Sheri Castle and her grandmother, Madge Castle in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Circa 1988
Gravy-making is alchemy. It can stretch the sticky leavings in the bottom of the skillet into a hot, rich, delicious meal that’s better able to satisfy a hungry family. Can anything more be made from less?
My Castle family tree includes a few legendary Southern cooks and several scrappy make-dos, but we all know to stand facing the stove and try to make the best of what’s at hand. When presented with almost any meat and a fair number of garden vegetables, we can figure out a way to dredge it, fry it in a skillet, and make gravy to ladle over it. Plus biscuits.
When I think of the gravies of my birthright, I think of the women who stirred them. Several minutes devoted to slow, steady, meditative stirring is the key to gravy. Now that I’m grown and a mother myself, I appreciate that the minutes they spent stirring were rare respites. It gave those indefatigable women as much as 10 whole minutes of peace and quiet despite children and pets running back and forth through slamming screened doors, the TV turned up too loud in the den, kitchen chaos, and whiny toddlers clinging to their legs. It was a chance to be alone with their thoughts and gaze out the window—although who can venture whether they were looking forward or backward? Cooks stirring gravy can only stir gravy; no apologies necessary. I can hear my grandmother, my Mama Madge, telling me, “Now, you need to ask Daddy Fred about that, or hush and sit still for a minute. I’m seeing to the gravy and can’t turn loose.”
Yes, the Castle women have a way with gravy, including me. If I might draw an analogy to being cowboys, we all can rope and ride quite well, but I’m the one who wound up being the Gravy Whisperer. I’d put my gravy up against anybody’s in the whole world. Lest anyone wonder whether my fancy-pants saucier skills help, I’m relieved that they didn’t ruin my gravy-making. Chefs make sauce. Cooks make gravy. Moreover, chefs have it easier, because they have a full larder at hand, plus cream and butter. Only a home cook can make exquisite gravy out of near nothing.
So, sure, as a professional cook and food writer, I dream up and prepare a staggering number of dishes destined for the media, but none of it makes me feel more accomplished, or more Castle, than a skillet of righteous gravy destined for my family table. Plus biscuits. It’s a generous thing, gravy.
Cubed Steak with Milk Gravy
Serves 6 (serving size: 1 steak, 1/2 cup gravy)
Active 20 min. | Total 40 min.
6 (6-oz.) cubed steaks
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, divided
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper, divided
1 cup (about 4 1/4 oz.) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. seasoned salt (such as Lawry’s)
1 tsp. baking powder
3 Tbsp. vegetable shortening or vegetable oil
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 cups whole milk, warmed
1. Sprinkle both sides of steaks with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper.
2. Whisk together flour, seasoned salt, baking powder, and remaining 1 teaspoon pepper in small bowl; remove and reserve 1/4 cup of flour mixture to use in gravy. Transfer remaining flour mixture to a small paper bag.
3. Add 1 steak to bag; hold opening closed, and shake gently to coat. Remove coated steak, and place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining steaks.
4. Melt shortening and butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Cook steaks, in batches, until deeply browned, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer cooked steaks to a plate, and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.
5. Reserve about 3 tablespoons of drippings in skillet, leaving browned bits on bottom of skillet. Reduce heat to medium, and stir in reserved 1/4 cup flour mixture. Cook, stirring constantly to loosen browned bits on bottom of skillet until mixture is light brown, about 2 minutes. (Reduce heat if the flour begins to scorch.)
6. Whisk in warm milk, and bring to a boil, stirring slowly and constantly until gravy thickens, about 8 minutes.
7. Return steaks to skillet, and reduce heat to low. Partially cover skillet, and simmer gently until steak is warmed through, about 10 minutes. Serve with hot biscuits.