When I moved to Athens three years ago, the gourmet burger trend had just made it to Greece. Each week, it seemed, a new burger restaurant opened somewhere in the city which made me feel very content with my new home and I set about trying the eateries with great enthusiasm. In all of my years travelling to and living in Greece—seven at that point—I never believed I would be able to enjoy a great burger and beer directly beneath the Acropolis.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. I’m rather choosy about burgers, you see, and although many of the burger bars I tried offered impressive toppings—kopanisti cheese spread, cured apaki, and graviera cheese—I couldn’t find the burger I was looking for. You might know it. The beef patty is wide and about an inch thick, crusty on the edges and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper. The cheese—no matter the variety—is in a harmonic ratio with the quantity of beef and fuses together toppings like caramelized onions and mushrooms. The bun—brioche or the white Italian variety—is soft, sweet, and slightly absorbs condiments like spicy mayo. Next to this burger should be a draft beer with foam. No exceptions.
I suppose it was silly of me to expect to find this burger in Athens. As I’ve discovered while living far from my native land, a good burger is one of those items that only exists at home like football, cheap ice, and travel-sized shampoo. And perhaps, even if I had found my ideal burger in Athens, it wouldn’t have tasted nearly as wonderful as if I had, say, stumbled upon it in a basement bar during a Cleveland blizzard for the bargain price of $12, including beer and fries. These small things are what make America home. But Greece’s outdoor movies and souvlaki are pretty great too. One of the joys of living in a different country, I’ve found, is discovering how it differs from home.
Keftedes for instance. While I could not find my dream burger in Athens, keftedes (Greek meatballs) are true culinary wonders of the Mediterranean. Slider-sized patties of ground beef and/or pork kneaded with tomatoes, mint, and crumbled barely rusks, keftedes are Greece’s answer to the American burger. With their wholesome ingredients, they seem a little healthier too.
I ate keftedes for the first time on a trip to Lesvos Island. In a tiny taverna flanked by fishmongers, my husband and I sat outside. It was one his favorite tavernas on the island and he insisted we order the specialty, keftedes. Moments later the server brought a platter of crisp-fried meat patties with a tomato salad and some lemon halves. They looked fantastic, but I felt some trepidation. I mean, fried meatballs? As if meatballs on their own weren’t decadent enough. Biting into one, though, I heard a slight crunch in my mouth and detected flavors of ouzo and parsley, altogether different from any American meatball or burger I had eaten. A squirt of lemon made them the ultimate summer lunch and I felt Greek for the afternoon as we sipped Mythos beer and kamikaze moped drivers buzzed by our table.
Keftedes can be made into larger patties, broiled, and eaten as hamburgers. They are fine prepared this way and make for a light meal. For a summer or child’s party, shape keftedes into 1/4 cup patties and fry for a golden, crackly, bite-sized treat. Much of the oil will drain once they rest on paper towels.
I was wrong to have looked for the great American burger in Athens; it would have eluded me even at home. Athens does have keftedes, though, and as long as I can have a portion of three patties and a handful of fries on a sunny day, possibly near a body of water, well, that’s more than enough.
Keftedes, Greek meat patties
*adapted from Aglaia Kremezi’s The Foods of the Greek Islands
5 oz. Barely Rusks (Paximadia)* or whole wheat bread crumbs
2 cups coarsely chopped onions
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped parsley
2/3 cup grated ripe tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes with their juice
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 ½ teaspoons black pepper, or to taste
½ cup packed fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
2 ½ pounds lean ground beef, pork, lamb or a combination
6 tablespoons ouzo, vodka or water
1 cup all-purpose flour
olive oil and sunflower oil for frying
- Wrap the barely rusks in a clean kitchen towel and hit with a rolling pin several times to break them up into small, breadcrumb-sized pieces. In a food processor, combine the crushed rusks or bread crumbs, onions, parsley, grated tomato, pepper flakes, pepper, oregano, and salt. Pulse until thoroughly combined.
- In a separate bowl, mix the meat, the onion mixture, and ouzo; knead with your hands to combine. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 3 hours.
- Pour the flour into a wide, shallow dish. Pat ¼ cup portions of the meat mixture into semi-flattened patties and lightly dredge in the flour. Place the keftedes in a glass baking dish.
- To fry, heat ¾ inch of a combination of olive and sunflower oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium-high heat to 350oF (175oC). Gently place a few keftedes in the oil at a time and cook until golden, turning a few times, about 4 minutes altogether. With a slotted spoon, transfer the keftedes to paper towels. Delicious served hot, warm, room temperature or cold.
- For keftede-style burgers, pat 1/3 cup of meat mixture into round, even patties about 1 inch thick and place in a lightly-oiled glass baking dish. Set the dish under a preheated boiler and broil until browned and cooked through, turning the patties once to ensure even browning. Keftede-style burgers can also be grilled or fried.
*Barely rusks or Paximadia (pax-ee-ma-thee-a) can be found in Greek grocery stores.