Dr. James Salisbury called it a “muscle pulp of beef” but we know it today as Salisbury steak. The good doctor believed that chopped beef (and coffee) could cure the intestinal ailments of Union soldiers during the Civil War. Convinced of the virtues of this diet—and that fruits and vegetables were the, uh, root of all evil—Dr. Salisbury published The Relation of Alimentation and Disease, which became America’s first fad diet.*
I first encountered Salisbury Steak in college, while working at a 7-Eleven in Boston. It was one of the many frozen delicacies available, a favorite among single men and late-night drunks. Nestled next to other boxed culinary triumphs like chipped beef on toast, and meatloaf, Salisbury steak was something I avoided. The lumpy meat patties slathered in a suspicious “brown” gravy were about as appetizing to me as chilled monkey brains or eyeball soup. Plus it was the 90s, and fat was now the dietary villain.
So I was pretty shocked to recently discover a recipe for Salisbury steak from none other than Jacques Pepin, in his cookbook, Essential Pepin: More than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food. Not only was Salisbury steak something that this legendary chef prepared, but it was also one of his favorites!
Naturally this meant I had to confront my prejudice and spend a rainy Saturday making it. My husband—a connoisseur of TV dinners in his youth—was unusually supportive of this project.
I took a few liberties with the recipe: omitting the celery; using panko breadcrumbs instead of stale bread; and adding mushrooms to the sauce. In the recipe below I include the celery, only because I recognize my aversion for it is
infantile peculiar. The choice is yours. Pepin’s recipe calls for apples, which I suspect Dr. Salisbury would not approve of. I found their presence to be a refreshing contrast to the richness of the meat and mushrooms. Give it a try—along with a tall mug of coffee—on the next rainy Saturday.
Makes 6 generous servings
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 ½ cups minced celery
2 apples, about 1 pound, cored, but not peeled, and chopped into ½ inch pieces
1 ½ lbs. ground grass-fed beef
2 large eggs
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
For the sauce:
1 lb white mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 medium-size carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cups water
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 Tbsp tomato paste
1/4 tsp Tabasco sauce
1/2 tsp salt
For the steaks:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When shimmering, add onion and celery and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until softened. Add chopped apples and remove from heat.
Place the ground beef in a large bowl. Add the onion-celery-apple and mix in the eggs, garlic, salt and pepper.
Add breadcrumbs to the meat mixture and mix well to incorporate.
Dampen your hands with water and form the mixture into 6 large patties, each weighing approximately 1/2-pound. Arrange in a large roasting pan so there is a little space between the “steaks,” and bake for 20 minutes.
While the steaks are cooking, make the sauce:
Heat olive oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the mushrooms and cook until they are browned and release their liquid, about five to seven minutes. Remove from heat.
Place chopped carrots and onions in a saucepan with 2 cups of water, the soy sauce, pepper, tomato paste, Tabasco and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and boil gently for 5 minutes.
Remove carrot-onion mixture from heat and stir in the mushrooms.
After 20 minutes, remove steaks from the oven. They will probably stick to the bottom of the pan so you can incline the pan and pour out most of the accumulated fat. You may need to enlist an assist in this process since the pan will be hot and heavy.
Spoon the sauce over and around the steaks and place them back in the oven for 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and let cool for a few minutes before serving.
*If you’re interested in a little culinary history, read more about Dr. Salisbury in this article from Smithsonian magazine.