The Basic Hamburger

Mince has always been looked on as the poor relation, a less desirable cousin of prime rib or sirloin. Something to be endured on days when the budget is a bit tight, but just because it’s relatively inexpensive doesn’t mean it is any less delicious.

There are a myriad of mouth-watering, yes I mean mouth-watering dishes that can be made from mince. From juicy hamburgers to saucy meatballs, from Bolognese sauce to crunchy Middle Eastern Kibbeh – one just needs to add a sprinkle of ingenuity and a liberal flavouring of herbs or spices or maybe both.

As ever the key to deliciousness is the basic raw material, it’s crucially important that the meat is well hung but freshly minced. I know that many people say that mince stays fresh for several days, I disagree and find that even when it is carefully refrigerated it sours and the flavour becomes tainted so plan to use fresh mince on the day. If your best-laid plans go awry because you are unexpectedly asked out, then shape it into a shallow block and pop it in the freezer – it will keep for 1-2 months but gradually deteriorate. However, for best results it’s best to use it within a few days. Pork, lamb, chicken, veal or even tuna can be minced but in this article I’m going to concentrate on beef mince because it is the most widely available.

Quality of the mince varies according to the cut of meat, ironically very lean cuts e.g. round can be very dry unless a percentage of fat is added. Flank, chuck and other cuts from the shoulder are fattier and have a sweeter flavour and juicer texture.

The accompaniments to mince can make the magic. The hamburger bun, lettuce, juicy tomatoes, mayonnaise, melting cheese, all enhance the experience of eating a burger. Spicy mince is so delicious wrapped in crispy lettuce leaves or stuffed into a pitta pocket or rolled up in a tortilla. Slice the top off a crispy bun, scoop out the crumb and fill generously with a juicy mince, well flavoured with fresh herbs and spices. Serve with a blob of Guacamole and some Jalapeno Relish or sweet chilli sauce.

Stuff well-flavoured mince into giant pasta shells, layer it up with a cheesy macaroni or simply sauté it off and add it to your favourite well-seasoned pasta sauce.

Tiny meat balls are also irresistible smothered in tomatoey sauce or just cooked on the pan, then served with a tasty dip. Spear them with cocktail sticks for ease of eating – so many ideas – one could quite easily eat mince in a different way for weeks on end.

Darina’s Back to Basics

Basic Hamburger

If you are complete beginner why not start by making your own hamburger.
The hamburger, the universal fast food, immortalized by the Americans and enjoyed by the rich and famous, the down and outs and all the rest of the world as well.

It can be a feast or a travesty simply a burger in a bun or an elaborate creation with lots of sauces and pickles. Hamburgers, love them or hate then they're here to stay and with a bit of effort they can be Simply Delicious.

The secret of really good hamburgers is the quality of the mince, it doesn't need to be an expensive cut but it is essential to use the beef on the day it is minced. A very small percentage of fat in the mince will make the hamburgers sweet and juicy.

Serves 4-6
3 ozs (85g) onion, finely chopped
½ oz (15g) butter
1 lb (450g) freshly minced beef - flank, chump or shin would be perfect
½ teasp. fresh thyme leaves
½ teasp. finely chopped parsley
1 small egg, beaten, preferably free range
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Olive or sunflower oil

First peel and chop the onion finely. 

Melt the butter in a low-sided saucepan and toss in the chopped onion. Cover and sweat on a low heat until soft but not coloured, allow to get cold. In a bowl mix the mince with the herbs and beaten egg, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, add the cold onions and mix well. Fry off a tiny bit on the pan to check the seasoning, correct if necessary. Then shape into hamburgers, 4-6 depending on the size you require. Cook to your taste on a medium-hot pan or grill pan in a little oil, turning once.

Burgers can be stored covered in the fridge for several hours before cooking.

Top Tips

Wet your hands with cold water before shaping the burgers to prevent the mixture sticking to your hands. 
If the hamburgers are being cooked in batches make sure to wash and dry the pan between batches. 
Burgers should not be more than one inch thick, otherwise it will be difficult to cook them through. 

Homemade hamburgers are a vast improvement on mass-produced burgers. There are endless ways to serve them – cheese burgers, bacon burgers, chilli burgers, blue-cheese burgers, mushroom burgers. …….

Spicy Moroccan Meatballs with Yoghurt and Banana Raita

These spicy meat balls have a secret centre
Makes 6
1 lb (450g) minced beef or shoulder of lamb
4 cardamom pods
1½ teasp coriander seeds
1 clove
¼-½ teasp of chilli powder
2-3 small cloves garlic mashed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 egg, preferably free range

2 tablesp. approx. cream cheese mixed with 1 teasp. chopped parsley, optional

Yogurt and Banana Raita

Remove the seeds from the cardamom and discard the pods. Grind the seeds with the coriander and clove, add to the minced lamb with the chilli powder and crushed garlic. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Fry off a tiny bit to check the seasoning. Divide the mixture into 6, shape each portion into a round 4 inch (10cm) diameter approx. Put a teaspoonful of curd cheese and parsley into the centre, gather up the edges so that the filling is completely enclosed. Repeat with the remainder of the mixture. Cover and chill until required or barbecue or fry immediately on a medium heat in a barely oiled frying pan. They will take about 5 minutes on each side. Serve immediately with a Green Salad and Banana and Yogurt Raita.

Banana and Yogurt Raita

Serves 8-10
Delicious served with either these meatballs or with mild madras curry, surprisingly it keep for days in the fridge and we've also enjoyed it as a pudding.

2 heaped tablesp. (2 ozs (55g) approx.) raisins or sultanas
1 oz (30g) blanched slivered almonds
7 fl ozs (200ml) natural yogurt
3½ fl ozs (90ml) cream or 3½ fl ozs (90ml) sour cream
1 tablesp. pure Irish honey
3 firm ripe bananas
pinch of salt
4-6 cardamom pods

Pour boiling water over the raisins or sultanas, leave for 10 minutes, toast the almonds. Mix the yogurt with the cream, add the honey, taste and add more if needed. Add the raisins and almonds, remove the seeds from the cardamom pods, crush in a pestle and mortar, slice the banana, season with a pinch of salt and add to the yogurt. Turn into a serving bowl and chill for an hour if possible.

Serve with curries and spicy dishes.

Yuk Sum

Serves 4
A delicious Chinese way of eating mince – one of my absolute favourites. 
2 tablesp. olive oil
1 teasp. ginger, freshly grated 
2 tablesp. spring onion
8 ozs (225g) minced beef or streaky pork
2 ozs (55g) mushrooms, chopped
1 oz (30g) celery, finely chopped
1 -2 tablesp. Oyster sauce
salt and freshly ground pepper
Iceberg lettuce leaves
a of a cucumber approx. cut into 3 inch (5mm) thick julienne
8 spring onion 'sweeping brushes'

Heat a wok until very hot, add the olive oil, then add the grated ginger and spring onion, toss for a second or two, then add the meat, cook on a high heat until almost cooked, then push the meat up to the side of the wok, add the chopped mushrooms and toss until cooked. Add the celery, mix with the mushrooms and meat. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, add the oyster sauce. Toss for a minute or two more. Taste and correct seasoning.

Put some crisp iceberg lettuce onto a plate, spoon 1-2 tablespoons of the meat mixture into the centre of each. Garnish the plate with julienne of cucumber and a couple of spring onion 'sweeping brushes'. Eat immediately by wrapping the meat, cucumber and spring onion in the lettuce to make a parcel.

Darina’s Top Tips 

Wet your hands with cold water before shaping the burgers to prevent the mixture sticking to your hands. 
If the hamburgers are being cooked in batches make sure to wash and dry the pan between batches. 
Burgers should not be more than one inch thick, otherwise it will be difficult to cook them through. 

Sweet Chilli Sauce
No kitchen should be without this perky sauce, which can be used as a dip, sauce or a flavouring for fish, meat, vegetables and stir fries – from Asian shops, Cork Market and many supermarkets. 

Tortilla Chips
Great for a nibble or to scoop up a dip. Now available not just in speciality shops but in local shops, supermarkets and even some forecourts around the country – check the flavourings, some are bizarre, I enjoy the original best.

Pitta Bread
Turkish flat bread, the everyday bread in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, but now a firm favourite not only in Europe, but in the US and Oz. This versatile soft flat bread forms a pocket as it cooks, perfect.for filling with salads, meats or vegetables, available from most supermarkets as well as ethnic shops. They can be frozen and reheat perfectly wrapped in foil in a moderate oven or quickly under the grill.

Oyster Sauce
A ‘must-have’ staple – a flavourful Cantonese sauce made of oysters, water, salt, cornflour and caramel colouring, essential flavouring in Chow Mein and Chop Suey, but if you’re not that adventurous, its still worth having a bottle in your fridge (keeps almost indefinitely) for adding to stir-fries, meat or seafood dishes or noodles or even mince- it’s a splendid flavour enhancer.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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