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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Is it Chicken or is it Steak?

Newly married, I found myself in Southwest Oklahoma at an Army base and I felt like I had entered another world. Not only was I getting used to living with someone who rose at 5 am for to work out, but who spoke in almost another language when referring to his day. He used words like Hooooah! (and yes, the exclamation point is part of it's spelling) to describe anything from a good day, a good run, or a nice sofa. He spoke in acronyms: CALFX, PT, AAFES, BDUs, CHAMPUS. And he didn't have subtitles.

The people there spoke oddly too. "Fixin' to" almost drove me to commit forced grammatical interventions. And "Might could" as in, "Do you think we might could go to Sonic for a Cherry Limeade" almost drove me over the edge. The y'alls were easy to get used to, but the rest of it, well, it took me forever to get it and I never did completely fit in. They wore Ropers, which I thought were corrective shoes until I saw a whole store of them, the belt buckles were sometimes bigger than hubcaps, and they fried everything. Everything. EVERYTHING.

I loved it there. Perhaps it was because I was a newlywed, but Lawton was where I finished college, made our first home, purchased our first house, bought our first dogs, and had my first job as a registered nurse. And the people there had hearts as big as the horizon. In the military, there isn't that stiff separation that seems to keep us from getting to know our neighbors or casual acquaintances better. You are fast friends with deep relationships that develop almost instantly. It has to be something to do with knowing that your husband or neighbor might get deployed or give up his life in service to the country or that you might get moved to another post soon. It was easy to make friends and we were always busy.

I remember distinctly the first time I had authentic Oklahoma cuisine. When asking some of my native Oklahoman friends where I should go, they indicated a mom and pop restaurant that I think was called Calico Country or Calico Corner, maybe it was Calico Cowboy. I don't remember. We sat at a vinyl upholstered booth and perused the large menus. It was an amazing array of artery blocking cuisine. They even fried the corn on the cob, which of course we had to order just to see it. I noted that the menu touted the specialty of the house to be chicken fried steak. Having never heard of it, I asked the waitress for a description. She had just approached the table with, "Are you fixin' to order?" while pulling a pencil out of some amazingly huge hair (which was another regional feat, considering that the wind of the area could severely rearrange said hairstyles). Tapping her pencil on her order pad, she tried as best as she could to explain it to me. "Well, I guess since it's the house specialty, I'll take it," I said. And since it came with two sides, I tried the above mentioned corn on the cob and something called okrah which I hoped wasn't a misspelling of the famous talk show host.
My plate came and it was a sea of white, peppery gravy. "Made with real cream," our big haired waitress raved. I didn't see anything that remotely resembled meat, but I was assured it was there. Time to dig in to reveal the great mystery. So, was it chicken or steak? Looking back, it's almost comical that I couldn't figure this out just from it's title. Of course it was steak, battered like fried chicken and presumably fried just as hard and with very little mercy. Pretty much everything on the plate tasted of the rich, peppery gravy. Mercifully, they had included the fried okrah, which was like tasteless green mush in the same batter as the steak, and the fried corn on the cob, which tasted just like it sounds, on separate plates safe from the reaches of the gravy. I remember distinctly that when we left the restaurant that my heart and my stomach felt heavy. I mean, like, seriously heavy, in need of, perhaps a cardiac care unit or about two days on a treadmill. This was food one just couldn't jump into, you had to work your way up to it or be raised eating it, and I just didn't think I was going to be able to attempt that meal again. I'm certain that there were ranchers, truckers, and construction workers that could routinely polish off that meal. I also knew that I didn't come near to their size nor did I work off the number of calories that they did.

Sadly, from that point on, though, this was a meal that I craved. So much so, that we drove to a supposed church of the chicken fried up in Oklahoma City about once a month just to savor their version of it, which was amazing. They didn't fry their corn on the cob up there, but they're chicken fried steak beat the pants off any other version we tried.

We ate a lot of good stuff in Oklahoma and all of it was big. We took all of our out of state visitors to a place called the Meers Store for hamburgers as big as your head. Seriously, they were plate sized and cut into quarters so you could pick it up to eat. We ate at the Old Plantation where the steaks fell off the sides of the plates. The barbecue joint we went to never served less than a full pound of meat and I can't imagine the heart attack inducing sides were much healthier. When I look back on these years in OK, I see some bad habits starting--mostly over sized portions that since we were young and very active didn't creep up on us and eating out of boredom or for entertainment. Very dangerous activities for those of us genetically pre-programmed for fatness.

I don't know why I started craving chicken fried steak. I don't think I've ever attempted to make it before and I don't think I've had it since leaving Oklahoma (maybe I OD'd there). For some reason, though, I started thinking about it again and it took me a while to figure out how to make a version of it that would fit in with our healthy lifestyle. Here's my version. If you're looking for fried in lard and served with a side of cream, this isn't it, but it's a pretty good substitute. I served it with fresh garden beans, sliced tomatoes, rough smashed new potatoes, and corn on the cob (not fried). I hope you enjoy.
Chicken Fried Steak with Pan Gravy
6 WW Points
1 pound lean cube steak-- 4 four ounce pieces.
1 egg beaten with about 2 TB of water
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
3 TB water
2 TB whole wheat flour
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup skim milk

Beat egg and water together on a large plate. Combine garlic powder, salt, pepper, and flour on another plate, mix well to combine. Dredge in flour and shake off excess; dip in egg and again in flour. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Spray with nonstick cooking spray. Brown both sides of meat, turning only once. Reduce heat to low. Cook for 10-15 minutes or until juices run clear. Remove steak to a clean plate and place in a warm oven to keep hot. Add 3 TB water to skillet and simmer for a few minutes, whisking up brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add flour to drippings and whisk until light brown, stir in water and milk, whisking until thickened into a gravy. Add more water if gravy is too thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve steaks with a drizzle of gravy.

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Taking a little time to play with words, to play with food, and just to play!