Back when I was growing up in the ‘60s incomes were flatter and neighborhoods were, if not ethnically diverse, at least professionally diverse. In our subdivision in a northwest suburb of Chicago, there were small business owners, engineers like my dad, an airline pilot, a school teacher, mid-level executives, a couple of doctors and three professional athletes including the catcher for the Chicago Cubs. Think about it—there was a time when a professional baseball player lived in a modest house in a middle-class neighborhood whose house wasn’t any bigger or nicer than the school teacher’s.
In the suburbs, what was a level playing field economically was also reflected in our food world. The food we ate was uniformly the same with a few exceptions for old family recipes that our mothers carried with them into their marriages. Back then, when you looked into somebody’s recipe box, you knew what their ancestral make-up was—in many cases our mothers were only one or two generations away from their immigrant roots.
My mother collected recipes all her life and amassed four, 12-inch deep recipe boxes to hold them all. I can tell exactly which ones she began married life with. They are the ones that have been carefully typed onto 3 x 5 plain, lined index cards that are yellowed and stained from years of use. They were the workhorses in our weeknight family dinners and my mother didn’t stray from them for many years.
She says she doesn’t remember typing them up, but they came straight from her mother, who never learned to type, so she must have spent an afternoon with her mother at some point before her wedding day collecting recipes for married life.
Both my mother and father have German ancestry that found its way into my mother’s recipe box from both sides of the family. My mother collected multiple recipes of the same dish over the years (did she forget she had already had them, or were they just given to her multiple times and she didn’t have the heart to toss them?).
As it turns out, though, this is how I knew that the recipes belonged solidly in her repertoire. I found four different copies of a German dish called Rouladen in her boxes. One probably came straight from her mother because it is part of the typed, yellowed and stained collection; one is the same as the original that my mother probably re-typed later on in order to preserve the recipe before the original became too stained and yellowed to read; one is a variation in her sister’s handwriting and the last one is from my father’s mother, but is called Beef Roll-ups (to make it sound less foreign?).
Rouladen (my mother’s version) is thin strips of round steak, pounded and dredged in flour that are wrapped around sliced onion and bacon, held together with a toothpick, browned in a skillet then placed in a Dutch oven adding water to come ¾ up the sides of the meat, covered and baked in a 300° oven for three hours(!). And here’s the best part, the notation at the end that lets the cook know, “it makes its own gravy”.
My paternal grandmother’s Beef Roll-ups also include slices of dill pickle in them, which, I am sad to say, is an authentic German version of the dish after having looked it up on the internet.
If only we had been French instead of German. Just think what we could have been eating. Instead, we ate Rouladen, Calves Liver with Bacon and Onions, Swiss Steak, Stuffed Cabbage, Pepper Steak (not the French version but more like a stir fry with green peppers), Beef Stroganoff and Stuffed Peppers—all vaguely Germanic or Eastern European. Good, hearty food that hued to the same flavor palate, namely beef, onion, a bit of tomato sauce, green peppers and bacon. Not to mention gravy—if ‘it makes its own gravy”, you had a real winner.
What are some of your mother’s iconic family recipes from your childhood? Leave me a comment below.
After a little research I discovered that Rouladen was a dish that was still being widely cooked in the ‘60s. Craig Claiborne featured a version in his iconic The New York Times Cookbook (not to mention two more versions tied to Claiborne in the Times cooking archives). The Times version calls for thinly pounded round steak spread with mustard and then rolled around bacon, onions and pickle then browned and braised in whatever was available—water, tomato sauce, beef broth, wine or some combination.
The rolled beef packets (once sliced) look more fancy than a plain pot roast so my mother used it as a meal for company. I remember it looking a little sad and dry sitting on her fine china, but since Julia Child had not yet changed the way my mother cooked, that was as fancy as it got.
I’ve tweaked the recipe to make it more to my taste using Dijon mustard and cornichon—and of course wine. It is actually quite good. Company worthy even. (And it still makes its own gravy.)
For the Beef roll-ups:
4 slices round steak, sliced ¼ inch thick, about 1 ½ pounds total. (Each slice will measure about 4 by 11 inches.
4 slices bacon (preferably double or triple smoked, which is authentically German).
1 small yellow onion finely diced
8 cornichons, finely diced
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
For the braising pot:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2/3 cup diced carrots
2/3 cup diced celery
2 slices thick bacon cut in lardons
1 cup diced yellow onion
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup tomato purée
1 cup beef broth
½ cup red wine
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
Preheat oven to 350°
Working one at a time, pat the steak dry with paper towel and place on a clean work surface. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on top to cover and using the smooth side of a meat mallet, gently pound the meat evenly until it is about 3/8 “ thick.
Sprinkle the steak with salt and pepper and then spread 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard all over one side. Lay a slice of bacon in the center and sprinkle with diced onions followed by the cornichons.
Working from the narrow end, fold in the outer edge of the steak and begin to roll up the meat into a packet. Tie securely at each end with kitchen string.
Heat the oil and butter at medium high in a Dutch oven or cast iron casserole that will hold the beef packets easily without crowding. When the foam from the butter begins to subside, begin browning the packets, turning to brown evenly all over (about 10 minutes). Remove the meat packets and set aside in a dish.
Reduce the heat to medium low and toss in the bacon lardons until they are just beginning to crisp. Add the diced onions, carrots, and celery, stirring often until they are softened (about 8-10 minutes).
Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring for 1 minute.
Return the heat to medium high and add the red wine, scraping up all the brown bits at the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Then add the beef broth, tomato sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, stirring to incorporate. Add the bay leaf and return the meat to the pot along with any liquid that has collected while the packets have been resting.
Spoon some of the braising liquid over the meat to moisten. Cover the casserole with a tight fitting lid and when the liquid begins to simmer, transfer the pot into the preheated oven and cook for one hour and 15 minutes.
When the Rouladen has finished cooking, remove each packet of meat and place on a carving board. De-grease the braising liquid, adjust the seasoning if needed and keep warm. Remove the string from the meat and gently slice into ½ inch pinwheels. Gather the entire sliced packet onto your carving knife and plate individually on top of cooked egg noodles, mashed potatoes or mashed celeriac. Spoon over some of the braising liquid and vegetables and serve.
(If you prefer to serve this family style, place the meat packets on a serving platter whole and spoon over the braising liquids. Sprinkle with a shower of chopped parsley.)