Welcome to the 2014 Burger Toppings Week! If you haven't seen Kenji's amazing creations from prior years, it's worth perusing them for even more fully-loaded ideas.
To kick this week off, I'm going straight to the heart of Italy—Rome, to be more specific—with a burger that's topped with a tomato-onion condiment, a Pecorino Romano cheese crisp, and bacon, all inspired by the city's famed amatriciana sauce. You see, I've had a love affair with amatriciana since I first learned to make it many years ago. To be honest, I'm happy to ditch the spaghetti and bucatini it's typically served with and just eat it with a spoon.
While amatriciana is traditionally made with onions, guanciale (cured pork jowl), and tomatoes, many renditions substitute easier-to-find pancetta instead.* But because I was borrowing these flavors for a burger, I decided that sticking with tradition was a completely absurd idea. So, for ease and also a lovely smoky flavor, I reached for bacon instead of the guanciale or pancetta, and then deconstructed the sauce from there.
Purists question the inclusion of onion and tomato and almost everything else except the guanciale and cheese, but I'm sticking with the version that includes all that good stuff because it's delicious.
As Kenji has outlined in his principles of burger toppings, a good combo of toppings should include contrasting textures and flavors. While I could have just made a standard amatriciana sauce and spooned it on a burger, that wouldn't have delivered much in terms of textural contrast, so I looked for a solution in each of the deconstructed components.
I started by cooking the bacon slices in a pot, to render their fat and crisp them up (crispy bacon, texture number one!). Then I took the bacon out to drain, and used the rendered fat left behind to cook sliced onions and garlic with some crushed red pepper flakes until they turned tender and sweet. Next, I added in canned tomatoes, crushing them up with a spoon, and cooked the whole thing down until I had a chunky sauce with a ketchup-y consistency. I finished it off with a generous grating of fresh black pepper. If you use a wide enough pot, this won't take too long. (Tomato-onion condiment, texture number 2!)
Meanwhile, I grated Pecorino Romano cheese, arranged it in circles on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat, and tossed them in a low oven until browned. Once they cool down, the cheese hardens into a crisp known as a frico (texture number 3!).
Once all the parts were ready, I cooked the patties—in this case I thought a 6-ounce patty of freshly ground 80 percent lean beef chuck seemed about right to stand up to the bold flavors of the toppings—and then assembled the burgers on warmed focaccia bread, which I had cut down to the size of the patties.
I like how the tomato-onion condiment mirrors ketchup, but with a little bit of heat and a distinctly Italian flavor, while the bacon straddles the line between a classic bacon-topped burger and the amtriciana theme I was going for here. The cheese crisp, meanwhile, adds a shattering texture and pop of salty pecorino flavor.