chasing ice cubes, and a recipe for swiss steak
Maggie, our silver tabby Maine Coon, is fascinated by ice. Ice speaks to her on some deep, internal feline level. Q-tips from the glass jar on my bathroom counter run a close second, but the availability of ice is more predictable and, thus, a more achievable treat.
The refrigerator in our kitchen, our third and final fridge after a series of expensive lemons, has an automatic icemaker. To fill a cup with ice, I touch of a small raised square on the space-age keypad to left of the door handle. This elicits a grinding rumble from inside the door, and if I’ve pressed the cubed ice button, I get a noisy expulsion of perfectly formed ice cubes into my cup. If I have mistakenly pressed the button for crushed ice, a shotgun explosion of ice chips and shards is the result.
More often than not, when trying to fill a cup with ice, a stray piece shoots across the hardwood floor. A streak of grey fur, a blur of fluffy feet and tail, inevitably follows that piece of wayward ice, as Maggie attempts to corral the skittering ice. When she catches the ice, she bats it across the floor again, or she picks it up in her teeth and carries it to a special spot. Watching her do this makes my own teeth hurt, imagining the cold that must be radiating down her sharp canines.
She loves this game more than anything. Opening a cabinet or walking near the fridge now elicits a pavlovian response from Maggie. No matter where she was in the house before, our minor kitchen movements (that may or may not end at the refrigerator) prompt her to immediately appear on the rug in front of the fridge, long tail twitching rhythmically and ears cocked forward, waiting patiently for her next frozen treat.
Like Maggie, most of us have an ice cube, some thing (or things) that immediately stirs our soul, gets our hearts beating faster and with purpose.
My husband’s ice cube is Swiss steak. The mere mention of the possibility of this meal prompts all other thoughts in his head to vanish. He is instantly transported back to the 1980s and 1990s, to the five-seater Formica table in the back room off his grandmother’s kitchen. Grandma Estelle served Swiss steak on a regular basis back when she was alive and well and cooking up a storm. She always served it with white rice, and she served it at dinner time (lunch, for you non-southerners).
To Sam, that dish represented all that was good with the world in a single tomato-sauced, beefy plate. Swiss steak represented his grandmother’s love, life’s stability, and the comfort of family. It meant he was home, where his people cared about him unconditionally.
I made Swiss steak for our Sunday supper this weekend. I made it because it is my husband’s ice cube. And because I love him, and because he needed it.
And because I did, too.
I'm nearly certain that Grandma Estelle would keel over if she knew I used wine in this recipe, but I did anyway. I like the way deglazing a pan with wine builds flavor, and it does so here. I omit the green pepper from my version, but feel free to add it back in if you're not averse to it.
Also, if you can't find cube steak, you'll need to ask the butcher to run the steak through the mechanized cubing machine, the device that tenderizes the steak for you, making the unique crosshatched, dimpled pattern in the meat.
Olive oil, for browning meat
2 pounds round steak, cubed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped fine
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped fine (optional)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup red wine
1 (28-ounce) can tomato sauce
Freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a large dutch oven, on medium-high heat, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Season steaks liberally with salt and pepper. Dredge steaks in flour, shaking off excess. Cook steaks in batches, browning for about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Add additional olive oil if needed, to keep steaks from sticking. Remove browned steaks from pan and set aside. Repeat until all steaks have been browned.
Reduce heat to medium and add onions and bell pepper, if using, to dutch oven, using additional olive oil, if needed. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add wine to dutch oven to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until the wine has reduced in half. Add tomato sauce to pan, stirring well until blended. Bring to a slow boil, then nestle steaks in the Dutch oven, being sure to cover each one with sauce. Cover and transfer to oven. Cook for 1 and 1/2 hours, or until steaks are tender.
Serve over rice.