"An item which, at its best, seems to exist in the sublime but which, far too often, falls apart under pressure." Tony Naylor - The Guardian
On the left The Recipe Tin Eats version of a Steak sandwich and on the right, Jamie's Next level steak and onion sandwich - both fairly traditional - with onions.
I have never really been a fan of steak sandwiches. I mean they are just too difficult to eat to my mind. A hamburger is hard enough - I always get into a terrible mess eating a hamburger - but a steak sandwich is next to impossible. At least the meat in a hamburger is soft enough to tear apart. The meat in a steak sandwich is often just too difficult to bite through, leading to you dragging a whole piece of steak out of the sandwich. However, two things stimulated me to write on the topic.
The first was The best steak sandwich (shown here) which was a featured recipe in the latest Coles Magazine. I thought about writing about steak sandwiches then, but, probably because of my aversion to them, I just ignored it in the end. I mean what was there to say really?
Then, when I was going through those old delicious. magazines I came across this very tempting looking Onglet steak with salsa verde and parmesan chips from Valli Little, which made me think again about steak sandwiches. What is the connection you might ask? Well the connection is the steak - onglet - a particular cut of steak otherwise known as skirt steak and very similar to bavette or flank. Bavette is sometimes known as the butcher's cut because it was maintained that the butchers kept this bit for themselves.
I used to seek out skirt steak in my young wife cooking days. It was cheap and it was very delicious and perfect for all those Elizabeth David daubes. Nowadays, although it is quite trendy, I rarely see it, and when I do it is not cheap. Well, in a way you would not expect it to be because there is not a lot of it on the animal. Maybe the butchers are still keeping it for themselves.
However, you will see lots of recipes on the net like the one above of deliciously barbecued or roasted chunks of this cut of beef served with things like salsa verde. I had never roasted or grilled it when young - I only ever used it in casseroles of some kind - as my mother had taught me to do. These days I think you are more likely to give it the treatment shown above.
But I waffle. Steak sandwiches, as I said, were made with skirt steak. Well one of those thin steaks. Or so I thought, for, of course, when I looked into it there was a range of opinion from Gordon Ramsay who maintained that fillet was the only way to go, to the basic Coles version that uses what it calls sandwich steaks - those thin cuts of something you find in the supermarkets, sometimes called Minute steaks elsewhere. Not that I am knocking them. Give them a bash with a rolling pin and they will be fine. The Coles recipe was fast and convenient cooking and used packaged Kaleslaw and tinned beetroots. But nothing wrong with that really.
If you want a really basic version - a piece of steak (in this case rump) slapped between two slices of bread then you can do no worse than watch Jamie's young son Buddy make his Simple steak sandwich. Show it to your kids or grandkids. Or, at the other end of the spectrum you can watch Gordon Ramsay make his rather more sophisticated version - The Ultimate steak sandwich - they're almost all the ultimate or the best or some other superlative. His, as I said is made with fillet steak and if nothing else this video does show you how to cook a fillet of beef. Then there's the tomato relish and the mustard mayonnaise.
For me fillet steak made sense. It might be expensive but it's very tender so none of those awkward attempts at tearing the steak apart.
"Fundamentally, you don’t want to be tearing at a thick, underdone steak riven with sinew and ribbons of thick fat. You should be able to bite through your steak. If you have to hold it fast and pull it apart with brute jaw-strength, the bread will likely disintegrate in your hands." Tony Naylor
However, Tony Naylor rejects fillet outright as flavourless, and you know he might be right. He goes for the skirt or flank steak that we spoke about before. Others go for rump - although all of these have to be beaten to about 1cm thick before frying.
The other thing about making the meat easy enough to eat is to slice it into bits no thicker than your bread. This is fine if your steak is thin to begin with but if you have a fat piece of fillet, like Gordon Ramsay you will have to slice it twice - once down and then across, if you see what I mean. Small pieces not big slices are the thing. Gordon doesn't though. He leaves it as whole slices of the fillet steak.
The bread is the other main debating point. Fresh or toasted/griddled? And what kind of bread anyway. Just about everyone agreed that it shouldn't be sliced white. Even Buddy's simple sandwich was fairly thickly sliced and was fairly substantial looking white bread. Mostly people seemed to go for the toasted version - you know, drizzled with oil and cooked on a griddle. And it makes sense in that it doesn't go so soggy with the juices. That said there seemed to be a huge mix of choices, although Tony Naylor plumped for ciabatta:
"there is a reason why ciabatta already feels eternal and why it has become synonymous with the steak sandwich. Crisp without, light within, porous enough to absorb meat juices and yet durable enough to withstand them (and additional sauces), it is – when cut horizontally and lightly toasted – the perfect steak sandwich bread." Tony Naylor
He has a few other things to say on the subject in his article How to eat a steak sandwich including an exhortation to exclude rocket - which others include. As always it's an amusing read.
My Steak sandwich prize for beauty, however, goes to Maggie Beer who is very Australian and adds beetroot to hers.
Then there's the vexed question of cheese. Here in Australia, and England too I think, cheese is not a thing in a steak sandwich, but in America, and specifically in Philadelphia where I spend eight weeks working in Woolworths when a student on a trip to the USA with my friend Carole in 1962 - yes in Philadelphia apparently they have the Philly cheesesteak. It's a very popular fast food, although I confess I do not ever remember seeing one. But then we had hardly any money, and subsisted on cheap hamburgers, and baked potatoes and baked beans in our one-room apartment in the twilight zone of Philadelphia. Oh the risks one takes when one is young.
A typical Philly Cheesesteak looks something like this. The bread is the kind of roll you use for a hot dog. Indeed the urban legend is that it was invented back in the early 1930s in Philadelphia by Pat and Harry Olivieri who ran a hot dog stand. One day they thought they would ring the changes by using chopped steak and grilled onions instead. No cheese at this stage. The cheese - provolone - was added at a later stage by somebody else, but it remains the main feature I think. The steak is cooked on one side, turned over, topped with cheese and cooked until the cheese melts. This one seems to have chilli in it as well. I believe there is - or at least was a café in Melbourne called Sparrows Philly Steaks that specialises in them. Tony Naylor deplored cheese as an addition to the sandwich but I did find a couple of examples elsewhere.
In his book Jamie's Dinners, Jamie Oliver gives us this amazing looking stuffed baguette. It is called Scottish Pete's cheesy steak sandwich and is a recipe from one of his friends who spent time in circuses in America, where the Phiily Cheesesteak was a feature. It's made with a baguette which is baked in the oven to warm it up and make it crispy. The rump steak is cooked as above with the grated provolone, then sliced and inserted into the baguette with rocket and American mustard. No onions, though onions are suggested as an optional extra. You'd have to slice it fairly thinly I think to be able to eat it without making an awful mess.
And finally we have elegant Donna Hay.
The recipe is not online alas, but it's pretty simple if much more extravagant and cheffy. Make a fancy salt by blending rosemary and porcini together and then mixing with salt. Mix some mayonnaise with horseradish. Cook Swiss brown mushrooms in butter. Cook your slices of sourdough bread in the buttery juices from the mushrooms. Sprinkle your scotch fillet with half the salt and cook one side for 1 minute. Turn over, top with the cheese and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes until the cheese is melted. Spread half of the bread slices with the horseradish mayonnaise, and top with steak and mushrooms plus rocket and the other slice of bread. Sprinkle the rest of the salt on top - which seems a bit weird. Wouldn't you sprinkle it over the steak itself. But who am I to argue with the greats?
Honestly I don't think I'm going to be making myself a steak sandwich any time soon, but I can see the attraction, and I did learn how to cook a fillet from Gordon Ramsay. And I'm definitely going to have another look for skirt steak just for the memory.