When researching recent stories on muesli and granola, I was not surprised to learn the people who invented these filled-with-good-things foods were healthy eating advocates.
The other day my wife asked me if I knew what the difference was between a hamburger steak and a Salisbury steak. I wasn’t sure if there was a difference. But I did feel confident in thinking that the person who first prepared Salisbury steak, now often served with buttery mashed potatoes and gravy, was not health focused individual like the muesli and granola inventors were.
Boy was I wrong about that.
When digging into the history of Salisbury steak I discovered it was named after the person who created it: Dr. James H. Salisbury.
According to foodreference.com, Salisbury was a 19th century English/American physician who wrote a book called the Relation of Alimentation and Disease. He strongly believed that diet was the main factor in governing our health and has been described as one of the earliest “health food faddists.”
Salisbury believed a human’s teeth and digestive system were designed to chew and digest lean meat, and that vegetables, fruit, fats and starches should only be one third of our diet.
He felt that way because he believed too much of those non-meat items could produce unwanted substances in our digestive systems. For example, he claimed starch was digested slowly and would ferment in the stomach and produce toxins that would travel to other parts of our bodies and cause a range of illnesses.
According to an article on this subject by Lisa Bramen at smithsonianmag.com, Salisbury tested his theories during the Civil War when treating Union soldiers with intestinal issues by feeding them a diet of chopped-up meat and little else.
That meat was formed into loose cakes, broiled, plated and seasoned to taste with butter, pepper, salt and other flavourings, as desired, such as Worcestershire sauce or mustard.
When Salisbury’s book was published in 1888 it caused a stir and for about two decades his chopped-up meat diet was fashionable, not unlike the recent low-carb diet fad has been.
Although the popularity of his diet eventually faded, cakes, eventually called steaks, of chopped up (ground) beef remained popular and began to be served at diners all over the place and even made into frozen TV dinners. Other ingredients were often added, such as breadcrumbs and onions. Some places serving them simply called them hamburger steaks, while others honoured the inventor by calling them Salisbury steaks.
I you’ve lived in Winnipeg or visit there often, you know all about a well established restaurant chain there called Salisbury House. On their website, salisburyhouse.ca, they note that in 1931 Ralph Erwin, an American actor in a travelling road company that visited Winnipeg, started the business because he felt the city need a place where people could get good food in a friendly atmosphere.
Erwin decided to name his restaurant after Salisbury, because it was there that he would introduce the Salisbury steak concept to Winnipeg. But he decided to call it a “Nip,” indicating that a smaller amount of Salisbury steak was being served.
Whether you call it a Nip, hamburger steak or Salisbury steak, these days it’s not labelled a health food, but does meet the criteria of a comfort food perfect for a Sunday dinner.
Salisbury Steaks with Mushroom Onion Gravy
This recipe yields four large, juicy Salisbury steaks that weigh six to seven ounces each when cooked. If that’s too large for you, simply divide the meat mixture into six, smaller patties. If this recipe yields to many portions for you, don’t worry, any leftover Salisbury steaks and gravy, once cooled, will freeze well, at the ready to thaw and reheat the next time you have a craving for them.
Preparation: 35 minutes
Cooking time: About 20 minutes
Makes: four servings
For the gravy
1 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 Tbsp butter
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/3 lb. (about 8 medium) white mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
• pinch dried thyme
2 cups beef stock or broth
• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the Salisbury steaks
1 1/2 lb. lean ground beef
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
• freshly ground black pepper, to taste (use a generous amount)
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
Place oil and butter in a pot set over medium-high heat. When butter is melted, add onions and mushrooms and cook until tender, about five minutes.
Mix in the flour and thyme and cook and stir two minutes more. Now slowly mix 1/2 cup of the stock. When mixture is very thick, slowly mix in remaining stock. Bring to a simmer, simmer two minutes and then remove gravy from the heat. Taste and season the gravy with salt and pepper, as needed. Now cover gravy and set aside until needed.
Place the Salisbury steak ingredients, except oil and butter, in a bowl and gently mix to combine. With cold water-dampened hands, form meat mixture into four large, 3/4-inch thick, oval patties and set on plate. Preheat oven to 200 F.
Place the butter and oil in a very large skillet set over medium to medium-high heat. When butter is melted, add the steaks and cook four to five minutes per side, or until entirely cooked through. (When cooked, the centre of the Salisbury steak when tested with an instant read meat thermometer should register reaches 160 F (71 C) or above.)
Set steaks on a plate and keep warm in the oven. Meanwhile, drain excess fat from the skillet and set back over medium to medium-high heat. Pour the gravy in the pot into the skillet and bring back to a simmer.
When gravy is simmering, set a Salisbury steak on each of four plates. Top each steak with gravy and serve.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His latest is The Great Rotisserie Chicken Cookbook. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.