Spring is officially here and what better way to usher in the warm weather than to dust off the grill and make some burgers? I’ve been patiently sitting on a vacuum sealed packet of grass-fed ground lamb that the nice folks over at Lava Lake Lamb sent me last month, just waiting for the season to turn and the mood to strike.
Well, today was the day, and after a leisurely picnic in the park, I came home and started thinking about how to spice my Merguez. When it comes to this Moroccan sausage, my inclination is towards something intensely spiced, deeply garlicky, and piquant with the heat of the North African sun.
To get the depth, I started out with some cumin and coriander that I pan roasted until golden brown. Like roasting coffee or caramelizing onions, this changes the flavour profile of the spices, giving them a deeper earthier fragrance. After a whirl in the grinder, I added the spices to a generous helping of grated garlic and a trio of pepper products for the right balance of sweet and spicy heat.
In Japanese cooking there’s a term called kakushi aji which literally translates to “hidden flavour”. It describes a hidden layer of flavour that bolsters the main ingredients in a dish, deftly tweaking your taste buds in just the right way, to elevate the taste of the entire dish. I know these Merguez Lamb Burgers are about as far way from Japanese cuisine as you can get, but kakushi aji is a concept that can be applied to any dish to make it just a bit more complex on the palette.
For my version of Merguez, I’ve added some sumac to give it a hint of tartness. This helps balance out the salty, sweet, spicy, bitter, sour equation without being overtly tangy. I’ve also added a bit of fennel pollen, which has the same anise-like flavour of the seeds, only sweeter and more floral. It’s not a traditional Moroccan ingredient, but it plays off the peppers and garlic nicely.
To finish the burger, I made some curried caramelized onions to add a sweet, jammy counterpoint to the briny sausage. It’s the perfect condiment for this lamb burger, but these onions would be good in a lot of things. It took great restraint not to eat this straight out of the pan with a spoon, and I can imagine eating it on crackers, with cheese, or with some scrambled eggs. Given the amount of time it takes to properly caramelize onions, you might want to double or triple the recipe.
Curried Caramelized Onions
2 Tbs olive oil
2 medium onions
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp lemon juice
Slice the onions as thinly as possible; this makes them caramelize much faster. Add them to a heavy bottomed pan with the olive oil. Add the sugar, garam masala and kosher salt and fry over medium low heat until the onions are a deep brown color (about 40 minutes). If it starts to burn or brown unevenly, turn the heat down. When the onions are done, they should look and taste like a fragrant oniony jam. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice.
Merguez Lamb Burger
1 lb. ground lamb
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp coriander seed
2 tsp sumac
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1/4 tsp fennel pollen (you can substitute fennel seeds)
1 Tbs harissa (plus more for the bun)
3 cloves garlic grated
salt to taste
Put the cumin and coriander seed in a pan over medium high heat and roast, shaking the pan regularly, until dark and fragrant. Use a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle to grind the spices. Combine the roasted spices with the sumac, paprika, cayenne pepper, fennel pollen, harissa and garlic in a bowl and mash together into a paste.
Add the ground lamb and use a fork to mix the paste into the lamb. If your ground lamb is very lean, add a tablespoon of olive oil to keep the meat moist. The spice mixture should be evenly distributed, but avoid over-mixing, or the finished burger will end up dense and chewy. If your harissa is as salty as mine, you won’t need to add salt, but if it’s not, add some salt to taste (put a small piece of lamb mixture in the microwave for a few seconds to cook it before tasting). Shape the lamb into two to four 1/2″ thick patties.
If you made your patties ahead of time and refrigerated, take them out of the fridge about 20 minutes before you are ready to cook them so they come to room temperature; this ensures they will cook evenly. If you are grilling the lamb burgers, get the grill nice and hot and grill each side until golden brown. The burgers are best when cooked to about medium, otherwise they will start to get dry. If you are using a broiler, move the rack to the top position and put a wire rack on a cookie sheet and preheat under the boiler. When the rack is nice and hot, place the patties on it and broil each side until golden brown.
To assemble your burger, toast a bun, put down a thin layer of harissa on one side of the bun, put your merguez lamb burger on the bun and top with caramelized onions. If your harissa is to pasty to spread evenly, just mix it with some olive oil or mayonaise.