Hey, let's make a goddamn cheesesteak. If we do it quickly, we can get finished before the city of Philadelphia declares war.
Everybody loves a cheesesteak. Maybe not the vegetarians so much. Everybody else loves a cheesesteak. The city of Philadelphia, having invented the thing and adopted it as its signature foodstuff, particularly loves the cheesesteak—nearly as much as it loves telling everybody else that their cheesesteaks suck. This municipal chauvinism is understandable, totally common (witness upstate New Yorkers asserting the unique greatness of their chicken wings, Marylanders and Pacific Northwesterners snobbing at each others' crabs, and Ohioans taking up truncheons in defense of their very horrible cheese-buried diarrhea pasta), and also kind of silly. It's a steak sandwich. There's nothing in it that can't be found or made damn near anywhere else in the United States, nor any particular culinary discipline or technique unique to Philadelphia that makes its cheesesteaks special. Philadelphians invented the thing, and for that we should all be grateful, because the cheesesteak is a goddamn marvel. On the other hand, if you want a great cheesesteak, you don't need to go to Philadelphia. You need to go to the grocery store. Your cheesesteak is gonna be amazing.
The first thing to do is acquire steak. A pound or so of it, to be not very precise at all. Choose for yourself the particular variety of steak you want to work with: Strip steak is fine; ribeye is even better; by contrast, the tougher, leaner, cheaper wads of cow will (rather predictably) yield a tougher, chewier bite of cheesesteak, but nevertheless are a better option than punching yourself in the ear, anyway. If you're especially in the mood to simplify the process, and are willing to sacrifice some of the cheesesteakiness of your cheesesteak in exchange, you can go to the deli counter at your local supermarket (or, um, deli), and ask for some rare roast beef, sliced as thinly as humanly possible. The deli guy will pull a face at you for this, because he can tell right away what you're up to, and rightly wonders what kind of a corner-cutting sack of crap swaps in roast beef for steak in a cheesesteak—but fuck him, anyway. It's your goddamn sandwich, and so help you God you will fill it with parboiled shoe-leather if you goddamn well want to, no one tells you how to live your life, et cetera.
(Don't do the roast beef thing, though. Or, do it next time. This time, use real steak, and cook it yourself. You'll be glad you did.)
So you've got your pound-or-so of steak. Take it home, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and toss that fucker in the freezer for 45 minutes. Slicing raw, room-temperature steak is a goddamn nightmare: it flattens and bulges and slides around and generally makes you want to turn the knife on yourself; 45 minutes in the freezer will firm the steak up without freezing it into a meat-brick, and, more crucially, let it know exactly who is the goddamn boss around here.
This gives you 45 minutes of free time. Don't sock both your index fingers into your sinuses just yet, though! First, take a couple of minutes and chop some stuff. Slice a big yellow onion and a green bell pepper (or two) into strips. Chop half a head or so of iceberg lettuce into shreds. Set this stuff aside. You may now pick your nose. Be back in 40 minutes.
OK, so, your steak has done its 45 minutes of hard time. Yank it out of the freezer, unwrap it, and prepare the steak for cooking. This is the most work-intensive part of the whole process. First, haul out your most terrifying knife and trim off any big, obvious globs of delicious fat around the edge of the steak; these will cook into chewy misery if you leave them on, so chop 'em off, and drop them into the trash with your most heartfelt and tearful apology. Now, while the steak is still very cold, slice it as thinly as you can. I'm very sorry to say that, even after all that time your steak spent in the freezer, this is still going to be a moderate ass-pain, and you will pause at least once or twice to rake your hand down your face and mutter expletives and consider the temptation to just hack that stupid fucking steak into a bunch of cubes and cook them in the goddamn microwave ... but, stick with it. The final result will redeem all this work, or anyway if it doesn't, that will be your own goddamn fault.
Finished slicing? Huzzah! If you'd like to take a moment to loom over your wrecked steak, laugh maniacally, and shriek I beat youuuuuu! at it, that's fine. And now, cook things. If you have a flat griddle you can use for this, that's great; if not, your widest skillet ought to work, unless your widest skillet is some friggin' Scrambled Eggs For One Very Sad Person deal with a five-inch diameter, in which case the thing to do is hit yourself over the head with that skillet until you don't feel anything anymore. You'll want enough cooking surface to get a portion of onions and peppers going in one spot, and a portion of steak going in another—if you can't manage that, cook the onions and peppers first, then set them aside.
Here's what to do. Over medium or medium-high heat, lay down a drizzle of oil under a wee fistful of onions and peppers, sprinkle them with salt, and cook them for just a few minutes until they've softened and the onions have begun to turn translucent. In another spot on the griddle or skillet (or after you've removed that portion of the vegetation from your sad little Playskool pan), get a fistful of the steak cooking. Sprinkle the steak with a tiny pinch of salt and some freshly cracked black pepper, and toss it around a little bit with a spatula—if you're using a cast-iron or stainless steel skillet, you can use a metal spatula; turn the spatula on its side and give the steak a few chops with the edge of it. This'll break it up a little and make your eventual cheesesteak somewhat easier to bite through.
That little portion steak is going to cook quickly. After a minute or two, it'll have gone all (or nearly all) the way from pink to brown. Combine it with the portion of cooked onions and peppers right there in the skillet, prod this stuff into a neat little pile in one spot, and top the steak and vegetation with two slices of provolone cheese. Yes, damn you: provolone! Provolone and not Cheez Whiz. Provolone and not Velveeta. Provolone and not goddamn American oil-flaps. Provolone! Provolone is what belongs on your cheesesteak. It was the first cheese ever to grace a cheesesteak, and it has always been the best, and you can give friggin' jarred Mystery Taste Mud a shot next time to prove it to yourself, but this time use provolone and shut up about it.
Lower the heat a tad and let that stuff hang out for a minute so the cheese can get melty. In the meantime, prepare bread. Ideally this will be an Italian sandwich roll; these are gently crusty on the outside and mildly chewy on this inside but do not require you to saw your goddamn teeth through them like a great white shark taking a hunk out of a friggin' walrus. French bread is generally a bit tougher, but also very satisfying. If you can't get your hands on either of these, your nearest depressingly generic supermarket will likely have some variety of utterly character-free sub rolls; these will have absolutely no crunch to them whatsoever, but, what the hell—if all they supply is a starchy edible oven mitt so that you can get the hot steak and melty cheese to your head without scalding your hands, that's better than nothing. In any case, slice your bread open, slather it with real by-God mayonnaise on the inside, and lay down a modest bed of that crunchy shredded lettuce.
By now that cheese has melted and, if it wasn't already, the steak is fully cooked. Assemble your goddamn cheesesteak! Slide a spatula under that adorable little heap of cooked food in the skillet, get it out of the pan, set it gently on the bed of lettuce in the opened bread roll, and slide the spatula back out from under it. There. A cheesesteak. Maybe toss a couple of pickled jalapeño slices in there? Sure, what the hell. Repeat as needed.
There's a lot going on in your cheesesteak: the meaty, pleasingly greasy steak, engagingly chewy but not rubbery and annoying; the smooth, rich, melty cheese; the mild sharpness of the onions and peppers; the (hopefully) crunchy bread—it'd be nice to go slow and appreciate all this stuff, in some other universe in which your eyes did not roll over white and your capacity for rational thought flatten to nothing beneath a rushing wave of primal greed at the first bite. In this universe, it'll be a triumph of self-control if you can remember to chew the goddamn thing instead of just wedging it into your throat with the end of a broom handle. In all this frenzied mindless consumption, you will not notice: the copious grease running down your fingers and forearms and gnashing jaw; the dumb pickle slice you stuck on the plate in a futile gesture of nutritional balance; and the horde of dipshit Eagles fans beating down your door to mewl about how bork bork that's not how we do it in Phiwwy bork bork! Good for you. This is how you make a cheesesteak, and it is goddamn perfect.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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