percent lean)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 slices aged provolone cheese, each 1/4 inch thick

8 mini slider buns, toasted if desired

2 jarred roasted red bell peppers, coarsely chopped

Pickled hot pepper rings

Fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of canola oil in a saute pan or griddle over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and lightly golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove onions to a plate.

2. Divide the meat into 8 equal portions. Form each portion loosely into a 3/4-inch-thick burger and make a depression in the center with your thumb. Season both sides of each burger with salt and pepper.

3. Cook the burgers, using the remaining 11/2 tablespoons of canola oil, about three minutes total, turning once or twice, and topping each one with 1 slice of cheese and a basting cover during the last minute of cooking.

4. Place the burgers on the bun bottoms and top with onions, roasted red peppers, hot peppers, and parsley, if using. Cover with the bun tops and serve immediately.

- From Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries & Shakes(Clarkson Potter, 2009) 

Per slider: 436 calories, 24 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 31 grams fat, 80 milligrams cholesterol, 409 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Turkey Cobb Burger

Makes 4 servings or 8 sliders

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 pounds ground turkey (90 percent lean)

1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil

2 ounces crumbled blue cheese, plus more for garnish (optional)

8 mini slider rolls, toasted if desired

1 1/4 cups finely shredded romaine lettuce

8 slices crisp cooked bacon

1 large ripe beefsteak tomato, cut into 8 slices

1 ripe Hass avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, and sliced

1. To make the dressing, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and then whisk in the olive oil.

2. Divide the meat into 8 equal portions. Form each portion loosely into a 3/4-inch-thick burger and make a depression in the center with your thumb. Season both sides of each burger with salt and pepper.

3. Cook the burgers using the canola oil for about three minutes total, turning once or twice, and topping each one with some of the cheese and a basting cover during the last minute of cooking.

4. Place the burgers on the bun bottoms. Toss the romaine with the dressing and arrange over the burgers. Top each with a slice of bacon, a slice of tomato, sliced avocado, and additional blue cheese, if desired. Cover each burger with the bun tops and serve immediately.

- Adapted from Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries & Shakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009)

Per slider: 390 calories, 23 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 27 grams fat, 81 milligrams cholesterol, 491 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Crab Cake Sliders

Makes 6 servings or 12 sliders

1/4 pound fresh sea scallops, chilled

1 large egg

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 pound fresh jumbo lump crabmeat, well drained and chilled

2 tablespoons finely diced red bell pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Several drops of hot sauce

1/3 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh fennel fronds or tarragon

2 tablespoons olive oil

12 soft mini burger buns

2 handfuls greens, such as watercress or baby arugula

2 small, ripe tomatoes

Marinated fennel salad (see note)

1. Put the scallops and egg in a blender or food processor and process until well blended. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and a pinch of pepper. Pulse and process until the mixture is very thick and tight, like a stiff mayonnaise. With the machine running, add the cream very slowly in a steady stream until it is incorporated. You should have a scallop mousse with the texture of a thick mayonnaise. Scrape the mousse into a large bowl.

2. Make sure the crab is well drained; squeeze it between your hands to rid it of any excess moisture. Fold it into the scallop mousse with the red pepper, cilantro, mustard, and 3 drops of hot sauce until evenly mixed. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and more hot sauce, if desired. Refrigerate for 1 hour to let the mixture firm up a bit.

3. Using damp hands and handling the mixture lightly, shape the crab mixture into small burgers to fit the buns (there should be enough to make 12 1 1/2-inch burgers). Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before cooking.

4. In a small bowl, mix the mayonnaise with a few drops of hot sauce to taste and the fennel fronds. Cover and set aside until needed.

5. When ready to cook, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Generously season the burgers on both sides with salt and pepper. Cook until golden brown on both sides and cooked through, about 3 minutes total. Be careful not to overcook or the burgers will be dry. Add more oil if the burgers begin to stick to the pan.

6. While the burgers cook, toast the buns, then lightly spread the flavored mayonnaise onto the bun tops and bottoms.

7. To build the burgers, layer the greens, burgers, tomatoes, and a topknot of fennel salad (see note) on the bun bottoms. Cover with the bun tops and skewer together, if desired. Serve immediately, with any remaining fennel salad on the side.

- From Burger Bar by Hubert Keller with Penelope Wisner (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) 

Note: To make fennel salad, trim the stalks of one fennel bulb, then cut it in half lengthwise. Using a mandoline, cut the halves crosswise into very thin slices. Put them in a medium nonreactive bowl, and add one tablespoon of very finely chopped fennel fronds, 4 or 5 large red radishes, cut into julienne, 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, and 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Toss well. Season with salt and pepper and toss again. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 1 day before serving.

Per slider: 273 calories, 12 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 66 milligrams cholesterol, 315 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Las Vegas Vegan Burgers

Makes 4 servings or 8 sliders

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon very finely chopped garlic

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 large portobello mushrooms (or 8 smaller mushrooms for sliders)

1 pound fat zucchini, preferably both yellow and green, cut into 1/4-inch- thick rounds

1 pound plum tomatoes, thickly sliced

2 large red bell peppers, cut into 1 1/2-inch-wide strips

1 large (about 1 pound) purple eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

4 large handfuls arugula

About 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

About 1/3 cup cilantro- arugula pesto (See note)

1. Build a medium-hot fire in a barbecue. In a medium bowl, whisk together the 1 cup of olive oil, thyme, rosemary, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.

2. Scrape the gills from the portobellos (or other mushrooms) and arrange them on a rimmed baking sheet. Add the zucchini, tomatoes and bell peppers to the baking sheet. Brush all the vegetables with the herbed oil. If you are grilling the fresh eggplant, brush it, too, with the herbed olive oil.

3. Brush the grill rack with the olive oil, transfer the vegetables to the grill, and cook, turning as needed and being careful not to let the olive oil flame up, until tender. The zucchini and tomatoes will be done first, needing just 2 to 3 minutes per side. The peppers will be done next. If you have been careful to just brown them, they will not need to be peeled. The mushrooms and fresh eggplant will need about 5 minutes per side.

4. In a medium bowl, toss the arugula with some of the remaining herbed olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

5. To build the burgers, generously spread the gill side of 4 (or 8 smaller) mushrooms with pesto. Top with yellow zucchini, several tomato slices, green zucchini, eggplant slices, and several strips of bell pepper. Drizzle another small spoonful of pesto over all and close with another mushroom. Arrange some of the arugula salad on the side and serve immediately. 

- From Burger Bar by Hubert Keller with Penelope Wisner (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) 

Note: To make cilantro-arugula pesto, put 12 roasted, salted macadamia nuts and 1 or 2 garlic cloves in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. Add 1 bunch of well-trimmed cilantro, 2 cups packed arugula, and 1/3 teaspoon lime zest and process until you have a coarse puree. With the machine running, add 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in a thin stream and process until smooth. Pulse in 1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the pesto to a container, cover, and refrigerate until needed, or for up to 2 days.

Per slider: 303 calories, 4 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, trace cholesterol, 71 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Red, White and Blue Dessert Shots

Makes 8 servings

1/2 pint fresh raspberries

1. Combine the raspberries, sugar, and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 4 minutes.

2. Pour the cooked raspberries, jam, and lemon juice into the bowl of a food processor and process until completely smooth. Chill. (Sauce will thicken as it chills.)

3. Whip the heavy cream to hold stiff peaks.

4. Fill bottom 1/3 of shot glasses with raspberry sauce.

Fill piping bag with whipped cream and pipe onto raspberry layer, or spoon in carefully. Top with blueberries.

- From Kathy Gold 

Per serving: 442 calories, 2 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 103 milligrams cholesterol, 42 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://www.philly.com/inquirer/columnists/dianna_marder/.

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