Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lamb Sliders with Date Sauce

Hey there.  Been a while!

The weeks leading up to the unofficial start of summer were hot 'round these parts.  I couldn't shake a desire for salad almost every day, meaning you folks didn't get as many posts.  Sorry 'bout that.

This one, though.  This one was worth the wait.  I'm very excited to share it with you.

Doc loves lamb.  Me, I could take it but I prefer to leave it.  Something about lamb is too greasy and strong for my tastes.  Burgers in general aren't my favorite, so when I made a second batch a few days later I made mine with falafel while using up the remaining lamb mix on his.  Either way, the sweet, barbecue-esque date sauce is the clincher, especially when paired with a few shakes of feta and some crisp, cool cucumber slices.  Alongside a glass of mint tea it was perfection.

What is it about tiny food, anyway?  Bite-sized is always better.

Lamb Sliders 
with Date Sauce

Total Time:  45-60 minutes to make the sauce (including cooling time), 20 to make the sliders, 5 to assemble.  Figure on 1.5 hours.

Weirdest Spice:  baharat.  Yes, it's substitutable.

Credit:  Spotted this one in Bon Appetit's May 2014 issue on page 20, in the RSVP section (where readers write in to ask for copycat recipes).  The original is found at Abigail Street in Cincinnati.  I've never been, but judging by their middle eastern menu and fabulous drinks list, I'm thinking there's no way I'll miss out on trying the Real Deal in person if the chance ever arises.

The Date Sauce
NOTE:  The recipe for this sauce as-is makes 3 times more than you're going to need for the sliders themselves.  So the first time you make this, please consider cutting the recipe in half or a third unless you think you're going to have a use for three cups of date sauce.  We've been using it on sandwiches at lunch time, but even so I'm going to end up freezing at least 2 cups' worth.  Just a word of warning for you.

Sauce Ingredients (full recipe makes apx. 3 cups of sauce):

  • small splash olive oil
  • 1/2 minced red onion 
    • Tip:  mince the whole onion to save time, the other half will be used in the burger
  • 1 cup tomato ketchup
  • 1 cup pitted and chopped medjool dates
    • Note:  this is equivalent to approximately 15-18 whole dates
  • 1/2 cup pale lager, plus more for thinning the sauce (max one 12 oz. bottle)
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
Sauce Directions:

  1. Heat a saucepan on medium heat.  When pan is hot, add a splash of olive oil.  When oil is shimmering, add the onions and a dash of salt.  Saute 5-8 minutes, until beginning to brown.
  2. Add ketchup, chopped dates, and 1/2 cup of beer.  Mix.  Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, 20-25 minutes.  As needed, add small splashes of beer to prevent the sauce from thickening too much.  Aim to maintain a consistency like ketchup or just slightly thicker.
  3. Remove from heat.
  4. Add vinegar, stir, and set aside 10 minutes to cool.  
  5. Place the sauce in a blender and puree until smooth.
  6. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Allow to cool in the fridge while assembling and cooking sliders.

The Sliders

Slider Ingredients (makes apx. 12 miniature burgers / serves 3-4 adults)

  • 1/2 minced red onion
  • 2 minced garlic cloves or 1.5 tsp garlic paste
  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 1/2 lb. ground beef
    • Note:  try 2 cups of prepared, unseasoned/uncooked falafel mix in place of the meats for a vegetarian version
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon baharat or other spice blend of your choice
    • Note: see detailed instructions, below, for discussion and a how-to for making your own baharat
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 12 slider buns or 6 pita bread rounds
  • fresh spinach, feta cheese, thin cucumber slices, and other toppings of your choice for burger assembly
    • other suggestions include asiago cheese, caramelized onions, and tomatoes
Slider Directions:

  1. Mix the onion, meats, garlic, parsley, and spices together in a bowl until a cohesive ball is formed.
  2. While a skillet is heating on medium-high, scoop out scant 1/4 cup portions of the lamb mixture to form small patties.  
  3. Place patties on the hot skillet and turn the heat down to medium.
  4. Cook 3-5 minutes per side, or until desired doneness / temperature is achieved
  5. Can be served on toasted slider buns or warmed pita with a generous dollop of date sauce and your preferred toppings. 

I apologise for the weird, color saturated, poorly-lit picture above.  Would you believe I only got one photo of these when I did the first batch?  We had them on proper slider buns (hard to find, I spotted them by chance at Wegman's), but Doc just about stared a hole in them while I was setting up the shot so needless to say they didn't sit for long.  That was the Friday before Memorial Day.  The next morning we left early to go spend the weekend with my in-laws, who were regaled with stories of the sliders.  It wasn't until I made a second batch this week that I got some solid pictures, but by then we were out of slider buns and ended up using pita.  Which turned out even better, in my opinion.

Anyway, while these can seem time-consuming, the only part that's out of the ordinary is making your own date ketchup.  It's not hard, just takes a while for it to cook down.  You can do it ahead, the recipe says, by as much as 5 days.  So if you're whipping these up for a party or what have you, that'd probably be the way to go.

Let's get started!

The first step is to make the date sauce.  As I mention above, the recipe as-is makes more than 3 cups of sauce.  For 4 people's worth of sliders.  Either the cooks at Bon Appetit drown their burgers, or they just figured we'd all love the sauce so much that we'd want to use it on everything.  If you're not convinced you want to go that route, please do consider cutting the sauce recipe in half or in thirds.

You're going to need a 12 oz. bottle of plain light lager (any will do, though I'd avoid anything fruity).  I used Blue Moon's summer ale and found it perfect, as would be pretty much any other summer ale or pale ale.  Ketchup, pitted & chopped dates, minced red onion, and cider vinegar also make an appearance.

Be sure to clear out any pits completely or you're gonna be sad later when you flip the blender on.

First is to heat up a saucepan on medium heat.  When it's hot, add a splash of olive oil, followed by the minced onion.

Add a dash of salt (helps it cook faster) and stir it occasionally for 5-8 minutes, until it starts to brown up.

To that add your ketchup, 1/2 cup of the beer, and the dates.

Stir it all together and turn the heat down to low.

Let it simmer for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.  You may also find that you want to add an additional splash of beer now and then to keep the consistency close-ish to that of ketchup.  In the end I didn't use the whole bottle, but it was definitely closer to empty than not.  Also, be sure not to answer the door at this point: if visitors see you with onion tears and an open bottle of beer in the middle of day they're bound to have questions.

(While the sauce cooked I took the meats out of the fridge to let them come up to room temp.  It's a little trick to help them cook more evenly.)

When the sauce is cooked and the dates are softened, add the cider vinegar and stir it in.

Take the pan off the heat and let it cool for about 10 minutes or so.  Then put it in the blender and puree until smooth.

When that's done, cover the sauce put it in the fridge until you're ready to use it.

To make the sliders (and really, there's no reason you can't do full-sized burgers if that's more your style, just FYI, though you'll have to adjust the cooking time), first assemble your ingredients:

Two things of note here.  As I mentioned in the quickie directions above, I think falafel mix is every bit as good as the meat (if not better because healthier).

The other thing is the spice.  The recipe calls for one tablespoon of baharat, which is a middle eastern all-purpose spice blend that differs from house to house.  If you don't have any on hand, you can either:
(1)   make a cup of it and store what you don't use for this recipe in an airtight container*;
(2)  eyeball it by using a generous pinch (1/16th of a teaspoon) each of ground coriander, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, plus a generous dash (1/8th teaspoon) each of ground black pepper, cumin, nutmeg, and paprika; or,
(3)  use a similar spice mix of your choice, such as ras el hanout, tikka masala, tandoori masala, harissa blend, berber spice, cajun spice, or whatever spice blend you prefer with lamb.  Just watch out for added salt.

* I went with the first option, but I doubt too many folks have a spice grinder or the patience.  Go with what works best for you.  As I always say, we don't judge here.  The point of cooking isn't to show off how hard you work, it's to enjoy something you've created.

Okay, so get your meats, garlic, chopped parsley, onion, and spice together in a bowl:

Mix thoroughly until everything is incorporated.  I find using my hands works best.

Measure out 1/4 cup of the lamb mixture and form it into a patty.  I myself only measure the first one and then eyeball the rest, but it's up to you.  The original recipe claims you'll end up with 12 patties in the end.  I had 16, so clearly eyeballing wasn't completely accurate.

Heat up your skillet to medium-high.

When the skillet's hot, put the burgers on (don't crowd 'em) and cook for 3-5 minutes per side or until done to your preference.  Don't forget about safe food temps, please.

You can toast or warm your buns/pita if you'd like.  That's your call.  I toasted the buns quickly on a separate skillet, about 30 seconds per side.  The pita I placed in a 200(F) degree oven for about 10 minutes while the burgers cooked.

To assemble the burgers, place a generous dollop of the date sauce on each bun, along with the patty and any toppings you've selected.

I liked mine with spinach, feta, cucumber slices, and tomato.  The recipe in Bon Appetit recommends caramelized onions (which I skipped since both the sauce and the lamb mix contain onion).  The online menu from Abigail Street says they use goat cheese and mint pesto.  Doc preferred asiago cheese to feta.  Whatev, it's all pretty grand.