By Gretchen McKay


Up your tailgating game by building a better burger

Categories : Food
From left: Tomato Jam, Pickled Red Onions, Sparky Corn Relish, and Slow-Roasted Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes. Pam Panchek/Post-Gazette



For the football fan who cooks, tailgates are a beautiful thing.

Unlike other parties where the host feels a lot of pressure to impress, this pre-game festivity can be as fancy or down-home casual as the cook likes or has time for on any given Saturday or Sunday during football season. So long as the conversation and cold bee are flowing, and there’s plenty of great-tasting food to nosh on while you critique the competition, the gathering can’t help but to be a hit.

That said, you still have to come up with a menu that travels well and doesn’t require a ton of work once you hit the stadium parking lot. Not to mention lends itself to eating while standing up in crowded quarters.

Enter the not-so-humble hamburger.

Smothered under a variety of toppings and condiments or nearly naked on the bun, with just a squirt of Heinz ketchup separating meat from bread, burgers are a traditional gameday favorite for Black ‘n’ Gold tailgaters. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a kick-off at Heinz Field that isn’t preceded by the wonderful smell of meat patties sizzling on the grill in the parking lot.

This season, we’d like to help you build an even better burger, with some fresh takes on the standard components. All of them can easily be made ahead with just a few simple ingredients. A few can do double duty, serving as side dishes for bigger appetites or as a tasty dip for chips and/or sliced veggies.

If only making it to the Super Bowl were so easy!

At the heart of every great burger is the patty, so pay attention when it comes to buying the meat. With ground beef, an 80/20 blend of lean to fat is best, says Jim Calato of City Gourmet Catering, which operates the City Deli in the basement of the Koppers Building at Seventh and Grant streets, Downtown; any more fat, and you not only stand a good chance of flare-up during grilling, but also the burger will shrink well beyond the size of the bun.

Tempting as it might be to make and freeze the burgers in advance, the best burgers, says Mr. Calato, are those made fresh right before cooking. “Ice crystals compromise the quality of the meat,” he says. Even more important is a light touch. Overworking the meat when shaping it into patties is a recipe for dense, dry disaster.

For even cooking, make the center of the patty thinner than the edges, as burgers plump when you cook ’em. A little salt sprinkled on the outside will make for an extra-crispy crust.

One way to immediately up your burger game is to experiment with different meats. Below, we offer two patties that go beyond the traditional beef blend. To make them even more tailgate friendly (i.e., easy to balance in one hand) consider shaping them into 3-ounce sliders and serving them on dinner-sized rolls or brioche.

Instead of that . . . traditional beef burger


Pam Panchek/Post-Gazette








Chorizo Burger

PG tested

Don’t worry if you can’t find chorizo in bulk — I simply cut the casings off chorizo links. Add the wine a little at a time to prevent it from getting too soupy.

  • 1 pound chorizo sausage
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 3/4 cup red wine

Mix ingredients together in large bowl. Form meat into 8 individual patties. Place burgers on a hot grill, and cook until desired doneness, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Serve burgers topped with provolone cheese, fried onions, lettuce and chipotle mayonnaise (2 cups mayonnaise blended with 1 tablespoon chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce).

Makes 8 burgers.

— Jim Calato, City Gourmet Group


Buffalo Turkey Burgers

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These lean turkey burgers from Rachael Ray’s new “The Book of Burger” will appeal to the non-beef eaters in the crowd. Rachael likes to fry them on a flat-top griddle or cast-iron pan (it creates a crispier crust), but you also can cook them on a grill. A little blue cheese sauce on the top (recipe below) and you’re good to go.

  • 1 1/2 pounds ground turkey breast
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon grill seasoning
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped
  • 1 rib celery, from the heart, finely chopped
  • Vegetable oil, for drizzling
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup hot sauce (such as Frank’s)

In a large bowl, combine first 6 ingredients. Mix thoroughly. Score into 4 equal portions and form them into patties slightly thinner at the center than at the edges for even cooking and to ensure a flat surface (burgers plump as they cook). Drizzle the patties with oil.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook burgers, flipping once, 10 to 12 minutes, or until the juices run clear. Remove to a plate. Wipe pan clean and reduce heat to low. Melt butter in pan and stir in hot sauce. Return the burgers to the skillet and turn to coat in the hot sauce-butter mixture.

Makes 4 burgers.

— “The Book of Burger” by Rachael Ray (Atria, June 2012, $24.99)


Instead of that . . . squirt of Heinz ketchup

Tomato Jam

PG tested

Don’t worry about skinning or seeding the tomatoes in this simple jam recipe — they give the final product texture. A savory substitution for ketchup, the jam also tastes delicious slathered inside a grilled cheese sandwich or dolloped on top of meatloaf.

  • 1 1/2 pounds good ripe tomatoes (Roma are best), cored and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon grated or minced fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 jalapeno or other pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced, or red pepper flakes or cayenne to taste

Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 15 minutes.

Taste and adjust seasoning, then cool and refrigerate until ready to use; this will keep at least a week.

Makes about 1 pint.

— Mark Bittman, The New York Times


Slow-Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes

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Barbecue isn’t the only thing that benefits from slow and low cooking. This super-simple preparation brings out the tomatoes natural sweetness. The balsamic syrup is addictive.

  • 1 1/2 pounds heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 8 small shallots, peeled
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons agave syrup (I substituted maple syrup)
  • 1 stem fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs, toasted (optional)

Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and place tomatoes, cut-side up, on the pan. Sprinkle shallots and garlic around the tomatoes. Drizzle them with oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Roast until tomatoes are shrunken and sweet, about 2 hours, switching the pan positions after an hour. Transfer them and any juices on the pan to a medium bowl.

In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, agave syrup and rosemary and bring to a boil. Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat, until liquids reduce to 1/4 cup and form a thick syrup. Remove rosemary with a fork and season the syrup with a pinch of salt.

Toss tomatoes with bread crumbs to soak up the juices, if desired. Drizzle the syrup over the tomatoes and serve.

Makes about 1 cup of roasted tomatoes.

— “Big Vegan” by Robin Asbell (Chronicle, 2011)


Instead of that . . . dill pickle spear

Homemade Bread-and-butter pickles

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These are for sweet pickle lovers.

  • 1 pound cucumbers, sliced 1/4-inch thick (“pickling” or kirby cucumbers work best)
  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds (if ground, use 1 teaspoon)
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery seed

In a medium bowl, combine the cucumbers, onion and salt. Mix well. Cover the mixture with ice. Let stand at room temperature for two hours. In a pot, bring sugar, vinegar and spices to a boil. Rinse cucumbers and onions with water and drain well. Add to vinegar mixture and bring almost back to a boil. Remove from heat and cool. You can store the pickles in an airtight container for up to three weeks in the fridge. They will begin tasting pickled in just a couple hours.

Makes about 4 cups pickles, filling a 1-quart jar



Sparky Corn Relish

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You don’t have to be vegan, or even vegetarian, to love this tangy corn relish. Spoon the leftovers onto grilled hot dogs, or use it to add kick to Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine. You also could stir it into corn bread.

  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 1/2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen
  • 1/4 cup diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup diced and seeded red and green bell peppers

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, mustard and turmeric. Bring to a slow boil over medium heat. Add corn, onion and bell pepper and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.

Makes 11/2 cups.

— “Grilling Vegan Style” by John Schlimm (DaCapo, May 2012, $20)


Instead of that . . . leaf of iceberg lettuce

Apple-Lime-Cilantro Slaw

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This slaw pairs well with a turkey or chicken burger.

  • 2 Granny Smith apples, cored with the skin on
  • Zest and juice of 2 limes
  • 1 small head of savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, rough cut
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • Salt and pepper

Core apples and cut into matchsticks. Coat with lime juice. Toss in a bowl with cabbage, scallions, lime zest and cilantro.

Make dressing by combining mayonnaise, sour cream, remaining lime juice and sugar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Coat slaw with dressing.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Jim Calato, City Gourmet Group


Frisee salad

PG tested

Don’t let the slightly bitter taste of frisee (curly leaf endive) put you off — when paired with salty bacon, it is nothing short of divine.

  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 thinly sliced shallot
  • 2 tablespoons bacon drippings
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 bunch frisee, washed and torn

Whisk together mustard, olive oil, shallot and bacon drippings. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add frisee. Makes enough for 4 to 6 burgers.

— Food Network Magazine


Homemade Bread-and-Butter Pickles and Frisee Salad. Pam Panchek/Post-Gazette
Instead of that . . . slice of raw onion

Grilled Green-Onion Mayonnaise

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This easy mayo will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days, and has a nice, slightly charred flavor. Also tasty on fish sandwiches.

  • 8 green onions, scallions or small bulb onions
  • Olive oil, for brushing
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil

Prepare a medium-hot grill. Place a perforated grill rack over the grill grate. Brush the onions with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place scallions on the perforated grill rack and grill, turning every minute or so, until the onions get good grill marks. Let cool.

Chop the onions and combine with mayonnaise, lemon zest, lemon juice and basil until well blended. Serve right away or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Makes about 2/3 cup.

— “The Gardener & The Grill: The Bounty of the Garden Meets the Sizzle of the Grill” by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig (Running Press, May 2012, $20)


Pickled Red Onions

PG tested

This tart burger topping take just 5 minutes to prepare, but the flavor is boundless. Stir the onions into potato salad, layer them in quesadillas, sprinkle them on salad greens or use them as a garnish for hors d’oeuvres.

  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 red jalapeno chile
  • 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/4 pound red onions, julienned

Heat all ingredients except onions with 1 cup water to a simmer in a saucepan. Simmer for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Pour the pickling liquid over the onions in a mixing bowl and let cool to room temperature. Reserve the onions in the liquid until you are ready to use them. Onions will hold refrigerated for 7 to 10 days.

Makes 3/4 cup, or enough for 6 burgers.




“Instead of that . . . “boring slice of American cheese”

Beer-Cheese Sauce

PG tested

Any beer will do in this recipe (I borrowed a Michelob Ultra from my neighbor), though the better the brew, the better the sauce. I used the leftovers for mac and cheese; it also would be good as a chip dip or drizzled on nachos.

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 3/4 cup beer
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • 1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar
  • 1 tablespoon horseradish

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and mustard powder; cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes (do not brown). Whisk in beer; bring to a simmer, then whisk in half-and-half. Simmer, whisking, until thickened, about 4 minutes. Stir in grated cheddar and horseradish.

— Food Network Magazine


Blue cheese sauce

PG tested

A perfect topping for your Buffalo burger, or as a dip for crudites.

  • 1 ounce Danish blue cheese, crumbled (about 1/4 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons lowfat buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mash blue cheese with the back of a fork in a small dish. Stir in remaining ingredients. Slather on top of burger buns.

Makes enough for 4 burgers.

— Shape magazine (