My husband has had a deep and satisfying love affair with chicken-fried steak.
During our college courtship in the early '80s, it was his meal of choice at Klein's truck stop.
He'd rave about the melt-in-your mouth tenderness of this Southern favorite with its rich pan gravy. Klein's is a distant memory now that we've been away from Fresno for more than 20 years.
My husband makes his own spicier version of chicken-fried steak now. One meal he made was so good, a guest of ours put her knife and fork down, picked the steak up and ate it and then licked her plate clean with her fingers. The other night, my husband toned down the spices and played up the "missing" ingredient. Because we were out of bread crumbs, he toasted sourdough Asiago bread, from Old Tyme Pastries in Turlock, and turned the slices into bread crumbs. Only "Wow!" can describe the taste because the hint of cheese and the sourdough flavor came through in the breading while the spices played second-fiddle.
Chicken-fried steak, also known as country-fried steak or smothered steak, has nothing to do with chicken. It's beef that's been breaded and fried like Southern fried chicken.
"Chicken fried steak actually dates to the 1840s and 1850s in Texas," said Michelle Martin, co-author of "The Prairie Table Cookbook" in an e-mail. "Many Germans came into Texas to settle and brought the dish weiner schnitzel with them.
"Weiner schnitzel is nothing more than a cut of veal that is coated with egg or water and flour and spices mix. In the U.S., veal was not really all that popular with folks and the "dredging" of meat in flour, spice and egg mixes made tougher cuts easy to cut and also more tender. So, you could take a tough cut of beef (bottom round, etc.) and dredge it in flour with the spices and egg or water and fry it up easy.
"Some of the earliest recipes in America that are somewhat like chicken-fried steak are found in old cookbooks from the 1820s back east of the Mississippi."
The dish is so popular, you'll find it at Denny's and Perko's and mom-and-pop eateries like Salida's Kountry Kitchen, where it's billed as "world famous."
"It's a one-pound slab of chicken-fried steak," said Tammy Oosterkamp, one of the owners. What makes the Kountry Kitchen's version special is that the cubed steak is pounded, dipped first in buttermilk and then the seasoned flour mixture, put in the freezer overnight and then dipped again in buttermilk and the seasonings, she said.
Any tough piece or low-grade beef will do, such as round steak or cube steak, but some recipes call for rib-eye steak or beef tenderloin.
"When buying these steaks, I don't hesitate a second to ask the butcher which cut of meat was used, refusing any that is not top or bottom round," writes James Villas in "The Glory of Southern Cooking."
The butcher will tenderize the steaks for you, if you ask, but that's only one of the elements of making a tender chicken-fried steak. The real secret is not to overcook the steaks.
If you're tenderizing them yourself, cover each steak with plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet until each is about a quarter-inch thick. Dip each steak in a milk-egg mixture (my husband prefers buttermilk-egg mixture), dredge in bread crumbs and cook about two minutes on each side. Move each steak to a cookie sheet and keep warm in a low-heat oven until all the steaks have been fried.
Pour out the excess oil, sauté some onions in the pan and turn all those browned bits into a silky, flavorful gravy by adding half-and-half or cream.
Allow a generous amount of gravy with each steak. The results will be finger-lickin' good.
Bee staff writer Sharon K. Ghag can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2340.