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Chicken Fried Steak: One-third of the Big Three

by John Raven, Ph.B.

The Big Three of Texas cooking are chili, barbecue and chicken fried steak. I have expounded on chili and barbecue often. Recently a reader asked why I had not shown chicken fried steak the respect it deserves. I was remiss and will now attempt to atone for my oversight.

Chicken fried steak is beefsteak that has been dipped in beaten egg, floured and fried in a skillet. It probably had its origin in the Wiener Schnitzel that came to Texas with the German immigrants. Wiener Schnitzel is veal cooked in the above manner. Veal has never been a big item on the Texas menu, so the population adapted the recipe to the tougher cuts of beef.

The first known written recipe for the dish is from 1952, but the dish goes back much further. The "Texas Book of Records" says that the dish was invented by a Jimmy Don Perkins in Lamesa in 1911 when he misread a kitchen order for "Chicken, fried steak". He fried the steak like it was chicken.

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CFS, as we call it, is not the sole property of Texas. It is also the Official State Dish of Oklahoma.

There has been a dilution of the meaning of "chicken fried", since some of the younger set interchange "chicken fried" and "country fried". The Chili's restaurant chain does that. But there is a difference. "Country fried" is steak that has been seasoned and dusted with flour and fried. It does not have the egg treatment.

Sixty years ago when I started eating solid foods, "country fried" was simply fried steak. We all lived in the country, so there.

A lot of our (and I' talking about the Central Texas area) CFS is made with what is called veal cutlets. These tidbits are not veal; they are beef of various cuts, mostly round, that had been machine tenderized. The process breaks down the fibers and makes the meat more tender. Supermarkets usually call them cube steak, though why I don't know.

Many of the recipes for CFS call for pounding flour into the steak with a tenderizing hammer or using the edge of a stout saucer to pound the flour in. It is pretty much a personal thing as to whether you pound your steak or not. Experience is the teacher here.

In any case, the flour you use should be seasoned and you want to use plain white or unbleached flour. Whole-wheat flour is no bueno por nada on CFS. Years ago I was introduced to CFS seasoned with Lawry's Seasoned Salt. It is still my favorite. You can use what you think would be good -- salt, pepper, onion powder, a little cayenne, whatever. You season the meat before you flour it and then put some seasoning in your flour. About a tablespoon full of seasoning to a cup of flour would be in the ballpark.

You will occasionally find CFS that has been coated with breadcrumbs. I'm sorry, but that is not CFS; it's breaded steak.

The grease you fry your CFS in is a personal choice. To be Texas authentic, you would fry in hog lard. Hog lard has got such a bad rap as of late that you seldom see it outside the Mexican food section of the super market. Eating something fried in hog lard once a month will not hurt you one bit. The second choice of grease would be a solid shortening such as Crisco. From there we go into the multitude of oils on the market. You want an oil that has no taste of its own. Some of the cheaper oils leave a bad taste on fried foods. Pick a good name brand of corn oil. You could use olive oil, and instead of cream gravy substitute marinara sauce, and you could call it veal scaloppini.

Whatever you use for frying, you want at least one-half an inch of it in your skillet. A big, old cast iron skillet works best. The oil should be 350-360°F when you start. That is what makes the non-greasy, crisp coating. Not having the oil hot enough results in a grease soaked mess. Your restaurants and cafes will use their deep fryers. You seldom find a good deep fryer in a home any more. For home use, deep fryers are considered to be like guns -- deadly.

CFS is seldom over one-half inch thick, so the rule of thumb is fry it until it is brown enough on one side, then turn it over and fry the other side. Again, experience.

What goes with your CFS? Tradition says creamed potatoes and cream gravy. It is permissible to have French fries, but you must bring a note from your cardiologist.

Creamed Potatoes, Texas Style
One potato per serving, medium size. Peel the spud and cut it into chunks. Put in cool water in a pot that will allow about an inch of water over the top of the spuds. Add a small amount of salt, say half a teaspoon to start. Cook the potatoes at a rapid boil until they are very tender when checked with a fork. Drain, apply potato masher after adding about two tablespoons of real butter per serving. Mash everything up real good. Give a good sprinkle of fine grind black pepper. Add a small amount of whole milk or cream and stir well. Add more moo juice as needed to get the consistency you desire. Check and see if more salt is needed. Don't get them runny. You need them solid enough to form a little cup to put some of your gravy in.

Too often CFS shows up on the restaurant table with white sauce on it. It is a good bet that their white sauce came in powder form, and they just add water and heat. Brrrrrak! Real gravy will always have specks of brown and black in it.

Cream Gravy, Texas Style
This is for a normal-size amount of cream gravy. If you need more or less just keep the ratio of ingredients, and everything will work just fine.

Start by pouring off the excess grease in the skillet (after the frying has been done and), leaving 2 tablespoons of the pan drippings in the skillet (leave the "crusties" in the skillet).

Stir in 2 tablespoons of white flour. Cook, stirring constantly over medium-high heat until the flour browns slightly.

Add a cup of whole milk, cream or evaporated milk. Stir constantly until the mix begins to bubble and thicken. Add a lot of fine grind black pepper. Taste for salt and add as needed. If the mix starts getting too thick, add more liquid. If you are using the evaporated milk, you can add water.

Turn the heat down to low and simmer a couple of minutes, stirring as needed to keep it from sticking and scorching.

Something different
I have read volumes on CFS while preparing this article. Not a one mentions Mexican-style chicken fried steak. I ran across this wonder some years ago at a little diner in San Antonio. It was the standard, crusty CFS except, instead of cream gravy it came with chili con queso on it. It was wonderful. I've never seen it again.

Each steak goes on a large platter. The creamed potatoes are placed at its side and a small depression formed in them with your spoon. The gravy goes on top of the steak and fills the little potato gravy lake. Don't completely cover the steak with gravy, It looks best with a strip of gravy about one-third the width of the steak down the middle.

If it is on the menu, I always get fried okra with my CFS, but a serving of green beans is traditional. There should be a small green salad on the side. The simplest and best salad is just lettuce, a bit of onion and tomato. Don't make it too fancy. Fancy is not Texas.

Now you know everything I know about chicken fried steak. I'm having company today, and we will eat at the Hill Country Cupboard here in Johnson City where they have a sign that says, "World's Best Chicken Fried Steak -- Over Three Dozen Served".

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