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Mar 1, 2011
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Wine With . . . Patty Melts

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

We still have a few months to go before we can savor those perfect summer evenings with the table set under the stars and the mouth-watering scent of grilled hamburgers wafting through the air.  In the meantime, we thought it would be fun to come up with a winter variation of burgers on the grill.  Indoor cooking was the goal, and we wanted to stick with the ground-beef-and-bread theme.  At the same time we craved something with a little more pizzazz than a simple broiled burger on a bun, and we also wanted the result to be an exceptionally flattering partner for red wine.  Among the standard variations on the theme that we considered were sloppy Joes and meatloaf sandwiches, but then it hit us: patty melts! 

A patty melt sandwich is one of the tastiest examples of comfort food, even for people who didn’t have the childhood experience of enjoying them at one of the 500 or so Friendly’s restaurants that were scattered across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States in the 1960s and ‘70s.  The standard patty melt components include ground beef topped with melted Swiss cheese, or cheddar as an acceptable variation, plus fried onions (the addition of sautéed mushrooms is ok too).  But what really makes this stand out in the world of burgers is the unique flavors and crunch of the toasted rye bread.  The bread absorbs the amalgam of onion and meat juices along with the oozing melted cheese, transforming the whole thing into an incredibly savory, finger-licking dining experience.

Patty Melts

(Makes two sandwiches.)

To heighten and brighten the ground beef flavors we incorporated minced capers and cornichons into the meat, but you certainly could leave these ingredients out, or even substitute another kind of pickle.  Chopped sun-dried tomatoes and/or a hint of anchovy are other additions that can add depth of flavor to the beef before it gets cooked.   And of course adding bacon to just about any recipe is usually a good idea, but it does change the flavor profile considerably.  The burgers themselves could obviously be grilled, but you would lose some of the richness of pan-fried meat.

1 pound ground beef (85/15 or 90/10)

2 teaspoons drained capers

2 cornichons

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

salt and pepper

1 medium onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 tablespoons butter, divided use

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

4 slices rye bread

¾ cup grated Swiss cheese

1 tomato, thinly sliced and lightly salted

Place the beef in a medium-sized bowl.  Mince the capers and cornichons together and add them to the beef.  Add the mustard and season lightly with salt (keeping in mind that the capers and cornichons will be salty).  Grind in a little pepper.  With your hands, mix all the ingredients together.  Divide the mixture in two, and form into two oval patties about the size and shape of the rye bread. 

Peel the onion and cut it into thin half-moon slices.  Place a skillet, preferably non-stick, over medium heat and add one tablespoon of the oil and one of butter.   When the butter has melted add the onions and balsamic vinegar.  Cook them, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft and slightly caramelized.  Remove them to a bowl, then add the remaining oil to the pan.  Increase the heat to medium high and add the burgers. Fry them to desired doneness (for medium rare, cook about 3-4 minutes on each side). Meanwhile, place a sturdy skillet (we like cast iron) over medium heat.  Butter one side of each slice of bread and place the slices, buttered side down, in the hot skillet.  Cook for a few minutes until the underside of the bread starts to brown.  Divide the cheese between two of the slices of bread.  When the meat is done, place each patty on top of the bread with the cheese on it.  Top each with half the onion mixture, add the tomato slices, and the top piece of bread.  Press down firmly on the sandwiches, cut each one in half, and serve immediately.   

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We quickly discovered that the red wines that paired best with these juicy, buttery sandwiches (be sure to have lots of napkins on hand) were ones with juicy, fruit-forward personalities of their own.  We tried some drier, more austere and earthy reds, but these proved disappointing – as did both lighter-bodied ones and wines with noticeably firm tannins. Equally important was texture, as the wines that fared well were both full-flavored and soft on the palate.  They felt lush and seemed juicy, not unlike the sandwiches themselves.



Approx. Price



Brazen, Lodi (California)

Zinfandel “Old Vine” 2008





Rich and ripe, with more than a hint of sweetness, coming from both the bright raspberry fruit flavors and the briary, spicy notes in the finish, this is an energetic wine, with a fresh, lively personality that complemented the equally exuberant sandwiches very nicely.



Nine Stones, Barossa (Australia) Shiraz 2009 (Imported by Vineyard Brands)





Though the flavors are different, being darker, more akin to plums and dark cherries, and the spice notes in the finish seem more savory, this wine was much like the Brazen Zinfandel in being so high-spirited and lively. 



Bodega Septima, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec 2009

(Imported by Avenius Brands)





Surprisingly nuanced given its low price, this wine’s bright plum and berry fruit flavors were enhanced by echoes of licorice in the bouquet and mocha in the finish.  Most impressive was its almost velvety texture, something that made it very easy to enjoy.



Souverain, Alexander Valley (California) Merlot 2007






More deeply-flavored than many Merlots yet still satisfyingly soft on the palate, this wine brought a sense of depth to the pairing without ever seeming heavy or ponderous.



Stuhlmuller Vineyards, Alexander Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2008





The most expensive wine from the set of thirteen that we tried, this was a a clear winner.  Fully ready to drink, it tasted rich and ripe, and felt sensuously smooth and supple.  Its deep fruit and wood flavors proved very satisfying.