Chicken Parmesan

Isn’t it amazing how food can trigger such organic memories? One sniff and you’re 5 years old again, tongue tingling and heart fluttering in anticipation of your mom’s famous peanut butter cookies. Or how quickly your stomach can turn at the thought of pushing your food around so as to appear that you’ve eaten enough dreaded LEMON CHICKEN so you could go back outside and play before bedtime. Swoon… Isn’t food great?

I have a food memory of spaghetti and chicken parmesan at The Red Lion Inn in Southampton, NJ. (Easily confused with the Red Lion Diner, which is just up the street. Undoubtedly, many a dinner dates have gone awry thanks to this unfortunate naming coincidence.) Anyway. We used to go to the Red Lion Inn for special occasions. I have no idea if it’s even a good restaurant or not, but it sure left a lasting impression on the Winner kids. Plates piled high with mounds of thick pasta and meatballs as big as your head! Surly Italian waitresses, and those terrible tacky yellow votive candles. In any event, I will forever connect chicken parmesan with this joint.

Surprisingly, I don’t often order chicken parm out at restaurants anymore. When it comes down to it, it isn’t usually very good. The chicken is rubbery, soggy, burned, and/or doused in cheese and sauce, and the mound of pasta is generic at best. It’s an indulgent comfort food that’s just not reliably delicious enough to waste a perfectly good mealtime on.

Then, in a rare occurrence, one night when I asked SM what he wanted for dinner, instead of saying “whatever you want,” he said: “How about chicken parmesan.” Hallelujah! A new request! It’s been a Sunday evening staple ever since.

I should preface the recipe with my absolute head-over-heels, middle-school-girl-infatuation with Cooks Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen. Seriously, I love Christopher Kimball more than I loved Joey from the New Kids on the Block when I was in the 6th grade. If you haven’t ever watched the PBS show or picked up the black and white illustrated magazine, you’re missing out.

First, they do some earnest recipe research. And after they’ve figured out the perfect way to make said recipe, they explain to you all the different things that they tried, what worked or didn’t work, and why. It’s sort of akin to food school. I love it. (As a funny side note – at one point I was receiving four copies of each issue because people kept buying me gift subscriptions. Since I clearly don’t need four copies, I think my subscription was extended well into the year 2015.) Anyway, I love these guys, and their cookbooks are en fuego. I have yet to try an America’s Test Kitchen recipe that was a dud. So it was a no-brainer to turn to these rock stars when I was searching for my chicken parm recipe.

SO. Fasten your seat belts, kids, this is a seriously good recipe. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a weeknight recipe – not because it takes a long time, but more because there are lot of steps and you end up with a whole mess of dirty dishes. One word of caution: Do not. I repeat do not skip the brine. It’s the key to the recipe and well worth the extra step.

So if you have dreams of juicy chicken coated in crispy breading with mozzarella and tomato accoutrements, give it a try. Just make a deal with someone else to do the dishes. Enjoy!

Chicken Parmesan

Click here to print this recipe.
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen’s Italian Classics cookbook
Serves 4 – 6
Time: 1 hour

3 large chicken breasts
1 cup flour
3 cups fresh bread crumbs
2 eggs
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
olive oil
freshly ground pepper
½ cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
8 oz fresh mozzerella fresca cheese
½ lb pasta
1 batch red sauce (you could use jarred tomato sauce I suppose, but scratch sauce cooks up in about the same amount of time as it takes to prepare the rest of this recipe, and it’s so much better!)

Trim, rinse, and pat dry the chicken breast and place on a plate. Freeze for about 30 minutes, or until firm enough to cut horizontally into cutlets. Cut each breast in half so you have two thin cutlets.  Alternatively, you can pound out the (unfrozen) chicken into cutlets, but I’ve found that it’s much easier to freeze slightly then slice. The finished cutlets should be about ½” at their thickest.

Brine the Chicken: In a gallon zip-top bag or large container, combine 1 qt water with ¼ cup salt and ¼ cup sugar. Stir until dissolved. Add chicken, seal and place in refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Prepare the Sauce: see red sauce recipe.

Remove the chicken and discard the brine. Dry the chicken breast by laying them on a few layers of paper towels (on top and under the chicken) and press. Allow to dry for a few minutes.

Put a well-salted pot of water on the stove to boil. Turn on the oven broiler to preheat.

Prepare your breading assembly line in shallow bowls: the first with 1 cup flour, the second with 2 eggs (beaten) with 1 teaspoon olive oil, and the third with the bread crumbs. Set a cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet.

Season the cutlets with pepper. (They are already salted thanks to the brine.) Dredge the cutlets in the flour, coating completely. Shake off excess. Dip in the egg wash, shake off excess. Then dip into the bread crumbs, pressing down to coat completely. Gently place the prepared cutlet on the cooling rack.

Once all the cutlets are prepared, allow them to sit for 5 minutes. This helps the coating stick to the chicken when it’s cooking.

At this point, the pasta water should be at a rolling boil. Place the pasta in the water and stir so the noodles don’t stick.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan until it shimmers. You need about ¼” of oil in the pan. Test the readiness of the oil by tossing in a breadcrumb. If it sizzles semi-violently, you’re ready. (The oil should not be hot enough to smoke.) Gently place the cutlet in the oil and fry until nicely browned, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until browned as well. Remove and place on a clean cooling rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet. If you have to, add more oil in between batches, and wait for it to heat before progressing.

Once your cutlets are all cooked, top with grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and a slice of fresh mozzerella. Slide the pan with the cutlets into the oven and broil for about 3 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and browned to desired doneness. The cheese burns fast, so keep an eye on it.

To serve, plate the chicken cutlet with pasta and sauce, and top with grated parmigiano-reggiano if you like.

I make my breadcrumbs using fresh sourdough bread, using the worst food processor known to man. The resulting crumbs are larger than normal breadcrumbs (pea-size and smaller), and kind of spongy. They are nothing like the traditional stale breadcrumbs you’d buy in the store, but they make a wonderful coating that is light and crispy.

The key to timing the recipe perfectly is to start cooking the pasta when you start frying the cutlets.

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