Taste-tingling chicken parmesan

(A repost from early 2014. Still one of my favorites. I’ve been fighting with an intestinal bug and haven’t had much urge to cook lately. That will soon change…

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Breaded cutlets in olive oil (my photo, like all the others)

But first…

I want to start with a small burst of patriotic pride: From the time of the revolutionary ideas of courageous astronomers Copernicus and Galileo in the 1500s and 1600s, up through the discoveries of the outer planets in the 1800s, to Einstein’s theories of Specific and General Relativity in the early 1900s, from Sputnik in 1957 to Apollo 11 in 1969, throughout the whole panoply of our advancements in math and science and education with TV programs like Nova and personalities like Carl Sagan, on to the complete democratization of information and knowledge via the internet, we’ve finally achieved the enviable milestone of convincing nearly three-quarters of all Americans that the earth does, in fact, revolve around the sun, and not the other way around.*

Congratulations, America! Just a little more education, and soon everyone will have it down pat!

* National Science Foundation Survey, 2014. See http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/content/chapter-7/c07.pdf

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Ciao, Sicilia!

A few years back my wife and I went to Sicily, where much to our relief we were spared any such exhibitions of jaw-dropping ignorance.

We stayed in one hotel in the town of Trapani four our entire two-week visit. We chose the town from Google maps partly because it’s at Sicily’s western tip and bathes in sunsets over nearby islands, partly because it looked very pretty, and mostly because it was not a major tourist destination and would be free of other Americans and their fanciful astronomical notions. It kept its promise: we didn’t see or hear of any Americans while we were there, and the sun set precisely and rhapsodically over the Favignana islands some eight miles west, completing half its daily voyage around the earth.

Aside from really nailing the phrase, “Vorrebe bire qualocosa con me?” (“Would you like something to drink with me?”), we learned four crucial life lessons:

1) Get a grip on conversational Italian before you go; Italians, even Sicilians, take delight in seeing you struggle and flail with their language, and English is not widely spoken or understood in Sicily.

Our friend Massimo and son Nino in Trapani. Even our rudimentary Italian made a big difference… he invited us to his house for a dinner of horse liver and like utter fools we said we had other plans. Massimo and his wife ran a beachside cafe outside of town.

2) Be very nice to friends you’ve made who, you’ve just learned, are closely related to prominent Mafiosi in Palermo. (True for us)

3) Don’t order Chianti in a restaurant – you will receive blank stares (at best) and angry gesticulations (at not so best). Chianti is from Tuscany and Sicily often doesn’t regard itself as belonging to Italy. Nero d’Avola is the prevalent table wine, it’s from grapes grown on the volcanic flanks of Mt. Etna, and it’s quite okay and non troppo caro (cheap).

4) The food in Sicily is absurdly good.

The food is good because it’s clean, fresh, simply designed, and perfectly cooked. We typically ate at small family restaurants and discovered that any pasta marinara is marine and not tomato – it comes with clams and mussels and maybe fish on top, with olive oil and garlic. You have to go to Rome or Tuscany for marinara that’s a tomato sauce. Why, you may ask your Tuscan waiter, is the tomato sauce called marinara when the word means “of the sea?” Well, in days of yore along the Italian coast sailors would pop into town for a quick supper on shore leave, and cooks needed to throw together a quick and easy sauce they’d love – and it was a blend of tomatoes, oil, garlic, wine, a little vinegar and some spices for the marinai (“sailors”). All of this may be useful to know at some point, but today’s chicken parmesan recipe is utterly non-Sicilian in origin and character. It’s rich, spicy, and nearly symphonic in flavor, and among my most favorite comfort foods.

It starts with boneless chicken breasts. Here you have a choice between a) supermarket chicken breasts the size of catcher’s mitts extracted from a highly engineered bird that was tightly caged, overfed, treated inhumanely, but was possibly of criminal disposition and deserved everything it got, or b) normal sized breasts from a caring, local farm that called the chicken “Marla” and lavished it with love, marigold petals and visits from adoring children. I chose the former because I didn’t know the chicken personally, and you can get four nice cutlets (sometimes five) from the breast with a sharp knife, and they’re predictably tender. It’s your call.

Four cutlets from one breast – sometimes five. It’s not the adorable Marla, but a huge lumbering chicken with no name.

In either event, if you like Italian food, you’ll love this version.

Chicken Parmesan

To serve 6, you’ll need:

  • 3 boneless chicken breasts, sliced into 4 cutlets each
  • 1 24 oz. jar quality pasta sauce
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • splash of balsamic vinegar
  • 12-16 slices mozzarella
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh shredded parmesan
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • bread crumbs (non-Panko are best for this) – about 1 1/2 cups
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp. oregano
  • 1 tsp. basil
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • cayenne pepper
  • 2-3 tbsps. store-bought powdered parmesan

Now do these things:

Beat the egg and milk together with a fork in a shallow bowl. In a separate shallow bowl mix bread crumbs, garlic powder, oregano, basil, powdered parmesan, black pepper, and a dash of cayenne until well blended. Dip each cutlet into the milk-egg mixture, then coat with the bread crumb dredge, and set aside on a large platter.

Heat the pasta sauce in a saucepan over low heat, adding red wine and balsamic vinegar (and more oregano, basil, garlic powder, and peppers to taste). When it’s hot but not boiling, pour about 2/3 of it into a large shallow oven pan.

Pour the olive oil into a large skillet and heat at medium-high until the oil starts to froth. With tongs, add 3 or 4 cutlets at a time and brown on both sides – about 1 minute a side. Arrange all the browned cutlets in the oven pan, spoon the remaining pasta sauce sparingly over each cutlet, lay on mozzarella slices and dribble with the freshly shredded parmesan to finish. You can sprinkle more cayenne on top for an extra kick, depending on your heat tolerance.

breaded, and frying in olive oil.

Arrange in a pan and add dollops (rhymes with scallops) of sauce.

Layer on mozzarella, grated parmesan, sprinkle with cayenne…and it’s ready to bake.

Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly. Serve with a garden salad, Italian bread, and either a medium-bodied Chianti or Nero d’Avola. Mangia!

There you have it.

Ecce! You might get an OMG out of this…

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Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.