Sour Beef and Dumplings
There's one quintessential Baltimore dish that gets my attention every time, and that's Sour Beef and Dumplings. This is one of the great comfort foods I know and just thinking about it literally makes my mouth water. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino agrees, it's no secret that our Sour Beef and Dumplings is identical to the German national dish Sauerbraten.
If you talk to any old time, multi-generational Baltimorean they are sure to have stories and recipes about how Sour Beef was made in their home. One easy way to judge the authenticity of their story-telling is to work into the conversation the question, how long did your grandmother marinate the beef. If the answer is anything less than 4 days, you may be dealing with bogus legends.
There are three main components to the dish: the beef and its marinade, the sweet and sour sauce that soaks the plate, and the dumplings which are the perfect partner for the savory meat.
A good old bottom round or rump roast is perfect for your dish. The point is you want a tough, cheap piece of beef that actually does take days to tenderize. A nice two, two and a half pound roast will do.
The most secretive part of the dish is the marinade, and here your imagination can run wild. A look at the most common ingredients can make you think you are pickling cucumbers. You want a marinade that is high in acidity and decidedly sour in flavor. Red wine vinegar is almost always called for, along with apple cider vinegar and red wine. Chopped up vegetables come into play as well: onions and carrots are obvious but leeks, celery root, parsnips and garlic cloves would be welcome.
The spices are where things can go wild: bay leaves for certain, pepper corns, whole allspices, mustard seeds, whole cloves, juniper berries, sprigs of rosemary and time all can find their way into the pot. Of course a little sugar goes in, along with some salt and pepper.
Put all your ingredients together and bring to a boil, then back off and simmer for a good 10 minutes.
Find a good non-reactive container to put everything in: a ceramic Dutch oven will do nicely. Drain the veggies and place them in the bottom of the pan. Settle the roast on top, then pour the liquid on top. You'll want to cover the meat, so make enough.
Now you find a nice cool place, a refrigerator or back porch will do and you just let the meat marinate out there for a good long time. Be sure to turn the roast once a day to get all sides saturated. And maybe you'll want to put a brick on top of the lid, just to be sure.
After the ritual of the marinade is over, take it all to the kitchen and pull out the beef. Don't be dismayed if it looks ugly as sin. That's perfectly normal. Just pat the roast completely dry, and brown the meat on all sides in a little canola oil. Return the browned beef to the Dutch oven, and pour the strained marinade along with some freshly cut carrots and onions over the meat.
And now for the piéce de resistance: ginger snaps. Crumble up about 10 of the tastiest ginger snaps you can find and dump them into the sauce. This accomplishes two things: it thickens the gravy and offsets the sourness of the marinade.
You'll also be wanting to make your favorite dumplings to go with the beef, set off to the side and doused in gravy.
One final point: some people simply like to slice up the roast and serve it that way. But I personally think a better idea is to shred the tender meat in the pot with a couple forks, like you do with pulled pork. This will expose the interior meat to the gravy and give you a much more succulent result.