{not} Philly {not} Cheese {not} Steak

This is a post about something that isn’t at all what it claims to be.  Does that even make sense?  It’s a Philly Cheesesteak that’s not made in Philadelphia and doesn’t contain steak or (anything you can legally call) cheese.

So, yeah, it involves processed cheese food product.  Sue me.  Sometimes I feel the need to fall back on childhood favorites and flavors.

A couple of months ago, my husband mentioned that he wanted a “chicken Philly Cheesesteak” for dinner.  First of all – how can it be a cheeseSTEAK if it’s made with chicken?  Second of all – I’d been trying to avoid purchasing processed foods, and American “Cheese” and Cheez Whiz – two commonly used ingredients in traditional Philly Cheesesteaks – are among the most processed foods you can buy.

As an aside – did you know that you can buy organic American cheese? Also, according to America’s Test Kitchen, you can make it at home.

Anyway – I decided to give it a whirl.  I grew up eating cheesesteaks made with beef (when I was little, my mom and I would go about once a month to this little hole-in-the-wall place that was near our house and get the mushroom cheesesteak.  I’m sure it wasn’t authentic, given that it was in a suburban shopping center in Marietta, GA, but I have very fond memories of that place.  I would watch the guy chopping away on the flat-top grill, mesmerized by the little piles of meat and cheese all lined up just so), so I wasn’t really sure how this chicken version was going to taste.

First, I began by softening a cup of thinly sliced onion and a cup of thinly sliced bell pepper in a tablespoon of oil.  I let it cook down slowly, getting good and caramelized (I just got in a hurry and typed that last word “caramilized” and one of the spell checker’s suggestions for a replacement was militarized.  Spell check is weird).

I removed the softened onions and peppers from the pan, and added about a pound of thinly sliced chicken breast meat (seasoned with salt and pepper) to the pan.  I let it go until it was nice and browned on all sides.  Then I removed the chicken from the pan.

To make individual sandwiches, I added between two and three ounces of chicken back to the pan, along with a little bit of the onion and pepper mixture.  I used a pastry scraper (or a flat spatula) to chop the mixture into smaller pieces.

I covered that with a slice (or two) of cheese (yes, I’m using processed cheese – you can use provolone if it makes you feel better.  Just know it doesn’t melt as nicely) and poured about a quarter cup of water into the pan.  I covered this with a lid to let it steam and allowed the cheese to melt.  Once the cheese started to melt, I uncovered the pan and used my pastry scraper/spatula to mix everything together – the little bit of water that’s left in the pan helped to make a nice sauce (plus it deglazed the pan nicely – adding all that good brown flavor to the mix).

I piled the whole thing into a whole-wheat roll and topped it with a few slices of fresh jalapeno.  I like things spicy, so feel free to omit that last bit if you’re averse to heat.  Served with a cold beer, it was mighty tasty.

So, you know, NOT a Philly cheesesteak per se, but something that mimics it pretty well.  And my husband and kids thought it was pretty good, too.

Chicken Cheese{not}steak

prep time: 10 minutes

cook time: 20 minutes

yields: 4-6 sandwiches

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. chicken breast meat, thinly sliced into strips
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil (olive or grapeseed)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4-6 slices mild white cheese (Provolone or American are traditional)
  • 4-6 whole wheat hoagie rolls
  1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat
  2. Add the oil and the sliced onions and peppers.  Cook until softened and caramelized – about 10 minutes.  Remove from pan.
  3. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the pan.  Cook until browned on all sides and cooked through – about 8 minutes. Remove from pan.
  4. Add 2-3 ounces of cooked chicken and some of the onions and peppers back to the pan.  Chop into smaller pieces using a flat spatula.
  5. Add a slice of cheese.  Pour a little water in the pan and cover to steam.
  6. Remove lid and use spatula to mix everything together.  If there’s still too much water in the pan, let it cook a bit longer to evaporate.
  7. Scoop it all into a split hoagie roll.
  8. Repeat with remaining chicken, onions, cheese and rolls.
  9. Enjoy!

Oh!  One more thing – sometimes I saute a bunch of sliced cremini mushrooms along with my onions and peppers.  Actually, I really prefer to do this – those mushrooms just add a depth of flavor that you don’t get otherwise.  I just forgot to get any at the store the day I made these.  I’ve been thinking you could do a vegetarian version just using mushrooms, onions and peppers – I don’t think I’d miss the meat.

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The Economy of Puff Pastry

e-con-o-my \i-ˈkä-nə-mē\1. archaic: the management of household or private affairs and especially expenses; 2. a: thrifty and efficient use of material resources : frugality in expenditures; also: an instance or a means of economizing:savingb: efficient and concise use of nonmaterial resources (as effort, language, or motion) (source: Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

I am moving toward economy in all aspects of my life.  Economy of resources, of words, of effort.  Minimal expenditure, maximum gain.  That old saying that sometimes less is more?  Yep – that’s what I’m going for.

This puff pastry embodies the concept.  Few ingredients, simple technique, maximum impact.  Elegant, flaky, delicate. Impossibly thin layers – thousands of them –  shatter and melt in your mouth.

When I saw a similar product at the market for $12, I thought to myself “how the hell can this lump of flour and butter cost $12?” Surely I could create something just as good for pennies on the dollar, and I could do it using whole grains rather than refined white flour.

The recipe is adapted from the good old Joy of Cooking.  I used freshly ground soft winter wheat, ground it fine, and then passed it through a medium-mesh sieve to remove the largest bits of bran and germ.

  • 2 1/3 cups freshly ground flour
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 4 tablespoons cold butter cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup ice water (the original calls for 3/4 cup, but I didn’t use it al)
  • 1 3/4 cups butter, cut into 1/2 inch slices
  • 1 cup flour
  1. Combine the first 2 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, pulse to combine
  2. Add 4 tablespoons butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs
  3. Add ice water and pulse just until dough comes together in a ball.
  4. Form a 5-inch square, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  5. Freeze 1 3/4 cups butter for 2 minutes
  6. Place in the bowl of the food processor, along with 1 cup flour
  7. Process mixture until it looks like fine gravel.
  8. Scrape down sides of bowl and process until smooth.
  9. Scrape onto a sheet of plastic wrap, form a 6-inch square, wrap and refrigerate while you roll out the dough.
Illustration of puff pastry technique - through the first double fold

From here, it’s all about technique.  Handling the dough as little as possible, yet creating layer upon layer of buttery, tender pastry.  First, you roll the 5-inch square of dough out to a 13×8 inch rectangle.  You place the 6-inch butter block at one end, and fold the other end of the dough over it, crimping the edges to seal all around it.  Roll this out to a 17×7 1/2-inch rectangle.  Fold the bottom third up over the center of the dough, and fold the top third down over the bottom third, like folding a business letter.  Turn this so that a short side is facing you, and roll it out once more to a 17×7 1/2-inch rectangle.   Fold the top 1/4 down and the bottom 1/4 up to meet in the center.  Then fold this in half, creating four layers of dough (this is a “double fold” – you will be repeating this step two more times). Refrigerate for 45 minutes.

Roll dough to 17×7 1/2-inch rectangle again, do a second double fold, and refrigerate for another 45 minutes.  Do the same again, and refrigerate for another 45 minutes before using (or freeze if not using immediately).

To test the success of this simple pastry, I decided to pre-bake a tart shell.  I rolled about a third of the dough out to a 1/4-inch thickness, creating a long thin rectangle.  I created a border by trimming about 1/2 inch of dough from each of the four sides and adhering them to the edges with an egg wash.  I brushed the entire thing with egg was and sprinkled it with sea salt.  I docked the center with a fork, to keep it from puffing to much, and I baked it at 375F for 10 minutes.

I made a filling by sauteing 8 oz. of button mushrooms and 1/2 a thinly sliced yellow onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until golden brown and soft.  I seasoned with a pinch of salt and pepper, and finished it off the heat with an ounce of good goat cheese and a tablespoon of heavy cream.  I spooned the filling into the shell and sprinkled a few sprigs of fresh thyme over the top.

The final product was something I’d be proud to serve as a first course at the finest of dinner parties.  Sliced into two-inch square servings and placed atop my grandmother’s fine china, it was the epitome of refinement.  The earthy, musky mushrooms paired with the sharp chevre and the sweet, buttery onions, spooned in thrifty measure onto the golden brown pastry – it was a memorable marriage of flavor and texture.

There is a lesson to be learned here.  It doesn’t require a lot of money, or a laundry list of ingredients, to create elegant food.  Simple, real ingredients, treated with care and minimally processed, can result in the most elevated of pastries.  A case where less truly is more.  Flour, butter, water, salt.  Four ingredients, that’s all.  It’s what you do with those ingredients that makes all the difference.