The Food Maven Diary
Joan Hamburg, my colleague at WOR, First Lady of New York radio, my "radio wife" with whom I broadcast the "Weekend" program on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon, is probably a good cook. At least she says she is. I can testify that she makes great chicken salad and that she roasts a great turkey, but, truth be told, the only times I've been invited for dinner it was catered. I can say that she knows how to pick great caterers.
Why do I bring this up today? Last week, in the WOR lunch room, Joan tasted something she said was fabulous. It was a dish that Fleur Tabije in our accounting office brought for herself for lunch. Joan told me all about it on the radio, and as she recited the recipe on the air, I knew she got it all wrong. She said it was "nothing more than fatty flank steak braised with onions." For one thing, there is no such thing as fatty flank steak. It's the leanest cut of beef. I also knew that I was going to get requests from listeners for this recipe, or that Joan would get requests and she would pass them on to me to answer. Joan is very good at delegating. So before I even left for the day, I went into Fleur and found out what it was she really had made and how really to cook it.
Fleur is Filipino and the dish is called Mechado. It is of Spanish origin, but you'll see from the ingredients that it has an Asian quality, too, which is typical of food from the Philippines. It is made with soy sauce. I served it to my friend Bob Harned, who grew up in Honolulu, and he thought it tasted like Beef Tomato, a dish he grew up eating in Hawaii. At first I thought Beef Tomato and Mechado could be the same thing. There is a large Filipino population in Hawaii. However, according my research, Beef Tomato is what we usually call Pepper Steak, a Chinese-American recipe that was very popular when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and '60s. My mother made it all the time. It was probably the first widely made Chinese stir fry in the U.S. – strips of beef, sliced onion, strips of green pepper, and wedges of tomato in a soy-based sauce thickened with cornstarch. It is in a zillion American cookbooks, although the name Beef Tomato appears to be totally Hawaiian.
Mechado is different. It can be a stew made with large chunks of meat or it can be, as Fleur makes it, a roast that is sliced before it is totally tender, then finished in the gravy. The gravy (you can call it sauce, too) is sensational; rich and complex. You must have plenty of rice to sop up the sauce. I see why Joan Hamburg loved it so much. Fleur also serves Mechado with fried chunks of potato. I certainly can see how crispy potatoes are welcome. Like, when are they not?. But I thought rice was plenty of starch for one meal.
Fleur Tabije makes Mechado the way her mother taught her, but the day Joan tasted it, Fleur said, she had added an extra fillip: She had chopped a large tomato from her husband's garden to supplement the canned tomato sauce. I happened to have a large tomato from the Greenmarket, so I add it, too. The sweet red pepper is optional, according to Fleur, but I thought it really added another tone to the complex sauce, as well as welcome texture and color to the dish on the plate. I'd use it, except in the winter when sweet peppers are not particularly sweet but are particularly expensive.
3 to 3 1/2 pounds bottom round roast (see Arthur's Two Cents, below)
2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce (I used Hunt's)
2 medium onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
1 cup water
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 large fresh tomato, chopped
2 small bay leaves (or 1 large)
1 medium to large sweet red pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste, if necessary
Combine the meat, tomato sauce, chopped onions, water, soy sauce, vinegar, chopped tomato and bay leaves in a 4-quart pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat so the liquid barely simmers and cover, leaving the cover slightly askew. Adjust the heat to keep the liquid simmering gently; not boiling.
If using a roast, turn the meat every 20 minutes or so. Cook until the meat is almost but not quite tender; about 2 hours for a roast, probably less for stew meat.
While the meat is cooking, prepare the pepper: Wash it, core it, and remove the seeds and membranes. Cut the pepper in half crosswise, then cut it into 1/4-inch wide strips.
If using a roast, after about 2 hours, remove the meat to a cutting board and slice it about 1/4-inch thick. Return the meat to the sauce in the pot, along with the pepper strips and freshly ground black pepper. Simmer another 30 minutes, or until the meat if fully tender.
If using stew meat, add the red pepper and black pepper when the meat is about 30 minutes away from being fully tender.
Serve with rice. The dish is excellent when reheated.
Arthur's Two Cents: Fleur makes this dish with a bottom round roast or rump roast. I tried it with the round roast, but will definitely use a chuck roast or chuck stew meat cut into 2-inch cubes the next time I make it. Chuck is streaked with more fat than round or rump and therefore produces a much more succulent dish. Round and rump, although they will get tender if cooked long enough, and make appealing looking slices, are dry cuts.