Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Culinary Adventures of Brian and Kate: Creamed Chipped Beef

It all started with the chicken pot pie.

Last fall, my friend Brian and I went to Colonel Brooks Tavern the week before it closed. In the course of our conversation, we began rhapsodizing about Pennsylvania Dutch chicken pot pie. (Spoiler: unless you have lived in PA Dutch country, this is not anything like what you think it is. More on that another day.) Both of us spent some of our formative years living in central Pennsylvania--in fact, our parents only live about 45 minutes apart--and both of us really miss this dish.

We started talking about all kinds of dishes we remembered from our childhoods, and just like that a project was born.

We badgered our parents and grandparents for ideas and recipes...and ran into problem number one, which was that none of these people cook with recipes. But we persevered. Armed with ingredients and a sketchy outline of a recipe, we embarked on our first culinary adventure: creamed chipped beef.

This meal basically defines my childhood memories of my grandparents' house. Grandma was Southern, and she cooked like it. Every single thing she made was absolutely delicious and absolutely terrible for you. She could just throw ingredients into a dish and make it amazing. She started taking a few shortcuts as she got older, but when my mother was young she remembers that Grandma always made everything from scratch-nothing out of a box, a bag or a can.

Weekend mornings at Grandma's house always meant a huge breakfast, and more often than not, creamed chipped beef was on the menu. As I got older, she started to modify the recipe to accommodate the vegetarians and vegans in the family (Grandma could veganize a recipe like nobody's business) but what I wanted to make was the original recipe. Grandma died a few months before we started our project, so ironically it was my mom, a vegan, who walked us through making it.

And really, how can you go wrong with a recipe whose first instruction is to fry a pound of bacon? You don't need the bacon itself, although it's bacon. It'll get eaten. What you really need is the bacon grease. (You can also use olive oil--that's how my mom does it. But it's not nearly as delicious.) We made this in a cast-iron skillet that originally belonged to my grandmother, which I thought was a nice touch. She cooked everything in those things.

Once you've finished the bacon, remove it from the pan, leaving the grease. Slowly add flour to form a roux. Here, we ran into the first problem, which was that my mom's instruction was to make sure the roux was very brown but not burned. I wish I was kidding when I say there were at least three phone calls to mom to clarify details during this recipe, and the first one had to do with how brown very brown is.

So, roux. Very brown. Rip the chipped beef into small pieces and add them to the pan. Continue to brown.

In a measuring cup, combine water and milk at a ratio of 2/3 milk to 1/3 water. (I use soy milk, because ugh, lactose. Brian swore this was sacrilege. He's probably right.) Slowly add the mixture to the skillet, stirring constantly. You want to cook this down to get rid of the flour taste, and the nice thing is you can cook it down over and over again if you screw something up. This is the hardest part for me to describe, and the hardest for us to figure out on our own. You don't want it to be too runny, and you don't want it too thick, and you don't want it to taste like flour. 

That's it. Serve it over biscuits or toast; I neglected to take a picture of the assembled dish, but that's ok because my biscuits turned out to be freaks of nature. Serve with the aforementioned bacon, if any has survived to the end of the process. (Not likely.)

Brian, being Brian.

This was a tough one for me, because it wasn't like Grandma's. But then, nobody cooks like Grandma. Even my mom's chipped beef isn't quite the same, and she's been making it for ages though she now makes it vegan, which isn't nearly as good. (For the record, to veganize this dish, use olive oil instead of bacon fat, use soy milk instead of regular milk, and omit the chipped beef.)

It was a passable attempt, but like anything else I'll get better at it as I make it more often. (Not that often. My arteries can't handle it.) I'll probably never make it as good as Grandma's was, but I should be able to match my mom's.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. We could have used cooking it down a little bit more, but this was a close enough facsimile to make me happy, and a good base to work on to make it better.

Brian's rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

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