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Friday, April 13, 2007

Chicken Fried Steak A message to your inner fat man.

There is no dish in the American that less New Age Foodie than the Chicken Fried Steak, (CFS). Originally developed as a way to make bad cuts of meat edible, the Southern poor, both black and white, fried up some thin sliced beef covered in a delicious fat soaked breading. It has always been my theory that anything breaded and fried would taste good. A piano would be tasty cooked this way. Deep frying was not an option in most cook houses. In a Texas Summer you want to get things cooked with as little heat as is possible. That's where the fry pan with a couple of inches of hot lard comes in. That's right, lard. Ideally one should be able to look out the kitchen window and see the brown flecked with white stubble of a cotton field.

The following is not a recipe, as such, but is more of a roadmap to CFS nirvana. Round steak, flank steak, anything beef that can be cut about 1/2" to 5/8" thick. At this point the meat must b be pre-chewed using hardware. The back of a cleaver or a tenderizing hammer works fine. A cube steak machine works, but is cheating, and generates a slab of steak with an industrial look that denies the dish's rural roots. CFS was developed by the ancestors of Yellow Dog Democrat farmers who took new cars and pickups from the showroom and drove them through the fields and brush so they didn't look like they were new anymore.
A hot frypan with enough barely smoking lard to cover the meat must be prepared before the meat is drug through flour, dipped in milk, and floured again. From there to the pan. The lard should stop smoking when the meat hits it and cools the fat. You have to cook by color of the breading, and flip the CFS. A decade at a master's side helps a lot.

Now you have a nicely breaded piece of beef, fried like chicken. You are not half done.

The white gravy is really the charm of the dish. Salt, pepper, lard, flour and whole milk are the only ingredients. Either you know how to make this stuff from the list of ingredients, or nothing I'm writing here will help.

Generous slathering of the CFS with the gravy is one way to tell if your cook knows what he is doing or not. This dish cannot be microwaved as a leftover without losing its soul, so just order what you can eat. A field hand's dinner would cover a 14" plate, without leaving a spot that would hold a dime without getting gravy on FDR's shoulder.

Gettin' good CFS outside the South is a real crap-shoot. I've had breaded burger patties with a dab of leftover breakfast sausage gravy passed off as CFS in a cafe in Oregon. In Colorado a pre-formed and breaded "cutlet" with a splash of yellow canned "turkey gravy". From my experience, acceptable CFSs can be had in local chain restaurants in Texas and Louisiana although the cafeterias so popular in the old South don't do the dish well because the breading loses all its nature in a stainless steel pan under heat lamps. High end steak housed don't do CFS. Oh, they've got all the ingredients, even if their beef is far too tender, but they are generally snobs, unwilling to cook such a plebeian, and cheap, dish.

The ultimate CFS can be had at The Ranchman's Cafe in Ponder Texas. ( http://ranchman.com/ ) I will defend this fact to my deathbed. Called by locals "The Ponder Steak House", breaded perfection lives. I get nothing for this endorsement, except for the pleasure the evangelist gets by bringing another soul into the flock. If you happen to get there on a day when they have banana pudding, then the gods have truly smiled upon you. The owners even make soap from the surplus grease, and sell it at the register. From the first booth on the right, if you draw concentric rings spaced by a hundred miles from its neighbor, you will get a rough estimation of what you can expect in a cafe. Quality falls off at about 25% from ring to ring. Less so going East into the Old Slave South. Going North and Northeast into yankee land the decline is much greater. Here in the Northwest, stick to the salmon.

All that said, this dish, eaten regularly will shave years off your life. but had twice or three times a year, will make those years you have worthwhile.

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