Even before I'd been to the Northstar Cafe in Columbus, Ohio, I'd heard about their veggie burgers. "They are unlike any other veggie burger you've ever had," I was promised by both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. I'll give you one guess what I ordered when I finally made it to the restaurant myself!
This burger definitely lived up to expectations. It had a deep, savory umami flavor that contrasted nicely with a slice of provolone (I think) cheese, bitter greens, and the buttery toasted bun. I could see bits of beet, black bean, and brown rice in the mix, but no single ingredient overpowered the other.
They also somehow captured that unique hamburger texture, which is greatly lacking in so very many mushy veggie burgers. The exterior was well-seared to give the burger a beautiful crunchy crust and an extra boost of smoky flavor. The interior of the patty was soft and tender, but with enough texture that I actually felt like I was biting into something.
The overall effect was, quite simply, a burger.
Because my addiction was edging toward the unhealthy, I created this recipe in the spirit of the Northstar veggie burger. The key is infusing as much roasty, toasty flavor into the ingredients as possible: roasting the beets, cooking the onions until they're golden and slightly burnt on the edges, using a balance of smoky spices to round things out, and then finally, searing the burgers very well in a hot cast iron skillet to get that flavorful crust. You could also use a well-oiled stainless steel skillet for this step, but a nonstick skillet definitely won't get the same kind of crust. If you want to throw them on a grill, cook them in a veggie basket or other grill-top device so the patties don't break and fall through the grates.
Full disclosure: These burgers are a fair bit of work and hold together best if you make the burger mix, let it chill overnight, and then cook the burgers the next day. To make all the prep work worth my time, I often double, or even triple, the recipe and freeze the cooked patties for quick meals down the road.
→ If you're ever in Columbus, Ohio, be sure to visit Northstar Cafe!
I've gotten a lot of incredible feedback since first posting this recipe — feedback from those of you who tried the recipe, feedback from people who've eaten the original Northstar burger, and even some anonymous feedback from folks who "may or may not" have actually worked in Northstar's kitchens.
Using this feedback, I've re-worked this recipe to make it better, easier, and as close to Northstar's original as we can get in a home kitchen — although not without a few tweaks of my own! Of particular note, I now recommend grating the roasted beets on a box grater, cooking the onions over high heat for deeper flavor, and adding a larger portion of beans for both flavor and to hold the patties together. The smoked paprika was also not in the original version — it adds that final smoky flavor that was missing.
I also toyed with adding an egg to help bind the burger together, but I really like the fact that the burgers are otherwise vegan. As the recipe is written now, the burgers hold together just fine with the oat flour (which also makes these gluten-free!) and the overnight rest, but you can definitely add some egg for some extra insurance if you'd like.
I really love this burger. Enough that I now keep them stocked in my freezer for quick weeknight meals. Even my veggie-suspicious husband asks for seconds. They do take some time to make, which is universal for most veggie burger recipes, but I think they're totally worth it. - Emma
Best-Ever Beet and Bean Burgers
Inspired by the veggie burgers at Northstar Cafe in Columbus, Ohio
Makes about 6 burgers
3 large red beets (about 1 pound)
1/2 cup brown rice (not cooked)
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (gluten-free, if necessary)
2 (15.5-ounce) cans black beans
1/4 cup prunes, chopped into small pieces.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons smoked paprika, to taste
2 teaspoons brown mustard
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 large egg (optional, leave out for vegan burgers)
Salt and pepper
Thin slices of provolone or monterey jack cheese (optional for non-vegan burgers)
6 hamburger buns
First, cook the beets: Heat the oven to 400°F. Wrap the beets loosely in aluminum foil and roast until easily pierced with a fork, 50 to 60 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Cook the rice while the beets roast: Meanwhile, bring a 2-quart pot of water to a boil. Salt the water generously and add the rice. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the rice until it's a little beyond al dente. You want it a little over-cooked, but still firm (not completely mushy). This should take about 35 to 40 minutes. Drain the rice and set it aside to cool.
Begin sautéing the onions when you're done with the rice (or during, if you're OK with multitasking!): Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stir the onions every minute or two, and cook until they are golden and getting charred around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. A few wisps of smoke as you are cooking are OK, but if it seems like the onions are burning, lower the heat. A dark, sticky crust should develop on the bottom of the pan.
Add the garlic and cook until it is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the cider vinegar and scrape up the dark sticky crust. Continue to simmer until the cider has evaporated and the pan is nearly dry again. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Process the oats in a food processor until they have reduced to a fine flour. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
Drain and rinse one of the cans of beans and transfer the beans to the food processor. Scatter the prunes on top. Pulse in 1-second bursts just until the beans are roughly chopped — not so long that they become mush — 8 to 10 pulses. Transfer this mixture to a large mixing bowl. Drain and rinse the second can of beans and add these whole beans to the mixing bowl as well.
Grate the roasted beets: Use the edge of a spoon or a paper towel to scrape the skins off the cooled roasted beets; the skins should slip off easily. Grate the peeled beets on the largest holes of a box grater. Transfer the beet gratings to a strainer set over the sink. Press and squeeze the beet gratings to remove as much liquid as possible from the beets. (You can also do this over a bowl and save the beet juice for another purpose.)
Combine the veggie burger mix: Transfer the squeezed beets, cooked rice, and sautéed onions to the bowl with the beans. Sprinkle the olive oil, brown mustard, 2 teaspoons of smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, and thyme over the top of the mixture. Mix all the ingredients until combined. Taste the mixture and add salt, pepper, or any additional spices or flavorings to taste. Finally, add the oatmeal flour and egg (if using — it helps hold everything together, but isn't 100% necessary), and mix until you no longer see any dry oatmeal or egg.
Refrigerate the burger mix 2 hours, or up to 3 days: Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or transfer the mixture to a refrigerator container, and refrigerate the burger mixture for at least 2 hours or (ideally) overnight. The mix can also be kept refrigerated for up to three days before cooking.
Shape the burgers: When ready to cook the burgers, first shape them into burgers. Scoop up about a scant cup of the burger mixture and shape it between your palms into a thick patty the size of your hamburger buns. You should end up with 6 large patties.
Cook the burgers: Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat. Add a few tablespoons of vegetable oil to completely coat the bottom of the pan. When you see the oil shimmer and a flick of water evaporates on contact, the pan is ready.
Transfer the patties to the pan. Cook as many as will fit without crowding; I normally cook 3 patties at a time in my 10-inch cast iron skillet.
Cook the patties for 2 minutes, then flip them to the other side. You should see a nice crust on the cooked side. If any pieces break off when you flip the burgers, just pat them back into place with the spatula. Cook for another 2 minutes, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for 4 more minutes until the patties are warmed through. If you're adding cheese, lay a slice over the burgers in the last minute of cooking.
Serve the veggie burgers on soft burger buns or lightly toasted sandwich bread along with some fresh greens.
Freezing Burgers: Burgers can be frozen raw or cooked. Wrap each burger individually in plastic or between sheets of parchment paper, and freeze. Raw burgers are best if thawed in the fridge overnight before cooking. Cooked burgers can be reheated in the oven, a toaster oven, or the microwave.
Grilling Burgers: While I haven't had a chance to try grilling these burgers, they are firm enough to do well on a grill, particularly if you cook them in a grill pan or other device. You may also want to add an egg to the mix to help the burgers hold together better.
Making Your Own Beans: Northstar makes their own black beans for their burgers. If you would like to do this, try cooking your beans with an onion, a clove or two of garlic, and some dried ancho or chipotle chile peppers for extra flavor.
This post and recipe have been updated — first published October 2009.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)