If you were to pin down the spot on my culinary being’s map from which every journey extends it’s the thriving burg of Meat and Potatoes. Yes, my culinary GSM has led me down highways and dirt roads, across lakes and oceans to oysters, sea urchins, and caponata, but this woman knows her roots.
My mother became an adventurous cook the year Lulu and Maurice Gibbs got married – none of her kids will forget the first Beouf Bourgignon – but before that milestone year she was all about the spaghetti and meatballs, the meatloaf, and the Salisbury Steak. She didn’t like hamburgers, which may be why I can’t now make it through a week without three — one great, one so-so and one off the 99 cent menu at Burger King, no fries. (I can be a slut for chain hamburgers but I’m as pure as a novice when it comes to fries; only the “holy crap good!” need apply.) Salisbury steak night provided a happy combination of a giant patty, sans bun, with enough onion gravy to fill up a sauceboat and mashed potatoes a sure thing. Carrots were a shoo-in too, because she adapted her Swiss Steak technique — vegetables braised in the sauce – when she made Salisbury Steak.
I don’t have her recipe, and she’s dining in the celestial halls off bijou servings of Peking duck, sole meuniere and savarins so I can’t spend forty minutes talking food with her on Sunday night, as I did for thirty years. (My sister-in-law Hilary, a caterer called her chats with my mother as “Marilyn’s Recipe 911.”) But I don’t need her recipe, because I made it often enough for family dinners in my teens that its elegance. Five ingredients, if your include the carrots, a bowl, a spatula and a frying pan with a lid – a twelve year old could, and did, make it.
Mix together a pound and a half of ground round, a half cup of breadcrumbs and a quarter of a package of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. Pat it out into a dinner-plate sized patty in the frying pan. Turn the pan on to commence the browning, then slice an onion.
The only tricky part is turning that disk without breaking it – I used two spatulas. Add a teaspoon of vegetable oil and sautee the onions until almost tender. Peel a few carrots and cut them into fine julienne; my mother had an immutable distaste for circle-cut carrots. Toss in the carrots, the rest of the package of Lipton’s and a cup and a half of water. Here, my mother would add the occasional heel of a bottle of Gamay. Cover, and cook for the length of the first act of the Callas/Gobbi recording of “Rigoletto,” which measured my parents’ cocktail hour. My brother Ian was the mashed potato prodigy of the family – he focused that early testosterone into pounding potatoes and pushing the dairy .
If you tried this today your kids would like it a lot. You’d rise above the steak’s depressing bad rap of college cafeterias and frozen dinners – loser food – and appreciate it in a hip mid-century modern groove. Enjoy it, while you put Blind Faith on the turntable, pull your hippe aunt’s granny square afghan over your knees, and consider melding packaged onion soup mix and sous vide.
My father always pronounced it “Sallsiburry,” not because he didn’t know the pronunciation of the great cathedral town, but because he’d met someone who didn’t, and that lady’s take on the name tickled him. I’d assumed that the dish was the product of post-war rationing, English mince and mashed and the coming of age of cooking from a box, can or envelope.