Dine: City chicken is cheap option

As I learned shortly after I moved to Pittsburgh, city chicken is neither city nor chicken. It’s a rustic, Depression-era dish that arose when chicken was more expensive than other meats.

These days, it’s hard to find in Pittsburgh stores or on menus, although a few butchers still sell skewers of cubed pork loin or pork and veal top-round.

Why buy city chicken with the rising price of meat? Because where you can find it, it's still cheap.

Beef has risen 15 percent over the past year, said Tom Friday of Tom Friday's Market in Brighton Heights.

A shop since 1955, the California Avenue location is marked by a weathered awning and butcher paper signs in the window. Inside, the aisles are tight, shelves stacked with meat tenderizer, Heinz products and Pennsylvania-brand potato chips. Over in produce, peppers are labeled hot or sweet.

Rib-eyes and top sirloin are especially expensive during summer grilling months, Mr. Friday said. And the cost of chicken breasts -- not thighs-- have risen since June, from wholesale prices of $1.29 a pound to $2.14 a pound.

Despite skyrocketing prices, he's keeping city chicken steady at retail prices of $3.99 a pound for cubed pork loin.

"It's a good seller and we're one of the only people who still have it," he said.

City chicken made with veal requires a pre-order and goes for $6.99 a pound.

Dish variations

If you were to peruse recipes such as Tom Friday’s city chicken, you’d find that breaded meat starts as a riff on a fried drumstick, segues to a baking stint in the oven and finishes with a pan sauce and an onion garnish.

Some recipes include eclectic ingredients such as soy sauce or canned cream of mushroom soup for a gravy.

In reality, back in the 1930s, city chicken was probably the base for a range of preparations cooked up by immigrants or transplants who ended up in Pittsburgh during the Great Migration, many of which were never written down.

While Centre Avenue residents from the Deep South might have made city chicken into a version of chicken-fried steak, in Deutschtown, it may have been prepared like schnitzel. Over in Bloomfield, skewers could have been used for spiedini, where Italians cooked them over a wood-fired grill.

Few locals would say the recipes below adhere to memory. Yet they’re an acknowledgement that city chicken varied according to who was cooking.

This first recipe is an update of one found in a midcentury cookbook. The second ditches the breading and swaps fried onions and parsley for a favorite Pittsburgh ingredient, pickled cherry peppers. High acid and hot-sweet heat are an addictive complement to the meat.

City chicken, version one

8 six-inch skewers of pork loin, each 1/3 pound

1½ tablespoon of salt

3 large eggs

2 cups flour

2 cups bread crumbs, preferably from good bread, seasoned with salt

2 cups canola oil

Salt the meat and set it aside.

Beat the eggs in a bowl and add a pinch of salt. Pour flour on dish or pie plate, the bread crumbs on another.

Dip skewers into the egg mixture until thoroughly coated and roll in the flour followed by bread crumbs. Place skewers on a tray and refrigerate an hour before pan-frying.

Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet or dutch oven to 325 degrees. The oil should be about an inch and a half to two inches deep.

Add skewers to hot oil, turning often until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Serve with fried potatoes, a green salad and hot pepper vinegar as a condiment.

Serves four.

City chicken, version two


8 six-inch skewers of pork loin, each 1/3 pound

15 pickled hot and sweet cherry peppers

4 tablespoons of olive oil

1 garlic clove, sliced

1 cup of broth, white wine or brine from the cherry peppers

1 bunch of Italian parsley, chopped

Salt the meat and set it aside. Halve and remove the seeds from pickled peppers.

Heat a saute pan with olive oil. Over medium-high heat, brown the meat evenly on all sides. Turn the heat down to medium low so the meat cooks through.

Remove the meat from the pan. Turn the heat to medium high. Add peppers and garlic and deglaze the pan with broth, wine or brine. Scrape the bits from the pan with a spatula or wooden spoon.

As the liquid comes to a boil, turn down the heat. The peppers will add liquid to the pan. Allow the liquid to reduce by half or until its the taste and consistency to your liking.

Plate each serving with two skewers and drizzle each with sauce and peppers and, if you'd like, garnish with chopped Italian parsley.

Serve with salad of your choice.

Serves four.


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