(Above photos l to r: Kate's grandparents; Kristen's grandparents)
“So, what was your absolute favorite dish to make for your family?” I was sitting in the living room of my aunt’s house in February with my grandmother ready to learn a little bit about my family’s past and what kind of challenge I would be facing in the future. After a minute of thinking she responded with “A standing rib roast.”
Hmm... I was not surprised that my grandmother (who I will fondly refer to as “Nan” for the rest of my story) responded with a meat dish. But a standing rib roast? What exactly was that? It seemed like something quite large – along the scale of a Thanksgiving turkey. Would it fit in our tiny oven? Hmm... meat is always a staple at Nan’s house but I was expecting something like turkey tetrazzini or meatloaf.
“Now,” Nan said, “It was a little on the expensive side. Food wasn’t as outrageous back then (we’re talking late 1950s) as it is now. A standing rib roast would cost about $35.” “Maybe before we proceed I should call our butcher and see how much this costs now,” I said. And as it turned out the amount I would need (to feed 4-6 people) would cost over $150. Yikes.
“Okay,” I said, crossing out my notes. “So, what was your second favorite thing to cook? “A flank steak. Steak is a meal that people love and it is not labor intensive.” (I jotted that down in the back of my brain... I was not sure this would be true for me.) “It’s elegant and cost effective.” My grandmother did have seven children. However, a flank steak would be served at dinner parties, which were held quite often at my grandparents’ house in Oakland, Pittsburgh. The children would eat and then be sent to bed while the adults gathered around the dining room table.
I decided to do the same. We invited 4 good friends of ours. As it turned out, two of them were actually vegetarians. I already knew about one of them (he insisted that it would be okay because he loves the smell of steak), but I didn't find out about the other until 30 minutes before they were due to arrive.
I went out Saturday morning to a butcher shop that recently opened in Williamsburg called The Meat Hook. I asked the butcher for a flank steak and unfortunately he had sold the last one the day before. He asked me what it was for and I told him I was making my grandmother’s recipe. (How many times has he heard that?) After a moment of thinking, he told me to hang on and went back into the freezer and pulled out a huge piece of long, thin meat.
“This is what we call a faux hanger steak,” he said. What exactly was that? According to Tasting Table, this particular cut of meat is “also known as the sirloin and is a skinny steak that dangles off the loin. Seared hard on all sides to give it a nice crust, this cut's texture is similar to the one-per-cow hanger steak, a butcher's favorite.”
I watched as he gently pounded and trimmed some of the meat. I really didn’t want to spend the day wandering around the city in search of the perfect flank steak. This would do! It was a good deal: $12 per pound, and The Meat Hook’s products come from trusted farmers who raise animals in a sustainable way. I brought the meat back, as well as some fresh herbs, and manned the deck (or chopping block). Branden showed me how to sharpen our largest knife (which was pretty awkward to do…I guess I need to get more accustomed to doing this on a regular basis). But having a sharp knife sure does help. We also served twice-baked potatoes with basil and kale (as per Nan’s recommendation to serve potatoes and something green.)
There was a horrible thunderstorm that evening (the last couple arrived around 9:00 due to being stuck in the subway for over an hour). We were all starving and as soon as the meat came out of the oven we served it and for the first and only time in the evening there was dead silence. I think that was a good sign.
nan’s flank or “faux hanger" steak
2 pounds flank steak (easily feeds 4 people, you figure 1/2 pound per person)
Salt & pepper
The night before or a few hours before you’re about to cook, unroll the steak and diagonally slash both sides. Pour olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette over each side. Rub with salt, pepper and rosemary. Put the steak in a Ziploc bag and let it marinate.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 450-475 degrees. The meat needs to sit on a pan that has holes in it. You can use the pan in your broiler. Ours was missing, however, so I used a non-stick grill grid and placed a baking pan underneath it.
Broil 4-5 minutes on each side. The cut should be rare. As Nan told me, “Time will have to learn by doing.”
Once cooked, cut steak by slashing thin slices against the grain. Pour gravy that has collected in the pan underneath on top.
(Above photos l to r: Kate's grandfather and grandmother; Steak dinner with friends)
My grandmother, Edwina (lovingly nicknamed “Bo”), is the picture of Southern hospitality. All of 5 feet 2 inches, she’s a bundle of hey-y’all’s and hugs. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, her warm smile, big heart, and cheery “yoo-hoo!” can charm just about anyone. Her cooking is no different: approachable, generous, steeped in Southern flavors. She swears by White Lily flour and would never dream of using anything other than real, honest-to-goodness butter. When I told her the idea for this post and asked for her favorite thing to make, her spicy cheese straws were her first choice.
Bo’s cheese straws, served with ice-cold Coca-Cola in glass bottles, are my most vivid taste memories of childhood visits to Birmingham. As reliable as a Summer afternoon rainstorm down South, the delightful little treats were always tucked neatly into a decorative tin and sitting on my grandmother’s counter, waiting to be devoured. And devoured, they were. Within minutes of arrival, my brother and I would be hovering over the tin, popping them one after another after another into our mouths.
Bo, still using the reliable metal cookie press the she bought sometime around 1958, makes her cheese straws a few times a year for special occasions (and when hungry and home-cooked-meal-deprived granddaughters would call from college to beg for a batch). Since I don’t own a cookie press, I was a little worried about recreating these at home, but she assured me that they could be made without using a press, and then she sweetly mailed hers to me for the occasion. I was so excited to open the package and see that gorgeous press that has been so lovingly used and cared for over the years. It felt like Bo was right there with me in Beacon.
White Lily flour is next to impossible to find north of the Mason-Dixon line, but I forged on with my beloved Yankee brand, King Arthur. I also decided to use white cheddar instead of yellow and I’m pretty sure I doubled the amount of cayenne pepper Bo recommended (you can’t ever have too much, right?). They were a cinch to make! Easy as 1-2-3, really. In less than an hour, I was packing up a batch for my friend Charlotte (who exclaimed “THESE ARE SO ADDICTIVE!” and noted that they’re excellent with beer) and a tin full for me and PJ, but not before enjoying a few myself with an ice-cold Coca-Cola. The cookie press requires a fair amount of elbow grease to maneuver, so the straws came out looking a bit like “eel bones” (according to PJ), but oh man, they were as delicious as I remember. Savory. Sharp. “Short” (as Bo calls them, referring to their flakiness akin to shortbread). And with just the right amount of peppery kick.
(Today is my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary. Happy anniversary, you two! Here's to many more years of love and deliciousness!)
bo's spicy cheese straws
1/2 cup butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cups White Lily all-purpose flour (I used King Arthur, which also works beautifully)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups grated sharp yellow cheddar cheese (I used white)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used a full teaspoon)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with un-greased parchment paper (I used a Silpat baking mat).
Mix the flour, salt and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
Cream the butter and cheese together with your hands (I used a stand mixer instead) for a few minutes until fluffy.
Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter and cheese mixture until well-blended (but not over-blended).
If you have a cookie press: Press dough into press in small batches, then press straws onto the baking sheet until each is about as long as your index finger. If you don't have a cookie press: Roll dough into a log and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate log for 30 minutes, then slice dough into thin rounds then arrange on baking sheet.
Bake for 10 minutes or so, until the straws (or rounds) are just slightly golden brown. Cool them for 5 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer them to racks to cool completely.
Pack into tins with layers separated by parchment or wax paper, and share!
(Above photos l to r: Bo in the 1940s; Kristen's cheese straws and an ice-cold Coca-Cola)
View more of our grandmother photos on Flickr.