In Arkansas and Kentucky, they tend to call it country-fried steak; in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, it’s smothered steak; but down in Mississippi and Alabama, folks generally know it as chicken-fried steak. Whatever term is used, cube steaks that are battered and fried in oil and bacon drippings and served with a creamy gravy (“smothered”) were a Southern specialty long before western pioneers and Texas cattlemen corrupted the dish’s reputation by producing meat that was not unlike whitleather in taste and texture. As anybody from Dixie knows, the secret to any superb chicken-fried steak is not only the quality of the beef and gravy but the principle of never overcooking the meat—rarely more than about two minutes on each side. Technically, the best cube steak is cut from top or bottom beef round (not chuck) and tenderized (or cubed) by running it through a tenderizing machine once or twice. When buying these steaks, I don’t hesitate a second to ask the butcher which cut of meat was used, refusing any that is not top or bottom round.
To fry the steaks, combine the milk and egg in a small bowl and whisk till well blended. In another bowl, mix the bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and cayenne pepper till well blended and transfer the mixture to a plate. Dip each steak into the liquid, coat with bread crumbs on each side, and place on a plate.
In a large heavy cast-iron skillet, heat the oil and bacon drippings over moderately high heat till quite hot. Add 2 of the steaks to the pan, cook about 2 minutes on each side or till golden brown, transfer to a plate, and keep warm. Repeat with the other 2 steaks and reserve the pan drippings.
To make the gravy, heat the bacon drippings over moderate heat, add the onion, and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Sprinkle the flour over the onion and stir 1 minute longer, scraping up any brown bits from the pan. Add the heavy cream, milk, and salt and pepper and whisk briskly till the gravy is thickened and smooth, 6 to 7 minutes.
To serve, place the steaks on individual plates and ladle gravy over each.
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