As spring arrives, my social media feed fills up with photos of light, bright, fresh dishes: Salads of every hue, tiny baby vegetables, grain bowls. Everyone seems anxious to forget the lusty cooking of cold weather and immediately jump to “clean eating” or “delicious detox” or other such nonsense. But here is the truth of spring, at least here in Chicago: Nothing great is growing here as yet, so if you are making those lighter dishes, you are doing it with sad, out-of-season and not-local produce, which never tastes its best.
So I am here to give you the polar opposite of all of those green and virtuous-sounding meals: the love child of an unholy union. If the fried bologna sandwich and the fried chicken sandwich had a naughty baby, this is it, and it is a sandwich that just might eclipse them both.
The chicken-fried bologna sandwich: You’re welcome, ‘Murica.
If you are someone who likes your proteins lean and your meals light to fuel whatever Zumba-spin-crossfit-marathon training you have planned later, you should probably just stop here, because, BOLOGNA. But if you see a space in your life for an occasional indulgence in some seriously heart-clogging salt-bomb deliciousness, stay with me.
The fried bologna sandwich is a nostalgic darling of the South, and while there are different iterations, the basics are these. You need a thick slab of bologna, scored on the edges to prevent curling. Fry it in a pan till hot, browned, and crispy on the edges, place it on either a soft hamburger bun or two slices of plush grocery store white bread, with a slice of yellow American cheese and a slather of mayo, preferably Duke’s. You can fancy it up with a leaf of lettuce, or maybe tomato, but only if ripe and in season. Some add a squirt of yellow mustard, many don’t. Pickles can be polarizing, but are not unwelcome. Ditto sweet raw onion. It is a reminder that bologna is not that different from a hot dog except in size, and when eaten hot, becomes a juicy, spicy, salt-savory treat. The thing that it lacks, is crunch. A crisp edge is not the same as crunch, and therefore the sandwich is one-note, texturally.
The fried chicken sandwich, on the other hand, brings the crunch all day if it’s fried properly. A boneless, usually skinless chicken breast or thigh, breaded and fried to golden perfection, atop a slightly sweet egg bun with mayo or butter, cheese or not, but if so, American cheese. Pickles for sure, onions for some, lettuce probably, but shredded. But what this sandwich has in crunch factor, it lacks a bit in umami. The chicken meat becomes often simply a protein delivery service for the breading, not bringing a whole lot to the party.
But when you swap out bologna for the chicken? Now you’re talking. The bologna brings the flavor, the breading brings the crunch, the cheese adds gooey, the mayo adds creamy, and you can deck it out with as many or as few additions as you like. A light, healthy springtime meal it is not. But as the oncoming snow threatens to topple your newly risen daffodils, it is going to be the cure for what ails you. Save your salads for summer, and enjoy chicken-fried bologna instead.
Chicken-Fried Bologna Sandwiches
Serves 4 (or 2 really hungry) people
- 1 lb. deli bologna, sliced into four 1/4-pound slabs and scored in 5-6 places around the edges
- 1 cup, plus 1 Tbsp. canola oil
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 4 soft hamburger buns
- 4 slices yellow American cheese
- 4 Tbsp. mayonnaise, Duke’s if you can get it
- Lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, mustard: all optional, use if you want ‘em
Heat the one tablespoon of oil in an extra-large cast iron skillet over medium high heat until shimmering. Pan-fry the bologna about two minutes per side, until browned and crispy around the edges. Remove to a plate with a paper towel laid on it, and top with more paper towels to dry slices off and remove the grease, otherwise the breading won’t stick. Put the rest of the oil into the pan and set it over low heat while you prep the bologna.
In one shallow dish, add one cup of the flour. In another, mix the remaining 1 1/2 cups of the flour with the pepper until well combined. Drizzle abouttwo tablespoons of the buttermilk into the seasoned flour and mix lightly with a fork, you are trying to get some small random clumps that are going to make for some extra-crispy bits. In a third shallow dish, mix the eggs and buttermilk until well combined.
Dredge each piece of bologna first in the plain flour, tapping to remove excess, then in the egg-buttermilk mixture, then in the seasoned flour. Set aside until all four slices have been breaded.
Increase the heat on your skillet until the oil is shimmering. Gently slide the breaded bologna slices into the oil, with a spatula to prevent splashing. (As the bologna is already cooked and likely still warmish in the middle, you are really just trying to heat it through and fry the breading.) Fry the slices, flipping once, until the breading is crisp and deep golden brown. Remove to a wire rack over a sheet pan. Immediately top each with a slice of cheese, so that the heat can begin to melt it.
To assemble the sandwiches, smear the bottom half of each bun with a tablespoon of mayo. Then add your cheese-topped fried bologna. If you want lettuce, onion, pickle, or tomato, this is the time. If you like mustard, smear it on the top bun.
Tastes best next to some classic ridged potato chips, a pickle spear, and either sweet tea or the carbonated beverage of your choice.