Chicken Fried Steak, Texas Style
I know that a Chicken Fried Steak is far, far, far from haute cuisine, but that's not what the classic recipes pages are about in any case. They are about classic foods that satisfy, and that haven't been done right in some time.
It's time to get back to the roots and do it right.
When I lived in Austin, Texas more years ago than I care to admit, a recurring conversation revolved around who had the best Chicken Fried Steak. The three top contenders were The Broken Spoke, Threadgills and Virginia's. I never made it to The Broken Spoke, which I still regret. Threadgills was very good, at least at that time. I've heard sad stories since. But, the champ, for my money, was Virginia's.
I first heard about Virginia's when I was in college. Alain Nimri, a friend and resident at the Royale House, a co-op near the University of Texas campus, went there fairly often. Alain always looked like he belonged on a poster involving world hunger. He sat at the bar at Virginia's, where he could see Virginia cook, (Yes Santa, there IS a Virginia!) and she often gave him seconds on vegetables saying something like, "It looks like you could use some more!" Yeah, he could use more.
I finally went to Virginia's years later, and it was all Alain had told me it would be. By that time Virginia was in her mid 80's and should have retired. It could be said she had slowed down, but she was still running, and cooking in, her restaurant. Sadly, the restaurant is but a memory, and I suspect the same is true of Virginia.
Her meals were so large, so good and so inexpensive that many students from nearby St. Edward's University ate there as their one meal of the day. The first thing you noticed when you went into Virginia's was that all the tables were picnic tables and the seating was family style. Each table had a mason (or canning) jar on it filled with spring onions or celery. If you went with a group, you might or might not be able to sit together. The next thing you'd notice was the signs. "If you're in a hurry, go eat somewhere else, we don't want to make you late!" and "Sorry, we don't have restrooms for customers, go next door to the Shell station" are two I remember. A very common phone call to the health department started out like this, "Ah, don't restaurants in this state have to have restrooms for customers?" The health department people were regulars at Virginia's, so they answered right away, "So, you've been to Virginia's! If a restaurant has restrooms, they have to meet certain standards. But they don't have to have restrooms." And then there was Virginia. She was, to be plain, a crusty old lady.
So, why go there? In two words, the food. And the chicken fried steak was pretty much the crowning glory of the restaurant. My friend Alain saw her make many chicken fried steaks and told me how she did it. There are no secrets here. This recipe has next to nothing in common with what is sold in most restaurants as a chicken fried steak. To start with, we, like Virginia, use real meat. And then, we chicken fry it. In a skillet. No deep frying for us. No soy vegetable protein either. No chicken fried hockey puck. But, I repeat myself. We're doing this the same way Virginia did, but we have to admit she did it better. Although she did have over 60 years of experience at making chicken fried steaks.
To be authentic, you'd serve this baby with vegetables that have been cooked far too long. Long enough that you'd be reduced to identifying them as "ahhh... something green?" That's what Virginia did. You don't have to be quite that authentic. And don't forget the mashed potatoes. Lots of mashed potatoes. With lots of butter. (And make them real mashed potatoes. Not something out of a box. And if you tell me you don't know how to do that, I'll cry. And then I'll post the recipe here. And I'll probably dedicate the page to you... the person honest enough to admit that they didn't know how to mash potatoes.)
Start with enough pieces of meat to serve your family. You know their appetites. Don't waste good money buying good meat. The purpose of a chicken fried steak is to make a tough piece of meat just this side of shoe leather palatable and enjoyable. Get chuck steak. Or whatever is cheaper than chuck this week. Virginia would cut meat off of a roast to the right size. You don't have to do that.
Now it's time to tenderize the meat. Like Virginia, you should beat it with the edge of a plate on a cutting board. Don't use a good plate, of course. Once you've done one side, flip it over and do the other side. Once that's done, flip the steak again, and tenderize at a right angle to what you did the first time. Once that's done, flip it again and do the other side at a right angle to the previous tenderizing. Do this to all the steaks.
Once the meat has been tenderized, it's time to bread it. Start by putting a good amount of flour on a plate. Go ahead and use the plate you used to tenderize the meat... if you didn't break it. (If you broke the plate, you beat the meat too hard. Or the plate was ready to be thrown out anyway.) Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix well.
Next break a couple of eggs into a good sized bowl. You may add some hot sauce, if you like. (Please don't consider the picture to be an ad for hot sauce. It was a gift. And it had little to recommend it, other than a "cute" name, not much flavor, and too much heat. Stick to something you like. Like Tabasco maybe.) Beat the eggs and (optional) hot sauce together.
And then dip the meat in the flour again. Once you've done that, put the breaded pieces of meat on a rack to let the breading dry for a few minutes. Not too long. Just a 5 or 10 minutes. While the meat's breading is drying a bit, put some oil in a skillet and start heating it on medium heat. I use olive oil. I use olive oil for everything that doesn't call for butter. Heat the oil slowly, don't let it burn.
It's tempting to cook this on a high heat, but that will give you a burned crust and raw meat, which is not a very nice combination.
You may need to play with the heat to get the crust as brown as you want it, with the meat as cooked as you want it. If you have a thermometer, you might start cooking when the oil is around 375F.
Once the meat has been cooked, put it on a plate, and put the plate in a warm oven to hold. It's time to make the gravy. And, yeah, the one on the right is a bit more done than I like. However, cream gravy can hide many sins!
A cream gravy is an essential part of the meal. Some chefs sniff at this saying a roux has NO PLACE on meat. OK, I'll have yours. Maybe it's a bit too country, but it is delightful!
The chicken fried steak and the mashed potatoes (you haven't forgotten the mashed potatoes, have you?) should both be smothered in gravy just before the meal is eaten. In a restaurant, the gravy is put on the meal when the waitress picks it up to deliver it to the customer's table. At home, we often put the gravy in a separate bowl so the gravy can be put on the food when your family starts to eat.
BE VERY CAREFUL - THE OIL /FLOUR MIXTURE WILL CAUSE THIRD DEGREE BURNS ON CONTACT WITH SKIN!!! YOUR SKIN!!!!
We start by making a roux. Pour the left over grease from the skillet into a heat proof cup. Measure about a tablespoon of grease back into the skillet for each cup of gravy you'll want. Turn the heat up all the way, and add about two or three tablespoons of flour per tablespoon of oil. If you have any flour mixture left, use that. If there are any "crunchies" left in the skillet from cooking the chicken fried steak, leave them there. They add character to the gravy. Stir the oil and flour constantly to keep it from scorching. The flour should brown a bit. If the mixture is too dry, add some more oil. If it's too wet, add some more flour.
Don't let the mixture brown too much, because the cream gravy should be light in color. When the flour has browned a bit, but not too much, start adding the milk, a little bit at a time. Carefully whisk the milk into the roux. Let the gravy come back to a boil and thicken a bit between additions. Because not all flours have the same thickening properties, and because not all people like the same sort of thickness, the flour guidelines were just guidelines. This should be a pretty thick gravy.
And here's the finished gravy, ready for serving. Depending on your families tastes, you may want to add a few good grinds of fresh black pepper to the gravy as you're cooking it.
Virginia (remember Virginia?) did this, one at a time, with patience and love, over and over again. As a result, it took a while to be served. And all the people in your party may or may not have been served at the same time. People who never had the pleasure of eating her food might wonder if it was worth putting up with all the nonsense to eat there. And how could it be enjoyable? It was worth it, and it was enjoyable. You just went there with your head in the right place, ready to enjoy the food and the ambiance.
If you ask many people what they'd do with a time machine, they'd go back and watch the Crucifixion, find out why the dinosaurs died off, see what happened on the Marie Celeste, find out who really shot JFK, or maybe see what REALLY happened to the Battleship Maine. Me? I'd go back and have another Chicken Fried Steak at Virginia's.
As you enjoy your meal, raise a fork to the heavens and say, "Thank you Virginia!" She'll know.