By Leslie Kelly

Imagine a thick, juicy burger that's a little bit leaner and good for the planet. That's the genius mission behind the James Beard Foundation's Blended Burger Project, a competition among chefs to bring on their best burger this summer. Visit participating restaurants, try the featured burger and vote for your faves. Everybody wins! (The winning chefs are awarded a trip to the James Beard House in the fall to cook their prize winners. Chefs, sign up here!)

A trio of Blended Burgers prepared as a preview to this summer's competition. Photo by Leslie Kelly

Three Seattle chefs recently showed a group of media and fellow chefs what Blended Burgers might look like at a sneak preview kickoff party at Tilth, one of the handful of restaurants in the country to be certified organic. Host chef Maria Hines did a deep dive on Northwest flavors with her salmon and King Oyster mushroom burger. John Sundstrom, who owns Lark, Bitter + Raw and Slab Sandwich, made a porky burger featuring Maitake mushrooms from Foraged & Found Edibles while Stateside's Eric Johnson tucked enoki mushrooms into a panko-breaded brandade burger. In other words, those chefs blew up the traditional idea of constitutes a burger. All had one thing in common -- well, besides using a heaping helping of mushrooms. They were all super delicious.

Seattle chefs recently served a sneak preview of this summer's Blended Burger Project. Photo by Leslie Kelly

What's A Blended Burger?

The Mushroom Council's culinary team dreamed this healthy/delicious initiative up a few years ago. The basic recipe involves swapping at least 25 percent of the protein (beef, pork, seafood) for finely chopped mushrooms. It's healthier, is better for the planet — raising animals requires a lot of resources including tons of water — and it still tastes great. It's been adopted by some innovative school lunch programs across the country and this is the second year the Beard Foundation is promoting the Blended Burger Project. Mushroom haters might be pleasantly surprised to discover the finely chopped fungi practically disappear in the mix, while, at the same time, providing a meaty texture and an extra shot of juicy. Follow the competition on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #BlendedBurger.

Here's How to DIY

I was so inspired by these awesome Blended Burgers, I decided to play around and make up my own. Please meat my Spicy Italian Sausage Burger! I followed the same ratios as the original from the Mushroom Council, recipe below, though I changed up the way I prepared the mushrooms, roasting them in the oven instead of sauteing. Roasting them mushrooms made for a more intense mushroom flavor. Italian sausage was my base, and to further beef up the good-for-you ingredients, I added sauteed kale.

Making Italian sausage Blended Burger. Photo by Leslie Kelly

Another trick in getting the best results is to handle the mixture with a light touch when forming the patties. This allows them to cook more evenly. I seared the burger in a grill pan, which helps wick away any excess fat. After five minutes on one side, over medium high heat, the pan went into the oven, still warm from roasting the mushrooms and 10 minutes later, the burger was cooked through. I like my beef burgers cooked medium, but when it comes to pork, it's got to be cooked medium well.

The finishing touches involved smoked mozzarella and warmed marinara. I debated with my husband about whether to put the sauce on top or on the bottom bun. Tried it both ways and it didn't seem to matter much, but what was essential was getting a good, hard toast on the bread's surface. A toasted bun means there's a better chance it won't fall apart while you're devouring it. I will definitely make this again, and look forward to eating more Blended Burger in restaurants around the country this summer.

Photo by Leslie Kelly

The Mushroom Council's Classic Blended Burger

1/2 pound cremini or white button mushroom
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound ground beef
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 buns

Finely dice mushrooms or gently pulse in food processor.

In skillet, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat and add mushrooms, sauteing 5-7 minutes or until golden brown. Removed from heat and cool 5 minutes.

Transfer cooled mushrooms to medium bowl. Add ground beef and salt, mixing until combined. Make 4 patties. Add remaining olive oil to pan and cook burger patties on medium-high heat until desired doneness. Plate and add desired toppings to buns.