On Route 75 just east of Nebraska City, heading into town, look carefully on your right. See that old gray gas station? It isn't a gas station any more. It is Ulbrick's, home of midlands fried chicken dinners extraordinaire. Yes, it looks like a dump. Even when you enter, you don't see much in the way of linen napery or lovely table settings, fine art on the walls or gleaming crystal. What you do see is a counter in what used to be the front of the gas station, and a rather cozy room in back: that's the main dining room. It is done up in what one woman we know, a very proper and polite sort of Midwestern lady, described as "clutter decor." Does that dissuade that polite lady from eating at Ulbrick's? Not on your life. She, like so many folks along the Iowa-Nebraska border, have fallen in love with this place just the way it is, mismatched chairs and all.
The cause for regular customers' affection is simple, and can be expressed in three words: fried chicken dinners. We thought about shortening it to two words - fried chicken - which is moist and succulent inside its well-seasoned, golden-crisp crust, cooked in pure lard in a big old skillet; but that would have left out a lot of the reason people love to come to Ulbrick's and put on the feedbag: the vegetables that come alongside.First, there are potatoes. Years ago, Ulbrick's was known for mashed potatoes, and the first person who told us about this out-of-the-way eatery sang praises of those spuds. Alas, he said, they stopped serving mashed potatoes, except on Sunday, and they now serve French fries. What a tragedy, we thought; but when we asked our waitress about this loss, she said in no uncertain terms - and we quote precisely: "Potatoes are immaterial to us. What we care about are vegetables."
Oh, such vegetables, the likes of which our moms never made! They are rich and creamy, every bit as luscious as mashed potatoes, and glorious companions for the brittle-skinned chicken. You can get creamed corn, creamed cabbage, thick homemade noodles, green beans, French fries and dinner rolls. To be honest, we hardly touched our French fries; but to be even more honest, we would very much like to return to Ulbrick's on a Sunday, for the full-bore meal including a mountain of mashed potatoes alongside the creamed cabbage, noodles, corn and chicken. Sunday dinner couldn't get much better!
The following is a basic recipe for creamed cabbage - simple and delectable, and a great companion for chicken cooked any which way. It can easily be transformed into the foundation of a one-dish meal by adding such ingredients as chunks of cooked ham and potatoes, spicy discs of grilled kielbasa, or leftover shreds of just about any well-spiced meat.
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups hot milk
1 1/2 teaspoons prepared mustard
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
1 2-pound head white cabbage, trimmed of outer leaves
1 cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour, stirring constantly, as the sauce bubbles and cooks for about 2 minutes. Do not let it brown. Stir in hot milk, continuing to stir as sauce thickens. Bring to boil. Add mustard, cayenne and salt and pepper to taste. Lower heat and cook, stirring constantly, 3 more minutes. Remove from heat.
Cut cabbage into 8 wedges. Cook in boiling water 8 minutes, until tender. Drain and trim away tough inside part. Chop coarsely and mix with sauce. Place in buttered 2-quart casserole. Top with bread crumbs and dot crumbs with tiny pinches of butter.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake casserole 20 minutes.
Serves 6 to 8.