Italian beef sandwich offers a taste of Chicago

June 09, 1999|By ROB KASPER

SINCE ONE OF our teen-age sons is going to visit Chicago, I figured it was time to introduce him to the Italian beef sandwich.

Anyone who has spent time in Chicago has fond memories of this mixture of shaved beef, broth and pickled vegetable topping. Like the pit beef in Baltimore and the cheese steak in Philadelphia, the Italian beef is the unofficial sandwich of the city. If you have visited Chicago and returned without any Italian beef stains on your shirt, then you really haven't been there.

Over the years, our two sons have heard their mother and me sing the praises of Chicago -- its deep-dish pizza, its hot dogs, its architecture. So when the opportunity presented itself for the younger boy, 14, to travel this summer with his mother to the Windy City, he willingly accepted.

The main reason he wanted to go had little to do with his parents' homilies, however. It had to do with sibling rivalry. His brother had made a trip to Chicago a few summers ago, and the younger kid felt he needed to "even up" the trips.

To prepare him for his adventure in Chicago, I told him about Wrigley Field, the ancient baseball park, where he was going to watch a Cubs game -- and I made him an Italian beef sandwich.

First, I told him about the ballpark's vines, planted by Bill Veeck in 1937, that cover the outfield walls. I told him that no home run has ever hit the center field scoreboard, but that Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente barely missed it in 1959. And I told him that after every home game a flag is hoisted over the Wrigley Field scoreboard, a white flag for a win, a blue flag for a loss.

The kid seemed mildly interested in the history lesson. He was seriously interested in the sandwich.

When I lived in Chicago, I was a graduate student, and like many such students, was more devoted to eating than to cooking. In my Baltimore kitchen, I searched for a recipe for the sandwich. I found one in "Steak Lover's Cookbook," by William Rice (Workman, 1997).

I seem to be stuck on this cookbook, using it again and again. Moreover, the author works for the Chicago Tribune, a company that owns the Cubs. I figured that since the book had such Chicago roots, its Italian beef recipe had to be authentic.

I made a highly seasoned beef broth. I pounded thin strips of round steak into submission. Then I cooked the meat in the seasoned broth for a few minutes and served the cooked meat on good, crusty bread.

The kid ate three sandwiches. These made-in-Baltimore Italian beef sandwiches were good, he said. I agreed but told him -- as he would soon learn -- the Italian beef sandwiches eaten in Chicago taste even better.

Italian Beef Sandwiches

Serves 4

3 cups beef broth

3/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

3/4 teaspoon dried Italian herb seasoning

1 large clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1/2 cup hot pepper giardiniera (recipe follows)

crushed red pepper flakes to taste

4 Italian buns or soft rolls, 6 to 7 inches long

1 pound tip steak or top round steak, cut into thin strips

Combine the broth, black pepper, Italian seasoning and garlic in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Strain the broth.

Coarsely chop the giardiniera if the pieces are large. Stir in the red pepper flakes for a spicy sandwich. Slice buns lengthwise, without cutting them completely in half.

Using a meat pounder, the side of cleaver or a large knife, pound each strip of meat until very thin. Bring the broth back to a boil, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer and add the meat strips, a few at a time. Cook until they are brown and have cooked through, about 1 minute. Stir with tongs or chopsticks as needed to keep the slices apart. Do not let the broth return to a boil or else the meat will toughen. Remove the pan from the heat.

Drizzle 2 tablespoons of meat broth over the inside of each bun. Divide the beef strips among the buns and moisten each portion with 2 more tablespoons of broth. Top with 2 tablespoons of giardiniera. Cut each bun crosswise and serve with plenty of paper napkins.

Giardiniera

Yields 1 quart

1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, diced

1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded, diced

2 inner ribs celery, diced

1 cup sport peppers (jarred hot Italian peppers), cut into 1/4 inch pieces

1 cup peperoncini (chili pepper) cut into 1/4 inch pieces

2 jalapenos, cored, seeded and cut into pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

Combine both bell peppers, celery, sport peppers, peperoncini and the jalapenos in a bowl. Toss with oil and vinegar until well mixed.

Transfer to a 1-quart jar, cover and store in the refrigerator until needed. The relish will stay crisp for three to four days.

-- From "Steak Lover's Cookbook"

Pub Date: 06/09/99

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