Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Falafel? Eat more burgers.

Getting fresh with a black bean and falafel burger. © Ryan Schierling
Please allow me to explain my mild ambivalence toward the beloved American hamburger. I mean, really... if you take away the meat, doesn't it just become a salad sandwich?

When it comes right down to it, I decidedly prefer the idea of eating "meatless" food to using "fake meat" whenever possible. But I'm not going to eat a salad sandwich. While not entirely opposed to vegetarian products posing as a replacement for meat, I still like to think of even these "replacements" as unique foods unto themselves, instead of realistically expecting them to stand in the stead of the flesh-based stuff. I can count the number of real hamburgers I have eaten in my lifetime on one hand, but I have never been able to honestly think of veggie burgers as hamburgers – it just doesn't seem right.

I have long enjoyed the original Gardenburger™, and the salty homemade vegeburgers of my childhood, but the faux-burger's lack of authenticity disqualifies it from being the food I would choose to photograph at every stop on a cross-country road trip. Here in Austin there are an impressive number of restaurants making their own vegetarian burger patties, and I haven't even begun to scratch the surface. Recently, however, I tried P. Terry's veggie burger and it was one of the best I've ever eaten. Perhaps there is hope that this meatless sub-genre of "burgers" will one day achieve respectful credibility.

So, while I've eaten my share of veggie burgers, I have rarely bothered to try making them. There are good easy options on the market and it always seemed to be more trouble than it was worth since I can only eat one and I am usually the only person eating them. When your "burger" is, more or less, a vehicle for lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions... it doesn't really seem to matter as much.

Then this spring, while contemplating how to use some divine Bulgarian feta sitting in the fridge, an idea hit me. It wasn't just about making a pleasing patty substitute, it was about the whole thing, top to bottom, bun and everything in between. A burger that could honestly hold its own and be served to carnivores without shame.... 

Black bean and falafel burgers outfitted with some of the yummy flavors we typically wrap together in flatbread with falafel, except tucked into a toasted hamburger bun!

While a straight-up falafel patty would be serviceable, I thought the addition of refried black beans would soften the intense favor and seasonings of a typical falafel mixture and gently nudge it into more "burger" territory. The beauty of this recipe is that it is exceptionally simple and made from items you can keep in your pantry until inspiration strikes. Just have on hand a box of your favorite falafel mix and a can of refried black beans.

Before moving on to the accompaniments, though, a word about falafel mixes. All mixes are not created equal. Depending upon the country of origin, mixes may contain a variety ingredients and proportions of primary ingredients. While most start with chickpeas, some contain bulgar, others wheat flour, and often you will see ground fava beans listed prominently. The ones we tend to prefer are those that are primarily made of ground chickpeas and perhaps some fava beans, and we shy from those that contain bulgar or other forms of wheat. This, of course, is our personal preference – the bulgar could be very tasty in a burger format. (If you make your falafel fresh or create your own mixes – you're strides ahead of me. I look forward to trying that one day soon!) The other consideration with mixes is how strongly seasoned they are. For falafel, we prefer a nice kick of cumin. The less intensely seasoned varieties will work wonderfully for burgers, however.

The accoutrements are fresh and flavorful: a simple sauce of Greek yogurt (or sour cream) mixed with sriracha (aka 'rooster sauce'), green leaf lettuce, red onion, sliced tomato and fresh cucumber straight from a bath of ice water with white vinegar and red onions. And don't forget a slice of fresh sheep's milk feta – the cool salty tang is the perfect finish.

Black Bean and Falafel Burgers

8 oz. falafel mix (by weight)
3/4 cup water
1/2 can refried black beans
vegetable oil for frying

The burgers
Mix the falafel with water and allow to sit for at least 1/2 hour (or as directed on the package).

In a cast iron skillet heat 1/2" of oil to the ideal frying temperature range of 350-375º F.

With a fork, gently fold in the refried black beans and use the fork to lightly whip together. It is important to not compact or smash while stirring, as the air in the mixture provides a nice light burger texture.

The mixture should be moist, but hold together well for shaping a 3-1/2" round by 3/4" thick patty. The key is gently "shaping" the patty in the hand – do not squeeze or press. Lay patty on a long fork and place in skillet. Cook until brown and turn. When brown crust is achieved on both sides, remove to a cooling rack that has been turned upside-down over paper towels on the counter.

(The proportions shown above are approximate and based upon the type of mix we used. This recipe should make six to seven 3-1/2" burgers.)

The assembly
small hamburger buns, cut sides lightly toasted
Greek yogurt (or sour cream) / sriracha mixture *
green leaf lettuce
red onion, freshly sliced
cucumber (from white vinegar & ice water bath) **
sliced  or diced tomato
fresh feta cheese
black bean and falafel burger

* Apply sauce generously to inside surface of both top and bottom bun.

** Peel cucumber in stripes and slice. Add to bowl along with some sliced red onions and a good pinch of salt. Add a handful of ice cubes and cover with water. Add a generous splash of white vinegar, agitate it a bit and allow to chill until you are ready to eat.


  1. With all due respect, Julie, you are sadly incorrect about the burger being nothing more than a salad sandwich without the meat.

    Do yourself a huge favor. Drive up just north of Yellowstone National Park, to Gardiner, Montana. On the west side of the highway, about midway through town, there is a little mom n' pops joint called Helen's Drive-In. Walk in, order a half pound buffalo burger with the works. Comes loaded with goodies and a cowboy sized order of homestyle fries. Tell 'em I sent you.

    You will completely rethink your opinion of the lowly American hamburger. Of course, it helps enhance the taste when you've been hunting in the high country for a day and a half.

    P.S.: The falafel burger does look delicious. All the more so, me being a sucker for great Middle Eastern food.

  2. A vegan like me can offer you no input on "real burgers", but I made quinoa/sweet potato burgers yesterday and damn, they were good!

  3. @Jonathan - I would totally try that buffalo burger! But would it really be more than a tasty salad sandwich without the 1/2 lb. of perfectly cooked meat?

    Meat just seems to best define a "real" burger in my mind. There are many burgers out there that are far from lowly, even websites dedicated entirely to their pursuit, and that's precisely my point – a veggie burger that can be discussed beyond its "ubiquitous meat substitute" function is unfortunately more the exception than the rule.

  4. @Kamini - I *heart* all things sweet potato! That sounds divine!


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