Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Classic Chicken Parmigiana

Chicken Parmigiana served with Angel Hair Pasta and Garlic Bread
Just about anything tastes great when it's fried, then smothered in tomato sauce and gooey, melted cheese. That's the theory behind all of classic parmigiana dishes. The two best known are Eggplant Parmigiana, and, of course, Chicken Parmigiana. These are flavorful Italian American comfort dishes that are almost universally enjoyed. They're great the first time around- served as part of a dinner, or on a nice crusty sub roll. They keep well in the refrigerator, and are, in some people's opinions, even better as leftovers. We've discussed Eggplant Parmigiana before, now it's time to focus on the Chicken...

Any worthy Parmigiana needs to start with a great tomato sauce. I've discussed tomato sauces/gravies enough times that I don't need to rehash the whole process here. The important part is to take your time, and use the best quality tomatoes you can find- that means go to your garden first, the farm stand second, and if all else fails  and tomatoes are out of season, use canned tomatoes. Be wary of tomatoes from the supermarket- most supermarket tomatoes are actually picked green and force-ripened while in transit- meaning that they may look red, but will have poorly developed flavor and texture.

I vary the details of my tomato sauces often based on either what I have to cook with, what complements my dish best, and what strikes my mood at the time. Since I'm working on a chicken dish, I thought that it would be a good idea to infuse my tomato gravy with a little chicken flavor- so I turned to my stash of leftovers hiding in the back of the freezer- a handful of chicken bones extracted from some oven roasted chicken a week ago should do the trick. I let them thaw for a bit, then let them sit under a hot broiler for a few minutes to warm through and get a little color before tossing them in my tomato gravy. The bits of marrow, connective tissue, and small bits of meat will all add a little depth. The bones will stay in, and be fished out at the last minute when I'm ready to assemble the dish.

While we wait for our tomato sauce to simmer, we can start working on our chicken. We'll start with chicken cutlets, or whole chicken breast trimmed and sliced/pounded out into portions about 1/2 inch thick. I like to pan fry mine in a small amount of olive oil rather than deep frying- you'll have a little more control and are less likely to end up with greasy, overcooked chicken. Like I explained in my Eggplant article, we'll coat our chicken with seasoned Italian style breadcrumbs. You may opt to season your chicken with salt and pepper first, or you can combine your salt and pepper into your breadcrumb mix- either way works. You'll need a basic breading station- one container of scrambled egg, and one of dry breadcrumbs with your seasonings added. Dip each piece of chicken in egg, drain off any excess, the give it a good coating of breadcrumb- again, shaking off any excess.

To shallow fry, or pan fry the chicken, take a large pan, and heat it up over medium-high heat with a thin layer of olive oil on the bottom. I find it's easier to do with a small amount of oil- almost a saute rather than a fry- you can always add a little more oil if you need to , and it makes it easier to clean out and restart with fresh oil if the pan gets unreasonably dirty. I recommend starting with one piece of chicken as a test to see if the pan is hot enough, then worry about mass production. It's important not to crowd the pan too much so it stays hot- depending on the size of your pan you should probably only work on two to three pieces at a time.

You'll need a few minutes per side, when the first side is a nice golden brown, and it looks like the chicken is cooked about halfway through. We'll be giving our chicken some time in the oven, so concentrate on getting a nice, pleasing outside. It's all right if the middle is a little underdone on the thicker pieces, they will finish in the oven. Be more concerned about overcooking- if you overcook the chicken now, it may dry out by the time it is done in the oven. When done on both sides, take the chicken out and let it drain on a paper towel. Since we're shallow frying, there should only be a relatively small amount of residual oil to drain away. This is also a good time to add another dash of seasoning if you think it's needed.

Once your chicken is fried, and your sauce has had an hour or two to simmer, you are ready to start assembling the dish. Carefully fish out any bones or unwanted chunks of gristle from your tomato sauce, then ladle a little into the bottom of a baking dish. Lay your chicken on top of this base of sauce in a single layer. Unlike eggplant- here we want each piece of chicken to be topped with cheese- so if you have a lot of chicken, consider using more than one baking dish.

Now cover each piece of chicken with more tomato sauce. You want to have each piece covered with a little extra floating in-between. This sauce will interact with the breading when we bake it and their flavors and textures will meld together and get to know each other. Make sure you reserve enough sauce to dress your pasta, or save the extra for leftovers.

Now for the cheese. You'll want to cover each of your chicken pieces with a decent amount of mozzarella. Fresh mozzarella is the most authentic, but, honestly, the low-moisture stuff typically seen on supermarket shelves actually melts better, so, I think, both have their merits. Either way, lay on the cheese, making sure you get each piece covered nicely. If you want a little extra kick, grate a little parmesan cheese or add small amounts of other cheeses such as provolone. Once you've finished adding cheese, put the tray in a 350 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes- about the amount of time it will take to get the rest of your meal together assuming you already started a pot of boiling water for your pasta.

Cook your pasta in salted, boiling water until al dente- where it still has a little bit of firmness to the center. I prefer something quick cooking like angel hair pasta - which will only take around 5 minutes or so. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with the remaining tomato sauce. If you still have some leftover sauce you can either serve it on the side, or freeze it for another day.

By now, your chicken should be just about done. All the cheese should be melted, and the sauce should be bubbling and slightly thickened. I consider it done when the very top of the cheese has just barely begun to develop a few brown spots. This should finish cooking the chicken the rest of the way through, and allow the sauce, breading, and cheese to have some private time together and get to know each other. Serve a piece of chicken with a portion of pasta, and even consider a little garlic bread as a side.  Chicken Parmigiana also makes a great sandwich, so also consider toasting a long roll, and piling it with a piece or two of chicken. Either way, garnish with a little grated parmesan cheese, a little parsley and/or basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes if you enjoy a little heat.

This dish is one of those classic comfort foods that just can't go wrong. It takes a little effort to put together, but is always worth it. It never fails to evoke childhood memories, and fill the belly at the same time.

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