How to make an authentic Philadelphia Cheese Steak
Getting things together
|The Food Table||
In our house Sunday was not the only day consecrated to the family dinner. Saturday dinner was equally sacrosanct. And what’s more, Saturday dinner had two faces: one face at our winter home in the suburbs, the other at our summer home at the shore. When I asked my siblings about their recollections of Saturday dinners the memories came pouring. One wrote, “There's way too many memories for this one.. It really depends on what stage of our lives that you're talking about. Teenage years, college years, dating, early years of marriage, and yes, summers in Wildwood. All of the memories are flying by in snippets. First off....Wildwood ....yep...the smell of onion and peppers cooking on the stove. Winter at home in Havertown.
Even by the time most of us were married and in our own homes, Saturday evening, 6pm, demanded our presence before our father who sat at the head of the table in front of the bay of windows that looked onto the front yard. As the eldest son, I sat opposite. My brothers and sister and their spouses sat on either side. My mother’s place was to my right side, although she really never sat. Later, our children, our parents’ grandchildren, found places as well. How much my parents loved their grandchildren is unmeasurable and not unlike any other grandparent. My older daughter called my father “Pee-pop,” a name that stuck. But more curious, they called my mother by her first name “Winnie.” There were also those special and particular moments that were unique to Saturday night dinners. One evening my father presented my older daughter with a “Cabbage Patch” doll made from real cabbage hair and huge doughnuts (the head and body) that he had our local baker prepare. (My father was a bakery expert as you can read in “Upside Down Cake.” My father was also the ultimate consumer who would try any new product for which he had a store coupon. One Saturday evening my older daughter came running down to my father exclaiming, “Pee-pop, come see!!!, I went blue!!” My father had just installed the toilet tank with blue cleanser. Conversations that crossed three generation could also be most comical. Children understand things in such different ways. One Saturday dinner we were discussing films and I asked were a certain movie was playing. “At a theater near you,” declared my five year old nephew in the words of the commercial: what they learn from TV!
But let me return to Saturday dinner.
What was that dinner? No, nothing with pasta or sauce. Saturday night dinner was salad, steak sandwiches and French fries.Unfortunately, as the signature dish of Philadelphia it is the most bastardized, abused and misunderstood.The steak sandwich has also been appropriated be at least two major establishments in South Philadelphia that tourists, in particular, think to be authentic.Nothing could be more wrong. Almost any corner store sandwich joint will offer you a better and authentic steak sandwich. But let me return to my house.
Dinner began with my father’s salad.Except for hot-dogs on Wednesday night, my father did not cook.He did however put together his own salad on Saturday night.It was from him that I learned that a truly rich salad was not a carefully sliced arrangement of tomatoes and greens.My father chopped chunks of everything to create a salad that was a dish with substance, not a little delicacy for thin lipped ladies in Wannamaker’s Crystal Tea Room.h fries.
Following the salad came the steak sandwiches. Since they were made in advance and so that we could all be served at the same time they came from the kitchen wrapped in aluminum foil. Along with the sandwiches came the French fries. Now, I do have to say that these were not true French fries but frozen fries that were baked on a tray in the oven. I even remember once or twice having “Tatter-Tots.” In either case, they potatoes were little more than a vehicle for eating sweet ketchup. The beverage was always fresh iced tea with lemon served in a large silver aluminum pitcher. (What the acid of the tea did to the aluminum and consequently to us is anyone’s guess.)
Dessert for a Saturday night dinner was often my father’s chocolate pudding pie made through the convenience of My-T Fine pudding and a graham cracker crust.(Yes,one other thing that he did make.)
But let me leave the reminiscence aside to talk about the true cheese steak.Of course the prime ingredient is the meat. The meat must be freshly sliced chip-steak : real chip steak from the butcher, not “Steak-umms” or any other processed product that looks like it belongs in a shoe repair store. In winter the chip steak was and is even today found only at The Colonial Village Meat Market.
Preparing the steaks has technique that must be followed. The chip-steak is fried in a bit of oil and water but there is a skill to the frying. The essential point is to shred and scramble the meat as it is frying. A true steak sandwich is never a slab of flat beef as some (in)famous Philadelphia institutions would have you believe. In the first place, the chip steak is too tough to be served that way. Furthermore, the shredding and scrambling actually produces not only a texture difference but a taste difference.
Then there is the element that gives the steak its name, the cheese. Again, real cheese freshly sliced at the deli. Number one, foremost and utmost: any cheese that has a color or comes in a liquidized form or individual wrappers is just plain wrong. The cheese must be either plain, white New York style cheddar or Italian provolone. Anything else is a travesty.
Of course the final crowning element is the roll: and in Philadelphia it’s a roll, not a hero, not a bun. To find the right roll my father went near and far. (See my page on my father and bakeries.) During the winter he usually went to an Italian delicatessen in West Philadelphia. During the summer he took us to Wildwood Italian bakery. You could smell the hot bread a block away. Our father always bought more rolls than were needed for dinner because we ate half of them still warm on the way home in the car. These days such small places are long gone. But if you are fortunate enough to have either Amoroso or Liscio in your area, that’s what you need. I have seen Amoroso being delivered UPS to a shop in Charleston, SC. That’s a shop that must have Philly roots.
And, to be sure, add fried onion and peppers and mushrooms.
Use a mandolin for the thinnest onion slices.
Fry the onions in olive oil with a few drops of water.
Let them become completely wilted.
Set them in a baking tray in the over according to the time indicated.
The Crucial Step
Slice down as thin as possible.
Sautee the mushrooms.
Set the onions and mushrooms aside in a warm place.
Sautee peppers is desired.
Divide out the amount you would like for each sandwich. (3 in this image.)
Dress with onions, mushrooms, peppers as you chose.
Set a roll on each portion and let it warm on the inside.
Wrap the sandwiches in foil and place them in the oven already hot from the French fries.
After about ten minutes this will give the roll a nice crispness.
Set the desired amount of cheese on each portion.
Let the cheese melt.
Using a spatula fold the steaks into each roll.
If you have only a few you can serve them now.
But you may like the next step as well.
Ready to go