The Universe wants me to blog about Chicken Piccata. I have no idea why, but I’m sure of it. I haven’t even thought about the lemony-briny chicken dish for at least a decade, then about a week ago, a coworker asked me if I had a recipe for it. That sent me on a wild goose chase hunting down and testing all the possible ways to make the dish. (Luckily there aren’t many variations.) Then a few short days later, we made the dish in a cooking class at the Arts Institute. Thanks, Universe. I got the hint.
When I think of piccata, I’m transported to a frumpy Jersey hotel banquet hall where the lights are dim – probably so you can’t see how awful the food looks. I have on a cheesy 80’s party dress, and I have (very) big bangs. I went to enough sports awards banquets in middle and high school to last three lifetimes. I vividly remember having a plate of chicken piccata set down in front of me, and the friend to my right remarking: “What is this? Because it looks like my grandfather’s toupee.” Youch.
I have no idea why it’s such a popular banquet dish (or at least it was in the 80’s and 90’s). Perhaps because it’s so easy to make and it sounds fancy? Perhaps because it’s pretty difficult to botch? Well, my advice is that if you ever have Toupee Chicken served to you at a banquet, proceed with caution. But if you’d like to make it in your own kitchen the way it should be made, I highly recommend it. It is silly-easy, and it does sound and look special-occasion-fancy. You could make it for a lovely dinner party and prep 95% of it before your guests arrive, then spend exactly 5 minutes in the kitchen putting on the finishing touches. (Which is my kind of dinner party.)
This recipe is a flavorful variation on a kitchen staple: the pan sauce. When meat hits a hot skillet, something called the Maillard Reaction is set in motion. The amino acids and sugars combine and multiply to create intensely flavored bits of goodness on the bottom of the pan called “fond”, or more appropriately “brown bits”. You can call them “delicious.” These babies are the basis for a wonderfully flavored pan sauce when sauted with aromatics (like herbs, shallot, onion, garlic, carrots, etc), and then deglazed with stock, wine, or juice. The liquid is simmered, and with a little nudging from a wooden spatula, the bits release from the pan and start to dissolve into the sauce. From there, you simply simmer the sauce to reduce it to a thicker consistency, then if you like, add some sort of thickening agent – like cream, butter, or roux. You can mix and match your flavors to suit the season, the meat, or the accompanying food. Here are some quick ideas:
- Pork loin + hard apple cider + shallots and apples and nutmeg + butter
- Bone-in Chicken breasts + white wine + shallots and rosemary + butter
- Scallops + soy sauce and white wine + ginger and scallions + butter
- Beef filet + shallots and butter + brandy, beef stock and Worcestershire sauce + mustard
- Pork tenderloin + onion and rosemary + chicken broth, cranberry sauce and balsamic vinegar + butter
You get the point.
Back to chicken piccata. This dish uses the same pan sauce equation, and packs a tangy punch thanks to a hit of lemon juice and some brined capers. It’s a fresh, light dish, and since the flavor will wake up your taste buds, you’ll end up feeling satiated faster and eating less.
If you’ve never used capers before, they are found typically with the condiments or with the specialty foods such as roasted red peppers and the like. I always thought capers were berries, but they’re actually unopened flowers of the caper shrub, which is indigenous to the Mediterranean region. They are either soaked in saltwater brine and vinegar, or they’re cured with salt. If you’re looking for general purpose capers, go with the vinegar-brined option; they’re far more versatile. (Plus you can vary the intensity of the briny flavor of the dish by draining them first.) Enjoy!
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Adapted from Simply Recipes, Cooks Illustrated, and Arts Institute Culinary School versions
Time: 30 minutes
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/4 cup flour
4 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup brined capers
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut the chicken breasts in half horizontally. Season with salt and pepper.
Dredge the chicken in flour, shaking off the excess.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet on medium heat until shimmering. (Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need more or less oil and butter. You want the liquid to come about 1/6 of the way up the meat.)
Add the chicken pieces to the pan, careful to not crowd the pan. Cook until medium brown on each side, about 3 minutes per side. Remove chicken from the pan and place on a plate for resting or to a cooking sheet to finish cooking in the oven until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.
Add the garlic to the pan, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Do not let the garlic burn. Deglaze the pan with the chicken stock, white wine, lemon juice and capers, gently stirring to release the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer gently until it reduces by half.
Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, small bits at a time, over very low heat to create a creamy emulsified sauce. Don’t let the sauce reach a simmer again or it will break. Season with salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle in the parsley.
Plate the chicken and spoon the sauce over the top.
Notes: Vary the chicken pieces to your liking. If you prefer full chicken breasts, brown them as outlined above, and finish cooking them in the oven until they reach 160 degrees. If you prefer the added richness of chicken skin, leave the skin on. If you prefer thin cutlets, pound out the butterflied cutlets between 2 pieces of plastic wrap to a thickness of 1/4”. If using pounded out cutlets, you won’t need to finish cooking them in the oven – they’ll cook through during the saute. Simply remove them from the skillet and rest, lightly covered with foil, until the sauce is prepared.
If you’re preparing this for a dinner party, brown off the chicken ahead of time, and keep in the fridge until you’re ready for dinner. Cook the sauce through to the reducing stage. Finish cooking the chicken or warm it through in the oven while you finish the sauce. Serve immediately.
You can adjust the saltiness of the dish by draining the capers completely or adding some of the brine to the sauce. Start with the capers lightly drained and then add from there if desired.
The pan sauce makes a lovely pasta sauce. If you’d like to make this recipe for 2, leave the sauce proportions as outlined above and use the extra sauce to spoon over linguine. Or, double the sauce ingredients and serve 4.
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