Shredded Beef Sandwiches
Lack of fussiness and pretense are qualities that, when applied, can elevate many things in life to greatness; architecture, novels, the organization of your closet, knock-knock jokes. Sandwiches are no exception. In fact, I would argue they may be the best vehicle in the food world to illustrate this concept. If you pick the right ingredients, and just let things be what they are, it doesn’t require much more effort to make a sublime sandwich.
When we were young, and our dad was studying to get his Masters, some of my favorite memories were of the lunches he would pack for himself. I don’t want to overstate, especially correcting for the chance of nostalgic exaggeration, but his sandwiches were studies in perfection.
Starting with a sheet of wax paper laid on the counter. Bread would follow. Always a loaf. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a roll, but there’s something that approaches divinity about a slice of fresh bread.) Usually homemade. Or from a local bakery in Blacksburg, VA, if he’d been to town. If in a real pinch, in the orange plastic bag from the grocery store. Always wheat. Never white.
Fresh, but cool to the touch, the two equally sized slices of the day’s grain based foundation were laid first. Being that my nose was at counter height in those days, the scent of these breads is forever locked in my memory banks. Yeast and wheat. In the best days, a crunchy crust and a firm pillow center. Like I said, heaven.
Next came the condiments. Just plain mayonnaise and mustard. Yellow mustard. Nothing fancy. The kind you put on ball park franks and the bottle farts as you squeeze it. Applied lightly and spread. Just enough to thinly cover the porous surface of the bread, but not saturate or sogg-ify the slice, or overpower the flavor.
After the base elements were combined, the real alchemy began. The toppings. Don’t get me wrong, I love a sandwich stuffed with all kinds of various and sundry bits from the larder. However, the magic I learned from own dad’s sandwiches was that all it took to make them fly was lettuce and tomato. But not just any old lettuce and not just any old tomato. They were usually either from the community garden or the food co-op. No iceberg. No mealy, pasty flavorless tomato. To be honest, I didn’t know the pale pink, mealy tomatoes of chain grocery produce even existed until several years later. These were vegetables where you could taste the sun and soil that made them. Simple. And incomparable.
Now that we’ve gotten this far it’s fair if you’re asking yourself, “where is the recipe in all of this?” Well, you’re in luck, that’s the next bit. Enter, the star of this show, the Shredded Beef.
This is no standard lunch meat from a resealable package. This is a flavor packed and substantial addition to your meal. It could be eaten on its own, sans bread and toppings, and it would be amazing. But combining all these pieces into one. Silk into Hermès. Hats forever off to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich who invented this remix edition of 18th Century victuals. Done so, I might add, so he could eat while at the gaming table and not have to miss any of the action. Who said nothing ever good came from a hardcore gambling addiction? Anyway, back to the Beef.
Once it spends a few hours in your Crock Pot, the humble Chuck Roast will be transformed. The smells of the vinegar, garlic and onion are heavenly. The meat itself is savory, and sweet, and allows you to taste all of the ingredients in concert with the flavor of the beef. You can add to your sandwich hot. Or you can let it cool and top it when it’s cold. Both are different, but equally delicious, experiences. (Don’t worry, unless you have a huge family you’ll have enough beef to try it both ways.) I feel that purposeful variation of temperature is one of the great, underutilized ingredients in cooking. Cold toppings on a hot sandwich? Yes, please!
But even more, outside of how easy it is, what makes this recipe so great is its specificity. And by this I mean the simpler you can make something, the more room you have to be specific with choices in ingredients or process. Specificity is next to simplicity in the pantheon of tools for greatness. Keeping it simple lets you focus, activate all the senses and be really ready to eat. Not crowding the field creates the space to experience all the individual highlights of the ingredients. Temperature, texture, smell, taste, sound (the crinkling of the wax paper).
So enough rambling, choose your weapons. Select your bread, condiments and toppings. Then here is how to send your sandwich to the next level:
SHREDDED BEEF RECIPE
Get out your Crock Pot and the following ingredients:
- 3 lb. Chuck Pot Roast or other beef roast
- 1/3 Cup Vinegar*
- 1 Large Onion (cut up)
- 3 Bay Leaves
- 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
- 1/8 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
*Pickled Peppers (sweet or spicy) with their juice also make a nice substitution for/addition to the vinegar. This last time we used about half a small jar of pepperoncinis, and also threw in 3 bell peppers (quartered), which provided a wonderful topping akin to the sweet peppers option on Chicago's famous Portillo's Italian Beef Sandwiches.
And finally, the directions straight from the family cookbook:
“Combine and pour over meat in a Crock Pot – cook slow for 11 to 12 hours.”
Simplicity at its finest. Not a wasted word. Or action. Just instructions. And it’s all you need to know. If only everything in life could be this straightforward. And yet, even in this recipe’s simplicity, there is possibility for all kinds of variations. The type and quality of the beef roast. Be it Chuck, Clod, Brisket, Rib, Strip Loin, Tenderloin, Top Sirloin, Tri-tip, Top Round, Bottom Round, Eye of Round or Sirloin Tip! Woof! I’m out of breath with that list.
Then after the beef, the type and quality of vinegar! Distilled White, Cane, White Wine, Champagne, Rice (haven’t tried this one for beef, but could be interesting), Apple Cider (divine), Raisin, Apricot, Sherry, Malt (ditto on the rice vinegar), Beer, Red, Red Wine, Balsamic or Black (haven’t tried these either and could be a bit intense, so maybe something you cut with another vinegar). You see? Infinite possibilities for something that seems so simple on the surface and we haven’t even gotten into types of onions and how sweet versus how acidic!
Lastly, even though I doubt altering the salt or garlic powder would make much of difference… who knows?! Maybe it would. Regardless, it’s got me curious. Next time this recipe goes in the ol’ Crock Pot, I’ve got some Japanese salt that I’ve been using to add an earthy flavor to my baking and it could be an interesting experiment to try in some Shredded Beef. In such a small amount, who knows how much of an impact can it make? But worth a try! At this point, you could really launch into some deep esoterica down the “butterfly flapping its wing and causing a storm on the other side of the world” kind of path and this is about simplicity. But, to wit, is anything simple if you look at it closely? Insert the sound of mind blowing here.
Then insert a sandwich into your mouth and forget about all that nonsense. A good sandwich on a warm day is really about as good as you can get.
Well, I guess there’s soup. Soup with your sandwich on a cold day is pretty damn good too. And perhaps a slice of cake. Always a slice of cake. Black Magic Cake if you’re lucky.