Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches

As the Subway door slams shut on my Camera backpack I have to force in on the crowd of people crammed in the Subway car to make room for the door behind me to close. Anxiety has begun to set in. I can feel the stares of people looking at me while I’m holding up the car with my backpack, they knowing fully well that I’m not from around here. Sweat begins to beads up on my forehead and I realize I’m face to face to an African American woman. Not just standing next too, but close too in a way that if a wrong movement or gesture is made, could have resulted in a lawsuit or an assault. Not being accustomed to being so close to a stranger in this way and feeling my anxiety and sweat increasing by the moment, I offered up a comment to the lovely lady to ease the moment. “So, you come here often?”

I suppose when you visit a city, its just not complete until you get those kinds of experiences. In retrospect, I have a fond memory of those moments with total stranger and being able to produce a smile and laughter. Many of my food experiences would not be what they are without the journey. Sometimes the trip and the anticipation to that event make the overall memory.

I promised myself that of the dozen or so things I wanted to try in Chicago this time; Italian Beef was one of them. I could kick myself for never trying it during the half dozen times I’ve been back east. So this time I hit pay dirt. I had a simple but yet delicious Italian Beef Sandwich. We ate at a friends restaurant called “Smokin Will’s” that he had just opened. Since I have no reference to compare the Italian beef to in past experiences, I can only tell you that is was juicy, tender and full of flavor. The bread was awesome and wonderfully appropriate. I can’t recall the type of bread my friend Will said he used, but suffice to say, it was a good match for his Italian Beef.


Origins of the sandwich are disputed, but one early vendor, Al's No. 1 Italian Beef, Chicago, opened its first stand in 1938.

One story has it that the Italian Beef sandwich was started by Italian immigrants who worked for the old Union Stock Yards. They often would bring home some of the tougher, less desirable cuts of beef sold by the company. To make the meat more palatable, it was slow-roasted to make it more tender, then slow-simmered in a spicy broth for flavor. Both the roasting and the broth used Italian-style spices and herbs. The meat was then thinly sliced across the grain and stuffed into fresh Italian bread.

Italian beef became popular at Italian weddings, where it was an inexpensive meal for the guests. The women would make large quantities, and then make individual sandwiches which they wrapped in paper and served.

By 1954 a local restaurant was advertising its "Pizza, Spaghetti, Ravioli, [and] Italian Beef Sandwiches" in the Chicago Tribune.

So with that little cliff note history lesson here is my take on the Italian Beef Sandwich. I think it is an easy and delicious meal that can be duplicated in your own kitchen.

Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches


The beef:
1 boneless beef roast, about 3 pounds with most of the fat trimmed off

Cooking time: Allow 2 hours to cook and another 3 hours to firm the meat for slicing in the refrigerator if you don't have a meat slicer. You need 90 minutes to cook a 3 pound roast, or about 30 minutes per pound. You can cook this well in advance and refrigerate the meat and juice and heat it up as needed.

About the beef. Top sirloin, top round, or bottom rounds are preferred in that order. For tenderness, especially if you cannot cut paper thin slices.

You may also use chuck, a fattier cut, so the meat will be more tender and flavorful. Problem is that you'll have to chill the pan drippings after cooking in order to skim off the fat.

The rub
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder. If you wish, omit the garlic powder and stud the roast with fresh garlic.
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

6 cups of hot water
4 cubes of beef bouillon

I have encountered lively debate on the makeup of the juice. Some insist you must use bouillon to be authentic, while others use beef stock, veal stock, or a soup base, and simmer real onions and garlic in it.

The sandwich
high gluten rolls sliced lengthwise but hinged on one side or Italian bread loaves cut widthwise into 10 portions

3 medium sized green bell peppers
1 tablespoon olive oil

The How’s and Why’s:

1) cut small slits in the surface of the meat every inch or so and stick slivers of fresh garlic into the meat. If you do this, leave the garlic out of the rub. Otherwise, mix the rub in a bowl. Sprinkle it generously on the meat and massage it in. There will be some left over. Do not discard it; you will use it in your Bouillon. Let the meat sit at room temp for about 60 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the grill or oven to 400°F.

2) Pour the water into a 9 x 13" baking pan and heat it to a boil on the stove top. Dissolve the bouillon in the water. It may look thin, but it will cook down and concentrate during the roasting. Pour the remaining rub into the pan. Place a rack on top of the pan. Place the roast on top of the rack above the juice. Roast at 400°F until interior temperature is 140°F for medium rare, about 30 minutes per pound. This may seem long, but you are cooking over water and that slows things down. The temp will rise about 5°F more as it rests.

Be Warned:. This recipe is designed for a 9 x 13" baking pan. If you use a larger pan, the water may evaporate and the juice will burn. If you have to use a larger pan, add more water. Regardless of pan size, keep an eye on the pan to make sure it doesn't dry out during cooking. Add more water if necessary.

3) While the meat is roasting, cut the bell peppers in half and remove the stems and seeds. Rinse, and cut into 1/4" strips. Cook the peppers in a frying pan over a medium high heat with enough olive oil to coat the bottom, about 1 tablespoon. When they are getting limp and the skins begin to brown, about 15 minutes, they are done. Set aside at room temp.

4) Remove the roast and the juice pan. Let the meat rest for about 30, and then place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Let it cool for about 3 hours, long enough for the meat to firm up. This will make slicing easier. Slice the meat against the grain as thin as humanly possible, preferably with a meat slicer. If you don't have a slicer, use a thin blade and draw it along the red part of the meat. If you try to cut down through the crust you will be cutting it too thick.

5) Taste the Bouillon. If you want you can thin it with more water, or make it richer by cooking it down on top of the stove. After Slicing, soak the meat in the juice for about 1 minute at a low simmer. That warms the meat and makes it very wet. You can't leave the meat in the juice for more than 10 minutes or else it starts to curl up, squeezes out its natural moisture, and toughens.

6) To assemble the sandwich, start by spooning some juice directly onto the bun. Get it wet. Then lay on the beef generously at which point spoon on more juice. Top it with the bell pepper. If you want it "wet", dip the whole sandwich in juice. Be warned, you wont be clean once you finish eating it that way.

I hope you have fun with this and you experience a little bit of what Chicago Culinary Industry has to offer. I am of the strong opinion that Chicago is very much overlooked when it comes to delicious foods and creations that they offer up at both ends of the food spectrum. In my previous post I said Chicago is my second favorite city, my first being San Francisco. That being said, I have yet to hit New York. In the next few years I will let you know the outcome and if San Francisco and Chicago still stand out on the top of my lists.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Chicago, My Second Favorite City

Chicago, IL
Trotter's To Go
Giordano’s Pizza

As my vacation time draws to a close here in Chicago, I’m beginning to reflect on many of the sights, sounds, and tasting experiences. I have had the opportunity to sample some of the Windy Cities finest. When I write “finest” I’m also not meaning there “known finest.” I’m not talking about those places that you will see on the Food channel or the Cook network, nor will you read about them in the food review of the Chicago tribune or a blurb in Bon Appétit. Though, there was a few I had to stop in and try out, like Trotters To Go, Giordano’s Pizza to name a few, but there were also a few that have a soft spot in my hart like, Lucky Dog and Oberweis Ice Cream. I have also discovered a few new places that I will most definitely add to my “I Will Return” list, like Smokin’ Will’s Restaurant, Sur La Table, and Floriole Bakery.
Lucky Dog

I’m half sad that I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow mostly because I enjoy the time with my family whom I don’t get to spend time with as much as I would like, but also because the fresh food and available ingredients that are everywhere.
Oberweis Ice Cream

Sur La Table

So after 1200 miles of driving and children in the back seat asking “Are we there yet?” were beginning the sad journey back to our glorious Wyoming 8 days later. Even though I will miss this great city of Chicago, I yearn for our humble and quite digs and the background of the Wind River Mountains above our sleepy little town.

Floriole Bakery
In the upcoming months I will share my experiences with you and also some of the ingredients that I was lucky to obtain. I will tease you with some items that you can duplicate at home but still be sophisticated if the mood strikes. So until then, Cheers!!