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The good stuff

Ban blase burgers and up your grilling game

By Judy Hevrdejs, Tribune newspapers

June 1, 2011

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Before you toss the usual burgers on the grill this summer. Before you endure the usual groans from bored burger eaters among family and friends. Do this: Stuff it.

Yep, surprise those blase about burgers, and up your grilling game by tucking a chunk of cheese, a spoonful of sauteed mushrooms or some chopped, grilled red pepper — and more — inside a burger patty before grilling.

Think about stuffed burgers the way cookbook author Sam Zien does: "For me, it's like a little party. Surprise! Here I am. You didn't think there was going to be a piece of feta inside."

The stuffed burger, Zien adds, "has always been an old-school kind of concept."

And a good, reliable one, we might add. The surprise factor has worked every time someone bites into a plump sausage orb dubbed a Scotch egg and finds a hard-cooked egg inside.

And it worked every time your granny tucked a hard-cooked egg or cheese into the middle of the family meatloaf only to elicit giggles from children when the cooked loaf was sliced.

Why, the stuffed burger has long held a place of honor on menus across the country, from the Minneapolis-St. Paul eateries boasting the cheese-stuffed burger called, variously, a "juicy lucy" or "jucy lucy," to New York's Stumble Inn, where five stuffed burgers have helped build its reputation. And cookware stores boast stuffed-burger-making gadgets.

"I love putting things inside (burgers) because certain things inside definitely help with the moistness of a burger," says Zien, who likes stuffed burgers so much he included a recipe in his latest book, "Just Grill This!" (Wiley, $19.95); put a few in his previous cookbooks; and prepared them on his TV cooking show in his San Diego hometown.

He steers clear of wacky concepts, though, recalling when "chefs went wild with it and they started putting foie gras and truffles and maniac stuff like that inside. …That's why God invented restaurants for that kind of food, right?

"Mere mortals at home have a different task in front of us and a different budget."

But before you tackle the inside job, he offers a few burger-making caveats, including buying the right ground beef for grilling which, for Zien, means a mix of 20 percent fat and 80 percent lean.

"People go to the store and see fat content and freak out and it scares them into buying a package of ground beef that has absolutely no fat in it. Then you need to make up for flavor and juiciness in many other ways," he says.

Zien's next caveat? Go easy on handling the meat. "I like the natural-looking shape," says Zien. "Who cares what the shape is? Make it the shape of your Uncle Leon's head, as long as it's an even thickness."

Stuffing can be done two ways. "Make one. Lay the stuff on top — keep it about a half-inch away from sides — then put the other patty on top and squeeze the edges together." Or form a patty, make an indentation with your thumb, stuff and seal.

Then head to the grill, stop flipping it all the time, and don't overcook it.

Some people think "they're not doing their job properly if they just put it on, walk inside and come back four minutes later with a freshened cocktail.

They think they're not cooking," Zien says. "Put it on. Leave it alone. Don't move it around. Down once and leave it — three or four minutes for thick — then flip and give it a little bit less cooking and take the thing off. Keep it juicy."

The lowdown on stuffings -- a few from Sam Zien:

Blue cheese stuffed burgers

Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 6-8 minutes
Servings: 4-6

Note: Adapted from Sam Zien's "Just Grill This!"

Ingredients:
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 teaspoon seasoning salt
2 ounces blue cheese crumbles
2 tablespoons butter, softened
Olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
4 to 6 pretzel rolls or other buns, toasted

1. Mix beef and seasoning salt in a bowl. Form into 4 or 6 burgers. Combine blue cheese and butter in a small bowl; mix well. Make an indentation in middle of each burger with your thumb; fill with some blue cheese mix. Fold burger around the mix; seal well.

2. Lightly oil each patty; season with pepper. Heat grill to medium-high. Cook burgers, 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium-rare. Serve on toasted buns.

Nutrition information:
Per serving (for 4 burgers): 479 calories, 48% of calories from fat, 25 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 130 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbs, 39 g protein, 828 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

jhevrdejs@tribune.com