Spring semester of my senior year in high school, when my friends and I were feeling daring we’d occasionally leave school for lunch. We only had 45 minutes so it had to be quick, and my school was in a remote area so there weren’t many dining options nearby. Though there was one restaurant that appealed to everyone—the local Grandy’s, which was only a short ride away.
If you’re not familiar with Grandy’s, it’s a fast-food joint that specializes in Southern cuisine classics. So if you’re looking for a quick chicken-fried steak along with biscuits and fried okra, Grandy’s is your place. Indeed, that’s what most of us ordered. But one friend, a gal who said she was watching her weight, always insisted on getting the chicken-fried chicken instead.
I hadn’t thought about those carefree days or chicken-fried chicken in years. But when someone asked me how I made mine, I realized it was a topic that needed visiting. Before we go any further, however, let me clarify one thing: chicken-fried chicken is not the same as fried chicken. Instead, it has more in common with chicken-fried steak. This is confusing, I know. Let me explain.
Two things differentiate fried chicken from chicken-fried chicken. First, fried chicken is bone-in chicken pieces from all parts of the bird that are coated in flour. Chicken-fried chicken, however, is a flattened chicken breast that is dredged in flour, then dunked into an egg and buttermilk wash, and then back into the flour again. The latter process being the same that is used to make chicken-fried steak, hence the name.
Of course, at this point, you could be wondering why chicken-fried steak has its particular name when you don’t fry it as you would fried chicken, with chicken-fried chicken's egg and buttermilk wash and all. Well, this is indeed something to ponder but I’ll let it sit for another day.
In any case, chicken-fried chicken is a large, thin slab of chicken breast that has a crisp coating on it, along with a healthy smothering of cream gravy. It is a glorious thing! Admittedly, I prefer dark meat. But a chicken breast is transformed when you salt it, batter it, fry it, and then drench it in gravy. What is often dry and chalky is now tender and palatable. Much like chicken-fried steak is a dish meant to rescue tough pieces of beef, I feel that chicken-fried chicken is there to make better the breast.
You see chicken-fried chicken all across Texas—from El Paso to Dallas. While I’m not sure how long it’s been around, the first printed citations I read were in the early 1970s in the Abilene area. This, of course, doesn’t prove its origins are in West Texas, but I could see that being the case. Clearly some chicken-fried chicken scholarship is in order!
To serve chicken-fried chicken, most folks lay it on a platter with their favorite side dishes and a big bowl of gravy. Though you can also cut the breasts in half and fry smaller pieces, which then tuck quite nicely into warm, buttery biscuits. Any way you slice it, it’s hard to go wrong.
It's not difficult to make chicken-fried chicken, especially if you’ve already mastered chicken-fried steak. The hardest thing is being tolerant of the mess in your kitchen as I guarantee there will be flour, buttermilk, and grease all over the place. But that’s okay because once the chaos has settled you can sit down and enjoy your slab of warm and crisp chicken-fried chicken. And after one bite you will know that all is right with your world.
New York readers: On Saturday April 5, I will be signing books from 4 to 5 at Powerhouse on 8th in Park Slope. There will also be food, as Melissa Vaughan will be making recipes from my new book, The Homesick Texan's Family Table. I hope to see you there! For more information, please call 718-801-8375.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup buttermilk
Oil for frying
Cream gravy, for serving
Pound the breasts until they are 1/4-inch thick.
Mix together the flour with the salt, black pepper, and cayenne and place on a plate. Whisk together the eggs with the buttermilk. Lightly sprinkle the breasts with salt and pepper then dredge each into the flour. Dip the flour-coated breasts into the eggs and then dredge in the flour again. Place the breaded chicken breasts on a sheet pan.
Heat up the oven to 200°F. In a large heavy skillet, such as a cast-iron skillet, on medium-high heat up an inch of oil to 350°F, about 5 minutes. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test the temperature by sticking a wooden spoon into the oil. If it bubbles around the spoon, it should be ready for frying.
Working in batches, gently lower each breast into the oil and cook for 2 minutes per side, or until lightly browned, turning once. Drain on a paper towel and place in the oven while you fry the remaining breasts.
Serve with cream gravy.
Yield: 4 servings
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Thursday, February 27, 2014
I love beans. Soupy beans, refried beans, beans in a dip, or beans in a salad—it doesn’t matter how you serve them, I will eat beans and be happy. Like most Texans, they’ve long been a staple on my family’s table and I make a pot at least once a week. Matter of fact, I love them so much that I once preferred a side dish of pinto beans over some world-famous barbecue.
It happened last year. I was at the annual Foodways Texas symposium and renowned pitmaster Aaron Franklin served us dinner one night. Yes, his brisket was indeed exceptional, but it was his peppery pinto beans that I wanted to brave the line for yet another round. I know this may sound strange but I couldn’t stop eating them! And actually, I wasn’t alone in this opinion as others agreed his beans were superb. For me, it was the beans that were worth the long wait.
Without access to a smoker or an outdoor space, I knew that I couldn’t even begin to replicate Aaron’s barbecue, but I figured his beans were probably more doable. So after dinner, I went up to Aaron and asked him how he made his addictive beans. He shrugged and said it wasn’t anything complicated—he just threw into a pot some pinto beans along with some chopped brisket and a few shakes of pinto bean spice and let it simmer for a long time.
Well, I decided it was probably his smoked meat that took his beans over the top. Yet there was certainly no reason why I couldn’t at least try to make a similar pot, especially since most of his ingredients—save for the brisket—I always have on hand in my kitchen.
As I was beginning to make my pot of beans, I recalled my mom used to make pinto beans with smoky kielbasa sausage. It wasn’t sweet like beanie wienies but was instead more like a Texan take on that Cajun favorite, red beans and rice. The heartiness of the sausage coupled with the spicy, rich beans made for a mighty fine meal. It was then I realized that my mom's beans were what Aaron’s beans had reminded me of, and explained why I loved his so much. It was time to bring this old family favorite back into my regular rotation.
Now, some people think that beans are complicated, but they're not as long as you let them slowly do their thing. This pot was no different, and after stirring together pintos with sausage, jalapeños, aromatics, and a handful of spices, I then let them hang out on the stove for a few hours they until they gently came to life. When the beans were tender and the broth rich and savory, I then finished with a few dashes of smoked paprika for a final burst of smoke. It was a perfect pot of beans.
A bowl of beans is Texas-style comfort food at its best, and these peppery beans with sausage are no different. You can present them as a side dish and they will be the hit of your barbecue, or you can ladle them into big bowls and serve with wedges of warm cornbread for a satisfying supper. And yes, you must be patient while beans slowly reveal their true nature. But it's okay because like all good things, beans are well worth the wait.
Peppery pinto beans with sausage
1 pound dried pinto beans
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or bacon grease
1 pound smoked kielbasa, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 to 4 jalapeños, seeded, stemmed, and diced (depending on how hot you want it)
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups water
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Sliced jalapeños, for serving
Rinse and sort the beans. Place in a large pot or Dutch oven, cover with two inches of water, bring the pot to a boil then turn off the heat, cover the pot, and allow the beans to soak for an hour. After an hour when the beans have almost doubled in size, drain and rinse the beans and rinse the pot.
Place the pot back on the stove and add the oil. Heat up the oil on medium-low heat. Add the sausage, and while occasionally stirring, cook until it just begins to crisp and some of the fat is rendered, about 3-5 minutes. Add to the pot the onion and jalapeños and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 more seconds. Pour in the water and deglaze the pot, scraping the bottom of the pan to incorporate any stuck bits.
Return the beans to the pot and add enough water to cover the beans by 1 inch, about 6 more cups. Stir in the cilantro, chili powder, cumin, oregano, smoked paprika, black pepper, and salt, turn the heat up to high and bring the pot to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn the heat down to low and then cook partially covered until tender, which can take anywhere from 2 hours to 3 1/2 hours, depending on the age of the beans.
Keep an eye on the beans as they cook, making sure the liquid doesn’t get too low (if it does, add about 1/4 cup more water to the pot) and gently stir every half hour or so. I also like to taste the broth after 1 1/2 hours and see if the seasonings need any adjusting. You’ll know they’re done when the broth is rich and brown with most of the vegetables dissolved, and the beans, of course, are tender.
When the beans are done to your satisfaction, taste again and adjust the seasonings—at this point I usually add a few more dashes of salt, black pepper, and smoked paprika. Serve the beans warm topped with sliced jalapeños, though if you have the time, let the beans rest overnight in the refrigerator and then reheat, as they only get better the next day
Yield: 8 servings
Note: While I haven’t tested the recipe in a slow cooker (there is no room for one in my small kitchen), I think this recipe would work well in one. To make it, I would cook the sausage, jalapeños, onions, and garlic in a skillet before adding them along with the soaked pinto beans and the rest of the ingredients.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Valentine, Texas is a squint of a town in far West Texas. If you’re heading to Marfa from El Paso, then you’ll drive through it as you head to your destination. Though if you’re not paying attention, you could very well miss it.
While Valentine is indeed small, it is large enough to have a post office. And every year people send their valentine cards to Valentine, Texas to get a special postmark. That post office, however, is the only business around. So, for instance, if you’re hungry then you’ll have to keep on driving. But that’s okay, as Marfa is only a few more miles down the road.
Now Marfa isn’t large either, but it does have a fair number of places to eat. You’ll find Mexican food, American food, Italian food, falafels, grilled cheese sandwiches, a Dairy Queen, and pizza. There’s also a quirky cafeteria, which has delicious proteins, sides, sandwiches, and homemade cookies for dessert.
The last time I was in Marfa, I ate lunch at the cafeteria, which is called Future Shark. It was a fine meal and after a week of stuffing my face with nothing but cheese, tortillas, and chili gravy, it felt good to get some fruits and vegetables (besides chips and salsa) into my system. As good as my meal was, however, I declined grabbing one of the cookies on display because I was too full.
This turned out to be a mistake. And as I drove out of town and continued on my road trip, I kept wondering if perhaps I should turn around and go back for a cookie. Well, that didn’t happen. The West Texas sky was magnificent that day and I was soon caught up in taking pictures of clouds. And the nice thing about Texas is that there is an abundance of good food so I found plenty to eat once I hit Alpine, the next town down the road.
But I kept thinking about those cookies. Fortunately, when I got back to New York, a little research lead me to a recipe for a spicy chocolate cookie by the cafeteria’s chef, Krista Steinhauer, which I found in the book “Sweet on Texas” by Denise Gee. I’m not certain if it was one of the desserts on display when I ate at the cafeteria, but I knew that I could at least bake one of her tantalizing creations at home.
In my haste to make the cookies, however, I soon realized that I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand, such as pepitas. But I did have pecans, which make for a fine substitution, and I found that the rest of the recipe was also extremely adaptable.
Are you a fan of chocolate along with a little heat? Then this spicy chocolate pecan cookie is for you. Starting with a rich cocoa base, the cookie gets additional jolts from espresso powder, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange zest, along with pinches of ground clove and cayenne for a bit of fire. And then to keep things texturally interesting, you add handfuls of oatmeal and toasted pecans, along with some chocolate chips.
Each crisp yet tender bite is rich with deep, nutty chocolate. Though speaking from experience, you might have to eat several cookies in a row to confirm that this is indeed the case. Also know that if you’re a dunker, these go extremely well with a glass of milk or a cup of creamy morning coffee.
As chocolate and valentines go together like rice and beans, what could be more appropriate than a chocolate cookie inspired by a Texas town also named after that particular saint? (Okay, admittedly its inspiration was a few miles down the road, but it’s close enough.)
You’ll want to share these spicy chocolate pecan cookies with someone you love—on Valentine’s Day or at anytime, because like love, cookies are always welcome. And if the big sky and vast, scratchy dessert of far West Texas are also in your heart, then perhaps eating a plate of these will keep you satisfied until it’s time to hit the road again.
Spicy chocolate pecan cookies (Adapted from "Sweet on Texas" by Denise Gee)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest
3/4 cup all-purpose four
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 cup rolled oats (not instant)
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup chopped roasted pecans
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease or line with parchment paper two baking sheets. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until smooth. Add the egg, vanilla, and orange zest and beat until creamy.
Whisk together the flour, cocoa power, espresso powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and cayenne. Add the dry mixture to the liquid mixture. Stir until well combined. Stir in the oats, chocolate chips, and pecans.
Working in batches, form the dough into walnut-sized balls (if it’s too soft, you can place it in the refrigerator for 10 minutes) or scoop out the dough using a 1-tablespoon cookie scoope, and then place on the prepared baking sheets 2 inches apart.
Bake one sheet at a time, for 10 to 12 minutes or until the cookies have expanded and puffed. When they come out of the oven, the cookies will still be soft but as they cool, the cookies both harden and flatten. Cool on the sheet for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to continue cooling. Repeat for the remaining cookie dough.
Yield: about 30 cookies
Note: Espresso powder is a dark, finely ground instant coffee. You can usually find espresso powder next to the regular instant coffee at the supermarket or at gourmet stores. If you can't find it, then finely ground coffee beans, preferably a dark roast, can be substituted instead.