Weird Crap I Cook: Beef Heart Cheesesteak (w/bone marrow “whiz”)

Early in my posting days, I undertook an ambitious attempt at pan cooked beef heart and crispy fried bone marrow.  The marrow came out great, the beef heart less so.  I think the heart’s subpar flavor and texture was due to my organ cooking inexperience, my lack of butchering skills (not that I am Sam from the Brady Bunch now), and generally that what I made was poorly thought out.  I cooked the heart for way too long, in a heavy sauce, and served it over watery greens instead of a starch of some sort.  In 90 degree weather.  Live and learn, but I definitely intended to take another crack at it somewhere down the road.

Three years later and I’m still working my way through the massive amount of organ meat stored in my chest freezer.  So, when faced with a little food boredom last week, I pulled a half beef heart out of the freezer to defrost.  It was the second half (I think) of the heart from Uncle Billy’s Crazy Cooler of Destiny and it had held up pretty well due to the vacuum sealed freezer bag.

Beef hearts are effing enormous. That's a 7" chefs knife behind it.  And, yes, all that crazy crap you see was very intimidating

Beef hearts are effing enormous.  That’s a 7″ chefs knife behind it.  And, yes, all that crazy crap you see is the most intimidating part of working with animal hearts.  In other news, I didn’t do too good in Biology and I’m pretty sure “crazy crap” is the closest I could come to a medical term to describe what you are seeing

That’s about two and a half pounds of muscle covered by a lot of silverskin and some hardened fat on the outside.  Plus the stuff on the inside that I can’t use my words on.  My plan was to trim off all of the external membrane/fat and any of the funky stuff in the internal chambers.  Once fully trimmed, I expected it to look like a normal (but extremely lean) chunk of meat that I would slice thin to make a cheesesteak from.

A 'lil bit into the process.  The exterior trimming was a bit rough since I was erring on the side of too much trimming.  The piece on th right is one of the chamber pieces I pulled out and the bottom slices were the start of the thin slicing

A ‘lil bit into the process.  The exterior trimming was a bit rough since I was erring on the side of too much trimming which left me with what looked like a bloody Lego.  The piece on the right is one of the chamber pieces I pulled out and the bottom slivers were the start of the thin slicing

Due to the density of the muscle, the meat was easy to slice thin using the same method as slicing gravlax; press the side of the knife against the meat and shave.  As I got toward the center, it became more difficult to keep the pieces thin so I switched to the other side and sliced until I got to the same point.  The center area I ended up cutting into thicker slabs for later use on the grill.  After slicing was complete, I had this.

Thins sliced is bottom right, thicker stuff is top left, bowl is the trimmings and the remaining meat left to slice is bottom left.  Oh, and partially visible is the dinosaur placemat that we bought at a friend's garage sale and Janet insists identifying all dinosaurs as "Mommys" or "Daddys"

Thins sliced is bottom right, thicker stuff is top left, bowl is the trimmings, and the remaining meat left to slice is bottom left. Oh, and partially visible is the dinosaur placemat that we bought at a friend’s garage sale and Janet insists identifying all dinosaurs as “Mommys” or “Daddys”

With the meat sliced, I placed the thicker pieces in a marinade of miso and a few other ingredients to marinate for a day or so before grilling.  The thin slices went into a separate bag to rest and await cooking in the fridge.

In my opinion, a true Philly Cheesesteak can only use one cheese or cheese like product: Cheez Whiz.  It’s highly processed, probably doesn’t include any dairy, and keeps at room temperature in a jar for years, but good golly does it taste delicious.  The tangy flavor goes so well with fatty beef.  For the purposes of this meal, my ambitious plan for a homage to “whiz” was to use a piece of beef bone marrow instead of butter in a roux, then build a cheese sauce from there.  I got started by putting a piece of marrow in a 450F oven to roast and break down.

Pre-oven.  I keep sticks of marrow like this individually wrapped in my freezer.  Search marrow for info on how to pop them out of their bones and save

Pre-oven.  I keep sticks of marrow like this individually wrapped in my freezer.  Look at the Heart and Bones post linked earlier for info on how to pop them out of their bones and save them in the freezer.  You know, for when you need marrow and stuff

While the marrow roasted, I pulled some cheese curds out of the fridge which would be the primary cheese-type ingredient in the cheese sauce.  The curds were maybe slightly past their prime, but given the mild and slightly tangy flavor of cheese curds I thought they would be perfect for my tribute to Cheez Whiz.

These had been transported via cooler multiple times and had formed a solid block.  I love cheese curds and wished they weren't made even more delicious by frying or serving with gravy so I could eat them more often

These had been transported via cooler multiple times and had formed into a mashed together solid block.  I love cheese curds and wished they weren’t made even more delicious by frying or serving with gravy so I could eat them more often.  Also, it’s kind of amazing I’ve been doing this three years and this is my first loving homage to processed cheese, right?

I cut the cheese curds up into thin batons that looked similar to a grated bag of Kraft cheddar, then moved the now broken down roasted marrow to the stovetop.

All it takes to get to this point is a little pressure from the whisk.  The smell is melting candle-esque, and I added to that lovely aroma by grabbing the handle out of the 450F oven bare handed by accident

About halfway through roasting, you need to break up the marrow with a fork which lets any remaining fat render and the other pieces crisp a bit.  The smell is melting candle-esque, and I added to that lovely aroma by grabbing the pot handle bare handed out of the 450F oven and getting a nice sear on my palm

With the fat fully liquified, I started out the roux by whisking in a little over a tablespoon of flour and cooking it on the stovetop until it started to brown a bit.

The solid bits from the marrow were still relatively solid at this point but started to fall apart

I have no understanding of bone marrow as a cooking ingredient, I just know I like the flavor and it makes sauces better.  I thought it was all fat, but also have heard something (likely nonsense) about how it’s actually a degenerated protein and not as bad for you as fat.  I certainly am unqualified to explain what the crispy chunks are vs the rendered marrow fat

With the roux cooking, I pulled the thin sliced heart meat out of the refrigerator and drained the excess blood from the bag.  The meat headed to a pile of paper towels seasoned with salt and pepper to leach out a bit more of the bloody liquid and hopefully reduce the iron-y flavor of the heart.

At this point I am positive that just looks like meat, very lean meat, but still meat.  The only thing that would prevent you from trying this is watching me cook it (or reading this)

At this point I am positive that just looks like meat. Very lean meat, but still meat.  The only thing that would prevent you from trying the cooked version of this is watching me cook it (or reading this)

While the heart meat drained, I began adding milk to the roux to form the based of the cheese sauce.  Once enough milk was added to thin the base to the consistency of gravy, I started to whisk in the cheese curds.

Cheese Curds are at their most questionable at this point since they don't melt nearly as well as cheddar or processed cheese.  So they took a little longer, but eventually I had this...

This is the point I heavily questioned my own need to use everything in the fridge since cheese curds don’t melt nearly as well as cheddar or processed cheese.  I berated myself loudly as these took slightly longer to melt than I expected then calmed down when they melted.  Eventually I had this…

...Relatively silky and decent looking cheese sauce.  Not cheese whiz, but it's made out of marrow for cripes sake

…Relatively silky and decent looking cheese sauce.  Not Whiz, but it’s made out of bone marrow for cripes sake

With the sauce bubbling on the stove, I heated a large cast iron skillet over medium/high heat and melted a tablespoon of butter.  Once the butter was melted and bubbling, I added the heart meat and half of a sliced white onion.

This is the start of a series of photos that look just like a normal cheesesteak

This is the start of a series of photos that look just like a normal cheesesteak

After a few minutes of browning, I gave my best attempt at the Philly tactic of using two metal spatulas to chop and tear the meat to shreds using the sides of the spatulas.  Mostly I just ended up making a lot of noise and sort of tearing a few pieces into slightly smaller pieces.

This was a big pan and it looked like a ton of meat in the pan at the time too, but it was barely enough for one sandwich amazingly

This was a big pan and it looked like a ton of meat at the time, but it was barely enough for one sandwich, amazingly

With the meat fully cooked, I piled it high in the closest thing I could find to the excellent crusty sub rolls from Sarcone’s or Amaroso’s that they use all over Philly.  It was not as close a match as I’d hoped and I knew it would be an exhausting sandwich to eat due to the chewiness of the bread.

I could babble about this for hours, but the perfect cheesesteak roll is chewy, soft, crispy, and slightly sour.  You usually get two of the first three adjectives but all three is what makes them great

I could babble about this for hours, but the perfect cheesesteak roll is chewy, soft, crispy, and slightly sour.  You usually get two of the first three adjectives but all three is what separates a great sandwich from the rest.  This was chewy and crispy but not soft

Once the sandwich was loaded up, I put a few large spoonfuls of the marrow whiz over the top of the meat making sure it had enough to soak into the bread.  Then squeezed it closed holding the meat in, cut in half, and did some more squeezing to make sure I could fit it into my mouth for a bite.

Good and messy, would have been better with some mushrooms in there too

Good and messy, would have been better with some mushrooms in there too

I ended up eating this whole thing and enjoying it, but you could definitely tell this wasn’t a traditional cheesesteak.  The meat was thin enough to easily bite through, though a little chewier than a normal cheesesteak.  Usually the meat is chewy, but in a cheap shaved meat way, whereas heart meat has a more rubbery consistency since the grain is so tight and there is no fat to break it up.  The flavor wasn’t too far off from normal steak though a little more iron-y, but the onions covered that up well.  The marrow cheese sauce had a ton of flavor and you could tell there was bone marrow in the mix.  Would have been better if I used cheddar and gruyere instead of curds I think, since it would have been sharper and complemented the marrow better.

All in all, a much more successful experiment and something I wouldn’t mind tinkering with again.  The grilled marinated pieces I cooked later in the week weren’t quite as enjoyable since they were just like metallic beef jerky due to dryness.  Here’s a picture for proof, no need to expound on it further, just didn’t want to ignore that this happened.

I thought the three days in the marinade would soften it, but nope,  I got mineral jerky from this part

I thought the three days in the marinade would soften it, but nope, I got mineral jerky from this.  Had to sneak it in here or it would have ended up in a Major Dag post

Pete’s Picks: The Best of Philadelphia

A return after four weeks of graduation festivities and a 400 mile move of all our earthly possessions back to Jamaica Plain, Mass.  My apologies, I really didn’t expect it to take this long to get bloggin’ again but I also underestimated everything related to this move. Mainly the exhaustion and general apathy of being a chubby fella in May humidity.

Anyhoo, with my two year stretch in Philadelphia finished, I might as well wrap it up with a megapost on my favorite food in Philly.  Most of these places are in the Center City and University City area but there are a few outside of that region.

Six blocks from the upscale restaurants and apartments of Rittenhouse Square is the Philadelphia Magic Gardens. It's a lot that was squatted on by an artist and filled with trash and junk that has been turned into "art". The contrast is a dece representation of how different every block in Philadelphia is

Much like the rest of my blog, nothing really fancy on this list.  Some of the best restaurant experiences I had in Philly were at Zahav, Barbuzzo, and Tinto.  The best gourmet food at reasonable prices (because they are BYOB restauarants) were Mercado, Matyson, and Pumpkin.  But you can find out all of that in Zagats or on Yelp.  This post is about the more humble spots I loved.  Here we go.

Vegetarian Food any Meat Eater Would Like – Magic Carpet (36th & Spruce)

This one doubles as also being the best food cart I have visited, and visited regularly.

During my time in Philly they expanded from one cart to two, both around the Penn campus. Surprisingly, the lines didn't shorten at all, just multiplied by two

I’ve talked at length about it in previous blogs, but they serve phenomenal vegetarian food.  My personal favorite is their Magic Meatballs which are made with seitan and sit in a tray of marinara sauce.  I like them served over an iceberg lettuce-based salad with a giant spoonful of their hummus.

It looks like a mess, but this is after my half hour walk home with the bag in one of my wildly swinging arms

I had always assumed vegetarian food was bland and boring, but between this cart and my friend Cindy’s reeeediculous pasta fagiole, my mind has been officially changed.  I think I could be a vegetarian if I needed to, but I don’t need to, and the rest of this blog is dedicated to the wonders of delicious, delicious meat.

Best Burger – Grace Tavern (23rd & South)

Burgers are on more menus than any other food item (source: TBD), yet I think they are rarely done right (wokka wokka).  Everyone has a different opinion on who has the best burger, and some of those barely resemble a hamburger.  Sure, the $26 Whiskey King burger at Village Whiskey is delicious with its combination of foie gras, bacon, and blue cheese, but it also represents what I hate about “great” restaurant burgers these days.  It’s a half pound patty, which is bigger than it needs to be, the bun is somehow still too big, the toppings overwhelm the beef, and it’s way more expensive than a burger should be.

Which brings me to Grace Tavern, easily the place I will miss the most now that I am back in Boston.  Located in the transitional zone between Rittenhouse and a slightly dodgier area, it looks like a dive bar when you first enter.  Once you get settled, you notice a few things that separate it from a normal dive; very clean, excellent beers on tap, friendly bartenders and a small menu of simple but unique food items.  Like the blackened green beans:

My iPhone camera is like the rest of my iPhone 3 at this point: awful

Raw green beans, coated with spicy cajun seasonings, charred on the grill, and served with Grace’s bourbon mayonnaise that would be the most used condiment in my fridge if I was allowed to take it home with me.  So simple, yet so good.  The same could be said for everything on the Grace menu, and that’s why I love the place so much.  They really care about their food, represented by the daily featured desserts that are made at home by the head chef and brought to the bar in a tupperware container.  Lots of care and years of getting each item on their menu right.  Especially the burger:

The burger comes out with the top bun lightly placed to the side, almost like they were asking me to take a picture before I ruined it. But I was too eager and mashed my bun on top before remembering the picture and removing it, hence the mess

This is the South Street, one of four burger options on their menu.  It’s a pile of blue cheese and carmelized onions, served on a perfectly sized, always soft roll with a side of seasoned fries and more bourbon mayonnaise.  No mealy tomato slice and oversized piece of lettuce, just the perfect amount of topping to not overwhelm the meat.  The actual burger is just juicy beef that is well seasoned with salt and pepper and given a solid char on a grill that is likely rarely cleaned, but always cooks to exactly the right temperature.

This is burger perfection, served with a local microbrew or two, for around $20 total per person

I could write a thousand words about my love for this burger and this place, but will stop here.  Grace Tavern made me a very selective burger eater and now that I have moved away it is really going to become an issue for me.  I miss them already.

Most Creative Gastropub – Time (13th & Sansom)

On the other end of the spectrum is Time.  Their core business is the bar with nightly jazz music, a long beer list, and elaborate absinthe setups (if that’s what you’re into). But when I went here for a Wharton event, I glanced at the menu and knew I had to come back with Kristi.  Specifically, for what they called the Chicken Fried Foie Gras.

Effing iPhone

That’s a poached egg sitting on a little chopped bacon, duck sausage gravy, and a battered deep fried piece of foie gras.  A little crazy right?  The flavors are all so rich, but the bites that incorporated a little of each were just absurd.  If you’re ever in Philly, preferably in chillier weather, head a block east of Broad Street and enjoy this ridiculous dish while listening to some live music.

Most Authentic Buffalo Wings – Tangier (18th & Lombard)

When Kristi and I found our apartment, we noticed a small divey-looking bar about 50 feet from the rear entrance to our building.  Once we moved to Philly, we ate there a couple times and were generally not impressed with the food.  That hasn’t changed, but in early spring of 2010 Kristi texted me that she would love to meet for a beer near our apartment.

As I sat at the bar drinking a Yuengling Bock, I noticed that the buffalo wings looked surprisingly good.  Since Buffalo visits have made me a wing snob, I rarely order them at restaurants but decided to take a chance and ended up completely shocked.

I searched for this plate for six years in Boston and never found it. You may think these look like your local bar's buffalo wings, but I have never had a wing outside of Buffalo that came close to these

The wings are the perfect medium size, fried until they are crispy outside and tender inside, and tossed in an authentically flavored buffalo sauce.  Once Kristi and I discovered how good the wings are, we were hooked.  We became regulars, and enjoyed the friendly bartenders, good beer selection, and always cheap tabs.  Speaking of dive bars…

Cheapest Drinks – Bob & Barbara’s (15th & South)

If you are in Philladelphia and want to see an old school Philly bar without being armed and terrified, you have to head to Bob and Barbara’s.

Wasn't open when I walked by. I have pictures from most of my visits there, but all of them would threaten my future employment status

The walls are covered with a collection of Pabst Blue Ribbon memorabilia that would likely sell for over a million dollars on Ebay.  The bar is edged with torn red vinyl, much like the chairs, and on weekend nights a pair of 80 year-olds in velour 3-piece suits play blues and jazz.

But the real reason to visit is the “Philly citywide special” that seemingly is only honored at Bob and Barbara’s: a shot of Jim Beam and a can of PBR for $3.  Now you see why I didn’t share my photos from inside.  Let’s move on.

Best Mexican Food – Don Memo (53 Garrett Rd, Upper Darby, PA)

I spent a year in Philly griping about the lack of good Mexican food in the city once Pico De Gallo started their downhill slide to going out of business.  I knew it existed, I just never put the effort into finding it.  Instead, I would overpay at places like Tequilas and El Rey or get burritos at places like Chipoltle or Qdoba which I generally dislike.

Ten days before I was set to leave Philly, a friend set up dinner at Don Memos in deep, deep West Philadelphia.  Please never make the mistake I made and go there often if you ever live within 30 miles of Philadelphia.  All of their food was incredible, including the margaritas they make with the tequila you bring.  I think about their taco de lengua often, because I don’t know when I will ever get to eat it again.

Again, sometimes food items look so good that I can't stop myself from eating before I remember to take a picture

I am guessing that this tongue was boiled until it was tender, sliced, and then grilled before ending up in this taco.  Combine with raw onion, cilantro, and lime, and that is one awesome taco.  The tongue gave a rich beef flavor and the toppings are a perfect fresh, crunchy counterpart.  Start off with the ridiculous queso fundido and guacamole, and you will be regretting not renting an apartment over the restaurant instead of wherever you live.

Best Roast Pork Sandwich – John’s Roast Pork (Snyder & Weccacoe)

Roast Pork is a very popular sandwich in Philly.  From what I can tell, it’s generally a whole roasted pork shoulder sliced thin and left to simmer in the pan juices.  The most popular toppings are sharp provolone and some sort of cooked garlicky greens (broccoli rabe or spinach).  After having versions of this sandwich at several places including Tony Luke’s, I decided to head out to one the of the most famous purveyors, John’s Roast pork, on my last day in Philly.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Not a beautiful setting: railroad tracks on one side, abandoned warehouse that likely has a few movie shootouts filmed in it each week on the other. Plus, it was 90 degrees and humid enough to make a fellow DB sweat through his shirt en route

I am assuming that when John’s opened the whole area was an industrial wasteland, but in recent years the surrounding region was filled with big box stores and strip malls.  They held their ground and remained extremely popular, but it makes for an odd setting.

As the line slowly moved I was nearly exploding with anticipation as I saw each hoagie get overloaded with massive amounts of thin sliced pork.

From what I learned about marketing at Wharton, this woman should lead off her profile with "free roast pork sandwiches"

After getting our sandwiches we thought we were lucky to find an open table.  Took a few minutes to realize that the direct sunlight made it the hottest table possible.  Perfect for a gigantic steaming roast pork sandwich.

I cant imagine if you tried to take this home. It would be a pile of mush within 15 minutes in a wrapper due to all the juice

The pork had way more flavor than other roast pork sandwiches I had tried and there was also a lot more of it.  The spinach was pretty garlicky, but I like that, and the sharp provolone was perfect.  I sweat through my shirt in time for large pack of Whartonites to show up, but it was worth it.

Best Meatballs and Gravy – Villa Di Roma (9th & Carpenter)

Another spot I’ve referenced in previous posts.  Villa Di Roma is located in the middle of the Italian Market and is the type of red sauce restaurant that I love: 60’s decor, fake wood laminent tables, paper placemats, and everyone on the staff seems to be related.  The second time I visited was in early afternoon and there was a grandmother sitting at the bar rolling tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup.  Just awesome, much like the full sized version of their famous meatballs.

The four pack with a side of gravy was the go-to to-go order

Aside from the great flavors of the sauce and meatballs which cook together for 24 hours (according to that same grandmother), the texture really sets them apart.  Crispy outside with a firm uniform texture inside that isn’t too dense.  Also, despite the flavors of onion and garlic, there are no big chunks of them inside.  Really good, and they are well equipped for to-go orders if you’re just passing through town.

Top Five Cheesesteak Joints

This post is running long, but Philly’s cheesesteaks need to be addressed.  The crazy thing about arguments on who makes the best cheesesteak is that there is seemingly so little room for differentiation.  Shaved beef, cooked on a griddle, served with a customer’s choice of cheese (cheez whiz, american, or provolone) and hot toppings (onions, peppers, mushrooms) on a hoagie roll.  Yet somehow they are all a little different.

The five most famous cheesesteaks in Philly are served at John’s Roast Pork, Tony Luke’s, Jim’s, Pat’s and Geno’s (across the street from each other). Some would argue Steve’s, Primo, DiNic’s or a bunch of other places belong on that list.  That’s the thing about Philly; if you go to any successful deli that doesn’t cater to tourists, they are going to have a cheesesteak that is better than 95% of the ones available nationwide.  The key is the roll, usually from Sarcone’s or Amoroso bakeries, that serve as the perfect vehicle for a cheesesteak due to their chewy but soft texture and not being too bready.

For the purposes of this countdown, know that I tried these all with onions, mushrooms and whiz (the only cheese for a true Philly steak).  In some cases multiple times.  Anyway, here we go:

#5 Pats King of Steaks (9th & Passyunk)

It kills me to have them this low because they are friendlier than Geno’s (more on that later), are arguably the originator of the concept, and have great advertisements.  At this point, I think they are successful due to tourists, being open all night (HUGE post-bar closing crowds), and continued fame from Michelle Obama and other celebrity visits.  But the sandwich…

You know you have tried to many cheesesteaks in Philly when this looks subpar to you

The whiz isn’t hot enough, the mushrooms literally come straight out of a heated can, and the biggest issue is the steak is always way too chewy.  These sandwiches are usually made with cheap cuts of beef, but Pats is always chewier than its competitors despite being chopped.  Makes the experience less enjoyable when you need to carry floss.

#4 John’s Roast Pork (Snyder & Weccacoe)

While at John’s for their roast pork sandwich, we ordered a couple cheesesteaks to go halfsie splits on (totes).  I had heard great things and some people called it the best in the city.  Although I enjoyed it, I just don’t agree.

Again, direct blazing sunlight. Even if the viewing screen on my camera was a Kindle, I still wouldn't have been able to tell if I was taking good pictures

The biggest issues were the roll and the under-seasoned steak.  Although I think the roll was from Sarcone’s, it was a different variety that was coated with sesame seeds and wayyy too crusty.  Nicked my mouth up a bit.  The steak was light on the salt and pepper which, despite being easily rectified, was a little surprising.  Again, this was still better than 99.5% of the cheesesteaks you could get anywhere else in America, I am just picking nits here.

#3 Geno’s Steaks (9th & Passyunk)

As a contrast to Pat’s, it kills me to rank them this high.  To be blunt, the owners and staff at Geno’s are complete assholes.  Their policy is that if you speak anything but English in their line they will refuse you service, and they are visibly impatient and rude to anyone who isn’t white.  Multiple friends have argued that they do it strictly for the publicity (all press is good press) and it’s become their shtick.  Regardless, it is still annoying and why Mrs. Obama is a patron of their neighbor.

Unfortunately, they make a better steak than Pat’s.

I have probably consumed 15+ Geno's steaks in my two years, but only one or two before midnight. So, not my picture. Had to Google image this one

The meat is always tender and its just a better sandwich overall.  No more praise for them, but if you find yourself deciding between Geno’s and Pat’s, I recommend you choose taste over conscience.

#2 Jim’s Steaks (4th & South)

I am bummed that I discovered Jim’s so late in my time in Philly.  A short twenty minute walk from our apartment, Jim’s looks and feels like a 1950’s diner.

I walked the mile to and from Jim's. It was like my version of the Jared Diet, but as usual my version led to gained weight

The staff wants to move you through quickly but likes to joke around a lot more than any of their competitors. Much better as an experience, and the sandwich is freaking awesome.

I got a little crazy with the pepper shaker on this one, but I loved that you could see griddle marks on the mushrooms. A surprising number of places stick with the canned variety

I mean, look at that!  Anybody who likes a good hoagie knows how excited they are when they have to do some pinching and maneuvering to get all the meat into the roll.  The steak is tender, the whiz is nicely melted, and the onions and mushrooms still have some texture to them.  Messy, but who cares if a cheesesteak is messy; you’re not eating a Philly steak if you have anything important to do currently or in the near future.  Its not exactly a power lunch.  It should be messy and delicious, which Jim’s is…

#1 Tony Luke’s (Front & Oregon)

…But Tony Luke’s wins the grand prize.  The sandwich itself resembles Jim’s in many ways; gigantic, messy, and overstuffed.

Also not my picture, sigh. I have eaten 4 or 5 Tony Luke's steaks, but never taken a picture because I ate them too fast

This one tastes and chews differently than all the others; it’s got a lot more beef flavor and is seasoned very well.  Supposedly, they use only thin shaved ribeye, which sounds ridiculously expensive compared to what their competition uses, but it also makes sense given how good it tastes.  Requires a car to get to, but it really is the best cheesesteak I have ever tasted in my life.

And that’s it for this absurdly long post.  Now that you know what I have been eating for two years, I ask that you refrain from questions like, “So, did they not have gyms or places to buy running shoes in Philly?” and “Are you on Prednisone or something?”.  I am looking forward to my return to in-home cooking and have a few posts and potential featured products lined up.

Sorry for the long break, I think there will be some good stuff this summer.  Thanks for reading.

Weird Crap I Cook: Seitan

During my short time as a vegetarian, I searched a bunch of local supermarkets and Trader Joes for seitan, or “wheat meat”, and couldn’t find it.  I found a ton of tofu, the incredibly inferior vegetarian meat-replacement that is carried at most supermarkets, but no seitan.  Made no sense to me, so I reached out to the Oracle of Ovo-Lacto, Taylor, and asked her where she gets her seitan.  Taylor replied that while she has seen it at Whole Foods, its easier to just make it yourself.  Well then.

I did some internet research and read through a recipe Taylor sent me by a fellow named Mark Bittman.  I assumed that Mr. Bittman found time in his hectic schedule of Phish shows and devil sticks street performances to write a best selling vegetarian cookbook, so he seemed like a trustworthy source.  It all starts with Vital Gluten Flour (or VGF).

Don't be silly, of course this isn't the original packaging. Quit being silly

This stuff was a little tough to find.  I visited a few grocery stores and eventually headed to whole foods where they also didn’t have any packages available.  However, there was a container of it in the self-serve baking needs section and I was able to get a pound for around $5.  Which explains the informal packaging.

Looked and felt the same as regular flour

From what I understand about VGF, which is mostly from anecdotal research and halfway paying attention when a cooking show focuses on vegetarian food, it is basically wheat flour with the bran and starch removed.  All that is left is the protein-heavy gluten, which is what you need to make seitan.  Soooooo, I won’t be making this for any of my Celiac afflicted friends anytime soon.

The recipes I had seen called for equal parts VGF and liquid to make the dough.  I started off with a cup of VGF with a little garlic powder and salt.

Since it looked so much like regular flour, I was a little skeptical at this point

To that I added a cup of vegetable stock with a few shakes of soy sauce added in to give it a little more flavor.

Completely unnecessary foto. I am pretty sure you all know how to measure a cup using a measuring cup

Taylor described the first time you make seitan as being “rad”, and I have to agree.  You mix the liquid into the flour using your fingers and within seconds you have a rubbery ball of dough which I tipped out onto a cutting board to knead.

This was about 20 seconds after I added the liquid. Couldn't believe how easily it came together

Per the instructions from Mr. Bittman, which were probably typed while he was attending Bates College and wearing a patchwork backless shirt, the dough should be kneaded a few times and then allowed to rest for a half hour.  I did both.



While the dough rested, I got started on the boiling liquid that the dough would be cooking in.  I decided on water with a few cubes of vegetable bouillon and a little more soy sauce.  I felt very strongly that the more soy sauce flavor I could give the seitan, the closer it would taste to meat.

Once the dough had rested, I got started on stretching it out.  The dough needs to be stretched thin and separated into 3 or 4 “loaves” since it expands a lot during cooking.

Kristi kept asking me to stretch slowly so the pictures wouldn't be blurry. Didn't work

Once the dough was stretched and divided into three portions, I dropped the pieces into the simmering liquid.

Note the size of this pot

At this point I was instructed to turn the heat down and let the loaves simmer for an hour, turning occasionally.  When I first got up to turn the loaves twenty minutes later and took the lid off, the entire gigantic pot was filled with what looked like a dough airbag.  I think I even yelled out of fear.  Of the dough.  Luckily, the loaves quickly deflated and returned to normal size which led me to reduce the heat a little further and offset the lid a bit.

After another forty minutes I turned the heat off and let the loaves cool in the simmering liquid.  Upon removal, here’s how they looked:

Kinda looks like fried chicken from afar, but that doesn't hold up as you get closer

I know it doesn’t look that appetizing, but even in this state the flavor was decent and it had the hearty, chewy texture that is much closer to meat than mushy tofu.  It can be chopped up and used in any dish you would use meat for or even breaded and deep fried.  It also stores safely for about a week in the simmering liquid.

Looks like something I would excitedly buy at Hi Lo. RIP Hi Lo, I will miss the horrified expressions on my friends' faces when I came back with bags from your store

I quickly learned that when preparing the seitan for eating, it tastes best if you let it brown a little bit in a pan with salt and pepper.  Made a big difference, especially in the second seitan “cheesesteak” I attempted.

All of this sauteed for ten minutes in these exact positions. It put a nice carmelization on everything and gave the seitan the crunchy/chewy combination that I associate with grilled meat

Everything was chopped smaller for this round which worked way better for sandwich purposes.  The other big change was going with american cheese which I’ve always preferred on my cheesesteaks.  Not sure why I tried to get all fancy with the cheese on the first round.

I added a little of the gruyere to the toasted roll, just to give it a little bite

This made for a phenomenal sandwich and one I would happily make again.

The onions were awesome, lots of flavor and not too much texture

Seitan is very easy to make and also pretty versatile.  It works as a meat substitute in stir fries and sandwiches, has a similar amount of protein to meat, and no cholesterol.  Basically, its a lot better for you and you don’t even stress about throwing some cheese on ‘der since you’re not starting with a fat packed piece of meat.

That being said, I don’t see a full-on change in behavior coming anytime soon.  I love anything classified as meat and there are a lot of animals and parts of animals I still haven’t sampled.  Which remains a mission in life.  To eat everything.  Seitan was a nice change of pace on the blog and in my diet and I look forward to making it again, but I won’t be living on it.

Looking for some inspiration on our visit to the gulf coast this weekend.  I’m hoping to visit a meat market in the everglades and see what crazy stuff they have there.

P.S. It turns out Mark Bittman isn’t a bootleg swapping hippie, just an award winning journalist and food columnist who used to work for the New Yorker.  So I take back those hippie digs on him, but please feel free to use the massive generalizations I implied about vegetarians on any vegetarians in your life.