Monday, 25 June 2012

Chicken Parmesan

My mother kept a version of this recipe up her sleeve when she wanted to make sure my brother and I would show up for dinner. There is a reason chicken Parmesan is legendary as far as getting finicky kids to eat. It. Just. Works. Breaded chicken, hot pasta, a simple tomato sauce and melted cheese. Duh. What sane kid would turn something like this down?

I may be all grown up now (in body, if not in mind), but every once in a blue moon, my inner child gets a craving for a plate of this nostalgic indulgence. I had only ever made it with processed ingredients before: frozen chicken or veal cutlets and jarred sauce. I blush at the memory, and I won't ever do that again, scout's honor! Especially since I found out that making chicken parm from scratch is way easier than I had imagined. Sure, there is a bit of cleaning to do after, and you gotta time yourself well to get the pasta and chicken ready at the same time, but it comes together without a hitch. No wonder moms have been using this to get their progeny around the table for ages!

Psst! You don't really have to use chicken. Scalloped veal is a classic alternative, very popular with grown-ups, and vegetarians will find a recipe for chickpea cutlets at the end of this post, because everyone should be able to enjoy this recipe. I happened to have plenty of chicken handy, so I made this:

4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 cup fresh basil, sliced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved crosswise
1 large egg
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1 package spaghetti or rottini
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, plus extra for serving

First, make the uber-simple tomato-basil sauce. In a large saucepan, sauté the garlic and 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until it starts to sizzle. Stir in the tomatoes, basil, oregano, red wine vinegar (if you prefer a sweeter sauce, skip the vinegar and add 1 teaspoon brown sugar instead), a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a simmer; cook until the sauce thickens a bit and the flavors meld, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the fresh basil for the last 5 minutes on the heat. Cover and keep warm (you can make the sauce up to a couple of hours early, if you need: simply reheat it over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, when the chicken goes under the broiler).

Put the chicken pieces between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound, using a heavy pan, until the cutlets are about 1/4-inch thick. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a shallow bowl, beat egg until well-blended. Mix bread crumbs with some black pepper on a plate. Preheat broiler. Working one cutlet at a time, dip both sides of each in beaten egg, then in bread crumbs. Put cutlets on a wire rack set over a cookie sheet (this will save you from picking up massive messes of crumbs and drippings).

Heat the remaining olive oil over medium-high heat in a 12-inch skillet. When oil starts to shimmer, add the cutlets and sauté until golden brown on each side, about 5 minutes total. Wash and dry the wire rack and return to the cookie sheet. As the cutlets cook, prepare the pasta according to package directions. Transfer the cutlets to the clean wire rack over the cookie sheet. Top each with a portion of the cheeses. Broil the cutlets, 4 to 5 inches from heat source, until cheese melts and is spotty brown (if your broiler is on "high" this will take only a couple of minutes). Drain the pasta. Put a cutlet and a portion of pasta on each plate. Spoon 2 or 3 tablespoons of sauce over the cutlet, then sauce the pasta as desired. Serve with extra Parmesan for sprinkling.

This recipe serves 4, and you may get a bit of leftover pasta and sauce. The cutlets reheat much better than I had expected in the microwave, but you can always half the recipe if you are only cooking for two.

For my vegetarian friends, here is a recipe for chickpea cutlets (from the ever-awesome "Veganomicon") that can be used as an alternative to meat! Follow the recipe below, before broiling and serving them as you would with the chicken.

1 cup cooked chickpeas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup vital wheat gluten
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
1/4 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, grated
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1/4 teaspoon dried sage

In a mixing bowl, mash the chickpeas together with the oil until there are no whole chickpeas left. Add the remaining ingredients and knead for about 3 minutes, until strings of gluten have formed. Pre-heat a large skillet over medium heat. Meanwhile, divide the cutlet dough into 4 equal pieces. Knead each piece in your hand for a few moments and then flatten and stretch each one into a rough;y 4 by 6-inch rectangular cutlet shape. Add a thin layer of olive oil to the skillet. Place the cutlets in the pan and cook on each side for 6 to 7 minutes. They are ready when they are lightly browned and firm to the touch.

Tada! Now go feed your finicky inner child.

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