Michael Whyte and I have been friends on social media for over 10 years. We are an example of what’s great about social media – we’re friends who wouldn’t have met otherwise. We keep track of one another’s lives, and I can say I have genuine affection for the man – Heck, I proudly wear one of his band t shirts. We met via music and guitars, although exactly how I do not recall, (and I doubt Mike does either). He lives in Rockford, Illinois, and I in Ferndale, Washington. We have not yet met face to face, although I hope to correct that. In addition to music and guitars, we share a love of family, community, and growing and cooking great food. We also both lost our Moms during the time we’ve known each other, and that’s where today’s post comes in.
Michael has pretty much been a musician his whole life, and I for most of mine. While I can sing and play, (even at the same time), and have a ridiculous volume of lyrics and guitar licks stuffed in my head, I’m sadly not much of a songwriter. Michael on the other hand very much is. He is currently part of the Blue Healers band in Rockford, so if you’re in the area, check it. We share a strong drive to create, often through music and writing. We’ve both worked blue collar jobs for most of our days, and prefer that – especially if it gets us outdoors. We both recall our childhoods with affection, and a fair share of those memories focus on food and gardening.
My Mom was born Marjorie Jean Langston in 1923, although she never used her first name. She was raised in Billings by parents of English/Scots/Irish descent, who came through Canada and the American south before landing in Montana. She left home at 18 to do her part for the WWII war effort, and headed down to the Fort Douglas army base outside Salt Lake City, where a high school friend was already working. Pretty early on she asked what there was to do for fun and who she should meet – She was told dancing and Tom Atwater, who was a fine dancer. Even though her mother told her not to be dazzled by a guy in uniform, they were married a few months later at the base. Mom did a lot of supporting dad’s education after the war, but also raised four kids, mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, and became an artist of some renown on two coasts in her lifetime. She passed away in 2015, at the ripe old age of 92.
Mom was not a fancy cook by any stretch of the imagination, but she admired a great deal about good food. She put three squares on the table for a family of six for many years. Her culinary bible was The Joy of Cooking, which now occupies a place of honor in my kitchen. She greatly admired and often attempted dishes by Julia Child, as did so many budding cooks in the 1960s, (She also introduced me to Julia at WGBH, it that’s another story). That said, she baked bread and cinnamon rolls regularly, canned produce she grew in her vegetable garden, (she made stunningly lovely gardens in general), and was quite open minded about exploring cuisines that were pretty out there for the times. I know that my interest in world cuisine and being adventurous came from her, without a doubt.
Mike’s Mom was Lenore Lazzaro. Her Pappa hailed from the Piedmont, in the northwestern shin of the Italian boot, and her Mom from Ireland, by way of Canada and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She started working for the USPS in the mid 1960s and did so for most of her working life. Lenore learned to cook when she was just a kid, to help feed her three younger siblings. She certainly inherited both Italian and Irish roots to her cooking. Mike says, ‘she just always loved to cook,’ and that passion has passed to him. He wrote, ‘When I was a kid we lived on a small chicken farm. We always had a large garden. She and her cousin and her Italian aunts made fresh pasta. She did her own canning. I rarely remember having food from cans as a kid.’ Their farm was on the northwest edge of Rockford, and some of it remains – The house and barn are there, as is the chicken coop, although that’s been turned into a garage. Lenore passed away last May at the age of 84.
So when I saw Michael post about making Italian beef recently, the light bulb atop my beady little head lit up brilliantly. We had a nice back and forth about it after I asked for his recipe, wherein he mentioned that this was a dish that had come to him from his Mom. I asked if I might write all this up, and he replied, ‘It would be an honor,’ – and indeed it is.
So, about that ethereal stuff – First off, what we’re talking about is a well cooked and seasoned hunk of beef that is then enjoyed in as many permutations as you have imagination. You can begin that journey as we did – a nice thick slice, with some fresh pasta and veggies on the side, but you could also go straight to Italian beef sandwiches without a trace of guilt. While you’re highly unlikely to find an analog of this dish in Italy, it’s a hallmark of the cuisine of Italian immigrants who landed in the American Midwest, firmly centered in Illinois. For scholars of the sandwich, Chicago is the Holy Land, and arguments as to who’s version is best can get, shall we say, rather animated. While some troglodytes have been known to claim that this sandwich derived from a French Dip, I beg to differ – French dip is, at its best, pedestrian, whereas a great Italian beef sandwich is a thing of sublime deliciousness – and of course, the beef is key.
The cut used is traditionally a top or bottom round, wet roasted in rich, (preferably home made), stock, with a properly hefty degree of garlic and dry spices onboard. Doing things this way will notably reduce the weight and size of your roast, and can even lead to people claiming it is dry, but that should never be true – Italian beef is meant to go with the incredibly rich jus that this cooking method generates – Whatever you do, make sure you combine the two and you will be more than happy, trust me.
As for method, purists will demand that the roasting be done at exactly 350° F, and you can certainly do that, placing your beef in a braiser or Dutch oven. That said, even if this is how many of the famous makers do theirs, we at home can do the deed in a slow cooker and achieve splendid results as well.
Here is what Michael had to say about how he does his version, followed by a point specific recipe that’s our swing at things. Between the two, you’ll get a good idea of what’s involved, and from that you can develop one that’s distinctly yours.
“Pretty much what you’d expect, with one exception: top or bottom round, onions, peppers (red and green), lots of garlic, a mix of dried herbs and spices, 3 to 1 beef broth to chicken broth (the chicken helps keep the metallic taste that the beef sometimes has at bay), a sprig each of fresh thyme and rosemary and a bay leaf (remove all at end), a couple healthy shots of Worcestershire sauce, a dribble of juice from a jar of pepperoncini and…here’s the secret…1/2 to a full cup of black coffee! Season and sear the roast, everything into the slow cooker, and about 5 hours later it’s done. The dry dressing mixes that a lot of Italian beef recipes call for are just too salty for my taste. I prefer to control the salt by mixing my own – My mom never used those mixes, either. I don’t know if my recipe is exactly like hers, but the coffee was definitely her contribution. Crunch the garlic and use a LOT.”
As for the dried Italian blend, I’ll just say that this should be as individual as possible. There’s some good guidelines for what makes a mix ‘Italian’, but that’s not gospel – you should go with what pleases you best. Here’s what we use these days as our All Purpose Italian Dry Blend – Feel free to tweak that as you see fit, and then call it yours.
2 Tablespoons Basil
2 Tablespoons Turkish Oregano
2 Tablespoons Lemon Thyme
2 Tablespoons Chive
2 Tablespoons Savory
1 Tablespoon Marjoram
1 Tablespoon Rosemary
1 Tablespoon Chile Flake
You can pulse this stuff in a food processor or spice grinder, or just patiently work it through a single mesh strainer. There’s nothing wrong with having the blend somewhat rustic, as opposed to a perfectly uniform powder – process until you reach the consistency you like, then store in a clean glass container.
Urban’s Italian Beef
3-4 Pound Top or Bottom Round Roast
4 Cups Beef or Chicken Stock, (or a blend as Mike does, if you prefer – homemade of course)
1 Red Bell Pepper
1 Green Bell Pepper
1-2 Onions (whatever variety you like)
1 Head fresh Fennel
8-12 Cloves Garlic
4 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning Blend
2 Turkish Bay Leaves
1 Cup Black Coffee
1/4 Cup Pepperoncini Juice
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
Peel, trim and rough chop onions.
Smash, trim, and peel garlic.
Stem and devein peppers, then rough chop.
You may, if you wish, sauté the peppers and onions for a bit to get some deeper flavors into them.
Step, peel, trim and rough chop fennel.
In a dry, heavy skillet over medium high heat, sear the beef thoroughly on all sides.
Transfer beef to a slow cooker, then add stock and all other ingredients.
Cook on a medium setting 3-4 hours, until you reach an internal temperature of 135° – 140° F.
Pull the beef out of the stock and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing or shredding.
Do not toss the stock! This is liquid gold, and it’s critical to enjoying the beef for additional meals. It also makes an exceptional base for soup or stew.
If you like slices, the stock will make amazing gravy with very little work required.
Whatever you make for subsequent meals, reheat stock in a heavy pan large enough to handle the stock plus whatever beef you want to use. You can slice or shred as you please – Then reduce heat to low and immerse the beef in the stock for at least 30 minutes, up to a coupe of hours – The longer you reintroduce them, the better your results.
If you’re doing Italian Beef Sandwiches, know that there’s a bunch of variations on this theme, each a favorite of someone and often debated hotly – Just go with what sounds best to you, and to heck with the naysayers. The most common, (and in my opinion, most delicious), additions are a giardiniera mix or pickled sweet peppers. Some folks like cheese, and that’s fine too. If you want more onions, tomato, and shredded lettuce, then do that – it’s your house. I like a little homemade Italian salad dressing on mine from time to time. The bread should be a nice, fresh Italian loaf, sliced thick but not too thick. Here are some of the more common ‘official’ variants.
Hot Dipped means Italian beef with gardiniera, and the bread slathered with hot stock.
Sweet Dry is Italian beef and sweet peppers, no extra stock.
A Soaker means the bread has been generously dunked in hot stock, with sweet peppers or gardiniera.
Cheesy is just that, with provolone or mozzarella.
Cheesy Garlic is beef and cheese on grilled garlic bread, (and it’s freakin’ delicious)
So there you go, with big love to Michael’s Momma for a wonderful dish, and a lifetime of fond memories. When you make it, offer up a little thanks to Lenore.