I just spent the evening making my dude a dish I never even knew existed until I moved down here. It was his birthday and one of his favorite things to eat is "Hamburger Steak." So I made it. I think this was my first really successful try – the others failed miserably.
I think it’s really just "southern" Salisbury Steak, which has never sounded good to me anyway. I’ve always associated it with cheap TV dinners and South Park. You could probably also call it a "mini-meatloaf," with gravy instead of that gelatinous ketchup stuff people baste on top of meatloaves. (Spoiler alert: I’ve never been a fan of meatloaf either.)
My first few attempts, like I said, were disasters. I had no idea what I was doing. I had asked this new guy in my life what some of his favorite meals were to get a feel for what kind of man I was dealing with. I think you can tell a lot about a guy by what he eats. Is he a pretentious d-bag? Does he scoff at the odd Kraft American Single? Also, was he raised in a barn? Does he stand in front of the fridge and eat slices of bologna out of the package? (It turns out that yes. Yes he does.) He told me his two favorite things were pork chops and hamburger steak. I thought, I guess I can work with that.
My previous hamburger steaks were plagued by over-thinking. I’d always add too much of something – some kind of spice – or throw too much stuff in with the meat (like diced veggies) and it wouldn’t stick together properly and the patties would just fall apart while they were cooking. I was ready to throw in the towel. Seriously, I couldn’t cook like this. Everything has to be "smothered" or fried or doused in gravy and come with a side of mashed potatoes or some boiled starchy vegetable.
Here I was cooking for a guy who was not the least bit impressed with some of my most cherished dishes that I’d come up with over the years. It pained me to watch him try to choke down my pumpkin soup a few autumns ago. And one time I made him guacamole thinking hell, everyone loves guacamole, right? And the thing is, I don’t think he even knew what an avocado was. And it really broke my heart when I made chicken tortilla soup and he asked me "What’s wrong with Campbell’s Chicken Noodle?"
So over the past few years I’ve gradually started to introduce him to some new things. But I don’t know how successful I’ve been. One of his favorite things is pork chops, so I made him these pork chops with apples and dried cherries that he seemed to really like, though I think he was a little mystified with the whole "cooking meat and fruit together" thing. And honestly, I think sometimes when I make something for him that’s a little weird by his standards, like ribollita (tuscan bread soup) or carbonara (bacon & egg pasta), and he likes it that he’s somehow a little disappointed in himself. He’s like, crap…I’ve let my Yankee girlfriend get the best of me. I’ve let her expand my horizons. I’d better eat Popeye’s two days in a row for this.
But tonight? It’s his night, so I passed up on this "mini-meatloaf" recipe that listed "chopped dates" as an ingredient. I was intrigued but I knew my dude would probably just give me that quizzical brow look to which I’ve grown accustomed upon tasting some flavor combo his palate has never come across. Nope, I kept it simple. I made meat and potatoes. Hamburger Steak smothered in gravy made with LOTS of butter. Mashed potatoes, made with LOTS of butter and…uh…buttered corn. It is, after all, his birthday, and I love him. I even think it’s endearing that he’ll sometimes microwave six hot dogs, squirt ketchup on them and eat them without a bun. It’s the little things, ya know?
So here’s the thing I discovered about Hamburger Steak: Simple is best. Don’t get too complicated. The same thing can be said for a lot of food out there – simple is best. A few ingredients, tops. Use copious amounts of butter or some kind of pork fat (or both) and salt for flavor. That right there is the key to "dude-food."
This kind of reminds me of one time a few years ago when I went to New Mexico with my grandma to visit some family (it’s where she’s from originally), and she bought me a little cookbook that she thought was funny. It was called the "Blonde Chicana Bride’s Mexican Cookbook." I suppose she thought it was funny because I was blond and happened to have a hispanic grandmother who makes killer tortillas and tamale pie. I still have it and I think I’ve almost nailed the tortilla recipe (and, of course, the secret is a lard/butter combo). And this experience of cooking for a southern lad is making me think that we lassies need a cookbook of our own for these sorts of occasions.
I think I might start writing a book called "Yankee Bride’s Dudefood Cookbook," starting out with "Hamburger Steak, A History." There will, of course, be a chapter on "How to Deal When He Asks for Kraft Mac & Cheese After You’ve Slaved Over Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna." And it will end with "Desserts: Just Go Ahead and Top it with Cool Whip."