First Run at Chicken-Fried Steak

I spent some time in Texas recently at a conference for work, and on our last night there we ate at Horseshoe Hill in Fort Worth. It’s owned by Chef Grady Spears, and specializes in chicken-fried steak. In Texas, chicken-fried steak is a religion, and Spears is the high priest.

Prior to that night I had only had CFS as a sandwich patty from food service at the hospital where I volunteered as a teenager. It had been deep fried from frozen, I suspect, and tasted about like you would imagine. I had always enjoyed hand-made versions of CFS’ little sibling, the breaded pork tenderloin, over the years, and figured Spears’ offering would be sort of the beef equivalent. I had no idea that it would be a revelation.

Chicken-Fried Steak at HHThe meal, from start to finish, was amazing. Several of us around the table enjoyed appetizers, including some incredible fried okra and Rocky Mountain Oysters (hard pass from me on those). There was also plenty of cold Shiner Bock consumed.

I ordered my entrée “The Cowboy Way,” served with mashed potatoes, black pepper gravy and a grilled green onion. The very first fork full set my taste buds spinning. For such simple ingredients, the taste was dumbfounding. With the crunchy, golden crust, rich and slightly toothsome beef, and that silky gravy with the peppery bite – it was easy to understand why Chef Spears’ version of this classic has become its undisputed standard.

I am a large man with a huge appetite, and I found it impossible to finish the gargantuan portion in one sitting. Luckily the Marriott where we were lodged provided a small refrigerator in the room, and my breakfast plan for the next morning. :)

Friends at Horseshoe Hill

Some of the group opted for dessert. I couldn’t eat another bite, but was tempted by another Southern classic, banana pudding.

Off and on during the evening, a handsome man with a warm smile wearing a ballcap, a neatly-trimmed beard and an untucked shirt would pop into the room, quickly attend something, and then disappear. My boss, Stena, referred to him as “random guy.” As we were leaving, he came in again, fussed with something briefly, laughed and nodded at Stena’s greeting, and then followed us out to take a group photo. We realized only later that he was Chef Spears, which is sort of like not realizing until later that Nolan Ryan was taking your picture outside Arlington Stadium. He was friendly, unassuming and gracious.

In the week since my return from the trip, the memory of that meal has become an obsession. I was able to find Chef Spears’ recipe on the Texas Monthly site, and decided to do my best to replicate it at home. The prospects were a bit daunting, since I very rarely fry anything. Sauté, yes, but not fry. So I looked at this as an opportunity to add another skill to my culinary bag of tricks.

For a first attempt, it didn’t turn out badly. The gravy was perfect. Claudia loved the grilled onions, remarking that they reminded her of onion rings. The flavor of the steaks was incredible. I think that the cuts (top sirloin pan steaks) could have used just a bit more of the mallet. It’s not that they were tough, but some bites were on the chewy side of toothsome.

The breading is where I could really use some work. My guess is that I didn’t get the temperature of the oil quite right. The first steak I cooked was fairly blackened, so I pulled back the heat and must have overcompensated. The ones we ate had a little too much saturation for my taste.

If I were independently wealthy, I would be on the phone trying to contact the chef right now, begging him to let me come work in his establishment and watch what they do for a few weeks. As it is, I’ll have to be content to experiment with more breaded-and-fried things until I figure out how to do it right.

Memorial Day Weekend 2016

Memorial Day is the day when Americans honor the fallen, and it’s also the unofficial beginning of Summer here. This year, as usual at our house, it was a weekend of cooking outside.

On Friday evening, we had some friends over and I cooked New York Strip steaks, baked potatoes and roasted asparagus on the Weber Genesis. For an appetizer, I baked a wheel of Brie with herbs and a wedge of Havarti with Blackberry Jam on a cedar plank.

Saturday we took a break from cooking and cleared out some of the delicious leftovers. Sunday morning, we drove down to Friends Creek Cemetery where my parents are buried, leaving some flowers. It was nice to see that the place is still well kept.

Sunday afternoon Claudia’s folks joined us for dinner. I used the rotisserie on the Weber Kettle for the first time this year to roast a chicken. It turned out tasty and perfect, with lots of hickory smoke flavor. The drip pan potatoes were a hit, as always, and I also grilled some roastin’ ears on the Genesis.

Monday, it was cowboy cooking. First, there was my wife’s favorite baked beans from her Aunt Nancy’s recipe. Wolfe Pit cole slaw and Hidden Valley potato wedges cooked on the plancha rounded out the side dishes. The more I cook on the plancha, the more I like it. It adds a crispy crust to everything from potatoes to burgers, and it helps to hold the heat steady on the Genesis which is great when you’re using it as an oven.

The star of the show was Grownup Sloppy Joes from Weber’s Big Book of Grilling by Jamie Purviance. This time, I seared then smoked the roast with Cherry and Hickory on the Kettle, and did the braising in a Lodge cast iron dutch oven over on the Genesis.

By the time everything was finished, I’d been on my feet all day and was pretty beat, but a nice glass of Petite Sirah from Lodi served as a fine restorative. The bold flavor was a perfect match to all the smoke and char of the barbecue. The folks joined us again and we had a lovely time. We’d been expecting my sons to join us as well, but they weren’t able to make it. I wish I could have emailed the smoky smell of the patio while the roast was on the Kettle.

The only dish from the entire weekend that needs work is the cole slaw. We eventually added some additional cider vinegar and sugar, because it ended up a little flat and salty tasting. I doubt that it’s the fault of the recipe. I cut it in half, and may have screwed up the proportions along the way.

It’s one of the joys of life to turn out a decent meal to share with people you love, and cooking outdoors is a feast for the senses from start to finish. I can’t think of any way I’d rather spend a long weekend.