Stealth Health

Pre-cooked burgers with a little prune puree mixed in lose fat and calories. And students don't even know they're eating them.

November 10, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Prunes and hamburgers may seem as unlikely a couple as David Copperfield and Claudia Schiffer.

But the Quik 'N Juicy Burger, also known as the pruneburger, has unified the maligned fruit and the American classic for the first time.

The Montgomery County school district introduced this alternative to the all-beef patty last week.

But students don't know what they're eating. It's not as though a wrinkly prune is now tucked inside a bun. The amount of puree is so minuscule -- one-tenth of one prune per burger -- that the school system sees no reason to publicize the added fruit.

If kids knew, says Kathy Lazor, director of food and nutrition services for Montgomery County, they'd most likely "make a funny face and not like it."

But judging from a taste test held at The Sun, prune prejudice is learned.

We assembled our own group of six experts -- a family of four from Hampden, a chef and a nutritionist -- all of whom knew exactly what they were getting into.

The youngest critic, 8-year-old Andrew Nelson, was the most enthusiastic. He ate three pruneburgers. Between bites, he described the 3 1/2-ounce patty as "good, spicy and wonderful."

Then he paid the pruneburger the ultimate compliment. Andrew proclaimed it better than McDonald's.

Better than McDonald's? Hello McPrune.

Such reviews thrill Peggy Castaldi, spokeswoman for the California Prune Board.

She blames the press for giving prunes a bad rap. After all, the media first dubbed these "pruneburgers," continuing the long history of ridicule that the fruit has endured since being marketed as a laxative in the '20s, '30s and '40s.

So, how did the burger meet the prune?

About three years ago, a surplus of prunes left members of the board dreaming up new ways to use the fruit's puree. It was already being used to add moisture to brownies and other baked goods. Someone suggested mixing it into school burgers, long reviled for being dry. (A couple years ago, a cherry surplus resulted in cherry burgers. The pinkish hue was a turn-off to some, although they are still served at a few schools.)

Pruneburgers are manufactured by Quik-To-Fix, a Dallas-based meat processing company that also supplies all-beef burgers to schools. Quik-To-Fix's pruneburgers are healthier than their all-beef counterparts. The all-beef burgers have 286 calories, pruneburgers have 210. The all beef are 22.4 percent fat, the pruneburger, 13.9.

"It's a no-brainer for the schools," Castaldi says.

In Montgomery County, students were already gobbling up puree-moistened cookies and brownies, fully aware of the prune's presence, Lazor says. Considering that, the pruneburger ($1.30) didn't seem like such a stretch.

Early reviews have been positive. And, although the school never announced the new ingredient, Lazor says any parent can call and ask questions.

"I don't know anyone who's allergic to prunes," she says.

On The Sun's panel, Andrew's older sister Delancey, 12, said she'd prefer these prune-spiked patties to the burgers served at her school -- Grace and St. Peter's in Baltimore. Andrew, who attends St. Pius X in Towson, agreed.

But the older judges weren't as pro-pruneburger.

Rounding out the group were Andrew and Delancey's parents, David, 44, a graphic artist, and Alice Greely-Nelson, 44, a visual merchandiser. Plus, we threw in nutritionist Colleen Pierre, and Brian Greene, a sous chef at McCormick & Schmick's.

Greene doubled as cook and critic, dabbing water on the patties and nuking them in the microwave for about a minute each.

Greely-Nelson favors the pruneburger over soyburgers, and could see herself tossing a couple in the microwave on a busy night. She's no stranger to the wonders of prune puree. She's tasted it in brownies and even adds a dollop or two to her Moroccan chicken recipe.

The burger "doesn't taste like cardboard," she says. "It has kind of a sausage texture, like a sausage patty."

Pierre says she would only pop a pruneburger under very specific circumstances.

"If you served it to me, I'd eat it," she says.

The pruneburger is only one in a long line of the culinary curiosities she has sampled.

"First there was grilled bologna, then the pruneburger," she says.

Greene said the ideal pruneburger preparation would include cooking it in a pan and searing it in seasonings. Greene, a real beef snob ("I'm used to a much different grade of beef"), admitted the patties had a pleasant aroma and nice garlic undertones.

David Nelson believes condiments are key.

"Put a piece of cheese on it, it should be OK," he said, enjoying, or, rather, enduring his burger with some ketchup.

All of the tasters agreed that the prunes were undetectable. But these patties aren't likely to trick anyone into thinking they're munching real beef.

"You won't mistake it for a regular burger," Pierre says. She points out the pruneburger's uniformity and elasticity. All-beef burgers tend to break apart, she says.

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