Cooking, Food, Recipe

Eat This While You Read That: Lars Walker

I’ve enjoyed Lars Walker’s work for years, reading his impeccably researched books about Vikings and the Norsemen first from Baen, and now his Indie works. Although his work is rarely light, it is compelling, thoughtful fiction that still manages to blend action with philosophy and create stories I want to read. I was a little shy about asking him if he would be willing to contribute a dish to this series: it’s a weird feeling to contact authors who you look up to and respect, and I didn’t want to be all fangirl in my request. I was delighted when he responded, and even more delighted when I saw what he’d suggested I make. My pleasure was amplified by the First Reader’s reaction to it – he was all excited about the dish. Walker didn’t send me a recipe, but a lovely description of what he wanted.

deaths doorsI’m always a little embarrassed to be asked about my taste in food, because my culinary preferences are profoundly lowbrow. I’m a farm boy, with a farm boy’s tastes (though no doubt plenty of people raised in the country understand and appreciate fine food just as much as I don’t).

When I think of the meals I’ve enjoyed most in my life, the one that springs to mind at this point was served to me in a diner in Minot, North Dakota a few years ago. This was a classic, streamlined diner, part of an upper Midwest chain called Kroll’s. I ordered what’s generally known as a Hot Beef Sandwich (kitchen staff, I’m told, call it a “Commercial”). It’s a meal almost prototypically 20th Century Middle American: Hot, sliced beef between two pieces of bread, with mashed potatoes on the side, and brown gravy poured over all.

I’ve eaten many a hot beef sandwich over the years, and to be honest most of them were fairly bad. Stringy or fatty meat, instant potatoes. But I keep coming back to them for sentimental reasons. A hot beef sandwich was the first meal I ever ordered in a restaurant, and moreover it was on a train. My family took a trip from our Minnesota home to New York state to visit relatives in 1959, and we had lunch in the restaurant car. I didn’t know what to order, so I asked for what Dad was getting. As it happened, Dad succumbed to motion sickness and couldn’t finish his, so I ate that too.

But the Kroll’s Diner hot beef sandwich was on a completely higher plane. Tender, juicy beef. Homemade bread. Fresh, hot mashed potatoes from scratch. I never dreamed that my old staple could achieve such epicurean heights. I make a point to have one at Kroll’s whenever I get back to Minot.

So if you want to eat while reading one of my books, I recommend enjoying a hot beef sandwich while reading my latest, Death’s Doors.

Hot beef sandwich
This is such an old-school meal. It doesn’t need fancy: it’s good, solid food.

As I was preparing this, I kept asking the First Reader to keep me pointed in the right direction. He’s worked in restaurants and was familiar with what it should look like. He told me that it is also called a hotshot or a Manhattan, and he’s sad that you really can’t find this in a restaurant easily any longer.

Me being me, I didn’t do it the easy way: I made up everything from scratch. I’m not putting a single, printable recipe in this week, sorry. What you’re getting instead is a couple of recipes, and some guidelines.

I started with the bread. Sanford had pointed out that if you get this in a restaurant, you get it on cheap white bread. Walker had said that he’s had it on homemade bread, and it’s no trouble, really, to make a basic white loaf up.

White Bread

White bread
The dough at the final rise, almost ready for the oven.

Begin with:

  • 1 1/2 cups of warm milk (I put mine in the microwave for a minute)
  • a packet ( or 2 1/4 tsp loose) of yeast,
  • and 2 tsps of sugar.

Allow the yeast mixture to sit a few minutes. You’ll see the yeast activate, and make a mat of brown bubbly colonies on top of the liquid. I use a stand mixer with dough hook, but you can do all this by hand, it just takes more effort.

  • 1 beaten egg
  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 cups (approximately) white flour

Slowly add in the flour, putting the egg  and oil in after one cup. Add the salt, and mix in another cup of the flour. Put the third cup in slowly, you should see the batter begin to form a loose ball shape. Add as much of the fourth cup of flour as you need to create a firm ball of dough that still yields to fingers pressed into it, without being sticky or breaking. Don’t add too much – it’s better to err on the wet side than the dry. Knead for several minutes. By hand, between 3-4 minutes, until two fingertips pressed into the dough leave a slight depression that springs right back up.

Remove the dough to an oiled bowl, flipping the ball to coat it in oil. Cover and allow to rise to double, about 30-40 minutes in a reasonably warm kitchen. Remove from the bowl to a floured surface, punch down lightly and form into a loaf shape. Place in oiled loaf pan and allow to rise again for about 20 minutes. Bake in a 350 deg F oven for about 35-40 minutes, until the top is golden-brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Turn out onto a rack to cool. Brush top with butter if desired.

Homemade bread
Fresh white bread, hot and smelling so very good.

Roast Beef

Go to the store and buy deli-sliced roast beef.

Ok, you could do it my way, but the next time I make this, I’m going to the store. I wasn’t thrilled with how the beef turned out – and it was my fault. I bought a cheap roast.

roast beef
Roast beef – a cheap cut meant it was tough.

Mashed Potatoes

I grew up with rustic mashed potatoes, usually with the skin left on, and always with lots of butter, sour cream, often cheese, and garlic…

I did something for this recipe I have never done before in my life.

I whipped the potatoes. Yep, it was a violent day in the kitchen. Beaten eggs, whipped potatoes, punched dough…

Whipped potatoes
Whipping cream into the potatoes

But I knew that replicating a restaurant recipe, especially a Midwestern staple, meant whipping the potatoes.

  • 4 potatoes, med-to-large in size (scale this to how many people you plan to feed, roughly one per person plus one for the pot)
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 c cream
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • salt and pepper to taste

I cut the potatoes, peeled, into chunks and covered with water in a saucepan. I boiled to fork-tender, and then put them into my stand mixer after draining. I whipped them with the butter, cream and garlic powder and seasoned to taste when they were an even, creamy consistency.

Brown Gravy

I went a bit astray with this. The First Reader informed me that it wasn’t quite right. Not the same as you would get in a restaurant. This one has more flavor, he pointed out. I pulled this recipe years ago from a book on cooking game meats that was older than he is, but the book is long gone and I make gravy by feel, these days.

making gravy
Before adding liquid, this is what the flour and fat mixture should look like.
  • 2-3 tbsp fat (I used drippings and bacon grease)
  • two handfuls flour (um. I think this is about 1/3 to 1/2 cup flour)
  • 1 can beef consomme
  • 1/2 can water

In a cast-iron skillet, heat the fat over med-high heat. Slowly whisk in the flour, breaking up any lumps. You can use a sifter to do this if you like. Stop adding flour before the mixture becomes ‘sticky’ in appearance, it should still be loose and a bit runny. If you go too far, add a bit more grease. Whisking quickly, pour the consomme in slowly. Chase any visible lumps down and break them up. Add the water. Cook until it begins to thicken, and taste. Add more water if it gets too thick or is salty. You can pepper this, but it probably won’t need salt.

hot beef sandwiches.
Hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes. This was a very filling meal.

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