This is the prime season of the year for throwing burgers on the barbecue, and there’s nothing I like better. Except maybe these exotic burgers with sour cream sauce.
You don’t have to fire up a barbecue to cook them, so they’re an all-year recipe. You certainly can grill them, but they’re even a little more flavorful if you fry them (not that there has ever been a law against putting a frying pan on a grill). They’re irresistible on a bun or toast, but they would also be at home at a candle-lit dinner with flowers and the good napkins, accompanied by a mixed green salad.
I first encountered them in a French cookbook, where they were being called bitoque. This is simply the Russian word bitok (the dish is a souvenir of the 19th-century mutual influence of French and Russian cuisine), which you more often see in Russian as the plural bitki. Like the Persian word for ground meat, kofteh, the Russian comes from a verb meaning “to pound.”
Panko is perfect for these burgers
The idea was basically ground beef patties mixed with some bread crumbs. I know, a lot of people think bread crumbs are a shameful cheapo extender in hamburgers, but they do give ground meat a smoother texture. The Franco-Russian recipe soaks the bread crumbs in milk, because of the taste for mild, rich flavors the two cuisines share.
Moi, I’m not so much into mild and rich. I figured if these breadcrumbs were going to be moistened, it should be with something that would add distinct flavor. Fresh onion juice came to mind. Persian cooks do wonderful things with it, such as marinating shish kebab with onion juice and saffron. After all, the juice is the best and most fragrant part of the onion; the solids offer only a coarse and undistinguished vegetal flavor. I tried it, and the bread crumbs carried the onion flavor suavely into the burgers, which was elegant indeed.
Now for the final step. The Franco-Russian recipe makes a pan gravy from that ultra-Russian ingredient sour cream, and then, at least in the French version, it makes it more haute-cuisine-y by diluting the cream with a bit of stock.
Stock? Huh. Try Dijon mustard. Sour cream and Dijon are flavors made for each other, and this sauce is so good I can hardly stand it.
If you’re grilling the burgers, there’s no deglazing step — you just mix the mustard and sour cream. This recipe can also be adapted as a party appetizer, the kind of thing people spear with a toothpick while they’re milling around. In that case, form the meat into 25 or 30 meatballs, and when the sour cream gravy is ready, serve them in it.
1 small onion
½ cup coarse bread crumbs such as panko
2 pounds ground beef, preferably 90% lean
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
⅓ cup flour for dredging
3 tablespoons butter or oil
½ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Optional: a few sprigs of fresh dill or cilantro
1. Process the onion in a food processor to a smooth consistency. Strain the onion solids from the juice in a strainer and discard them. You should have at least ½ cup onion juice. Mix the onion juice with the bread crumbs and allow them to sit for 2 minutes. Lightly squeeze out the excess juice.
2. Mix the bread crumb and onion juice mixture with the beef, salt and pepper and knead to an even consistency. Divide into 8 patties.
3. Put about ⅓ cup flour in a paper bag, put the patties in the bag in several batches and shake the bag to dredge. Remove the patties and arrange on a work surface.
4. Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the meat over medium heat in several batches until thoroughly brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes per batch. As a batch is done, keep warm while finishing the rest.
5. Discard the cooking oil and deglaze the pan with the sour cream over medium-low heat. When all the brown bits have been dissolved, stir in the mustard. Taste and add more mustard or sour cream as desired.
6. To serve, put two patties on a plate and top with the sour cream sauce and optional fresh herb garnish.
Photo: Punched-up bitok with sour cream and Dijon sauce. Credit: Charles Perry