Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Pennsylvania II - A cheese steak just isn't a cheese steak... (or "The Philadelphia [Cheese Steak] Story")

When food fans thinks of Philadelphia, two things come to mind: cream cheese and cheese steaks (twice with the cheese).  I've eaten much more of the former, on bagels, in cheesecakes, even in maki rolls.  But the famous cheese steak is a sandwich I haven't eaten many of.  That changes below.

Official Name: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
State Nicknames: The Keystone State, The Quaker State
Admission to the US: December 12, 1787 (#2 - Delaware beat 'em to the punch)
Capital: Harrisburg (9th largest)
Other Important Cities: Philadelphia (largest), Pittsburgh (2nd largest), Allentown (3rd largest), Erie (4th largest)
Region: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest; Middle Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT NationsMaple SyrupClambakeCrabcakeChestnutWild Rice
Bordered by: Maryland & the Mason-Dixon Line (south), West Virginia (southwest), Ohio (west), Lake Erie (northwest), New York (north & northeast), New Jersey & the Delaware River (east), Delaware (southeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: white-tailed deer (animal), milk (beverage), ruffed grouse (bird), chocolate chip cookie (cookie), brook trout (fish)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: German & Amish foods; Polish & Eastern European foods; pretzels, water ice, hoagies & Philly cheese steaks (particular to Philadelphia); city chicken, halupki halušky, chipped ham, kielbasa (particular to Pittsburgh); scrapple; Hershey's chocolates; birch beer; Herr's Potato Chips, Hanover Pretzels & (yes) Utz Potato Chips; people (if you're an extra in a George Romero movie, that is - the big ones were all filmed near Pittsburgh)

Swing from western PA to eastern PA, and discuss the foods of Philadelphia, city of brotherly love.  This includes pretzels, water ice and of course Philly cheese steaks.

I've been to Philly enough - it's just two hours up 95 after all.  And yes, I've eaten a lot up there: Egyptian food, Irish food, ice cream, hot dogs, a myriad of plates full of whatever at the Reading Terminal Market (just before a visit to the Franklin Institute, or after a visit to the creeptastic Mütter Museum no less).  But I haven't really ever tried the cheese steaks.  This has spared me from making the fateful choice between the city's fabled competing cheese steak stands, Pat's vs Geno's (or were they actually fighting?  Maybe not after all...)  Yes, I know I'm not from Philly, and yes, I know that Baltimore, with its weird mish-mash of Northern, Southern and generic Chesapeake foods, is a major hub for "Philly (style) cheese steaks.  But since i haven't eaten many in Philly, I can only assume that ours are mere shadows of the real thing.  Probably the same can be said for the one I made below.  Actually scratch that - I know you can say that.

But I wasn't sure just how easy or difficult it was to make a Philadelphia cheese steak.  It can indeed be done - whole online forums are devoted to the subject.  The matter they debate is not about assembly, or even whether to use provolone or Cheez Whiz.  They debate how to slice the meat, and what meat to use.  Most forums, such as this one on Chowhound, specify a rib eye roast of at least a few pounds.  The rib eye roast, which is apparently the most tender to use, needs to be at least partially frozen to enable easier slicing.   In addition, the forums recommend a meat slicer.  I know my family has one, but I have no idea where this thing is.  And I don't have an extra $70 - $300 to buy a new one.  So a $20 electric knife will have to do.

The Recipe: Philadelphia Cheese Steak

The recipe I use is from Pat's King of Steaks.  They give an easy recipe to the Food Network that I attempt to replicate below.  You will need:

* beef roast (preferably rib eye; I got about 1 3/4 lbs of eye round for about $4 a pound)
* vegetable oil to fry up the veggies in; I had this)
* onion (had one)
* mushrooms ($2.50 for a small tub)
* green & red bell peppers (at first I planned to buy one each, roast them and fry them in oil, but buying the jar of pre-roasted pre-oiled peppers for about the same price - $4 - and this saved me an extra step or two at that)
* provolone and/or Cheez Whiz (I had neither, and wanted to try the cheese steak using both.  A half pound of provolone was about $4, as was one jar of Cheez Whiz, which I didn't realize was in the refrigerated section)
* ketchup (had it)
* Italian rolls (a package at Harris Teeter was another four bucks) 

First, leave your roast, uncooked, in the freezer for at least a few hours.  This will make it easier to carve.  Even after leaving it in for two hours, it didn't really get too hard.  I tried it in a semi-semi-frozen state.

I knew going in that the beef would never be truly as thin as I wanted it to be, since I didn't have a hand slicer.  But I did try my best to get it as thin as possible.

The pieces wound up being about this thin.  So already this won't be as thin as I want it.  But it's as good as I will get it.

Next, slice an onion thinly.

Heat some vegetable oil on a flat surface - a griddle, a grill or (once again) my trusty 12" cast iron skillet.

Fry the onions until slightly brown.

When they get like this, remove them... you can fry the beef.

It won't take long to cook the beef through, though had the beef been thinner it probably would've cooked faster.

I wanted to try the cheese steaks with both provolone and Cheez Whiz.  The provolone is easy to use: just put it on the cheese steak.  But I don't usually work with Cheez Whiz, so I had to go the extra step of heating it up to a pourable consistency in the microwave.  I found that I had to reheat it since it re-solidified by the time I needed it.  That's just not natural, dude.

Take out the beef and cook the mushrooms.

Add the peppers, and what the hell, add the onions too.  Pat's recipe does not say to cook the onions with mushrooms or peppers.  It assumes those are already cooked.

Now to assemble your cheese steak.  First place the meat on your Italian roll, which of have to cut in half of course.

Next add the onions (had I cooked them separately, the mushrooms and peppers would go on last).

Then comes the cheese.  I decided to make half provolone and half Cheez Whiz, and divide the sandwich in half..

Top this with a little ketchup.  This didn't look right but the recipe never said where exactly to put it, so there it goes.

There you have it: my own version of Pat's King of Steaks' cheese steak.  Granted it's certainly nothing like the original, or their competitor's version.  I found it kind of messy to eat - had I put it inside some sort of paper wrapping I could have kept it from falling apart.  It didn't completely fall apart, though a few bits of beef did fall out, or off, here and there.  It was a jam-packed sub, that's for sure.  The beef was a little chewy, which would not have been a problem had I been able to slice it thinner.  As to the question of provolone vs Cheez Whiz?  I have to go with the provolone.  I found the Cheez Whiz to be surprisingly bland.  In comparison, provolone is too, but I just liked it better.  That said, I now have a jar of Cheez Whiz I need to find something to do with.


Amish America.  "What do Amish eat?"  Copyright 2010 Amish America, All rights reserved.

Amish Homestead Cookbook.  Tourist cookbook, date of publication unknown.  "American Civil War Recipes: Union Hardtack and Confederate Johnnie Cakes".  Date unknown.  Copyright 1997-2012, maintained by Central Design Lab. All articles are public domain and clearly credit and link to the author when possible.

Batz, Bob, Jr. "Pittsburgh sticks with loving 'City Chicken'".  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published March 30, 2012.  Copyright ©1997-2012 PG Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved.

Brieda, Luboš.  "Potato Dumplings (Halušky)".  Slovak Cooking, posted November 3, 2009.  Updated March 24, 2010.  Copyright 2009-2011 Slovak Cooking.  "Slicing Ribeye roast for philly cheese steak".  Discussion on "Home Cooking" board, Thread started September 6, 2008.

Pat's King of Steaks. "Pat's King of Steaks Philadelphia Cheese Steak".  Featured on the episode "Best Sandwiches" of the show The Best Of.  Food Network, 1999.

Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau.  "Pennsylvania Amish history & beliefs".  Copyright 2012 Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau, site maintained by Cimbrian.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.  Pennsylvania Cookbook Trail of History.  From the Editors of Stackpole Books and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, foreword by William Woys Weaver.  Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, PA, 2004. ( "How to Make Haluski (Cabbage and Noodles)"  Date unknown.  Copyright 2012  All rights reserved.

Robinson, Douglas.  "City Chicken".  Recipe in I Grew Up in Southwestern Pennsylvania: A Nostalgic Look at Growing Up in the Pittsburgh Region.  Recipe featured in the article "Pittsburgh sticks with loving 'City Chicken'" by Bob Batz, Jr. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published March 30, 2012)

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Pennsylvania" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Pennsylvania".