Chicken Fried Steak: A journey.

I was probably the only 14 year old girl obsessed with chicken fried steak.

I’d just seen a stage production of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a play based on a book of the same name by Robert Fulghum. Fulghum is a writer and Unitarian Universalist minister. His writing reminds me of Garrison Keillor but a little less folky and more “dad”.

It’s a sweet book full of fun G-rated antidotes that were a total revelation to me as a kid. Seinfeld had given me a solid introduction to observational humor, but this was the first time I’d seen it applied with storytelling. On a family trip around this time, I would discover in my grandmother’s guest room a treasure trove of old Reader’s Digests. Lauren age 14 dug in and read for hours. “Life in These United States” and “Humor In Uniform” would further bolster my desire to live life to the fullest if only to capture quirky, slice of life moments like this. I bought a copy of Fulghum’s book as soon as I could.

Among the reflections on family and life, Fulghum includes an essay on the food item chicken fried steak.

I had never heard of chicken fried steak. Initially, it seemed wholly ridiculous. Here you were taking not-chicken and breading and frying it like chicken (even though a piece of cow was inside). Baffling. Then you nestle it into a side of mashed potatoes and smother the whole thing with gravy. And it’s not the brown stuff you’ve known your whole life that just tastes like beef bouillon lumps. Oh no. This is something called country gravy. White with big black flecks.

I was fascinated. The world was so much bigger now. I had to have it.

At this time in my youth, I traveled quite a bit with my high school’s theatre group. One night we stopped at a roadside diner to grab dinner. I didn’t eat out much so seeing it on the menu was a shock. Like seeing a celebrity.

“OH MY GOSH. You have chicken fried steak?!” I squealed, overly excited.

“Uh yeah.” said the surely hundred-year-old chain smoker waitress named Gladys.

I ordered it. I marveled at it when it came. It looked like they’d made it up exactly like the one pictured on the menu. I tried to explain to my tablemates why this was important and who Robert Fulghum was. They didn’t get it.

Moment of truth. I tried it. It… wasn’t great.

The steak was tough and the gravy didn’t really taste like much of anything. The whole thing was a disappointment.

Then I remembered: Robert Fulghum didn’t eat his favorite chicken fried steak on the first try! His piece in the book is about his journey to find the perfect chicken fried steak. There’s a lot of variety in chicken fried steak and a lot of nuance. Does the gravy have sausage in it? Is it over peppered? Is it made from pan scrapings? Is the cube steak properly tenderized? Are the potatoes smooth or sort of smashed? You know. Nuance. Chicken fried nuance. You can see why it was a journey.

I needed a chicken fried journey of my own.

I tried it everywhere I went. If it was on the menu, I was giving it a shot. I soon moved to Texas, multiplying my chicken fried options almost exponentially.

I had a few I liked a lot. I had some really terrible ones. But a few years back I started buying cube steak and making my own at home. I had an egg station and a flour station and a whole system for frying them so the breading stayed on. I played around with the gravy. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. So, I think after all these years and many, many steaks… My favorite chicken fried steak might just be my own.

Reverend Fulghum, if you’re ever in my neighborhood, you’re welcome to a bite.

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Bacon Onion Havarti Crostinis

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Reminder: I’m still not a food blogger, but I love food.

Many moons ago, I found this recipe and made these as my go to appetizers for parties. Somewhere along the way I offered to pass the recipe along to a friend and on googling it couldn’t find the original recipe! Shame!

The only answer was of course to use my brand (hashtag my brand) to share it with the masses. Behold, my…

Bacon Onion Havarti Crostinis

-One small baguette, sliced into half inch slices (or buy the bag of pre-sliced baguette slices, ain’t no one gunna judge you)
-A chunk of havarti cheese (this I wouldn’t buy pre-sliced since it’s pretty thin)
-One package of bacon
-A third of an onion

There’s a holy trinity quartet of flavors here. Behold: my crude illustration.

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Here you have the salty, smoked flavor of bacon married with the sweet flavor of caramelized onions, and the creamy flavor of havarti… All balanced on the perfect delivery system that is sliced bread. The perfect food.

Now: how to crostini!

1. Pre-heat your oven to 400°.

2. If you didn’t buy pre-sliced baguette, go ahead and slice that guy up.

3. Put the baguette slices on a cookie sheet.

4. Cook up your bacon to your liking, and set it to the side.

5. While the bacon cooks, cut up your onion into strips. I made mine about a third of an inch thick and around two inches long. No need to be exact, just find this makes them a good size.

6. Set your pan to a medium heat and put in approximately a couple teaspoons of oil (I used olive) and a good chunk of butter. Melt!

7. Throw the onions in and keep an eye on them. I tend to bounce back and forth from tending bacon to onions at this point.

8. As onions brown, put them in a bowl. If you whoopsie and burn them, just start the onions over. If they’re starting to look a little done on one side and not the other, flip them but also carefully add a teaspoon of water to the pan.

9. Now take out your havarti and start to cut them into half inch thick chunks that will cover the bread slices.

8. Take the onion and put that on top of the cheese. I usually use tongs for this part since they’re buttery.

9. Throw the crostinis in the oven for about five minutes… just looking enough to melt the cheese.

10. Cut your now cooled bacon into approximately bread shaped pieces.

11. Once the cheese is starting to melt, take them out and carefully top the crostinis with the bacon. I sort of snuggle the bacon into the cheese to anchor it in.

12. Pop them in for a few more minutes, just to warm up the bacon.

YOU DID IT. NOW YOU HAVE BITE SIZED DELICIOUSNESS. You’re welcome, internet.

Tea and monks: my visit to St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery

One of my favorite things I’ve ever written was a review of a restaurant. Yes, maybe it has something to do with food. Yes, I could talk about food forever. But I think there’s something wonderful about capturing an experience. A snapshot that’s more than a photo. The taste and smells and events all build a scene… I’d like to think my food reviews make me a better fiction writer, too. They’re helping me visualize better.

This review, dear reader, is a place you may recall. I talked about this place last year: the restaurant inside St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery.

Yelp made it one of their reviews of the day in May. It makes me happy to have tickled people with a more involved review. It’s definitely more elaborate than “service was terrible, we’ll never come back”.

Enjoy. Maybe you can come visit yourself!

Nestled in the quaint neighborhood streets of Harper Woods, among the homes and schools, is a luncheon experience you wouldn’t expect. When at the gates before The Royal Eagle Restaurant, you’re greeted by a sign requesting no cell phones, no shorts, skirts, or sleeveless tops, and no gum chewing. Upon entering, you will quickly realize you have left the line of small mid century homes behind you and stepped into the tranquil and ornate surroundings of St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery. This is where The Royal Eagle restaurant calls home. Twice a week, the parishioners open their doors for a midday Russian tea luncheon. The luncheon is one of only two limited weekly offerings the monastery has; the other being a dinner on Thursday nights, currently with a six week wait. The tea service does not have quite the waitlist, but is only served Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 11 p.m. to 2 p.m. with reservations required. I was intrigued by the whole concept and the juxtaposition of this restaurant inside a monastery inside a neighborhood, so I ventured in.

I was greeted by friendly waitstaff in traditional garb. Seated quickly, I was given a brief introduction to the restaurant, the menu of teas, and the set luncheon menu. The atmosphere is initially peaceful, though the conversation of the other patrons was lively; a cacophony of chitchat and sipped tea. The decor might be a turnoff for some, as it is reminiscent of the nicest room in someone’s Russian grandmother’s house. The tea selection is diverse, served quickly, and at the perfect temperature. I enjoyed a lavender earl grey tea while I waited for the first course, which was borscht. Borscht, for the uninitiated, is a soup featuring beets. It was delicious with delicate flavors. The beets were not overwhelming, and the fresh dill complimented the earthy tones in the dish.

The next round was several small tea sandwiches, featuring brie cheese, smoked salmon, black forest ham, and cucumber, of course. The brie was to be topped with a cranberry walnut sauce, but after a conversation with the waitress, she quickly accommodated me with those sandwiches sans nuts. Next, the main dish of the lunch, a green salad with a raspberry vinaigrette on the side of baked chicken on a stick in cream sauce. While the name lacked some flair, the chicken was moist and flavorful. The portions were modest, so some coming with an appetite would perhaps expect more.

Initially my server explained that dessert was a surprise, but considering my nut allergy, the surprise was quickly revealed: a peanut butter brownie and blueberry scone. Since my allergy wasn’t to peanuts, I proceeded. The scone wasn’t too dry or crumbly and was a perfect companion for tea. The brownie was likely the best brownie I have consumed to date. If you enjoy a fudgy brownie, with peanut butter frosting that actually tastes of peanut, you are in for a treat.

I definitely went into The Royal Eagle with some silly misconceptions in mind. They accept credit cards, which surprised me for some reason. They proudly display their, “People love us on Yelp!” sticker. And an overturned teaspoon revealed the answer to an age old question: yes, monks do shop at Ikea. While the decor may be more traditional, there is nothing dated or out of touch with the restaurant’s offerings. It delivers on making the lunch tea service a really special and high quality dining experience. I would recommend to give them a try, if this fine luncheon sounds like it would be your cup of tea.

I’m not ready for this cranberry jelly.

cranberry

At Thanksgiving we never ate Ocean Spray cranberry “sauce” from a can.

A good half of you, by my entirely unscientific polling, are gasping dramatically and clutching your pearls right now. Calm down. I lived a deprived childhood! I didn’t see the Back To the Future films until I was in my late 20s. We didn’t grow up with extended family, so I didn’t have a weird aunt until I got married. I didn’t even know Canada existed until I moved to Texas. Everyone thought that’s where my accent was from. Like I said – totally deprived.

This tradition was something I was unaware of. I knew of the evil of jello and it’s ilk. Straddling the line of solid and liquid, never having to decide on one or the other. I’d like to speak to those forms directly now: MAKE UP YOUR MIND. EVEN THE ROTTING PUMPKINS ON MY FRONT PORCH HAVE TO DECIDE EVENTUALLY. DO IT.

(Maybe I shouldn’t evoke images of decomposing organic material while trying to talk food the day after gluttony’s holiday, but I am a rebel.)

For those who may be unaware as I was, this holiday tradition marries the overindulgence of the proteins and carbohydrates at the Thanksgiving feast with the bitter, angry ire of cranberries served the only way that science was able to make them palatable for the masses: as a gelatinous tube.

Behold.

thesauce

That’s it. A time honored tradition for many, this solid-ish “sauce” is served just like that. Not mixed into anything. Not melted down. A freestanding monument to corn syrup, can to plate. It is generally served in slices. When asked if you mash it, I was met with shrieking. It is pictured in a friend’s sauce server from the 1950s, passed down to him because of his devotion to this strange side dish/condiment/thing.

Having grown up without this tradition, I’ve never eaten it before. So for the sake of science, journalism, and all that is holy, I tried some.

And it was… terrible. It’s just a nondescript tart mass that is really only defined by it’s texture: jelly, but grainy. After a single bite I declared the experiment over and my husband happily gobbled up the remains.

The moral of this culinary adventure? Traditions are weird. I’m going to stick to the homemade cranberry sauce from the vulgar-yet-delightful Thug Kitchen. It looks like cranberries and tastes like them too, no wiggle required. Keep that in mind for next year.

I have a complicated relationship with food.

classy eating

I love food. The photo above is me at a chinese buffet in 2005. You see, my friends would play a game where everyone would put their finished plates in front of me so when the waitstaff went to clear the table, it’d look like I was the girl who tore through seven plates of food. HA HA HA ohhh, friends are fun.

But yes. I love food. It sometimes does not love me back. This has been the case as I’ve stumbled into discovering my various food allergies.

Almonds were the first. I’d ordered almond chicken at a chinese restaurant. It was moderately tasty but I soon felt dizzy and sleepy. The sleepy I chocked up to eating a heavy meal, and the dizzy I was sure had resulted from the springy seat I was in at the restaurant. It wasn’t until I ate the leftovers the next day and it happened again that my now-husband became suspicious.

“Do you have any allergies?”

“What? To like… food? That would be TERRIBLE.”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s the only thing that I can think of.”

“No! Well, I mean, coconut makes me sick and my mouth itchy.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’m lactose intolerant.”

“UH HUH.”

“But yeah, no allergies!”

He can always figure out who the murderer is in movies before me, too. Sees the twist miles away. Clever duck.

This pattern would slowly come up time and time again as I encountered foods that bothered me. Once we made the adult decision to buy a 5 pound bag of pistachios at Costco and proceeded to eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They were DELICIOUS. On about day three, I noticed I seemed to be itchy. And covered in splotches.

“Nick, babe?”

“Yeah?”

(While shelling and eating pistachios.) “Have we changed laundry detergents lately?”

(Also eating pistachios.) “No. Why?”

“My skin is all itchy and unhappy. Maybe a mosquito got in? Are you bit?”

“Nope. That’s weird.”

“Huh. …god, these are delicious.”

“I KNOW RIGHT?”

A few hours later he whipped around in his computer chair and exclaimed, “THE PISTACHIOS!”

I recognize I am lucky in many ways. These allergies are not severe. Just enough to be inconvenient. I still have foods I can eat. But it’s still always a fun surprise to find out I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t have.

Working at the candy store, I was building a candy cake with the tasty taffy Bit-O-Honey. I might have been implementing the “two for you, one for me” method as I built the cake, sampling those whose wrappers were slightly marred in someway. I’d never had a Bit-O-Honey before, but they are delicious. The taffy is very simple: honey, almonds, coconut oil, and a few other random ingredients. YES. I KNOW YOU KNOW WHAT’S COMING. I was unaware at the time. It’s called Bit-O-HONEY, not Bit-O-Honey-and-Dash-of-Nut-Products. I genuinely just thought it was just honey taffy. Until my friend and coworker Rachel came up to me.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

“Making a cake- say, have you HAD Bit-O-Honey? These are DELICIOUS!”

The rest of the conversation you know at this point. A baby shower I visited had a similar result when I thought I was eating a salad with sunflower seeds. I overheard two coworkers talking about it.

CW1: “This salad is delicious, what is in it?”

CW2: “Oh… [blah blah blah] almonds-”

Me: “I HAVE TO GO NOW.”

It’s weird, because Benadryl, if you’ve ever taken it, just makes you kind of dizzy and sleepy, so I’m often right back where I started. But at least I get a nap out of the deal. I haven’t found anymore food allergies. I just play things pretty safe. I just find it so funny that I’m juuust allergic enough to where it’s annoying. They say your allergies shift every seven years. Maybe I’ll give these nuts another shot? Or maybe not. I suppose I do still have peanuts and peanut butter. FUN FACT: the peanut is actually a legume (bean) and I am not allergic to it! …Except I have to limit my protein intake now because of kidney stones, which is a WHOLE other thing.

My recommendation, dear reader? Don’t turn 30. The whole thing is a sham.