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Eric Akis: Chicken-fried steak is Southern-style comfort food

In some parts of the southern United States, a dish prepared in a similar fashion was and still is called country-fried steak.
Chicken-fried steak, made by coating and seasoning a beef steak as you would fried chicken. ERIC AKIS

If you’re in the mood for some hearty, Southern-style comfort food, I have a dish that fits that description on the menu today. If you’re not familiar with it, you might find its name odd considering its main ingredient and, spoiler alert, it’s not chicken.

No, the main ingredient is a beef steak. But when someone a long time ago seasoned, coated and fried it as one would when making fried chicken, the resulting dish eventually became known as chicken-fried steak. In some parts of the southern United States, a dish prepared in a similar fashion was and still is called country-fried steak.

According to many sources, German immigrants who settled in places such as the Hill Country of Texas in the 1800s might have been the ones who first prepared it. Lore suggests they applied their technique for making schnitzel — thinly pounded, breaded and fried veal or pork cutlets — to tougher cuts of beef, such as round steak.

The town of Lamesa, Texas, which holds an annual chicken-fried steak festival, claims to be the birthplace of the dish called chicken-fried steak. Legend suggests that one day, in 1911, a cook named Jimmy Don Perkins, who worked at a café called Ethel’s Home Cooking, created it while messing up a customer’s order.

The story goes that two customers had come into the café, and one ordered fried chicken, the other a steak. On the order slip, the waitress wrote down in short form that they wanted “chicken, fried steak” and gave it to Perkins.

Perkins wasn’t quite sure what was being ordered, not noticing the comma between the chicken and the steak, and thought the order was for one meal. To make what he thought was ordered, he coated a beef round steak in the batter he used for his fried chicken, cooked it in a grease-filled pan and a dish called chicken-fried steak was born.

Beyond Texas, as time moved on, chicken-fried steak became popular in other beef-producing areas, such as western Louisiana and Oklahoma, and eventually other states in that part of United States.

With regard to Oklahoma, over time chicken-fried steak became so ingrained in the food culture that in 1988 that state’s legislature placed the dish on the official Oklahoma meal list.

When reviewing recipes for chicken-fried steak, you’ll find variations on how it’s made. But most recipes see a tenderized, thin steak coated in seasoned flour, dipped in a beaten egg mixture, coated in the seasoned flour mixture again, and then fried until golden and crispy on the outside.

In some recipes, the steak is tenderized and made thin by pounding it with a kitchen hammer. In other recipes, cube steak is used. In grocery stores and butcher shops that sell cube steak, often called minute steak in Canada, they make it by running the steak through a mechanical tenderizer. It pierces the meat, breaks tough connective tissue and muscle fibres, and tenderizes the meat.

In my recipe, I chose to pound the steak and give you the option to use round steak or top sirloin steak, the latter being what I used.

Chicken-fried steak is served with what is often called “cream” gravy. It’s a milk-based gravy you make in the pan you used for the chicken-fried steak. It tastes great spooned over the steak, and also on the mashed potatoes often served with it. I also like to serve the steak with green beans and/or frozen, thawed and heated corn kernels.

Chicken-Fried Steak with Cream Gravy

Pounded until thin and tender, beef steaks are coated and seasoned as you would fried chicken, cooked until rich golden, and served with a hearty gravy.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: about 10 minutes

Makes: two servings

2 (about 6 oz/170 gram) top sirloin beef steaks or round steaks (see Eric’s options)

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 large egg

1 1/2 cups homo or two per cent milk (divided), plus more if needed

1 tsp Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce, or to taste

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp ground sage

1/4 tsp onion powder

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp paprika

• vegetable oil

Put a piece of parchment paper on a cutting board. Set one of the steaks in the centre of the paper. Cover with a double layer of plastic wrap. Using a kitchen hammer, pound the steak until thin, about 1/4-inch thick, and then set on a plate. Pound the other steak in this fashion. Season the steaks with salt and pepper.

Place the egg in a wide, sided dish and beat well. Mix 1/4 cup of the milk and Tabasco sauce. Place the flour, sage, onion powder, garlic powder and paprika in a second wide, sided dish. Season flour mixture with salt and pepper, and whisk to combine everything.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or plastic wrap. Coat a steak in the flour mixture, and then dip and evenly coat in the egg mixture. Coat the steak in flour mixture again, ensuring it’s evenly coated, and then set on the baking sheet. Repeat these steps with the second steak and set it on the baking sheet. Reserve leftover flour.

Let steaks sit 10 minutes to allow the flour mixture to set and become crispy once fried. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200 F.

To cook the steaks, heat 1/4-inch of oil in a very large skillet set over medium-high heat (my skillet was 12 inches wide). When the oil is hot, add the steaks and fry them until golden brown and cooked through, about three minutes per side. Drain the steaks on paper towel, and then set one on each of two dinner plates. Set the plates in the oven to keep the steaks warm.

Drain all but about 2 Tbsp of the oil from the skillet. Stir in 2 Tbsp of the reserved flour and mix until well combined with the oil. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup of the remaining milk. When mixture is very thick, slowly whisk in remaining 3/4 cup of milk. Bring to a simmer and cook a few minutes to thicken the gravy. Whisk in a bit more milk if you find the gravy too thick. Season the gravy with salt and pepper. Top each steak with some of the gravy and serve.

Eric’s options: If desired, not too thickly cut minute steaks (tenderized beef steaks), sold at some grocery stores, could replace the top sirloin or round steaks in the recipe. Because they are tenderized, you won’t have to pound them.

Country-style Garlic Mashed Potatoes

The garlic-flavoured, yellow-fleshed potatoes used in this recipe are simmered skin-on, giving them a more rustic, country-style taste and texture when mashed. They go great with chicken-fried steak.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 23 to 25 minutes

Makes: two servings

1 lb. unpeeled yellow-fleshed potatoes, quartered (see Note)

3 large cloves garlic, halved and thinly sliced

1 Tbsp butter, melted (see Note)

3 Tbsp warm milk

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

2 Tbsp chopped freshly parsley (optional)

Place potatoes and garlic in a pot, cover with two inches of cold water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and gently simmer potatoes until very tender, about 18 to 20 minutes.

Drain potatoes well, ensuring the garlic stays in the pot with them. Now thoroughly mash the potatoes. Beat in the butter and milk; season potatoes with salt and pepper. Mix in the parsley, if using, and serve.

Note: Three medium, or two very large, yellow-fleshed potatoes should yield the amount needed here. You can melt the butter and warm the milk by placing them together in a small bowl and zapping them 20 seconds or so in a microwave. You could also melt and heat them together in a small pot on the stovetop.

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Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.