By now, anyone looking for a meatless burger doesn’t have to look very far. There’s an Impossible Whopper in every Burger King, a Beyond Burger McPlant is available in some markets, and a long list of competitor beef-imitation products are vying for space in supermarkets. But not everyone wants their meatless burger to taste like the very thing they’re avoiding.
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For those seeking a burger with a complexity of textures and flavors to which beef can only aspire, there is the Superiority Burger.
The Superiority Burger has garnered international acclaim as the specialty at the hole-in-the-wall East Village storefront of the same name in New York. (It’s getting ready to expand to a larger location in the former Odessa diner.) Made with such common pantry ingredients as quinoa, chickpeas, and bread crumbs—and a few less obvious ones, including potato starch and ground, toasted fennel seeds.
Eaten hot off the griddle at the restaurant, where its topped with roasted tomatoes and Muenster cheese, it’s got a satisfying crunch with the melty, oozy, slightly sweet accoutrements. Now, chef-owner Brooks Headley has contributed the recipe to the updated Frances Moore Lappé’s seminal Diet for a Small Planet: The 50th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Random House; $18), and home cooks can prepare it. (The recipe was adapted from Superiority Burger Cookbook: The Vegetarian Hamburger Is Now Delicious, by Headley.)
At least, cooks can re-create it in theory. In reality, the recipe is complicated: Fennel seeds don’t toast and grind themselves; walnuts require toasting and crushing; and carrots must be diced and then roasted.
Headley’s use of red quinoa and potato starch (used as a binder) was clearly decided before the current supply chain problems made finding such ingredients a long-term procedure, even longer than the multi-hour cooking marathon required to create patties that might fall apart, as mine did. (Luckily, a bit of cheese, pickles, and other burger accoutrements can hide any burger shortfalls.)
With so many ingredients, each bite can vary. The best ones have the spice of chile powder, the crunch of the walnuts, the earthiness of the chickpeas, and don’t taste too overwhelmingly of quinoa. And the recipe makes so much, you can get a couple of meals from it.
There is something gratifying in making a “burger” out of so many protein-rich ingredients, perhaps even more satisfying when the recipe comes out of a very particular kind of book—one that is half cookbook, half environmental tome, as this 50th anniversary edition is. The latest version includes a new introduction and a slew of additional recipes from the likes of Mark Bittman, Bryant Terry, and Padma Lakshmi while still emphasizing the connections between our relationship with what we eat and its effects on the planet.
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“Eating plants is like a string around my finger,” Lappé says in a phone interview. It’s a reminder of the human connection to the planet and the human power to change it. “Food is unique. It connects us to our bodies, to each other, and to the Earth.”
As she writes in the new introduction to her book, the current food system’s over-reliance on meat has translated into a hefty emissions price tag: about 37% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, by some calculations. Cows bear a significant amount of the blame for that number, with their methane-filled burps and the ongoing deforestation to feed them. “Cows pack such a punch that, if they were a nation, ‘cow country’ would rank as the world’s sixth worst greenhouse gas emitter,” Lappé writes.
Her message is especially timely as world leaders convene in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 climate summit.
Reducing beef consumption is an easy step an individual can take in an effort to eat in a more environmentally conscious way. Maybe that means picking up an Impossible Whopper if you’re craving something that mimics beef closely. But if it’s too distant to swing by the restaurant to get your Superiority Burger, try making one at home. And if you’re looking for simpler meat-free meals to make, Lappé’s book is full of them.
The following recipe is adapted from Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Brooks’s Superiority Burger
Makes 8 to 10 patties
Olive oil, for sautéing and roasting
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 tsp. ground toasted fennel seeds
1 tsp. chile powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup cooked chickpeas (a bit less than one 15-ounce can), drained and rinsed
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 cup quinoa, rinsed vigorously, cooked, and cooled
1 cup small diced carrots (about 3-4 medium carrots)
Half cup coarse bread crumbs
Three-fourth cup walnuts, toasted and crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp. hot chili sauce
3 tbsp. unmodified cornstarch or potato starch
Grapeseed oil for searing the patties
Burger buns, toasted
Shredded lettuce, roasted tomatoes, pickle slices, sauerkraut, and/or sliced Muenster cheese (optional)
Honey mustard, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, and/or ketchup for serving (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425F.
In a pan, heat enough olive oil to lightly coat the pan. Add the onion and sauté until translucent and browned. Season with the fennel, chile powder, and half teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste. Add the chickpeas and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring constantly, until nicely browned. Deglaze the hot pan with the vinegar, scraping up the bits on the bottom of the pan into the mixture. Using a potato masher or a wooden spoon, roughly smash the onion-chickpea mixture. Mix the chickpea mash by hand with the cooled quinoa.
Toss the carrots with olive oil to coat, and add salt and pepper to taste. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in the oven until dark around the edges and soft, 20 to 25 minutes, tossing halfway. Add the carrots to the chickpea-quinoa mixture. Add the bread crumbs, walnuts, lemon juice, parsley, and chili sauce, and season again with salt and black pepper until it tastes sharp.
Mix the cornstarch with 2-3 tablespoons of water to create a cloudy, thick slurry. Fold the slurry into the burger as the binding agent. Shape the mixture into 8 to 10 patties.
Heat a saute pan or cast iron skillet until hot. Add grapeseed oil to coat the pan. Working in batches, cook the patties until well browned, about three minutes per side.
To serve, set each patty on a toasted bun and top with shredded iceberg lettuce, roasted tomatoes, pickle slices, sauerkraut, and/or cheese, and the condiments of your choice.