I am a card-carrying beef-loving fool, but even I can’t get enough of the Northstar Cafe Veggie Burger here in Columbus, Ohio. For the first two years that I was in Columbus, I was one of the nay-sayers. How many Northstar visits did I waste saying “Oh it can’t possibly be that great. I’ll just get the Niman Ranch Cheeseburger instead”? I shudder to think.
But being a grad student, I can’t afford to eat out much. And considering that I can’t go to Northstar Cafe in Clintonville without hitting up the Jeni’s Ice Creams three doors down, a night out at Northstar + Jeni’s is easily a $20-per-person date.
Fortunately, dear Jeni Britton Bauer published Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. Not that that lessened the frequency of my visits to Jeni’s–if anything, it makes me feel free to visit Jeni’s any time she debuts a seasonal flavor, parfait/sundae, the Askinosie Hot Chocolate, or whatever else (and you bet I’m all over that because I subscribe to her Salty Caramel blog via RSS and Facebook). But my point is, if I could just get the Northstar Veggie Burger down pat, I could do the full Clintonville Night Out Experience at home and spend my Northstar/Jeni’s nights eating stuff I either can’t, or don’t want to, learn how to make at home.
The problem is that the Northstar Veggie Burger is a tough nut to crack. Even people who know WTF they’re doing, unlike me and my bumbly homemade kitchen experimenting skillz, didn’t seem able to nail it. The burger is an odd combination of smoky but not spicy, sweet but not sugary, and it has the satisfying texture of a meat burger. And honestly, even if I could get the exact ingredients and proportions–which I doubt I have–I’m sure Northstar is sourcing the best possible ingredients, organic/local/artisan etc. (Does that sound like an endorsement of Northstar? It is. I love them and so should you.) But I was still determined to try.
So I started with this recipe at thekitchn.com as an initial baseline. I found another Northstar Veggie Burger knockoff recipe making the rounds that included canned beets–and I just couldn’t see how you’d get the Northstar Veggie Burger texture with wet, slimy canned beets. So back I went to the recipe at TheKitchn.com, and I sifted through that blog post’s comments to identify potential recipe improvements. There were many suggestions, some from people who’d tried that recipe and some from Northstar insiders or suppliers shedding light on the original recipe. Among their suggestions were to double the amount of brown rice, add dried prunes to impart sweetness and texture, include yellow mustard and chipotle puree as part of the spicy kick, use spelt flour for the binding agent to get a mild nutty flavor that can’t be captured by other flours or ground oats, etc.
I combined many of those suggestions and made a Version 1.0 knockoff burger. It was close-ish to the Northstar original, but close-ish the way that your rebound boyfriend is close-ish to the boyfriend you were trying to replace: not sweet enough, too fall-aparty, definitely not smoky enough, and the ingredients I’d used to impart some smoke flavor had made the thing WAY too spicy. I took the month off to pursue other projects (like, you know, my graduate school work and Christmas and stuff). I thought about what had gone wrong in Version 1.0. I brainstormed improvements.
And today, I tried Northstar Knockoff Veggie Burger Version 2.0. It isn’t precisely the same as the original, but it is DAMN close. If you’re a fan of the original, I think you’ll be very happy with this one.
Some of my improvements for this round:
1. It’s white cheddar cheese on top, not provolone. It says so on the Northstar menu, which describes the burger as “made with organic brown rice, black beans and beets, topped with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion.”
2. A source who shall remain nameless tipped me off to a ninja ingredient in this burger: adzuki beans, a sweet Japanese bean variety that grows well in Ohio and is widely available at our local farmer’s markets. When you cut into a finished Northstar veggie burger, it LOOKS like it’s all black beans–and the Northstar menu sort of suggests that it is–but I felt my Version 1.0 burger was a bit “flat” with just black beans, and the tipoff I got about adzuki beans made a huge difference in the umami/sweetness and texture. The dark red and thin exterior of the adzuki bean is easily masked by the fuschia-colored beet juice, and the adzuki bean’s interior looks similar to the interior of a black bean. And if you noticed the Northstar burger’s subtle sweetness, you’d probably chalk it up to the diced pitted prunes or some other red herring theory (like molasses or barbecue sauce, which seems popular in other knockoff recipes). But I think it’s the prunes AND the adzuki beans that make the sweetness. I’m using a 1:1 ratio of black beans and adzuki beans, which seemed as good a guess as any.
We know Northstar is sourcing their black beans from Shagbark Seed and Mill, so I bought my Adzuki Beans and spelt flour from Shagbark too. Really nice folks, by the way. I patronize them at the Clintonville Farmer’s Market and the Worthington Winter Farmer’s Market. Check them out on Facebook too.
3. It was a trick to get smoky flavor without too much spice and without the over-concentrated smoke taste of liquid smoke. So I smoked the onion before dicing it (well really I threw it in the food processor to “dice it”–I’m a cook, not a chef), plus I added a food processed chipotle chili in adobo sauce (from a can), plus I sauteed more diced onion with an ancho chili before adding it to the simmering bean water.
Smoking the onion was, admittedly, a pain in the ass since I don’t own a smoker and 35 degrees = too cold for me to relish the thought of smoking onions on my gas grill. But I was already already smoking salmon on my stovetop in a roasting pan (to make this knockoff of the J. Alexander’s Smoked Salmon Dip, if you were wondering), so I smoked the onion for this–and it was WELL worth the flavor boost. Possibly you could get the effect with liquid smoke or roasting the onion with hickory oil, but I haven’t explored that. If YOU do, for goodness sake leave a blog comment about it!
For that matter, if you try this burger and have ANY feedback, please leave a comment! I am not a professional cook and I’m sure there are ways to improve this bad boy. In particular, I have omitted two ingredients from TheKitchn.com’s version and I would be interested to hear from folks who added them back in: 2 TBSP cider vinegar and 2 TBSP fresh parsley. I figured the mustard was covering that same ground as the vinegar but doing it better than the vinegar had, and I omitted the parsley because I could neither taste nor see it in the original Northstar veggie burger nor in my Version 1.0 knockoff.
Yield: A lot, like at least 6 to 8 large patties. Fortunately the burger mix keeps in the fridge for 5 days to a week. Ask me again in a few weeks about trying to freeze the patties so that I can vacuum pack them.
1 cup brown rice
Scant 1/2 cup dried black beans
Scant 1/2 cup dried adzuki beans
2 medium onions, one to smoke and one to saute. (Note: I used yellow onions, but I want to try Vidalia in the future)
3 large red beets, fresh, about 1 pound total
3-4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup dried pitted prunes
Juice from 1/2 lemon (or 1.5 tsps lemon juice if you’re not using a fresh lemon)
1 dried ancho chili
1 teaspoon dried coriander
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup spelt flour as binder
1 chipotle chili pepper in adobo sauce (from a can)
1 heaping tablespoon yellow mustard (I used French’s Brown Spicy because that’s what I had on hand. I’m sure Northstar uses some organic homemade blah blah blah.)
salt and pepper to taste
Northstar original toppings: white cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion.
Prep/Mise en Place
Smoke the onion. I use a stovetop smoking technique with hickory chips from the hardware store, a sturdy roasting pan, and a ton of aluminum foil.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Scrub the beets clean, then dry them off (hint: leave the beet greens on during cleaning. They get in your way, but it’s better than having pink staintastic beet juice running out from where you cut off the greens.) Then remove the beet greens, lightly coat the beets with olive oil, and place beets in an oven-safe pan. Roast for 30 minutes. (PS, beet greens are yummy too. You could saute them n’ stuff.)
Sautee 1 onion with half an ancho chili (the half that has less seeds). Take the half that has the stem/seed base on it and scrape off most of the seeds. Save that scraped-off half of the chili for your rice.
Prepare brown rice on stovetop or with a rice cooker. If you only need enough for this one recipe, try 2/3 cups rice + 1 1/3 cups water. Add the butt end of the chili, scraped mostly clean of seeds, to your rice cooking water.
Sautee one small onion with half a dried ancho chili, the lower half that doesn’t have tons of seeds in it. Add this onion-chili mix to whichever dry bean preparation method you prefer: slow cooker, stovetop, whatever. I’m a 90 minute beans girl myself.)
Assemble the burger
In a food processor, process the garlic cloves until minced. Add the canned chipotle chili and dates and process a little more. Add the beets + smoked onion and pulse until the texture looks right. You know, like veggie burger.
In a large bowl, mash the bean mixture. Add the coriander, thyme, lemon juice, and yellow mustard. Add the brown rice + the food-processed ingredients and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add 1/2 cup of spelt flour or however much it takes to get the burger texture you like. This will never be a “firm” or “tight” burger–the Northstar original isn’t either–but you want it to hold a patty shape in your hand so that it’ll have a fighting chance of maintaining a patty shape in the pan.
Heat a cast-iron skillet to medium high heat. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to completely coat the bottom of the pan. When you see the oil shimmer, the pan is ready.
Using your hands, scoop up about one cup of burger mix. Shape into a fairly flat patty, about 5/8″ thick. Cook the patty for about 2 minutes, then flip to the other side. If desired, place the white cheddar slide on the freshly flipped burger so the cheese has time to melt. Cook the second side for another 2 minutes; I close the lid during the second side to help the cheese melt. (Note: Everything in this burger is already cooked before it hits the pan, so you’re really just pan-frying for texture and crispyness. Sometimes I will let my burger go longer to make it extra crispy on the outside, but that’s not authentic to the original Northstar burger).
Serve fresh on some kind of awesome burger bun. I use Linda Watson’s Good Burger Bun recipe from the Wildly Affordable Organic cookbook, but do what you like. I serve mine with homemade mayonnaise, which is not as painful to make as you think. For maximum Northstar Cafe authenticity, toast your burger bun under the broiler before adding the burger and top with tomato, onion, pickle, and lettuce greens.