In our series Saving Southern Recipes, Associate Editor Kate Williams explores the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down family recipes.
Perhaps second only to "green squares," country-style steak is one of the last things I ever expected to make. I mean, it's not really my thing — I prefer my steak grill-kissed and medium rare, with perhaps a chimichurri sauce on the side. Very Californian, I know. But when my great uncle Leland asked me to make the family steak and onions recipe for a reunion this month, I couldn't really say no.
Leland's grandmother, Sarah Hendry, a.k.a. the same "Nama" who made my favorite apple cake, was famous for her country-style steak and onions. It was so entrenched in his and my grandfather Loren's memories that the dish had a place at the table for decades after she passed away. Nama passed the recipe down to her daughter, Lorraine, who then passesd it along to my grandfather. He used to make it at all of the various family reunions, and, long after cleaning their plates, he and his brothers would talk about their memories of eating the dish years and years before. It had been missing from reunion menus since my grandfather died in 2009, so Leland was determined to bring it back. As the oldest grandchild and most prolific cook, this task fell to me.
There's nothing particularly special about the dish, aside from its family history. It is, literally, just steak, pounded thin and dredged in flour, simmered for hours with a passel of onions until they melt into their own juices and the steak becomes fork-tender. It is definitely most akin to smothered steak — there's no chicken-fried, crisp breading for the steak and there's definitely no cream gravy. Practical, cheap and easy to cook, this recipe is actually — gasp — kind of light, when you think about it. Instead of that thick, rich sauce atop a deep-fried cutlet of steak, the gravy is almost entirely made of broken-down onions, enriched with some rendered beef fat and seasoned with salt and pepper.
My grandfather, who, along with Leland, claimed a direct line to Scottish-American colonists, would have be thrilled to know that our version of country-style steak likely has more in common with Scottish collops than the Texan-style chicken-fried variety. In old Scottish recipes, "collops" or "cutlets," most often of veal, were typically pan-fried and then simmered in a flavorful stock, sometimes with onions, other times with lemon and warm spices.
When I cooked the dish, I was aiming to serve close to 20 people, so I scaled it up, way up, to a 10-pound bag of onions and two whole bottom round roasts. It was kind of a hilarious undertaking in a rental kitchen, dull knives, unfamiliar stovetops and all, but, along with some help slicing onions, and some borrowed Dutch ovens, I managed. After a little poking and prodding at the pot, Leland proclaimed, "You've done it." The steak and onions passed muster with everyone else, too.Nama's Steak and Onions
Serves: 6 to 8
Hands-on time: 45
Total time: 3 hours and 45 minutes
1/2 to 1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds bottom round, sliced into steaks about 1/2 inch thick and 4 inches square
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 pounds onions, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick, plus more as desired
Water or chicken stock, as needed
Spread the flour out on a rimmed baking sheet. Season heavily with salt and pepper. Using a meat pounder or the edge of a ceramic saucer, pound the steaks one at a time in the flour. The steaks should be pounded out to around 1/4 inch thick and should be well coated in flour. Dust off any excess and transfer to a second baking sheet.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the steaks in batches until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer the steaks back to the baking sheet.
Reduce the heat to medium and add remaining tablespoon oil and the onions to the now-empty Dutch oven. Cook, stirring occasionally and scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the steaks back to the pot with the onions and pour in enough water to measure about 1 inch up the side of the pot. (If there is additional space in the pot, you can add more onions, if desired.) Cover and reduce the heat to low.
Cook, stirring about once an hour, until the meat is very tender and the onions have almost dissolved into the sauce, 2 to 3 hours. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Serve.
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