Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Why City Chicken has No Chicken: A New Look at a Century-Old Recipe by Cleo Coyle

Behold the "mock drumstick" of our (baked not fried)
City Chicken, smothered in a delicious pan gravy.
A century-old recipe bringing comfort food joy...

One hundred years ago, when you couldn't afford real chicken, "City Chicken" was a tasty alternative, a way to enjoy mock fried chicken drumsticks using meat scraps (pork, beef, veal) from the butcher. 

Different regions have their own take on this dish. Some deep fry the mock drumsticks, others have no breading. My 
husband's mother prepared it, "Pittsburgh style"breaded, sautéed, baked, and served with pan gravy, which is the very recipe I'm sharing with you today. 

Our longtime followers may recall my sharing this recipe a few years ago. I thought it would be fun to share again for our new followers and readers. AND since my husband (and partner in crime writing) has been craving it lately, I thought it was about time I aided and abetted his desire to...

Eat with joy!

~ Cleo

Cleo Coyle has a partner in 
crime writing—her husband. 
Learn about their books
by clicking here and here.
Cleo Coyle's
City Chicken

So why is it called City Chicken?

During the Depression, when this mock chicken dish really took off, fatty trimmings and meat scraps of pork, beef, and veal were less expensive than chicken, especially in urban areas that were far from poultry farms. In other words, city-dwellers were the ones making it because chicken was too expensive to eat.

And how does it taste?

Incredibly good. Marc and I grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, where the dish has been popular for years. Wednesdays were City Chicken night at my husband's house, where his mom served her hearty mock drumsticks with string beans and mashed potatoes—to soak up all that good pan gravy. 

For years, many of the grocery stores in the Pittsburgh area sold "City Chicken" packs of pork pieces with skewers included. Wikipedia's entry on City Chicken even features a picture of one of these Pittsburgh packs. (See Wiki photo at left.)

Here in New York, where we've lived for decades, we've never seen "City Chicken" packs—ironic since it's the biggest city in the country! But, hey, that's okay. Marc and I don’t need those packs. And neither do you. Just look for packages of boneless pork and/or veal pieces (usually marked for stew, see my pictures below), follow our recipe, and you’re all set to make your very own Pittsburgh-style comfort food.

To download a PDF copy 
of this retro recipe that
you can print, save, 
or share, click here.

Cleo Coyle's
City Chicken Recipe

Makes six servings

- 6 six-inch wooden skewers (in a pinch, simply cut down longer skewers)

- 3 pounds of meat cubes (we use):
    1-½ pounds boneless pork pieces (or "stew meat") +
    1-½ pounds veal pieces (or "stew meat")

- 1 cup all-purpose flour

- 1 cup seasoned bread 
crumbs (we use Italian seasoned)

- 2 large eggs (beaten with fork)

- 1 tablespoon milk (or water) to make the "egg wash" for breading

- 1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped 

- 1/4 cup vegetable oil 

- 2 Tablespoons butter 

- 2/3 cup chicken or veg stock

- Salt and pepper to taste

- 1 tablespoon (or so) Wondra flour or cornstarch


Note: If you bought "stew meat" packages as shown above, you should be ready to go. If you can't find stew meat, purchase pork loin chops and/or veal steaks and cut them into small pieces ( about 1- to 1-1/2 inches in size). 

Step 1: Prepare the Meat - Arrange the meat pieces on each of the six skewers. If using more than one type, alternate them (pork, veal, pork, veal, etc...) Fit the pieces together tightly to create a mock chicken drumstick. Dredge each of the mock drumsticks in flour, then in the egg wash (2 eggs beaten with 1 T. milk or water), and finally coat generously with the seasoned bread crumbs.

Step 2: Brown the meat – Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. While oven is heating, place the vegetable oil in a large oven-proof skillet over medium high heat. When this shallow oil is hot enough to ripple, add 1 tablespoon of butter and allow it to melt. Sauté the mock drumsticks about five minutes in the hot oil, turning often, until the outsides are golden brown. Remove the mock drumsticks from the pan and set them aside on a holding plate. Turn the heat to low.

Step 3: Sauté the onions – Add the chopped onion to the hot oil, along with about 1 tablespoon butter. Cook and stir over the low heat until the onions are brown, about five minutes. Now return the mock drumsticks to the pan (along with any drippings that may have accumulated on the holding plate). Cook them only for another minute or two.

Step 4: Bake in the oven – Add ½ cup chicken or vegetable stock to the skillet, cover with a lid, and bake in the preheated oven for about 50 minutes, or until the meat is tender. 

Step 5: Make the gravy - The onions and stock create a nice gravy as the meat cooks. While you can spoon this thin gravy over the mock drumsticks as is, we prefer to thicken it. To do this, you'll need to remove all of the mock drumsticks from the pan while leaving the liquid in there...

Over low heat, whisk the Wondra flour (or cornstarch) into the liquid. If you like, you can stir a bit of butter into the gravy for richness, as well, although it's not a necessity. Simmer for a minute or two, whisking in more flour or cornstarch until the gravy thickens to your liking. Then plate the mock drumsticks, spoon the gravy over them, as shown, and...

Eat (and read) with joy!

~ Cleo Coyle

New York Times bestselling author of  
The Coffeehouse Mysteries

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  1. Back when "A chicken in every pot" was an impressive promise.
    These do sound yummy.
    Do you remove the skewer before serving or as you eat?

    1. It is indeed yummy, a fantastic retro comfort food. As for the skewer, that's the diner's choice. You can slide the meat off or pick it up and eat it like a piece of fried chicken.

      Marc and I like to smother it in that savory pan gravy, so we usually opt for sliding the skewer out and eating our City Chicken with knife and fork. To slide out the six-inch skewer, simply brace your fork tines against meat and pull on the long end. Because of the breading and cooking, the "mock chicken drumstick" stays together, even without the skewer.

      Thank you kindly for dropping by the "Kitchen," Libby, have a delicious week!

      Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      “Where coffee and crime are always brewing…”
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  2. The only time I've ever had city chicken (and it had a different nickname) was in college in the cafeteria. But this sounds yummy. I will have to try it!

    1. It's a fun retro dinner, Peg, great history to the dish. In the Pittsburgh area, I can tell you, many people have fond memories of it.

      Marc's mother used to pour the extra pan gravy over a side of mashed potatoes, but many Eastern European families in our area served it over a side of "Halusky" (fried cabbage and noodles). Now that's a stick-to-the ribs dinner!

      ~ Cleo
      Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      “Where coffee and crime are always brewing…”
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  3. I can remember my mother serving city chicken when we were kids. I'm pretty sure she bought it at the butcher shop and it was breaded. I haven't heard of it in years, I think I will give it a try. Thanks for the recipe.

    1. Nice memory of your mom making it. This was a great budget dish for families with butchers happy to sell their trimmings and "stew meat" for far less than chops and fillets. These days, I think it's great culinary fun to create mock fried chicken drumsticks. The pan gravy is mighty tasty, too!

      Thanks for dropping by the Kitchen, Dianne, and if you give the recipe a try, I hope it brings back good memories.

      ~ Cleo
      Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      “Where coffee and crime are always brewing…”
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  4. My mom made that regularly when I was a kid. I can't remember now when we quit having it. I hadn't even thought of it in years.

  5. Wow, did this bring back memories. Early in our marriage we lived "in town" with a small grocery/butcher shop within walking distance. I would put the youngest in the stroller and we'd walk to the store. One of our favorites was pork city chicken that the butcher would have already on the sticks.

  6. I love retro recipes and I do think that I remember this from your prior posting but never made them. Maybe this time. I like to do fun recipes for old friends with mock this or that and one of my requested pies is the Mock Apple Pie still to this day when I say how about something fun. I am not a fan of crackers in a pie and much prefer apples but it definitely is a good conversation dessert. Thanks for sharing as you do so well. Take care. Cynthia Blain

  7. My mom made this. Thanks for the memory.

  8. Just dropping back to say THANK YOU for the lovely comments. It's an honor to know we brought back nice memories for some of you.

    On Facebook, Mary M. mentioned that her mother also made Wednesdays City Chicken night (just like Marc's mother). Why the Wednesday connection? Mystery solved...

    According to Marc, the delivery day for their family's butcher was Tuesday. The butcher trimmed the meat that day, creating the scraps and trimmings that he then sold as stew meat and City Chicken fixin's.

    So there you have it, the butcher's trimming schedule dictated the City Chicken eating schedule--at least for Marc and Mary!

    Thanks again for dropping by, everyone, we enjoyed it!

    ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
    “Where coffee and crime are always brewing…”
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  9. That really does make sense about the Family Butcher, I had never thought about that. Have a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend Alice & Marc. You are both so wonderful.
    Mary from Pittsburgh, PA

    1. You're a sweetheart, Mary, thanks for dropping by the blog to comment here, too. Believe me, if it were up to Marc, we would be continuing that tradition of eating City Chicken every Wednesday! (A little too heavy for us these days, but every New Moon or so, hearty comfort food is good for the soul! Yes, this is our version of soul food!)

      May you always eat with joy,

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      “Where coffee and crime are always brewing…”
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter