I’m not going to lie to you: This is not health food but oh my, is it good.
We all have them: foods that are somehow irresistible—even if their ingredients are sometimes questionable like the “Cheese” in Cheesesteaks or the quality of the beef that’s used for the steak portion of this recipe. I confess to ‘hiding’ the fact that I love Philly Cheesesteaks. I only bought them from the Halal Food cart that was semi-permanently parked in front of the Apple Store half block from our house in New York. And I only buy them at lunch so Andrew won’t find out. But the food cart has been gone for months and I have to wonder if street food will ever return to Manhattan. So when this recipe showed up in my in-box, was there any doubt I was going to learn to make one myself.
The truth about Cheesesteaks: And it’s not all pretty.
This recipe purports to be the real thing. But first a few facts about Cheesesteak sandwiches. They are not really steak sandwiches at all. They are made with steak that has been frozen and sliced really thin. Cooked on a grill top, Philadelphians think in terms of steak sandwiches with or without the cheese. Without Cheese, the sandwich is referred to as a steak. The addition of the Cheese makes them Cheesesteaks. Now about that cheese…it’s not really cheese at all. It’s Cheese Whiz. Made by Kraft since 1953, it’s a nutritionist’s nightmare, to begin with. A single serving of two-level tablespoons lard on a third of a day’s recommended maximum of saturated fat, and a third of the recommended allowance of sodium. The ingredient label lists a staggering 27 items in all. Perhaps most shocking is what’s missing. There is actually no cheese in Cheese Whiz at all. In fairness, you can substitute Provolone for the Cheese Whiz, and Provolone in fact is real cheese. But when you order with or without, in Philadelphia, you’re talking Cheese Whiz.
Nevertheless, they’re delicious and we have two South Philly Brothers to thank.
In the Italian immigrant section of Philadelphia, brothers Harry and Pat Olivieri sold hot dogs and sandwiches. Tired of hot dogs, Pat got Harry to buy some beef for a change of pace. Harry sliced it up, add some onions, and piled it onto a roll. Their lunch we interrupted by a Cab Driver who stopped for lunch, smelled the beef and onions, and ordered the sandwich. Pat never even got to taste it and charged the cabbie 5 cents. Legend has it that the cab driver told the Olivieris ‘forget about those hot dogs, you should sell these. The Cheese wasn’t introduced to the sandwich until 20 years later when an employee who tired of the original sandwich added it. Cheese Whiz was truly an afterthought. It didn’t appear on the Cheesesteaks until the 60s. In 1940, the Olivieri’s opened Pat’s King of Steaks at 1237 East Passyunk Avenue. And it’s been frying up cheesesteaks 24 hours a day ever since.
What’s the Beef? The answer may surprise you.
Let’s face it, shopping these days isn’t what it used to be. Strange things are in short supply. When I decided to make Philly Cheesesteaks, I remembered that my mother, arguably the greatest fan of convenience foods in history, fed my son almost exclusively on Steak-Umms. So I headed to the freezer case and there they were. Angus Beef no less! And Steak-Umms were up to the task. Direct from the freezer, they were the perfect beef topping to the mushrooms and onions atop the Hero buns. The Cheese Whiz, heated in the microwave, was carefully doled out. And just because I didn’t want to die of guilt, I served it with a cherry tomato and lettuce salad. It was a perfect guilty pleasure. Here is the recipe:
The Original Philly Cheesesteak
My personal guilty pleasure. An iconic sandwich filled with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and thin-sliced beef topped with cheese.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions sliced as thin as possible and rings separated*
- 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
- 12 ounces steak
- Salt and coarsely-ground black pepper
- Cheese Whiz or provolone cheese slices
- 1 (8-inch long) Italian loaf, hoagie roll, or French baguette
- Dill pickle spears
- Step 1 In a large frying pan over high heat, add olive oil and heat so that a drop of water will sizzle when you drop it in the oil
- Step 2 lower heat to medium. Add onions and mushrooms, stir and cook until mushrooms darken and onions start to look transparent. Remove onions and mushrooms and set aside.
- Step 3 While the onions and mushrooms cook, melt Cheese Whiz in a double boiler or the microwave.
- Step 4 Add the steak slices to the pan and cook for approximately 3 minutes or until meat is lightly browned. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Step 5 Slice bread lengthwise.
- Step 6 Ladle mushrooms and onions on top of the sliced bread.
- Step 7 Using a spatula, scoop 1/2 the meat mixture and cheese and lay on bread with cheese on top. If using melted Cheese Whiz, ladle it on top. If you’re using Cheez Whiz, do not use too much or it can overpower the sandwich’s taste. Use the remaining meat mixture to make another sandwich.
- Step 8 Serve with a dill pickle.