In this contest, crab cake passes as a great burger


A burger used to be just beef. Maybe a few onions. But th other day I had "burgers" made with crab, with lamb, and with pheasant.

I also ate some burgers made with ground beef, most traveling with exotic companions like shiitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes or Gorgonzola cheese. One burger I ate had more vegetables than Mr. McGregor's garden.

These were not "backyard burgers," cooked by guys in plaid shorts. These were contest burgers, creations whipped up by chefs in full uniform competing in the Great Burger Build-Off. The event, a benefit for Meals on Wheels, was held last week during a food show put on by Mazo-Lerch food distributors at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Sixteen chefs from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia cooked burgers and fed them to me and nine other members of the eating press who served as judges. We ate three categories of burgers: classic variations, gourmet-ethnic and alternative.

We judges were models of decorum, who after wolfing down the 14th offering, cheered upon hearing the news that a couple of competitors had not shown up.

I'm pretty primal about burgers and found most of my favorite burgers in the classic category, or beef-eater area, of the competition.

I liked the burger made with Black Angus meat mixed with sun-dried tomatoes, olives, Parmesan cheese, and oregano and topped with marinara sauce. It tasted like a beefy pizza. It turned out to be made by Donald Conover of Teddy's Ristorante in Virginia Beach.

A burger topped with barbecue sauce and served with "straw" or twice-cooked onions, also caught my fancy. It was the work of Nancy Longo of Baltimore's Pierpoint Restaurant. It finished second in the classic competition.

I especially liked the ground beef patty topped with Vidalia onion, tomato, and (blush!) alfalfa sprouts. It was made by Michael St. Ledger, executive chef at Loew's hotel in Annapolis. It was the one loaded with vegetables and won first place in the classic category.

To me, "gourmet-ethnic" means the kind of food you serve your fiancee to impress her with your family's kind of cooking. The smoked pheasant burger with honey-glazed onions on grilled focaccia bread would certainly impress future-in-laws.

However, you might need to hire its creator, Danny Dernetz, the sous-chef of Rudys' 2900 restaurant in Finksburg, to make the dish. The pheasant burger calls for about 20 ingredients. It won top "gourmet-ethnic" honors.

Any dish that calls itself an "alternative" scares me. It sounds like protest food. And I try to avoid eating anything cooked in anger.

Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor of the alternative category winner, a Maryland crab burger with lemon caper sauce. It was made by John Bucciero, executive chef of the Old South Country Club in Lothian. Once I read the recipe, I saw another reason I liked this stuff. This burger was a second-cousin to a crab cake, yet bigger.

Crab burger with lemon caper sauce

Serves one.

5 ounces jumbo crab meat, cleaned

1/4 cup bread crumbs

1/4 to 1/2 cup fat-free mayonnaise

1/2 tablespoon minced fresh dill

1 lemon, juiced

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 1/2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon capers

1 1/2 teaspoons white Worcestershire sauce

2 drops liquid hot pepper sauce

Place all ingredients in mixing bowl, toss gently, adjusting amount of mayonnaise to preference. Form into patty, place on baking sheet coated with non-stick cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees 10-15 minutes, until golden brown and heated completely through. Place on fresh onion roll, top with lemon caper sauce.

Lemon caper sauce

1/4 cup fat-free mayonnaise

1/2 tablespoon horseradish

1 teaspoon capers

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, minced.

Mix all ingredients in small bowl until completely blended.

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