Hudson column: Chicken-fried steak

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chicken-fried steak. The name refers to the method in which the steak is cooked. It is fried like chicken. All you need is some cube steak, a cast-iron skillet, some shortening, eggs, milk and flour. Add some salt and pepper at the end and you will have an amazing culinary experience.
I don’t know why so many people trip up on the name around here. It seems every time I serve it to guests someone asks, “chicken-fried steak?” Like they’ve never heard of it before. Really? “Is it chicken or is it steak?” they eventually ask.
I never thought of chicken-fried steak as such a hard-core southern food. I’ve met enough people who have never had it, however, that I’ve had to change my mind.
My favorite story to illustrate this point regards the first time I ever cooked for my wife’s parents back when we were dating in college. I knew my chicken-friend steak would knock them out. My wife wasn’t so sure.
“Honey, my parents eat pretty healthy,” she said. “I don’t think they are going to like that stuff. It is too greasy.”
It’s a wonder I married her with that kind of blasphemy just flying right out of her mouth at such a critical stage in our relationship. Can you really build a lasting bond with a woman that says something, anything, negative about such a soul-satisfying dish?
I made the chicken-fried steak anyway. It was a grand-slam home run. The truth was right there in front of our eyes the next time I came to visit.
My wife opened the refrigerator to get a drink and there before her sat some lowly cube steak on the top shelf. Her mother never bought cube steak. Nobody does. Unless you are making one specific dish.
“Mom, it looks like you’re hoping Glenn will make chicken-friend steak again,” she said.
“Do you think he will mind?” her mother replied.
Would I mind? Nothing makes me happier than introducing someone to a new food and knowing that they really liked it. I need to make an important point right now however. That stuff you get at restaurants that is called chicken-fried steak, but it came in on a truck pre-breaded and frozen, and it is just “cooked,” on site — that is not going to taste the same as what we are about to discuss in the following paragraphs. You cook it and find out for yourself. There is a big difference. That stuff is awful.
Homemade chicken-fried steak is easy to make. It is just time consuming. I enjoy the process. Maybe you will too.
For Texas-style Chicken-Fried Steak and Gravy you will need: cube steak, eggs, flour, vegetable shortening, salt, pepper, milk.
You are simply going to dredge the cube steak in the beaten eggs and then flour and fry it in a cast-iron skillet. You’ll want enough shortening to generously cover the bottom of the skillet. You should bring the shortening up to temperature slowly because it is more flammable than vegetable oil. Fry each steak until golden brown on each side.
Place your fried steaks on a plate covered with paper towels to absorb any remaining oil. I like to put all my finished steaks in the oven on low heat to keep them warm while I make the gravy.
Quite frankly, I have come to the conclusion that the whole dish is virtually worthless without the gravy. I kind of view chicken-fried steak and gravy like Starsky and Hutch or Sonny and Cher. They are inseparable.
Now this is the really important part about this recipe. When you are done frying your steaks you want to turn the heat down to low. Ideally you should still have just enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet. If you have more than that you should safely remove it before continuing. Do not take out any of the breaded pieces of steak that fell off during the frying process. Leave it in there. It will help season the gravy.
Next, add enough flour to the pan to absorb the remaining oil. The amount of flour is critical. The amount of gravy you are going to make is directly proportional to the amount of oil you have in your pan to start and the amount of flour required to absorb it. There is no measuring that will be done during this part of the preparation. You go by what looks right. Good gravy is a black art. You just have to practice until you get it right.
If you are doing it right you should end up with a blob of greasy brown flour in the middle of your pan. Chefs call this a roux. I’m not a chef. I’m just a cook. So I call it a blob.
Once the blob is nice and brown, you should add two cups of milk (or so) and then gently stir the mixture over medium-low heat. As you stir you will notice that the mixture will absorb the milk to the point where you will need to add more. You will keep adding milk until you end up with a gravy consistency rather than a blob consistency. I don’t know how else to describe it. I usually go through four or five cups of milk before I feel like I have it right.
You can tell its right when you taste it and it no longer has the heavy oil or flour taste. There will come a point at which the milk will no longer be rapidly absorbed and you’ll get the consistency you want. Just be patient.
Now you’re ready to add salt and pepper to taste. I will say that I like to heavily salt and pepper my gravy. Obviously this is a personal taste and not recommended for those that need to limit salt in their diet. In fact, this whole recipe has “coronary,” written all over it. Then again, who wants to live forever without chicken-fried steak?
What you place next to your chicken-fried steak is also an extremely important decision. There are two options that are acceptable. The first is white rice. The second is mashed potatoes. The goal of either side dish is the same: act as a vehicle to get gravy from the plate to your mouth. Both hold gravy quite well.
You can also serve this dish with lima beans or any other green vegetable that suits you. My problem is I don’t usually have room for the veggies once I’m done with the steak.