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GIVE YOUR BURGERS A LITTLE SPARK Trend: There is something new under the bun: All-American sandwich sizzles with some touches from other cuisines.

Every Saturday night as long as they lived, my mother's family had hamburgers for dinner. She and her siblings, spread across three states and half the continent, served their families hamburgers. Skillet-fried in winter, grill-fired in summer.

My sister and I grew up thinking that everyone had hamburgers on Saturday -- and maybe we weren't so far wrong.

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The history of hamburgers is the history of post-World War II America. Humble origins among fry cooks in diners. Car-hops for the newly social. Drive-ins for the newly mobile. Home grills for the newly affluent. Franchises for the newly entreprenurial. Worldwide empires for the newly international.

And, as Americans' tastes have become more sophisticated, thanks to new waves of immigrants and more foreign travel, the basic burger has gotten more worldly as well. Today's "hamburg sandwich" might be made of emu, duck or salmon. It might be dressed with salsa, marinated in soy sauce, stuffed with cheese or laced with peanut butter.

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Who would know better than Ronald L. McDonald -- the real one -- a Florida resident and scion of the real McDonalds, who created what is possibly the most famous family restaurant concept of the 20th century?

"Who would have guessed that hamburgers would be such an international phenomenon?" McDonald mused from a New York hotel where he was giving interviews to promote his new book, "The Complete Hamburger: The History of America's Favorite Sandwich" (Birch Lane Press, 1997, $18.95).

"I've eaten emu burgers and ostrich burgers. Turkey is big, and textured soy protein." McDonald has traveled the world with his food-consulting business, and everywhere he goes, "people say, gotta try this, this place serves them on English muffins, with this kind of cheese, or in pita pockets -- I'm always interested. When I was in South America I had a tapir burger -- whew, it smelled so bad I could barely eat it. But it tasted good."

He's also sampled hamburgers of buffalo, moose, venison and alligator. "I have a cast-iron stomach," he said, modestly.

Even in upscale restaurants, everyone loves those burgers.

"We sell a surprising amount," said Michael Gettier, of M. Gettier's Orchard Inn in Towson. Even though he offers them only on the bar menu, "some people come in two or three times a week for hamburgers," he said. "And it seems to be picking up."

The M. Gettier version is a traditional half-pound of quality ground beef, wood-fired and served with tomato, lettuce and a "really yummy" kosher pickle -- most people like it with bacon as well -- but he's planning to add vegetarian burgers to the menu soon.

At Mr. Picnic, Peerce's Plantation's casual catering arm, one recent event featured vegetable burgers, said Drew Sinnott, catering director. "There are wonderful fresh vegetables this time of year," he said. Even for traditional burgers, he said, condiments have gotten a little more sophisticated. "We do a whole-grain mustard, and a Dijon mustard. And we use vine-ripened tomatoes, and a slice of [sweet] Vidalia onion."

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Hamburgers are absolutely a favorite request for summer events, he said. "We do hundreds, thousands of them."

Marcel Desaulniers, the Williamsburg, Va., chef most noted for his "Desserts to Die For," is also a burger aficionado, and he wrote a book to prove it: "Burger Meisters: America's Best Chefs Give Their Recipes for America's Best Burgers, Plus the Fixin's" (Simon & Schuster, 1993, $20).

Burger variations include the blues burger, with Maytag blue cheese; the provolone ranger burger on focaccia; the Southern-fried chicken burger with honey-mustard mayonnaise; and the Plymouth turkey burger with cranberry relish.

"Contemporary American chefs have staked a claim in culinary history by revitalizing -- not reinventing -- American regional foods," Desaulniers writes in the introduction. "Likewise, their burgers have been inspired by regional and ethnic pantries as well as local lifestyles." The chefs reflect their customers' preferences, Desaulniers writes. "The food most widely proclaimed as the choice away from work is a burger."

"I love burgers," said Barry Fleischmann, of Innovative Gourmet of Owings Mills. "We do some grill parties," where he serves his signature burger: flavored with Worcestershire sauce, roasted garlic puree, Dijon mustard, fresh cracked pepper and salt. "And, of course, beautiful Maryland tomatoes."

Ronald McDonald, whose life has been bounded by hamburgers, loves them still. "If I didn't get a hamburger steak weekly, that week would be wasted," he said. "Sometimes I revert to my childhood and eat four or five hamburger steaks a week," he said. "I think that hamburgers will always be around."

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So, when you fire up the grill this weekend, you can take the traditional route and know you're in good company. Or you can add a little bit of the world to your holiday table to celebrate the marvelous mixing bowl that characterizes American culinary culture.

Here are some "otherworldly" hamburger recipes for inspiration. Some call for frying the hamburger patties, but any could be cooked over medium to medium-high heat on a grill; if your burgers are likely to crumble, use a grill rack.

The first two recipes are from "The Complete Hamburger" by Ronald L. McDonald.

Garden beef patty

Serves 6

1 1/2 pounds of ground chuck or ground round

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1 cup cooked potatoes, cut in small cubes

1 small onion, chopped fine

1/4 cup cooked carrots, julienned

1/4 cup cooked green bell pepper, chopped fine

1 large egg

1/4 cup evaporated milk

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1 celery rib, chopped fine

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

In medium mixing bowl, combine ground beef, potatoes, onion, carrots, bell pepper, egg, evaporated milk, celery, salt and black pepper. Mix together lightly to form 6 oblong patties. In a large frying pan, melt the butter or margarine over medium heat. Add )) the patties and cook until done to your taste.

"The Complete Burger" author McDonald collected this recipe from chef Patrice Glogg at the Vista Palace Hotel, Cote d'Azur, Monte Carlo.

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The royal burger

Serves 4

1 small white onion

4 spring onions

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup virgin olive oil

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1 teaspoon sugar

2 small seedless tomatoes, or cored beefsteak-type tomatoes, peeled and crushed

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef rump

3 cloves garlic

4 hamburger buns

1/4 pound mozzarella cheese

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sprig of parsley, for garnish

Cut the onions into very thin slices, fry them in the butter until clear and set them aside. Pour half of the olive oil into a frying pan and add the sugar and tomatoes. Cook until soft, then reduce heat and set aside tomatoes. Mix the ground beef with the cooked onions and butter. Form into 4 patties. Set patties aside. Slice the garlic cloves into thin strips and fry in the remaining olive oil.

Remove the garlic from the pan and place the burger patties in the garlic-flavored oil to cook. Cook burgers to desired doneness. Place patty on the bun and cover with cooked tomatoes. Top with mozzarella cheese, top the cheese with fried garlic slices, and serve.

The next recipe is from "Pan-Asian Express: Quick Fixes for Asian-Food Fans," by Barbara Witt (Bantam, 1997, $14.95). She suggests serving the burgers with basmati rice pilaf with currants, or on toasted buns spread with chili or ginger butter.

Coconut hamburgers with cucumber raita

Serves 4

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1 1/2 pounds lean ground chuck

Chinese salt and pepper (recipe follows)

3 garlic cloves, pressed

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon ground coriander

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1/4 cup minced onion

1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon yogurt (see note)

1/2 cup unsweetened grated coconut

1 medium cucumber, peeled and seeded

2 tablespoons yogurt

1 tablespoon minced fresh mint leaves

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2 tablespoons peanut oil

Combine the beef with all the ingredients except the cucumber, yogurt, mint and oil. Form into 8 patties or meatballs. Blot the cucumber very dry and grate on the largest holes of a box grater. Spread the cucumber dice on paper towels to drain some more. Lightly salt the cucumber and then mix with just enough of the yogurt to lightly coat the cucumber. Stir in the mint and set aside.

Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a wok or skillet until very hot. Add the meatballs or patties and fry until golden brown. Drain and serve with the cucumber raita.

Note: If you're concerned about using a raw egg, omit it and use 4-5 tablespoon of yogurt instead.

Chinese salt and pepper

Makes 1/3 cup

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2 tablespoons coarse salt

3 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns

Roast the salt and peppercorns in a dry heavy skillet over medium heat until the salt takes on a golden hue and the peppercorns start to smoke a bit, about 3 minutes. After the mixture cools, grind it in a spice mill or coffee grinder. Store in a clean screwtop spice jar. Keeps indefinitely.

Note: For milder flavor in the burgers, use regular salt and pepper to taste.

The last recipe is from Marcel Desaulniers' "Burger Meisters." It is served on focaccia bread (home-made, or found at Italian or gourmet groceries and bakeries) with strips of fried mozzarella cheese.

Provolone ranger burger

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Serves 6

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup minced onions

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 1/2 pounds lean ground beef sirloin

1/4 cup bread crumbs

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1/2 cup Romano cheese

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

6 1 1/2 -ounce slices provolone cheese

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

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warm olives and tomatoes (recipe follows)

Heat the vegetable oil in a small nonstick saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and saute until tender, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, and cook for 1 minute. Remove the onions and garlic to a dinner plate, and place uncovered in the refrigerator to cool.

In a 5-quart stainless steel bowl, combine the chilled onion-garlic mixture with the ground beef. Add the bread crumbs, Romano, egg, salt and pepper, and gently but thoroughly combine.

Gently form the meat mixture into 6 7-ounce, 3/4 -inch thick burgers. Cover the burgers with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

Grill the burgers over a medium wood or charcoal fire. Cook to the desired doneness: 3 to 4 minutes on each side for rare, 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium, and 8 to 9 minutes per side for well-done. Top each burger with a slice of the provolone and allow it to melt. If you have a cover for the grill, quickly melt the cheese by placing the cover over the grill for a few moments. (This burger may also be cooked on a well-seasoned flat griddle or in a nonstick saute pan over medium-high heat. Cook for about the same amount of time as listed for grilling.)

Remove the burgers from the grill. Brush 12 slices of focaccia with the olive oil. Toast, oil side down, on the grill or griddle or in a nonstick saute pan until golden brown, about 1 minute. Place each burger on the bottom half of focaccia. Top each burger with warm olives and tomatoes. Place top half of focaccia on each burger and serve.

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Warm olives and tomatoes

Makes 3 cups

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

8 fresh plum tomatoes, cored and chopped

1/2 cup ripe olives, pitted and chopped

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2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a medium, nonstick saute pan over medium-low heat. When hot, add the garlic and saute for one minute. Add the plum tomatoes and continue to saute for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the olives, basil and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.

Food safety

A recent conference in Baltimore examined the hazard of bacterial contamination in ground beef. Since 1993, a particular strain of E. coli bacteria has caused thousands of cases of illness and several deaths. Consumers can lessen the risk of E. coli infection by following some simple precautions:

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* Keep all meat refrigerated until just before using.

* Use warm soapy water on all surfaces touched by raw meat. Don't return cooked meat to a platter used for raw meat without washing the platter. Wash all implements and hands after touching raw meat.

* The Baltimore conference recommended cooking meat to medium to well-done. Use an instant-read thermometer and make sure the interior temperature reaches at least 140 degrees.

* Don't leave unused portions, cooked or uncooked, sitting out. Wrap and refrigerate them immediately.

Pub Date: 7/02/97


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