Flash in the Pan 

The shwag-fried steak-off

“It’s a method for making shwaggy cuts of meat taste good,” explained my opponent, whom I’ll call the Shwagmaster. (Shwag, I should point out, is slang for crap—the opposite of quality.) The Shwagmaster contends there’s no reason to impose quality ingredients on a recipe the entire purpose of which is to make shwag edible—indeed, where such might even upset a certain aesthetic balance. This is harder for me to swallow than a tub of Cheez Whiz, because I believe your finished product can only be as good as your raw ingredients. We had what has to be considered a conflict of ideologies.

“We don’t want good,” the Shwagmaster explained. “We want chicken-fried steak.”

An archetype of American cuisine, epitomizing redneck, rural, down-home, or otherwise white-bread fare, chicken-fried steak is something like a cross between fried chicken and biscuits and gravy, at home in greasy spoons and truck stops from Smackover, Ark., to Sioux Falls, S.D.

But to the Shwagmaster, a Texan bred and spread, eating chicken-fried steak is more a homecoming than Oedipus ever dreamed of. It’s the flavor, the texture, the shwagginess of home. It’s from this position of authenticity that he takes, deservedly or not, his authority to preach the Gospel of Chicken-Fried Steak. Thing is, I wasn’t buying his shwag theory of authentic cuisine.

Instead, I went to the hippy-elitist store and bought some cream-of-the-crop ingredients: local beef, free-range eggs, and Japanese panko flakes.

That’s right, panko flakes, also known as Japanese bread crumbs. My recipe, which I found on epicurious.com, called for an Asian-style soy sauce-based marinade. The meat is dredged in beaten egg, coated in panko, then deep-fried and served with a 50/50 mix of mustard and mayonnaise for a dipping sauce.

That evening, I would bring the fixings for my chicken-fried steak to the agreed-upon location, where we would enact our Chicken-Fried Steak-Off.

As the hour drew near I realized that without gravy, there was no way the Shwagmaster would allow my recipe to even qualify. So to cover my bases I decided to also prepare a chicken-fried steak more true to its roots.

And what better root than fried chicken? I figured if chicken-fried steak is merely steak that’s fried like chicken, then I could simply apply a fried chicken recipe to steak. I recalled a fried chicken dinner I made for a date once…I’d soaked the chicken in beer batter all night long the night before, and if I could score half as many points at the Chicken-Fried Steak-Off as I did with my fried chicken, I’d spank that Shwagmaster all the way back to El Paso.

So what if chicken-fried steak may have been the product of German immigrants importing weiner schnitzel to Texas in the mid-1800s? Beer-battered chicken-fried steak has a culturally appropriate ring to it. But since I couldn’t remember my special fried-chicken recipe, I used a beer-battered halibut recipe I learned in Alaska, which called for mixing equal parts pancake mix and beer (Alaskan Amber), and seasoning with salt, pepper and dill. You dip the meat in this batter, coat it in panko flakes—yes, more panko flakes!—and fry.

With my meat-tenderizing hammer I pounded pieces of local organic beef top round and elk chuck steak. The meat gets impressively flat and wide when you pound it. I subjected each type of pounded meat to each of the above treatments.

The Shwagmaster’s ingredients came from a chain supermarket (like SafeShwag or AlbertShwags) and consisted of store-brand flour, milk, peanut oil, eggs and cube steak (“Price Reduced for Quick Sale!”).

Following a recipe from A.D. Livingston’s Skillet Cooking for Camp and Kitchen, the Shwagmaster sprinkled his meat with salt and pepper on both sides. Then he beat his meat with the side of a plate. (And you thought panko flakes were weird.) After whisking together a mixture of egg and milk, he dredged the meat in flour. Then he dipped the pieces in the egg mixture before dragging them back through the flour for a final coat before frying them in half an inch of hot peanut oil in a cast iron skillet. They emerged an appetizing hue of golden brown.

“The color of my youth,” sighed the Shwagmaster.

He went on to make what has to be considered a truly bland batch of gravy from flour, milk, leftover fry oil and salt and pepper.

Strangely, it was that shwag-steak, drenched in the blandest gravy, that I reached for more than my own preparations. As a taste sensation, the Shwag-steak really worked. As the only true chicken-fried steak in the kitchen, it won.

Yes, once again I had missed the point entirely. Even my beer-battered dish wasn’t chicken-fried steak. (Without gravy, the Shwagmaster maintains, nothing really is.)

But the next morning my leftovers, aged overnight in the fried beer batter, were extraordinary—especially the elk. This battle isn’t over yet, folks. Ha! It hasn’t yet begun, and I’m circling in on his weakness: the gravy. I’d say more but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest on this one.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: A saucy rejoinder

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

I’m hardly God’s gift to the kitchen, but I make a pretty good chicken-fried steak. I use only the shwaggiest ingredients, as required, and plus I’m from Texas. So when the steak comes out of the hot oil it’s perfectly crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and ready for a nice pour of good ole milk gravy.

Only problem is, my gravy is so bland it makes Wonder Bread seem spicy by comparison.

All I do is I take a few spoonfuls of fry oil, heat it in a pan with flour, add milk, salt, and pepper like my recipe says, but the gravy is bland. I still serve it on my chicken-fried steak, as is required, and it’s the better for it. But I want a better gravy. Any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.
—Gravy in Training (not my real name)

A: Dear Gravy Trainer,

I think instead of spooning fry oil into a separate pan, you should try using the steak-frying pan itself, which has all kinds of meaty particles stuck to the bottom. Using the same pan allows you to incorporate those goodies, called fond, into the gravy, where they belong.

Also, consider the advice of your fellow Texan Luci Brieger, whose grandmother happened to make the best chicken-fried steak in the world.

“I don’t remember exactly what she did,” Brieger admits, “but she would be boiling potatoes for mashed potatoes—as is required—and she’d mix some of the potato water into the gravy to thicken it. Then, after mixing it all up, she’d bake the gravy in the oven. You couldn’t get enough of it.”

It might not be a road map, but at least it points you in the right direction. And in a pinch, the 50/50 mayo/mustard sauce mentioned above is a good option as well—though Texans may disagree.

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