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We all have memories of food past, some good and some not so. My memory was piqued recently reading the pages of the book Life is Meals by Jay and Kay Salter. It’s in the form of a diary—one entry about food for each day of the year. Some are just a paragraph long; some discuss menus, some about ingredients and their home cooking. You’ll also find lots of advice for hosts, and a very few recipes. I have the book next to my computer and so, while I was waiting for this thing to warm up, I read the essay of the day so to speak. My computer is elderly, but so am I, and just as I require hot, black coffee, this relic needs time to warm up.
A mid-January entry in the Salter’s book contains a recipe from the Manual for Army Cooks, circa 1910. If you figured out the headline, you’ll know this is the infamous and classic Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast. It brought back memories.
ROTC and Me
I spent four years in my college’s ROTC program learning all about the field artillery. In a cruel trick of fate I ended up in a mortar battery in Korea in 1958 assigned to an infantry battle group. There were so many of us artillery officers I eventually found myself moving to the post(s) of adjutant, assistant adjutant, personnel officer—and honcho of the Officer’s Club, where we served breakfast, lunch, and, on tablecloths yet, dinner. Camp Casey, just minutes from the DMZ, was fairly primitive but, by golly, every evening—with help from our houseboys—we dressed for dinner: clean and very pressed khakis in warm weather, and a woolen ensemble in winter, all of this topped off by white silk neck scarves (during the day these were in the color of our Army branch—artillery was red.) It was all veddy Stewart Granger.
I met weekly with the mess sergeant to plan the menus, and, believe me, Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast was served daily, usually as an option to the over-cooked eggs that were made from powdered eggs and were perfectly awful. Thanks to the Salter’s, here’s that basic Army recipe:
The Classic CCB
1 (4.5 ounce) jar dried beef
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Wondra flour (an all-purpose flour perfect for lump-free gravies and sauces)
1 cup milk (2% is okay) (more or less, depending on desired thickness)
Soak the dried beef in water to eliminate most of the salt, pat dry, and tear into pieces. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium/medium-high heat, and add beef. (Jim Beard and others want you to cook the meat until it is slightly frizzled at the edges.)
Shake in the flour and lightly sauté. Add milk gradually while stirring and heat until the mixture thickens. Add more milk to achieve desired consistency. Serve over toast. Serves two.
Now if you’re a pretty good cook you may think: how bland—and how right you are. Look at the recipe and let your mind wander through any number of tastier possibilities. I did a bunch of research on the dish, and here are some ideas.
The Salt’s Gotta Go
I found two recipes for CCB at the Saveur magazine Web site. In one, the excess salt was eliminated by soaking the dried beef—available in glass jars or, in some markets, in the deli case—in cold water (as in the above recipe) for a few minutes, then draining and cutting it into slivers or just chopping it. Other sources, specifically my culinary guru James Beard in his monumental work American Cookery, suggests using boiling water, waiting five minutes, and then draining, patting dry, and cutting the beef into strips. Personally, I’d soak it in milk, because that’s what I do when flushing excess salt from anchovies. Drain.
I tossed one of those Saveur recipes aside as it suggested bacon grease as the fat in the white sauce, although I bet many an army cook did just that. I will now repeat my mantra: butter is better.
Beard offers a recipe for the de-salted chipped beef combined with scrambled eggs. Sounds nifty, but let’s get back to my meeting with the mess sergeant in Korea. The “shingle” he often used was split and lightly toasted biscuits. And he sometimes used ground beef as I imagine dried beef was difficult to obtain.
Again I cite Beard whose variation combined a half pound of thinly sliced mushrooms, sauteed in butter with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and six ounces of soaked, dried, and shredded chipped beef. His cream sauce is a winner: five tablespoons each butter and flour (cooked until flour is pale golden) then finished with one cup of chicken broth and three-fourths cup heavy cream. When thickened add the beef and mushrooms. Heat, and serve over crisp toast.
An A-Peeling Variation
I’ve been mulling over this culinary topic for a few days, and one recent evening I had a mild “Eureka” moment. I was reading as my bed-book another sort of memoir by one of my favorite authors. It’s called Dispatches from Maine, a collection of the columns John Gould wrote for sixty-odd years (that is not a misprint) for the Christian Science Monitor. I reached page ninety-seven, and an essay called “That One-Time Simplicity” from 1962, in which John realizes that he’s been missing “a great way to stretch short pennies into the greatest good for the greatest number, namely creamed dried beef.” Being as the setting is Maine, he advises that to “raise supper into the million-dollar category…bake the potatoes.” (Beard also liked this idea). The cooked potatoes got halved (skin on I assume) and “smashed on the plate, with a gob of butter on the top, and then we dipped into the bowl to cover it with the creamed dried beef. The top notch kind would have a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs worked into the sauce, and the little chunks of yolk would look up and grin at you like a burst of sunshine.”
Suggestions from Foodies
I queried several of my food-writer friends about their ideas. My friend Marie suggested, instead of the “shingle,” a bed of steamed or sauteed spinach or kale, or perhaps baked sweet potatoes, crispy potato pancakes, cooked Quinoa, or corn bread. In any case she’d add a pinch of fresh ground nutmeg to the sauce and have bottled hot sauce on the table. My favorite local foodie, David de Horseheads, would top each portion with a poached egg. Another friend suggested an over-easy egg. As for an alternative to the toast, Dave would use a toasted English muffin. Sounds good.
The most delicious-sounding version came from the Cook’s Country Web site. Go look: it’s a bit complicated, as they suggest cooking a corned beef, and saving some of the cooking liquid. You want two cups of the chopped meat and one cup of the liquid to add to the cream sauce. What I really liked about their version were the additions to the four cups sauce of a teaspoon of dried mustard, a teaspoon of minced fresh thyme, and a dash each of cayenne pepper and nutmeg. And don’t forget a couple (or three) tablespoons of chopped chives to sprinkle over the final product to relieve all that white and brown. I’m sure this would have brought cheers in our quonset hut dining room. Who knew?
Cooking and Serving
The next time I make chipped beef I’m going to dig out and wear my old army-issue dog tags. (I throw outnothing). This will add a jangle of authenticity when I present my creation, and reinforce its “memories-of-mess-halls” past aura.
Serve this on Armed Forces Day,Saturday May 18, which happens to be the fifty-fifth anniversary of my arrival in Korea.