Crickets

Chicken fried steak has a lot in common with Spaghetti Bolognese and Barbecued Spare Ribs. Huh? Come again? Whenever someone refers to these items (and many others), the room falls silent for a moment while everyone takes occasion to conjure up their most evocative recollection of the dish…the way Mom made it, the way their favorite diner makes it, or even the way that they THEMSELVES make it.

What starts as an enthusiastic group hug quickly escalates into a debate replete with raised eyebrows and condescending smirks. Then the whole thing degenerates into a vitriolic argument with lots of shaking heads, raised voices and hurt feelings. Friendships can be destroyed. Otherwise stable partnerships can dissolve before our very eyes. Add some alcohol and you may even see some low-rent physical altercations.

In this corner, weighing in at approximately 3 ounces…

There are so many versions, and each one of the devotees is convinced theirs is the only real, true, authentic, acceptable, edible version. The fact that almost nobody uses the same coating on fried chicken as they would on chicken fried steak serves only to complicate matters.

Meet the meat

First, there is the meat itself. Nobody will argue that it is anything other than beef, but judging by appearance, it may be hard to tell just WHAT kind of meat that is. It may have been pounded with a mallet, but in the butcher’s case the labeled candidates are more frequently Jaccarded. The misleading labels on items in the case that say “Swiss Steak,” “Minute Steak,” “Breakfast Steak” are usually cuts that look like they were run through a gauntlet of needles–because they were. That’s what a Jaccard does. The meat may still be tough, but it’s so shredded up, the presumption is that nobody will notice. Some people have even come to enjoy and prefer that texture, and there is no accounting for taste.

I don’t really blame the butchers themselves. They are aggressively trained to “tart up” their explanations of cuts and anatomy. An answer should never discourage a customer, even if it confuses them; that’s part of the shtick. The well conditioned butcher will imply that all cuts are tender and packed with flavor. So, those monikered cuts could really come from just about anywhere on the steer.

This is not a full treatment of how to break a chuck roll, although YouTube has a number of videos that go into detail.

From left to right, top to bottom:

  • Where the rib eye meets the chuck–it even looks like the front end of a rib eye roast. You can cut two or three steaks from there, and treat them like a rib eye steak. The generic, familiar name is a Delmonico steak.
  • Aside from all the collateral trim, of which there is quite a bit, there are basically two muscles that we are pulling apart in this picture. The top piece is known as the underblade, the bottom is the chuck eye roll.
  • This is the chuck eye roll. It is rib-eye like in appearance, but not in tenderness. Sometimes they cut it into what they call Denver steaks.
  • The chuck eye roll from the other end, after I trimmed all the fat.
  • This is the chuck eye roll again, (after the Delmonicos have been removed).
  • This is a trimmed out piece from the somewhat neglected underblade.
  • The last pic is all the steaks from the chuck eye roll.

This is a not so great, overly center focused pic of the whole underblade.

Chuck is a good place to get suitable pieces for our project, as are outside round and other economical cuts. We will operate on the assumption that chuck eye roll is the preferred choice. One can only hope that the frozen version of the chicken fried steak was not chopped and shaped before being transformed into that hockey puck-like shingle coated with a cakey, carbo-heavy armor reminiscent of billboard paste and sawdust. Speaking of billboard paste, I’m reminded of the country gravy that usually adorns this dish. Well, we will hold off on that for the time being.

Lots of chicken fried, and not much steak

Then comes the clash of the coatings. Flour, egg, bread crumbs? Flour, egg, flour? Milk mixed with eggs and THEN flour? Flour, buttermilk, flour? Buttermilk, flour, egg? Batter? Shake and Bake? MAKE IT STOP!

The battle of the breading may preempt deliberation of the remaining controversial characteristics of this seemingly dumbed down version of a Wienerschnitzel. The veal cutlet, not the chain of hot dog stands. Another rabbit hole that we will avoid for the time being.

Pork belly griddle skates

Chicken fried steaks are frequently deep fried, but many purists are horrified by this prospect. At home, most people fry them in a cast iron skillet with an abundance of oil, inevitably emerging with a series of painful but non-life-threatening splatter burns on their arms. That is why most of us go to a restaurant to get our fix, confident that the cutlet will be cooked on that cold-rolled steel griddle that seems to have been invented solely for this purpose. Bacon, pancakes, French toast, and grilled cheese sandwiches cohabitate the perfectly flat surface as needed.

I am not really so fussy, and I never met a chicken fried steak that I didn’t find at least some virtue in. As many of my associates know, all that is required to satisfy me is a crisp surface and some chopped parsley. I can overlook a lot of flaws provided I see some green somewhere on a white plate. But there’s more!

Good gravy!

Last argument. I have a good friend who lived all over the south for many years, eventually settling in Oregon. I listened with intent as he apoplectically detailed, red-face with eyes popping, his appalled revelation that “up north” and/or “out west” a chicken fried steak might be served with brown sauce instead of the cloyingly thick cream gravy characteristic of the southern version. This fellow wouldn’t even know where to start when it came to preparing a chicken fried steak, but, by gum, he knew that it wasn’t even “real” unless it had cream gravy. People are really dogmatic about their culinary preferences. I like it both ways.

Oops, I forgot to bread it…

Back in the 70’s, and even into the eighties, we had this thing called a “Paillard.” It was pretty fakey and of questionable authenticity. The idea was that something other than chicken would be modified/shaped and prepared as if it WERE a chicken breast, for what that’s worth. Back then, the public wanted dishes to have names, preferably foreign. It added value to accommodate menu prices. Those were easy times. Good times. We thought it would never end. *Sigh.*

Utilizing sous vide, lean cuts of beef chuck/shoulder can be used for both of these dishes. Butchers like to refer to them as “chuck eye steaks,” as I mentioned. Unfortunately, except for the very first couple of slices from the rib eye end of a chuck roll (“Delmonico”), they are not steak-tender, even though they look like they might be. They are continuations of the rib eye muscle, but they are located in the cross rib/shoulder, which bears a lot of weight. A muscle can actually be tender at one end and tough on the other. A 1200 lb. steer exerts a lot more weight on its front legs than it does on its hind legs.

129X12 is not long enough to tenderize a chuck eye cut. It does convert enough collagen to to tap them out like scallopini, and then one need only imagine that they look somewhat like a chicken breast, which they really don’t, but it doesn’t matter, because the public didn’t know that the word paillard was somehow evocative of chicken, they just knew it sounded French, and that was enough.

Go to the tool kit, get a hammer…

The chuck “steaks” should be thick enough that the act of pounding them can complete the tenderization process. They should be thin enough that the act of pounding them doesn’t cause them to tear apart. I like them at about 1.5″.

I use the heaviest butcher block available, so it doesn’t vibrate on impact. I lay down a piece of parchment or butcher paper so I don’t have to sanitize the butcher block when I am done. I lay a piece of plastic wrap on top to prevent tiny droplets of wet meat from flying all over the place, even though the dog loves scouring the floor in search of them.

Pound them out, and then flip them over and pound the other side too. If you don’t do this, the cutlet/paillard will curl up when you cook it because of the remaining fibers on the unpounded side.

You want to pound the slices as thin as possible without altering their structural integrity. 1/8″ is a good result.

Next, apply seasoning–S+P in this case. The meat is very receptive to seasoning in this state, so be careful not to overdo it. I tap the slices lightly again to press the seasoning against the surface completely.

I keep a shaker of flour around, it’s handy for baking and a number of things. Shake flour on top, flip, and shake flour on the other side. This dries the surface, so that the egg will stick to it.

Controversy notwithstanding, I beat one egg with 1 ounce of water in a flat bowl, and in goes the cutlet. You can also use a pastry brush to paint the cutlet if you prefer.

Sprinkle crumbs generously on the butcher paper, lift the meat out of the egg, let it drip for a few seconds, and lay it flat on the crumbs. Sprinkle the top with crumbs again, don’t scrimp. Press the crumbs in with the palm of your clean hand. Fold up the butcher paper around the cutlet, and refrigerate for at least one half hour to give the breading time to cling. This is the easy way.

Novices who don’t plan well can create a gigantic mess trying to bread a cutlet or a piece of chicken. After about fifty years, I finally figured out the easy way. So proud.

Heat a skillet or cast iron frying pan to approximately

375F/190C

Add vegetable oil (or lard, if you want to be that way) until you have about a quarter inch depth. In this instance, that took about half a cup. The oil will heat very quickly, so you can carefully lay the cutlet down right away. If you have more than one cutlet, do not crowd the pan. I usually cook one at a time, save the fat, wipe out the pan and repeat the process.

As the cutlet cooks, it will still start to curl up around the edge, as you can see in the above slide. I try to avoid flipping the steak more than once. This really only takes about a minute or so. Flip the cutlet, but since it is already hot, only cook it on the second side for about thirty seconds. It will start to release a little water, which you will see and hear. This means it is “done.”

Remove and drain to a paper towel. And there you have it!

Naked

If you want to make the Paillard version, you use the same process but stop before you dip the meat in the egg.  Heat the pan to

375F/190C

but do not add oil to the pan. Drizzle, sprinkle, spread or spray the seasoned cutlets with oil and saute in the pan. The procedure is the same as the cutlet, the slight curl, the flip, the drip, and the pull.

The macaroni, the cheddar

Cook some macaroni, I usually allow 3oz/75g per serving. This recipe makes two servings.

While the 6 ounces/150g macaroni is cooking, combine in a cold skillet:

Milk, 1 cup/200ml
Cheddar, 6 ounces/150g
Wondra* (or regular flour), 1 Tablespoon
Salt, 1-2 teaspoon
Egg, lightly beaten,  1 each.

*Wondra is a proprietary brand of pre-cooked and dried flour. It is low protein, and less likely to clump. It’s pricey, but it comes in a shaker, and that’s how you use it, a little goes a long way.

Parsley, chopped, as much as you can muster.

Drain the pasta, add it to the cold skillet with the rest of the cheese, and bring to simmer–just long enough to melt the cheese. It doesn’t usually happen, but if you over cook it, the egg may scramble a bit. Never boil cheese, unless you like rope.

Both of these are great dishes after you get home from bowling, for example.

Norm