No, I’m not talking about baseball, I’m talking about steak. But, we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s chase a different chicken…
A segment of my life I occasionally mention, but never have spoken about overmuch is that I used to shoot competition archery. I was never a big fan of baseball, football, basketball, or any of the other balls out there, although I did – and still do – thoroughly enjoy Hockey. Therefore, I wasn’t one of those sons who would sit and watch a game on the tube with ol’ Dad, or compare stats, or wonder about the significance of Joe Quarterback’s knee injury where it related to the rest of the team.
Just not my thing…
However, while my father was a sports fan, he wasn’t exactly a rabid sports fan, therefore he sought a middle ground where the two of us could relate and do father/ son stuff together. So, back in the early 70′s, he joined the Archery Club at McDonnell Douglas, where he worked. I quickly became interested in the sport, as I suspect he had hoped, and soon joined with him. From early on through the mid-late 70′s, Dad and I shot on indoor league teams as well as in outdoor bowhunting tournaments. While we weren’t “Robin Hoods” by any stretch of the imagination, we were both fairly respectable shooters, bringing home several trophies and awards during that span of time.
But, as usual, Archery isn’t what this particular blog entry is about. It is, however, a bit of a trailhead for where we are really wanting to go, which is as mentioned earlier, food. It is also about yet another of E Kay’s favorite dishes from my kitchen.
Still, we aren’t quite done with bows and arrows just yet…
You see, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am from the South. (Don’t worry, the subject change whiplash will wear off, trust me)… And, in the South, we do things a bit differently than folks (that being, “Yankees”) do in the North. This most definitely extends to food in almost every sense.
Back to the curved wood with string and pointy sticks with feathers… During the period of time when Dad and I were at the height of our shooting, we had occasion to be on a team at a National Bowhunting Tournament held in Indiana. It was held on an old strip mine site, and we also manned a booth for an association called Bowhunters Who Care – this is actually where I met Ted Nugent, but that’s yet another story. The point being that we camped on the site for three days while shooting in the tournament, and there was a chow house where we were able to get hot meals since this took place during a time of year when the weather was a bit chilly in the early mornings and late evenings.
The menu was posted outside each day, and one frosty, see-your-breath-morning it made note that supper that evening was to be Swiss Steak. Well, as it happens I love Swiss Steak and I looked forward to that meal the whole day while we were traipsing through the woods, launching arrows at 3d foam targets from precarious perches on tree stands and such. My mind was so occupied with the thought of a plate of Swiss Steak, in fact, that on an 80 yard shot, I nailed a life size target of a black bear right in the kneecap because my mouth was watering and I was drooling all over my kisser button (an aiming aid on bowstrings).
So, imagine my utter shock, surprise, and overall disappointment when that evening my Chinette Oval contained a slab of tasteless inedible gristle smothered in a brownish, and equally tasteless gravy. This was not the Swiss Steak I had been eating for my decade and a half of life on this planet… It was… well… crap.
And so, dear readers, this blog is about Swiss Steak. A commoners low budget meal that warms the heart as well as the stomach, and has become a standing request from E K for her birthday meal every year. Much like the Chili E Kay’s Way of a previous blog entry, when I serve this I definitely don’t get beat by the evil redhead. In fact, this one is so far up on her hit parade that after dinner she rolls around on the sofa with a ball of yarn and purrs so loudly that the windows rattle. It’s kinda cute, actually, but don’t tell her I said that. She hates being called “cute”…
So, anyway, before getting into the recipe proper, let’s have a look at why what those folks in Indiana slopped onto my plate thirty-odd years ago differs so much from the Swiss Steak for which the E K will turn momentarily kittenish.
Swiss Steak, in and of itself, is not actually a particular cut of meat – although you will sometimes actually find Chuck Arm Steaks or Boneless Shoulder Steaks labeled “Swiss Steak”. The name of the dish also has nothing at all to do with neutral timepiece making countries or cheese with holes in it. It actually refers to “Swissing,” which is a process in which fabrics were flattened between rollers. I know, I know, what does rolling fabric have to do with cooking steak? Well, I’ll tell you – “Swissing” a steak is the process of tenderizing it between hammer rollers, thereby creating what we most often see in the supermarket meat section billed as “cubed steak”.
While cubed steak is a perfectly acceptable choice for making Swiss Steak, most cooks (those I know, at least) will choose the aforementioned Chuck Arm, Boneless Shoulder, or in the majority of cases, Round Steak. Then, to start off the process they will either ask the butcher to run their selection through the cuber, or will take it home and beat the living crap out of it with a tenderizing mallet. Personally, I opt for method number 2 myself, because all I have to do is lay out the steak, sprinkle on a bit of seasoning, then hand the mallet to the Evil Redhead and allow her to take out her frustrations on something besides me. (Oh, and let’s not get into any meat beating jokes you dirty minded little monkeys… Be honest, you know you thought about it… It crossed my mind, so it had to have crossed yours…)
Round steak is commonly used for a couple of simple reasons – it is very easy to find and it’s comparatively cheap, depending on the particular cut, as round steak generally has 4 different versions – Top, Tip, Eye, and Bottom. In any event, whether you choose round, chuck, or shoulder steaks, the commonality is this – these particular cuts are less marbled, and while still full of wonderful beefy goodness in the flavor department, the connective tissues tend to be tougher, hence the need for Swissing.
So, we now know why the pounded gristle in brown gravy served to me in Indiana was called Swiss steak – it was steak that had been Swissed. But, as I lamented before, it was not the Swiss Steak of the South, and dare I say, of many of the tables throughout other parts of the country as well. You see, for it to truly be what the culinary aware are likely to call Swiss Steak, there is another piece to the recipe puzzle – that being braising – that is, first sear it on high heat, then cook it to death in a liquid in order to further break down those connective tissues and render the meat fork tender. Yes, you should be able to eat Swiss Steak without even imagining the use of a knife, much less actually bringing one to the table. And, something most cooks and every Southerner knows is that adding an acidic element to the braising liquid will help accomplish this task.
What am I talking about here? Tomatoes, of course. The simple fact of the matter is that no self respecting Southerner would serve something and call it Swiss Steak unless it was meat smothered in tomatoes and onions. And so, while recipes vary, as most generally do, real Swiss Steak is rich with both beefy and tomatoey goodness. Plain and simple. ‘Nuff said.
Now, on we go with my personal version of Swiss Steak, good enough to make an Evil Kat be a little less evil for an evening.
REAL Swiss Steak
(Serves 4 to 6)
You will need: Cooking tongs, a LARGE skillet with lid, sharp knives, and a meat tenderizing mallet
2 Lbs Beef Round Steak, Trimmed (I prefer Bottom Round, but Top Round will work)
2 Large Yellow Onions, Chopped
3-4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Tbsp Tomato Paste
2 Cans Diced Tomatoes (14.5 oz each)
1 tsp Oregano
1 tsp Thyme
1 tsp Rosemary
1 tsp Ground Celery Seed
1 to 2 Cups Beef or Vegetable Stock
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Whole Wheat Flour
Bacon Grease (Around 1/3 cup – Vegetable Oil will work, but it’s just not the same)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Chop onions, set aside.
Cut the trimmed steak into hand sized portions, slicing with the grain. Season both sides with salt and pepper to taste, then pummel it within an inch of its life with a meat tenderizing mallet. Sometimes I will use a papaya based meat tenderizer powder as well, but use this sparingly. Place 1/2 cup whole wheat flour into a paper or zip top bag. Add meat, 2 to 3 pieces at a time, seal and shake. Repeat until all of the meat has been dredged in the flour.
Add bacon grease (or vegetable oil if you must) to cover bottom of large skillet. Over medium-high heat, sear floured steak pieces in batches until lightly browned. Remove to plate. Increase heat and add beef/vegetable stock to skillet and deglaze. Reduce heat, add tomato paste, oregano, thyme, rosemary, celery seed, garlic, and Worcestershire. Stir until tomato paste is dissolved and spices are fully incorporated. Begin layering steak pieces in skillet, alternating with chopped onions. Cover with both cans of tomatoes. Bring to a simmer for 10 -15 minutes, then cover and place skillet in oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Allow to rest before serving. Meat should be fork tender and falling apart.
Serve with fresh, lumpy mashed potatoes or steamed rice. Buttered peas or green beans make the perfect compliment to round out the meal.
If I was making this dish solely for myself, I would also add a chopped bell pepper to the ingredient list, however E K and bell peppers don’t get along. It has something to do with a shish kebab, a riding crop, a bottle of Ouzo, a seedy motel room in New Jersey, and a restraining order. E K staunchly refuses to talk about it, suffice it to say, she is not allowed within 100 yards of any bell pepper, regardless of variety. Therefore, whenever I prepare Swiss Steak here at home I am not allowed to add bell peppers.
I have been known to add chopped celery to the pan if I have it on hand, but I don’t go out of my way to obtain it in order to fix Swiss Steak. That’s what the ground celery seed is for.
And there you have it…
More to come…