By Celia Barbour
It’s easy to make my mother happy in July. Give her a burger, the usual condiments, lettuce, tomato, pickle; nothing fancy — no artisanal ginger-tamarind ketchup or brioche buns. Maybe a patio to sit outdoors on, some grandkids for company. Done.
I used to think she was just being thoughtful by suggesting I grill hamburgers when she came to visit. Burgers are so easy, and she often worries that I have too much on my plate as it is. I figured she was trying to save me the trouble of preparing something more elaborate.
But no. She really likes hamburgers. Maybe it’s their frank Americanness, or the fact that everyone can customize their own, with as much crisp lettuce or oozy mayonnaise as they like. Who knows? She can’t explain. To her, their greatness is obvious and I’m the odd one for interrogating her about it.
So okay, I’ll drop it. But if it were up to me — if I was looking ahead to a clear July evening and a tableful of people hankering for something simple and summery — I would not make hamburgers, which I find a bit dull, but rather lamb burgers. To my mind, they are the perfect take on the whole ground-meat-patty thing: super flavorful, rich, and wonderfully balanced, but still easy to make, and iconic enough for this flag-waving time of year.
Lamb is as American as beef, as a matter of fact, which is to say: as American as most of us are, or: sort of. Both sheep and cows are descended from Eurasian ancestors, and both were first brought to the new world by Spaniards. Moreover, sheep have thrived on whatever kinds of rough, rocky terrain this country has thrown at them — from Idaho foothills to California coastline, from boulder-strewn New England meadows to the dusty plains of the American Southwest where the Navajo have been herding them masterfully for centuries.
Yet patriotic as a lamb burger surely is, I have to admit that I like mine best with Greek flavorings — minced garlic, chopped rosemary, and a small squeeze of lemon juice in the meat, and a thin slice of feta, a roasted tomato, and a few mint leaves as garnish. It makes for a magnificent burger — the cool mint and fresh, clean feta balancing out the rich herbal earthiness of the meat.
I like them even more now that slider buns are ubiquitous, and allow you to make (and eat) two or three small burgers rather than one big one. Because when you eat one big burger, no matter how careful you are, the thing turns all chaotic and grisly by the time you get to the last bite — a bite you can barely hold together with your ketchup-drenched fingers.
The name “sliders” seems onomatopoeiac, but is not; you do actually have to chew them. It was first used derogatorily to refer to the small, greasy burgers served at White Castle. The company ignored this insult until 1993, when they decided instead to trademark the name, altering the spelling to “slyders,” and laying claim to their creation. Good for them.
Meanwhile, meatball-size sliders had long been slipping onto high-end restaurant menus, the perfect appetizer for an era obsessed with miniaturization (see Apple for more examples). Made with things like Kobe or Wagyu beef, and topped with foie gras, Asian pickles, or tempura’d tomatillos, they were hardly greasy-spoon fare.
Gourmet sliders are about the right size for an American Girl doll’s supper, but the so-called slider buns I’ve bought locally are really quite medium, with roughly the circumference of ordinary hamburger buns from the 1970s, before supersizing took hold. No matter. They are fine for my little lamb burgers. You see, it’s not all that hard to make me happy, either.
These are good with standard condiments (ketchup, mustard, relish), but especially wonderful with the suggested accompaniments. Glynwood sells ground lamb at its farm store (open 3 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays and 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays).
1 pound ground lamb
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
pepper and salt
8 slider buns
4 ounces feta, thinly sliced (look for French, which is milder)
8 roasted tomatoes
½ cup fresh mint leaves
- In a bowl, thoroughly combine the lamb, minced rosemary, garlic, lemon juice, and pepper. Form into 8 equal balls and use your fingertips to gently press into patties.
- Heat a grill or grill pan. Brush the inside of each bun with olive oil and grill briefly on the coolest part of the grill, just until golden and toasted, about 15 seconds. Set aside. Sprinkle the outside of each patty with salt, if desired. Grill until browned on the outside and still pink within, about 3 minutes per side.
- Place one patty in each bun. Top with feta, a roasted tomato, and 2-3 mint leaves. Serve at once.