Mediterranean Lamb Burgers with Spiced Tomato Jam

Thursday, March 26, 2015

These burgers are everything. Every damn thing. So good I made them two days in a row, which is a rare occasion when it comes to anything I cook. I'm in full emotional comfort eating mode, and I wanted something savory and rich but balanced with vivid flavors. Lamb has become one of my favorite meats the more I work with it. Some of the pricier cuts are not really in my budget, but my grocery store sells superb quality ground lamb at around $8 per pound. Considering you can get 2 to 3 burgers out of that, it's really a steal and not much more than comparable quality grass-fed beef costs. If you haven't tried lamb, making burgers at home is a great way to try it without much of an investment. Lots of people wonder how lamb tastes. It's a common question I get whenever I post food outside of the typical beef/pork/chicken dishes. The best answer is always just to try it. Different cuts and preparations affect flavor, as does where you source the lamb (I've found American lamb to be a little gamier than New Zealand lamb, but I like that.) Ground lamb is milder than ground beef and has the fattiness of pork, but the taste is unique in its own right. Serious Eats describes it as "funky, minerally, sweet, and dripping with juice" and I'd have to agree. I was also really drawn to the simplicity of the lamb burger featured in their recipe, which was humbly adorned with red onion, feta cheese and garlic mayo.

Lamb is able to stand up to a wide range of spices, bold exotic flavors at that - think cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, and turmeric. Much like a beef burger or steak, a good lamb burger doesn't need more than salt and pepper...but you know I had to do something with it! I really wanted to stick with feta cheese and red onions as my toppings, so I chose to season the meat with fresh herbs from a Mediterranean flavor profile. Mint, oregano and parsley together with a hint of lemon cut through the richness of the meat and wake up every bite while still allowing the lamb itself to shine. I grilled the red onions, infinitely better than raw in my book, and I used a good block of creamy, salty feta cheese. None of that fat free crumbled bullshit. I didn't really intend to add any greens to the burger - it doesn't need it to be good - but I had a spinach salad with my dinner and ended up stuffing some spinach in there too. Why not?

Mayo is usually my go-to condiment for burgers, but this time I wanted to do something tomato based. Ketchup was out of the question, because it's disgusting, but tomato jam? Yes please. Sounds strange because we associate jam with sweet fruits, but I'm begging you to try this. Many of you downloaded my tomato bacon jam recipe last summer which was my first take at making this delicious condiment. For this version I left out the bacon and added warm spices that reminded me of Moussaka, a layered dish of spiced minced lamb or beef, eggplant and bechamel sauce. It's my absolute favorite thing to order at Greek restaurants. I love the unexpected spices in the tomato based meat sauce of Moussaka, which usually include cinnamon and allspice. So for my tomato jam, I played with the same seasonings. That's the best part about cooking, really. Take things that you know and love, and rework them into new dishes.

The first time I made my lamb burgers I put them between grilled potato buns. Second to brioche buns, potato bread is my favorite. I don't think it really worked for the burgers though, which were so much jucier than I expected. The soft bottom bun soaked that all up. I also made 1/2 pound patties that time, cooked to medium doneness, which may have contributed to the issue. Trust me, it didn't stop us from eating it. But the second day, I made 1/3 pound burgers and stuffed them into warm pita bread. Bingo. The burgers cooked a little faster but were still tender and moist when medium well inside, which I realize is more my preference for ground lamb. The chewy pita bread contained all the deliciousness making it a little easier to enjoy. Plus pitas went with the whole Mediterranean thing I had going on, so it was a match made in heaven (Or I guess that would be Mount Olympus? Ok...I'll stop.)

Actually, one more thing before I get into the recipe. I can't be the only one who thinks about Lamb Chop and Shari Lewis when I cook lamb. I grew up with that annoying song that never ends in my head, and I remember a cassette tape of Lamb Chop's rendition of the Nutcracker in heavy rotation. These are the kind of childhood memories that still haunt me in my 30's. A small petty part of me enjoys a sweet revenge of slapping lamb burgers on the grill and finally shutting Lamb Chop up...

Ok, ok, I'll see myself out.

Mediterranean Lamb Burgers with Spiced Tomato Jam

1 lb ground lamb, preferably American
1 tbsp chopped fresh mint
1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, grated or finely minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Zest of a small lemon
1 red onion, sliced
4 oz good quality feta cheese
Pita bread
Kosher salt, as needed
Cracked black pepper, as needed
Grape seed oil, as needed

For the Spiced Tomato Jam:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
3 cups chopped tomatoes (canned tomato is fine, but drain it first)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup honey
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground nutmeg
A few grinds of cracked black pepper
Kosher salt, to taste

Servings: 2 to 3
Prep Time: 15 minutes for the burgers, 5 minutes for the tomato jam
Cook Time: 15 minutes for the burgers, 30 to 45 min for the tomato jam
Suggested Equipment: Cast iron skillet or cast iron grill pan, medium nonstick pot

Note about the lamb: Unless you're buying lamb from a butcher, you're probably only going to find it in 1 pound packages. If your pita bread is big enough and you want huge burgers, go for the 1/2 pounders... but otherwise do the 1/3 pound burgers like I did which makes 3. Odd scaling for a recipe, and the neurotic in me hates that, but it is what it is. If for some reason you needed to scale up to serve 4 or more, and won't be using all of the 2nd package, raw ground lamb does freeze well. It can be used interchangeably in most ground beef recipes. Adding some ground lamb to meatloaf, meatballs or tacos is an insanely good idea...

The tomato jam is your do-ahead portion of the recipe. I'm a big, big proponent of making your own condiments though, and I hope by including more of them on the blog it will help some of you also find value in it! To start the jam, saute the shallots in a little olive oil over medium heat. Season with a pinch of salt.

Add everything else to the pot - the tomatoes, vinegar, honey, sugar, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and all the spices. Season with a good couple pinches of salt and let the mixture come to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer it on low. Once all the tomatoes release their juices, taste it to make sure it's seasoned and sweet enough for your taste, keeping in mind that the flavors will concentrate.

After 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how much liquid your tomatoes gave off, the mixture will have reduced by about a third into a syrupy jam. Remove the bay leaf and cinnamon stick, and allow it to cool. It does thicken up a little as it cools. This recipe makes about a cup of tomato jam so you'll have a little leftover.

Transfer the tomato jam to a jar and store leftovers in the fridge, tightly sealed. Besides burgers, this stuff is great on sausages, sandwiches, biscuits, even in omelettes.

Now, for the burgers...

I love the ground lamb that I get because it's really loosely ground, makes for a good burger. I just dump it into a bowl, breaking it up slightly and adding all my seasonings. I only use about 1/2 teaspoon or so of salt here, because it's more important to season the outside of the burgers.

A fork is a good tool here because it helps to evenly incorporate all the herbs and garlic without overworking the meat. You want to keep the burgers from becoming tough. Just toss things around a bit.

Now you can divide your meat and shape into patties. Because lamb meat is pretty fatty, it has a similar feel to it as pork and the meat sticks together nicely without much work. I'm always amazed by people who avoid touching things while they cook...that's half the fun! Press the patties down slightly in the middle to make a dimple, this helps prevent them from puffing up too much on the grill. Season the outside of the burgers with salt just before hitting the grill.

When your grill is good and smoking hot you can get the onions going, I do this part while I'm forming my lamb patties. Use a little grape seed oil on the grates to prevent sticking and grill your onions. All I use here is a pinch of salt and some cracked black pepper. They take a few minutes to char and soften up. I love grilled onions on a burger, nothing better. The smoke coming off the grill is already intoxicating!

Now it's time to put the burgers down. Oil your grates again. If you're using a cast iron skillet instead of the grill pan, as long as it's seasoned you don't really need to add any oil. Lamb meat is fatty enough. I set my timer for 8 minutes. The burgers might take a little less time or a little more, but it's a good window for me based on my experience with burgers and steaks in this grill pan. Becoming aware of things like that and knowing your equipment will make you a better cook.

It's also helpful to use your eyes and pay attention to how food changes as it cooks. After about 4 minutes you'll see the color of the lamb turn from pink to brown up the sides of the burgers, and then it's time to flip. Hopefully you got a nice crust on those babies. Sometimes meat that's too wet or greasy can prevent a good, hard sear. If you notice your burgers giving off a ton of fat go ahead and drain the skillet the best you can. That's part of why I prefer to use the cast iron grill pan because the grates allow more fat to drip off.

I love watching (and smelling) all that steam rising from the burgers, smoke from the grill pan, grease popping... this is burger realness and you know it's about to be good. This is my favorite part, unfortunately it's also the messiest - a splatter screen will save your stove top. I'm excited to try these on an outdoor grill this summer - I am committed to learning how to grill for real this year!

A few minutes after flipping the burgers, you should be checking for doneness. I'll press the center of the burgers just to get a feel for how much it gives in the middle, but to be sure I'll use an instant read internal thermometer, always. Safety guidelines will tell you to cook to 160° F. I can tell you that you'll probably have a dry burger at that temp. For medium, you can pull the burgers off at around 135° F, but I like to take it up into the 140 - 145° F range for my comfort. That was medium well for me and it was perfect. I like my burgers cooked through a little more than I do steaks.

Use a spatula to transfer your cooked burgers to a plate or baking sheet to rest for a couple minutes. Second time around I got smart and rested them on a cooling rack, I'd recommend that or paper towels to absorb any excess grease before building your burgers. You don't need to rest burgers as long as steaks, but they do need to sit for a minute or two for the juices to properly redistribute. I sliced off thick slabs of feta cheese and laid them over the hot burgers to soften up a little bit.

Now is a good time to warm up some pita bread and tear off a strip along the top to make room for burger stuffing. Try to find some good fresh pita bread and not the more commercialized variety, it makes a difference. I'd love to try making my own next time but that was a bit more of a project than I had time for on this day.

I'm sure you're salivating and ready to dig in at this point! Slather some of that spiced tomato jam on the inside of your pita, carefully slide your burger and feta cheese in, and stuff  it with those grilled onions. If you have any remnants of chopped herbs left on your cutting board, sprinkle some of those in too.

So much win. As I mentioned earlier, I stuffed some spinach leaves in there after (I thought) I was done taking photos, which ended up being an even more delicious move. I'm all about having lots of contrasting textures when I eat - the gooey tomato jam, tender burger, creamy feta cheese, silky onions and crisp spinach all inside that chewy pita bread?! Amazing. These felt fresh and summery and packed with all kinds of flavor. Lamb burgers were the perfect dose of comfort food that I needed!

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  1. Right about the time I read "I'm sure you're salivating...", I had to remind myself to swallow. I laughed so hard. This looks amazing! I'm always in awe of your art.

  2. Lamb burgers are the best. I usually make a tzatziki as condiment, but the tomato jam is an interesting idea. I'll have to try next time.