Building a Better Burger with Chefs Gabi and Greg Denton
What’s the secret to building a better burger? If you ask the James Beard Foundation and Chefs Greg Denton and Gabi Quinonez Denton, it’s using less meat.
The Dentons — the husband and wife chef team behind Portland, Oregon’s Ox and Superbite, and recent winners of the James Beard award for Best Chef Northwest — teamed with the JBF to kick off the 2017 Blended Burger Project. The eco-minded movement challenges chefs all over the country to blend finely chopped mushrooms into the meat in their burger mix to create a more nutritious and sustainable burger.
From now through July 31st, chefs across the country will be serving up their own versions of a blended burger. (Click here to find one near you: hundreds of chefs from 40-some states are participating — from old-school diners and fine-dining restaurants alike. Try as many as you can this summer, then vote for your favorite!)
The rules are simple: chefs can use any type of meat and mushrooms they choose, but the patties must contain 25-50% ‘shrooms.
So why mushrooms, anyway? “One, it creates a healthier burger,” says Eric Davis with the Mushroom Council. “Mushrooms are very nutrient-dense and are a good source of B vitamins. Plus, you’re cutting down the fat and sodium by using less meat,” says Davis. “The second reason is the taste — mushrooms have that great umami flavor, and they make a burger so juicy. Lastly, there’s the sustainability aspect since mushrooms have a much lower carbon footprint than meat.”
We talked to the Dentons to learn more about their mushroom-blended burger creation, and to hit the duo up for their tips on eating healthfully and sustainably.
Tell me about the “blended burger” you made today, which will also be on the menu at Superbite this summer.
Greg & Gabi Denton: We use diced beef shoulder and dehydrated shiitake mushrooms, which get rehydrated when they’re ground into the burger. That makes up the patties. Grinding the mushrooms into the mix gives it a nice savory quality, and it means they won’t slip off the burger like they would if they were sautéed mushrooms sitting on top of the patties.
We do two patties — one with fontina cheese and one with yellow Cheddar — and they get topped with pickles, minced onions and shredded lettuce. Then we do a griddled homemade brioche bun covered with sesame seeds and our homemade “fancy sauce.” It’s huge! And tall. It’s our memories of our childhood-favorite burger, mixed with our more contemporary style.
Do you have other favorite “meat minimal” dishes for which you swap some or all of the traditional protein for plant-based foods?
My go-to is legumes. I love using beans or lentils to extend a protein and make a meat-based dish more healthful. When it comes to making tuna salad we’ll buy a little jar of high-quality Spanish tuna packed in olive oil, and extend it with some lentils or white beans.
We’re also huge proponents of taking dishes that usually call for meat and using a vegetable in its place. Today we’re serving a tostada with shredded king trumpet mushrooms that we braised with smoked guajillo chiles that have a braised chicken quality to them.
At Superbite, we also do a Nashville Fried Hot Cauliflower instead of fried chicken, and a chorizo made from eggplant. We focus on that side of sustainability and health, and work to pull the “meatiness” out of vegetables.
Your cookbook Around the Fire, co-written with Stacy Adimando, is chock-full of gorgeous dishes cooked over open flames. What are some of your favorite veggies to throw on the grill?
Everyone has their favorite summertime veggies that may seem best suited to the grill. But we also love working with winter vegetables like squash, cauliflower, artichokes, even broccoli that you don’t normally think of as grill-friendly. If you straight grill them, they tend to get tough and their fibrous qualities come out. But if you par-cook a veggie and then finish it on the grill, then you get a tender smoky, woody quality on the outside, but it’s still tender on the inside.
In the springtime, there are so many great vegetables like snap peas, snow peas, fava beans, padron peppers and varieties of small peppers that cook up so quickly and beautifully blistered on the grill. If you don’t have a grill basket, just put an extra grill grate or rack from your oven on top of your grill grate at a 90-degree angle to create a grid, and those small veggies won’t fall through.
We also love throwing greens like escarole, radicchio and romaine on the grates or ashes. There’s not much that we don’t throw on the grill!
Do you have any tips we at home can borrow for using up leftovers and wasting less food?
First, make a game plan for your leftovers. Plan to add an egg to last night’s dinner to make breakfast, or use that extra carton of rice to make fried rice. Just don’t let it sit in your fridge.
Also, we do cream-based soups with mushrooms or asparagus scraps. If you have a blender and a fine-mesh strainer, you can pretty much anything into a cream soup. Butter, garlic and onion as a base will make almost anything delicious.
And stock up on those versatile foods that you can put almost anything in, like eggs, potatoes, rice and tortillas so it’s easy to cook them up with leftovers. We “taco” everything!
What do you cook at home to stay healthy?
For us, it’s important to have healthy snacks at home. Two of our go-tos are lettuce wraps with cold cuts, and nori with avocado, gochujang and toasted sesame seeds.
For breakfast, we’ll make a big pot of oatmeal seasoned really simply, and then we’ll pack the leftovers in a Tupperware. The next day we’ll pop it out and cut it into slices, and griddle them in olive oil until they’re golden brown. They’re crunchy and delicious on the outside, but still creamy and tender on the inside. Then we top them with whatever we have on hand: berries and a little cinnamon, fried eggs, sautéed spinach, chicken sausage, tomato sauce…a leftover braise. Sweet or savory, it’s totally up for interpretation.
Visit the James Beard Foundation to find a list of chefs around the country taking part in the Blended Burger Project, and to vote for your favorite.
Photos by Ken Goodman