When my husband and I moved from Texas to New England, we knew good and well there would be certain culinary experiences we’d have to live without. We knew we’d never find the kind of Tex Mex cuisine we’d grown to depend on. We knew we might have access to bar-b-que, but not the good Texas bar-b-que we’d come to take for granted. We never thought we’d miss Whataburger so much, but we do. Since moving here three years ago, we’ve managed to find some reasonable Mexican food and I’ve gotten pretty good at making the basics at home, like enchilladas and burritos. Jason bought me a smoker last summer and I’ve experimented with ribs, chicken and pork with excellent results. But the one thing I’ve never cooked that we most certainly can’t get in New Hampshire is chicken fried steak.
How hard could it be? I’ve eaten plenty of chicken fried steak, although I have to admit it is not one of my favorites, and it seems like a pretty straight forward preparation. Thinly pounded beef is dredged in flour, fried and served with cream gravy. The sides are usually mashed potatoes and some kind of greens. I mean, really, does this sound like brain surgery? I’m not wrapping anything in puff pastry or making some impossible sauce. It’s not like I’d have to bone out a whole chicken. Its not beef wellington or lobster thurmador or pressed duck. Its fried meat, for crying out loud! Boy, was I in for a surprise.
When Jason requested chicken fried steak for dinner, I asked around. I did some research. The ingredients are simple, but as I was about to learn, the success or lack thereof is all in the technique. My friend Joyce sent me an article from the Dallas Morning News with a great instructional video. And the details were confirmed by my friend Eric, whose culinary skills I trust without fail. It’s round steak, tenderized and pounded thin, but not too thin, dipped in a thin, milky egg wash, dredged in flour that is seasoned with salt and lots of pepper, and pan fried in a scant amount of oil, preferably in a cast iron skillet. The cream gravy is made by adding a little bit of flour to a little bit of the oil the steak was fried in, then cold milk until it cooks to the right consistency. NO PROBLEM! I can totally do this, I thought, my husband will be so impressed.
My friends, I offer this story in the hopes that you won’t make the same mistakes as me. I hope my experience will be good fodder for your next kitchen foray. I was too cocky. I flew too close to the sun on wings of fried meat. Alas, the burden was heavy and I did not soar as I’d planned…..I had a big belly flop.
I procured a nice piece of round steak and started pounding. But there was a dastardly little voice in my head that kept saying “but not too thin….but not too thin….” This was my first mistake. I listened to this obnoxious creep in my head and didn’t pound my steak thin enough. I had a nice, light coating of well seasoned flour, just salt and lots of freshly ground pepper. When I put my steak in the pan, it had a nice sizzle. But the thickness was all wrong and before the meat was properly browned on one side, the exposed side started running meat juice, which made the pan splatter more.
But I perservered…because that’s what us amatuer chefs do…we keep on keeping on…we at least try to save the disasterous meal we’re mutilating on the stove. So, I finished cooking my steaks and put them on a plate in a 200 degree oven to keep hot while I made the gravy.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if my pan was full of straight oil or partial meat drippings. This was my second mistake. I didn’t pour any oil out of the pan and just added a couple of tablespoons of flour. I thought I could always thin out the gravy if it ended up too thick. I sprikled the flour into the hot oil and whisked. It was so thin, I thought maybe I hadn’t added enough. So, I added a little more flour. Okay, still very thin. But I thought, what the hell, this should work, right? I’ve made white sauces before, I know what I’m doing.
When I started adding milk, the whole thing turned into semi-solid goo. No matter how much milk I added, the presence of too much flour made it thick and gloppy. It looked more like cream of wheat than gravy. And this lead to my third mistake. I’d only bought a pint of milk for this recipe. I didn’t plan to make a gallon of gravy, just enough for two people. So, I had to scoop out all but about a tablespoon of the flour paste and supliment what little milk I had left with non-dairy creamer. In the end, the gravy wasn’t inedible. It was the right consistency and didn’t taste as bad as this story might lead you to believe. It just wasn’t right.
When I took my steaks out of the oven, they had lost their crunchy crust. And since they were too thick, they stayed pink in the middle, which is fine for a steak, but not if its chicken fried. My saving grace for this meal was perfect sides. My mashed potatoes were fluffy and luxurious and my swiss chard was cooked perfectly.
We learn from experience, so now I know how NOT to make chicken fried steak. And that’s alright by me.