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Home with the Lost Italian: Tony's Italian Bison Burgers satisfy

Italian bison burgers and fixings between a regular bun, left, and an onion bun. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 5
Raw bison meat mixed with cheeses is shaped into patties before being grilled. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 5
Italian bison burgers and fixings between a regular bun, left, and an onion bun. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 5
Italian bison burgers are started on the grill for grill marks and finished in an oven to proper temperature. Dave Wallis / The Forum4 / 5
Toppings for the grilled Italian bison burgers includes lettuce, roasted red peppers, pickled banana peppers, grilled onions and tomatoes.Dave Wallis / The Forum5 / 5

Last week Giovanni and I had a craving for grilled burgers, so we encouraged Tony to heat up the grill and make them for us. "Wouldn't bison burgers taste great right now?" we suggested. Luckily for us, he agreed, and in just one shopping trip and an hour later we were eating Tony's Italian Bison Burgers — or what I now call one of the best burgers I've ever enjoyed.

Bison meat is extremely versatile and has a variety of nutritional benefits that should inspire you to add this red meat to your diet. Not only is it a great source for protein and iron, but bison is also lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork, lamb and even skinless chicken.

We've been playing with bison meat a good deal this summer, but this was the first time we'd ever cooked with ground bison , which we found in the frozen meat section of our local grocery store. When we make burgers with ground beef we always buy it 85/15 — meaning 15 percent fat content—because we find the 90/10 ground beef just too dry for our taste. So I wondered how the bison, with its lower fat content, would fare in comparison.

With this in mind, Tony decided to put an Italian spin on his bison burgers and worked three different cheeses into the ground meat mixture. This not only added great flavor to the burgers, but helped to keep them from drying out as they cooked. He chose Italian cheeses with good melting properties so that they would easily blend into the burger without overpowering it.

Tony used ½ cup of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, which has a subtle punch of flavor and is creamier and less intense than other blue cheeses. Then he added 1/3 cup of grated fontina, which is smooth and mellow, as well as 1/3 cup of grated Parmesan, which is nutty, sharp and distinctly Italian in flavor.

He threw in a few minced garlic cloves, some oregano and basil, a little olive oil and ½ cup of finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Tony prefers dried herbs for this recipe, as they disperse more evenly through the meat mixture than fresh herbs. The sun-dried tomatoes are a great flavor partner for Gorgonzola cheese, and you can use a food processor to ensure that they are finely chopped, which prevents them from taking over the flavor profile of the burger.

To ensure maximum moisture, Tony starts his burgers on the grill over direct, high heat and cooks them for about 2 minutes on each side, until grill marks are evident. Next, and this is important, he transfers them either to a 400-degree oven, or moves them to indirect heat on the grill, for another 5 to 6 minutes, until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 130 degrees.

To ensure doneness and avoid overcooking, Tony always uses a meat thermometer when cooking meat, regardless of the variety. Because of its low-fat nature, bison cooks more quickly than beef and is best enjoyed medium-rare or medium, as it will become dry and tough when cooked to higher temps.

Tony served his bison burgers with roasted red pepper aioli, grilled red onion, sliced tomatoes, pickled banana peppers and green leaf lettuce. These burgers were juicy, succulent and full of flavor, and didn't even need ketchup or mustard. Gio made a quick and easy tomato sauce to put on his bison burger and called it a Sloppy Italian, and Tony called the entire experiment a success.

Tony's Italian Bison Burgers

Makes 6 to 8 burgers

Ingredients

2 pounds ground bison meat

½ cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

1/3 cup fontina cheese, grated

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon dried (or ground) oregano flakes

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon dried basil flakes

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

In a large mixing bowl, use your hands to mix the ingredients together until well combined, at least 5 to 8 minutes, even longer if possible. The more you mix ground protein, the tenderer the meat will be.

Divide the mixture in 6 to 8 even parts and form into patties of equal size. Cook on the grill over direct, high heat for 2 minutes on each side, until grill marks are achieved. Finish cooking over indirect, high heat or in a 400-degree oven, covered, for about 5 to 6 minutes until an internal temperature of 130 degrees is reached to achieve a perfect medium-rare. Use a meat thermometer to ensure doneness and prevent over-cooking.

For best results, remove from grill or oven and let the burgers rest for 3 to 5 minutes before serving.

To serve, top with sliced tomato, grilled red onion, pickled banana peppers, green leaf lettuce and roasted red pepper aioli, or warm tomato sauce for a Sloppy Italian.

Tony's Tips:

• The bison mixture (and patties) can be prepared in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before using.

• Dried herbs are best for this recipe as they disperse more evenly than fresh herbs.

• Bison meat is low in fat and cooks quickly, so always use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. While the USDA recommends ground meat be cooked to an internal temperature 160 degrees, with safe food handling practices, 130 degrees will be a perfect medium-rare.

• Use a food processor to finely chop the sun-dried tomatoes. If using a dry variety, be sure to soak them in water for 15 minutes to rehydrate before chopping.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 10-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine//thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

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