Monday, August 31, 2009

ground beef and pistachio kebabs

There are those that believe that ground beef knows no higher calling than a hamburger. I know a few such individuals, and I suspect they would have been quite scandalized when, the other night, Con Queso announced that this beef-pistachio kofte (adapted from Ana Sortun’s Spice) might forever render the burger immaterial. Yes, it was a shocking statement (and, to be fair, one made spontaneously, mid-kofte), but I believe there is some truth to it. Let us then explore Con Queso’s hypothesis in greater detail, weighing the pros and cons of both beef creations:

1. The Meat. Both use quality ground beef. To this, the kofte adds finely ground pistachios. Some might say this compromises the integrity of the meat, but it’s hard to argue with the kofte’s juicy, nutty texture.

1a. The Seasoning. For the burger: salt and pepper. For the kofte: salt, Turkish red pepper paste, Aleppo chilies, cumin, oregano and dried mint. High maintenance? Maybe. Delicious? Absolutely.

2. The Bread. Or, in the burger’s case, the bun. Where burgers are concerned, I am a decided bun loyalist. (Crusty and rustic are two words that should never be applied to a bun.) It is a beautiful example of culinary co-dependence; neither the patty, nor the bun, can stand alone. Kofte, on the other hand, is a more sovereign beast. Customarily, it is folded into pita or paper-thin lavash, but you could also eat the meat by itself. Likewise, good pita has its own special place, independent of the kofte.

3. The Condiments. Traditional burger condiments: Heinz ketchup, lettuce leaves, red onion, tomato, Hellmann's mayonnaise, mustard, and dill pickles. Classic and delicious. Kofte condiments: labne, pickled vegetables, red onions dusted with sumac, mint leaves, and beet tzatziki—a product, not of our own labors, but of Sofra's tasty meze buffet. (For the record, Ana Sortun's beet tzatziki is more delicious than mine.) In both cases, improvisation is common.

4. Companion Dishes. Forget onion rings; french fries are the hamburger’s designated life partner. Well executed, they are truly a thing of beauty. But, to be honest (M., this was a long time coming), I believe that this beauty is never truly transcendent. I would almost always prefer the pleasures of a meze platter over those of a McDonald’s french fry.

So, what is my conclusion? Well, this is something of a doomed experiment, as the result is ultimately one of personal preference. And I am prejudiced by a preternatural love of Middle Eastern food (particularly where Sortun is concerned). Yes, it’s true. While I recognize that both the burger and the kofte have their place—that each is a unique and valuable exercise in texture and flavor—I am decidedly on Team Kofte.

Con Queso, I salute you.

Ground Beef And Pistachio Kebabs

Adapted from Spice, by Ana Sortun

For the kebab spice mix: 

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried mint

1/2 tablespoon Aleppo chilies

1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

For the kofte:

1 pound ground beef (you can also substitute ground lamb)

1 teaspoon Aleppo chili

2 teaspoons Turkish red pepper paste
 (or 1 roasted bell pepper, finely chopped)

1 egg white

1 cup toasted and coarsely ground pistachios

To serve:
Pitas, cut in half

, or lavash
1 cup sliced red onions tossed with sumac

1 cup labne or Greek-style yogurt

1 cup roughly chopped tomatoes

1 cup roughly chopped romaine leaves

8 mint leaves, roughly chopped
Beet tzatziki (optional)

Prepare a charcoal or gas grill. In a small bowl, combine all the spices.

Knead the ground meat with 2 teaspoons kebab spice (reserve the rest for another use), chilies and red pepper in a standing mixer with paddle attachment on medium speed until the meat becomes creamy and a little sticky. (If you don't have a standing mixer, use a food processor fitted with a metal blade, and carefully push the pulse button on and off until the meat becomes smooth. You can also do this by hand, but it will take much longer.)

Add the egg white and pistachios and continue to knead the meat until the mixture comes together again and resembles a wet dough. You can pinch off some meat at this point and cook it to test seasoning. Add salt to taste.

Shape the meat into 8 (2-ounce) short sausage shapes and press each patty into a skewer. Squeeze and shape the kofte into long, thin cigar-shaped meatballs around the skewers. Set aside.

Grill the kofte for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown and cooked through.
Rest the kofte on pita halves. Pass them around the table with bowls of sliced red onions sprinkled with sumac, yogurt, tomatoes, romaine and mint leaves.


  1. the morning after, i regreted my bold statement. but in recent days -- i concur (with myself). these will be served at a bbq next weekend.

  2. Despite my unabashed love of the French fry, I will say this: frizzled onions (that is, lightly battered, crispy onions strings rather than rings) are my dark horse candidate for Best Burger Accompaniment because they work equally well alongside the burger and under the bun. But that is neither here nor there. I would simply say that my ideal scenario would involve BOTH a meze platter AND fries. Hence, Taim.